Though it was published in 2010, another old game by board game standards, Papa Bear and I just recently started playing Dominant Species. Because it is so vastly different from Dominion, I wanted to review it next.
Interestingly enough, when I looked for more information about the designer, Chad Jensen, I found a 2006 interview he conducted with Dice Tower founder Tom Vasel. In it, he said that he started “tinkering with existing games […] 30 years ago! [He] would invent games using a simple deck of cards and parts from Monopoly or Risk, for example, and them try them out with [his] friends.” He said he started designing games in earnest around 1995.
This interview came out shortly before his war game, Combat Commander, debuted. He also mentioned in the article that he would soon begin “casting [his] Euro-themes around and see if any of those publishers bite.” Well, it turns out GMT Games bit Dominant Species only four years later. Nominated in several categories, it won the 2011 Golden Geek Best Strategy Board Game award.
Time: 2-4 hours
BGG Rating: 7.9/10*
Baby Brown Bear Status: On loan from a game group friend (thanks, buddy!)
Dominant Species is set in year 90,000 BC. You represent an animal trying not only to survive but also become dominant in as many different terrains as possible before an impending ice age, when the game ends. In the meantime, your goal is to accumulate as many victory points as possible. You do this by having species present in different terrains and by being dominant in some of them.
Although this is primarily an area control game, it does use card drafting, tile placement, and worker placement mechanics as well.
Okay, I’m not going to lie to you. This game is much more involved than Dominion. After all, it has a 20-page rule book. It’s so involved that our friend gave us homework to watch a run-through video and then surprised us with real homemade aptitude quizzes before we started.
Therefore, my “overview” won’t be a complete explanation of the game. If you are interested, I would be more than happy to start a dialogue with you. Otherwise, you can find numerous videos and rules summaries online.
*The top-ranked games have ratings of ~8.3/10.
Here is one of the aptitude quizzes. I was so impressed that he took the time to create, administer, and grade them. Very clever. There was also a true or false page and the final statement was, “[Baby Bear] is cute.” I obviously put, “VERY TRUE.” It’s incredibly heartwarming to me that these guys enjoy (or at least pretend to enjoy) the babe so much. He’s become a board game group mascot of sorts, and I couldn’t be prouder.
A throwback to 9th grade biology
In this game, it is helpful to remember the animal taxonomy system: animal (kingdom), phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Remember, your “animal” is what you represent broadly. In food chain order, they are: mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, arachnids, and insects. When the game refers to “species,” it means your cubes, since they represent different kinds of species within your animal classification. Phew. I hope my biology teacher would still give me an A today, but I think that might be a stretch.
All of the following pictures (except one) show the two-player version of the game. This is the initial setup. The hexagonal tiles represent different types of terrains.
Basically, each player chooses an animal and each animal is represented by an equal number of species on the earth. Each animal is able to survive in a certain type of terrain based on what elements are available there. For example, in the above picture, the amphibian is able to survive on terrains where water is present (as evidenced by the three blue circles on the player board).
There are three phases in this game:
- Planning phase
- Execution phase
- Reset phase
Planning phase. This is where players choose what actions they want to take in this turn by going in initiative track order and placing their action pawns on available “eyeball” spots. A detailed list of what each track does is available in the rule book. For now you’ll just have to get a taste from my picture. Otherwise we’d be here all day.
Domination was strong this turn. We obviously needed points and wanted domination cards.
Execution phase. Once all action pawns are placed, the execution phase begins. Going in top-to-bottom and left-to-right order, each action pawn is removed from its eyeball spot and the corresponding action is performed by the owner of that pawn.
Reset phase. During this phase you remove species that go extinct (are on terrains without any of that animal’s elements) and one animal may gain victory points from the Survival Card (related to tundras). This is also when you reset the board (draw new dominance cards, flip wanderlust tiles, etc.).
It’s a big, sturdy board that gives you most of the information you need. If not, the player boards are extremely helpful.
A lot of speciation occurred. A lot of amphibians became dominant. A lot of points were scored.
Here you can see how many points are awarded to the animals with the most species on a terrain. Not shown: tundras earn the animal with the most species one point and that’s it.
My only picture of our six-player game to show you the difference with the species on the tiles and the action pawns fighting for their placements on the right.
I like starting with the negative first, especially for games I really like.
- Learning curve. Okay, obviously this is a long game and it has a fairly steep learning curve. This is another case of “I’m glad I watched a run-through video and had friends teach me,” because solely relying on the rule book would have been daunting. I like to think that I understood what I was doing very well the first half of the first game I played (especially since I won), but it was probably a little longer than that. However, I will forever deny that luck was on my side. It was all strategy, baby. Don’t worry about the second time I played (when I lost).
- Scoring. At the end of the game, you score each individual tile for victory points based on the number of species of each animal on the tile. A tie always goes in food chain order, so the mammals (the highest on the food chain) gain first place points, and so on. While I tried to circumvent this problem with the dominance cards so that I had the most species on any given tile with a lot of potential points, I still found it a little irritating that some of those points went to something basically determined by the luck of the draw. I suppose it’s just one more aspect you need to keep a close eye on towards the end of the game.
Now we can end on a good note.
- Control of destiny. Yes, your turn order is first determined by food chain order. However, the initiative track allows you to change your turn order if you so choose.
- Dominance cards. In both plays, I found the dominance cards to be incredibly powerful. Some players may argue that these cards give players too much power, and that if you’re higher up the food chain, you likely won’t get first dibs on the best ones. However, to my point above, you can change the turn order, albeit incrementally per turn. And you can place your pawn on the domination spot early on if you really want a card. I’ve only played twice, but I think it’s critical to take advantage of these cards.
- Level of engagement. Surprisingly, Dominant Species has never felt like a long game despite its considerable length. Both when I played the six-player game and when I played the two-player game, I was interested in everyone’s turns, not just my own. In so many games, especially once you understand the rules, it’s easy to zone out when it’s not your turn. That’s probably one of my biggest complaints about games, actually. I don’t want to be bored, even when I’m not playing. Which is what makes me love this game even more.
- Theme. I think the designer put together a thoughtful, well-crafted theme. I love how the animals need certain elements to survive in their respective terrains. Amphibians and water? Check. Insects and grass? Check. I also love the choices you have during the execution phase. Speciate to spread yourselves across new terrains? Adapt to survive on new elements? Yeah, that makes sense. When I played the six-player version, we brought up biology a few times. You have to appreciate a game that does that.
- Player count differences. As I mentioned in the Dominion post, I really love when a game plays very differently from one player count to the next. Now, I’ve only played with the two extremes, but they were markedly different. In the six-player version, you only have three action pawns and the board can change so drastically by the time you need to play your next pawn. However, you generally always have an idea of what your strategy is because you have so much time to plan. In the two-player version, you have seven action pawns, meaning you have so many actions and decisions to make each turn. It was overwhelming trying to figure out first what I absolutely needed to lock down, then what I didn’t want my opponent to do, and finally how all of the action pawns would play out in order. I felt a lot more pressure in the two-player version because of this.
Play this game. It’s long, yes, but it’s interesting and unique. It has a little bit of everything: battles (or at least a good amount of competition), cool mechanics, and an on-point theme. It provides good fodder for table conversation and keeps everyone involved throughout the game. Plus, the player boards help you remember what each track does, so it’s not like you have to remember all the rules to be successful.
I’m curious to know what you think. What’s your take on Dominant Species?