04 April 2015

Board Game Review: Dominant Species

It's relatively simple.
I recently got to play Dominant Species for the first time. I was introduced to this game by an old friend. As he said about it, 'This is a game I love to lose.' This game is very much intended for people whose idea of a good time is to think really really hard. So, of course, I loved it.

Let's see what we have in store for us, by starting first with the ratings (and of course my rating system):
Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.
Strategy: 5
Randomness: 1
Complexity: 4
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Ideal
Expected Length of Game Play: 2 to 3 hours
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: High
  Conflict: Medium
  Social Manipulation: Low
  Fantasy: Medium

An Overview of Dominant Species

In Dominant Species, players take the role of a taxonomic class of animals: insects, arachnids, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals. Each category has a unique advantage: insects speciate more plentifully than the others, arachnids get a bonus to attack, reptiles are more resistant to regression, amphibians have a bonus to their setup, birds can move further than the other classes, and mammals are more resistant to extinction. This will make more sense in a moment. But the object of the game is to earn victory points by having your animals dominate the available terrain.

The board is made up of a series of hexagonal spaces, with a turn phase chart along one side, and a victory point track along the outer edge. There are a few other spaces on the board, with a place for available terrain tiles and dominance cards, and charts to help you in scoring. But the hexagons and the turn phase chart are perhaps the most important parts.

You start with seven terrain tiles in the centre, one tundra surrounded by one each of the other types (wetlands, savannah, jungle, forest, mountain, and desert - there are also sea tiles which are—effectively—not part of the initial setup). At the vertices of these hexagonal tiles are elements: water, sun, grain, grubs, meat, and grass. Each player starts with a pile of small cubes: each one represents a different species within his class. They also start with some cones, which are used to denote which class is dominant in a specific terrain tile. Players also have several cylinders, which are Action Pawns (APs for short). Finally, they have a card that describes the mechanics involved in each phase of the round, but more importantly, has that class's starting elements (those factors that allow a class to thrive; they survive more easily in terrain that has their elements). Elements can be added to or lost from your animal type.

The main action of the game revolves around the turn order, which can be complicated, so I will provide you a photograph of the turn phase chart:

A column containing several rows of icons. From top to bottom, the rows are: Initiative (one icon for each class and a single action space); Adaptation (four spaces for element tokens – currently occupied by two suns, a water, and a grub – with three action spaces); Regression (a box to hold any tokens from the Adaptation row that were not taken last turn, plust two action spaces and a reptiles icon); Abundance (four spaces for element tokens – currently occupied by a meat, a grass, a water, and a grain – and two action spaces); Wasteland (a box to hold any tokens from the Abundance row that were not taken last turn, plust one action space); Depletion (a box to hold any tokens from the Depletion row that were not taken last turn, plus one action space); Glaciation (four action spaces with arrows indicating the movement of action pawns from one turn to the next); Speciation (which takes up two rows; the first has one action space for each element, plus an insect icon, and the second shows how many species to place in each terrain type; the tundra icon has +1, the mountain and desert icons have +2, the forest, jungle, and savannah icons have +3, and the wetlands and sea icons have +4); Wanderlust (four spaces for element tokens – currently occupied by a grain, a meat, a water, and a grass – and three action spaces); Migration (six action spaces labelled in descending order from 7 to 2, and a bird icon labelled 'two spaces'); Copmetition (the arachnic icon labelled 'any' and eight terrain icons with an action space between each, with the terrain type 'tundra' labelled above them); Domination (five action spaces), and the Reset Phase instructions, which read 'Extinction >> Survival >> Reseed,' and has the mammal icon above 'Extinction' labelled 'Extinction = Save One Mammal.'

Game play involves taking turns, in turn order as denoted in the row labelled 'Initiative' at the top, placing your APs on one of the eyes (the Action Spaces) in this chart. Placing your AP in this manner indicates that you've chosen to take that action in this round. As it is possible to gain and lose APs in the course of the game, some players might get to take more actions in a round. Once all players have placed all their APs, you go down the chart taking actions from top to bottom. Note that it's possible to place more than one of your own APs on a single phase, so that you (for example) take two Speciation actions in a single round.

The Phases

First is Initiative: if you take this action, you get to move your marker forward in the initiative order.

Then comes Adaptation. There are four element tokens placed here, and a player who takes this action gets to take one of these tokens and add it to his animal card. This represents your class's growing ability to use additional elements to survive (arachnids adapting to survive on meat in addition to grubs, for example). Any element tokens left here at the end of the round move down to Regression.

During the Regression phase, all players lose one element token of each type that is represented on this line (if you have it), unless you've placed an AP here; each AP prevents the loss of one token (reptiles avoid one regression for free).

Abundance allows you to take one of the four (or fewer, if other players have already taken one or more of them) available element tokens and place it onto the board. This means that resources are becoming more abundant, allowing more species to survive in more places. Any tokens still here at the end of the round are moved down to the Wasteland line.

Using an AP on the Wasteland action allows you to remove an element token from the Wasteland line. Any elements still here at the end of this phase destroy all matching elements from all tundra tiles. At the end of the round, all tiles here move down to the Depletion line.

If you put an AP on the Depletion line, you may choose one element from this line to remove from the board.

In the Glaciation phase, you convert one non-Tundra terrain tile to Tundra. You gain points based on how many Tundra tiles are adjacent to the one you place. This kills off most of the species on that tile, and any element markers at the vertex of three Tundra tiles are destroyed.

In Speciation, you place species cubes on all tiles adjacent to a single element tile of the chosen type. The number you place is determined by the terrain onto which you are placing your cubes. Insects get a bonus cube in this phase.

Next is Wanderlust. Placing an AP here allows you to choose one of the three available terrain tiles to place onto the board, along with one of the four available element markers. You gain points based on how many terrain tiles are adjacent to the new tile. Any player with species on adjacent tiles are permitted to move any number of their cubes onto the new tile.

Migration is next. Players taking a Migration action can move some of their species cubes onto adjacent tiles (birds get to move their cubes up to two tiles in this phase).

We're nearly done: now we move on to Competition. Taking a Competition action allows you kill off some of your opponent's cubes (arachnids get to kill one enemy cube for free).

Finally, you can choose the Domination action. Each time you take a Domination action, you choose a terrain tile that has not been scored yet this round. The player with the most species on that tile scores points. The more habitable the terrain, the more points are scored; not just by the player with the most species, but in general—wetlands score more points for the first place player, but also have points for second, third, and fourth place; tundra, on the other hand, only scores one point for the first place player, and nothing for anyone else. Then, the player who has 'dominance' (how able you are to survive there, based on the availability of elements that you can consume; the more elements on that tile that you also have on your player mat, the more dominant you are) gets to choose one of the available Dominance Cards to execute.

Dominance cards have a variety of effects, most of them being quite powerful. For example, there's a card that grants an extra Action Pawn to the player that claims it. Another one wipes out all but one of the species on a single terrain tile, as well as one species on each terrain tile adjacent to that one.

End of Round Actions

At the end of the round, you kill off all species that are on terrain which provide them none of the elements they consume (if your animal type consumes grass and grain, but you have some cubes on a tile that offers only meat and grubs, then all your cubes on that tile are removed). Mammals have the advantage here: they can save one cube from being killed in this manner. Then, whichever player has the most surviving species in the Tundra terrain tiles gets bonus points. Finally, you reset the pieces for the next round.

Final Thoughts on Dominant Species

This sounds very abstract, and it really is until you've played the game at least once. But what I will say for this game is that every turn, you are faced with massive choices: you must decide where to place your Action Pawns, and this is almost always a very difficult decision. Not only must you decide on which phase to place your AP, judging that a phase might not be available the next time you get to place an AP, but also deciding that sometimes it might be more prudent to block an opponent from playing on a phase even if placing your AP on that phase may not be beneficial to you directly.

It's a very meaty game, with careful consideration going into nearly every act of setting down an AP. It's especially enjoyable because often, you'll select an action that seems like a really good idea at first, until another phase robs you of your ability to make full use of that action before it gets to your turn. If only you'd noticed that you were going to lose your sun element token before you placed your AP on the Speciation phase!

Let's look at the six elements of a good game:
  • It allows for upsets.
  • It's fun to lose.
  • It ends decisively.
  • It has no player elimination.
  • It relies on player agency.
  • ❌ It's not relatively simple.
I really want to give it that last point: once you've played the game once or twice, the rules become pretty understandable. But the fact that it takes a couple playthroughs to really get your head around the rules, coupled with the fact that even once you understand the rules, the strategy is quite complex, means that I cannot in good conscience give it all six points.

Even so, this is a great game. I've only played it a handful of times, but I so very much enjoy the process of making heavy decisions at every turn that I will never say 'no' to the chance to play it again. But if games that make you think aren't your cup of tea, you might want to steer clear of this one. So until next time,

Game on!

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