Man, pre-human life was brutal. At least if Dominant Species is to be believed. This has got to be one of the meanest games I’ve ever played, and I say that in the best possible way. Its designer, Chad Jensen, had previously created the acclaimed Combat Commander series of WWII games, and the wargame background shows. Dominant Species is so tightly designed, so intuitive and, in many ways, brilliant, that it makes me wish more top wargame designers would dive into the eurogame space.
Of course, hybrids have emerged, most notably with GMT’s COIN (that’s COunter-INsurgency) series of games, which simulate historical conflicts but borrow a lot of euro details, from the cubes and cylinders for pieces instead of counters, to the area control and resource management details.
But Dominant Species goes full-euro, with the small but significant detail that it contains a lot of direct conflict. I suppose that might be a dealbreaker for the whole eurogame designation, but modern games are all inbred. Cubes and cylinders show up here, as do cones.
But Dunshire this isn’t. As much as I’d like to play a ledgerman in, honestly, any game, in Dominant Species each player takes the role of a type (genus, maybe family?) of animal, such as birds, mammals, arachnids, etc. Your goal is to survive and thrive in the crowded ecosystem as an ice age slowly engulfs the planet. You do this is two distinct ways: by having the most species (i.e. cubes) on the different terrain hexes and by being dominant.
Domination is determined by how well your animals can survive. See, each animal type begins with a couple of foods that it likes to eat. Similarly, the hexagons on the board have food tokens placed on their corners. If, for example, your insects have two grass tokens on their board, and they’re in a hex that is bordered by two grass tokens, their domination power is 4. If that is more than any of the other animals in that hex they get to place one of their cones there and loudly shout to the table “domination!”.
Ok, that last part isn’t in the rules.
Having the largest number of species in an area is important for scoring, but doesn’t matter for domination. On the other hand, domination only affects scoring in a final scoring round at the end of the game, but mostly it gives players access to domination cards, which can have extremely powerful effects.
This dual control system seemed obtuse to me when I first read the rules. Why isn’t normal area majority good enough? El Grande is a classic for a reason–is there any reason to complicate the formula? Reasonable questions, but let me assure you that Dominant Species absolutely nails it. Needing to mentally factor in both domination and population makes the game rich and gives it layers that you won’t find in other area majority games.
Time to back up. How do you actually do anything in this game? Well, as is typical of the worker placement genre all of the actions are on the main player board. Dominant Species has 12 different individual actions available to the players, each with a different number of available spots. The initiative action, for instance, can only be performed once each round, while speciation has six available spots.
Each action in the game is useful at various times, so it’s not a matter of finding a few strategic paths and sticking with those actions, but by thinking at all times tactically and opportunistically. In a thematically appropriate way you must always adapt to survive.
Things you can do with these actions: add more food types that your animals can eat, add more food tokens to the board, expand the board by adding new hexes, migrate your cubes around the landscape, and compete with other species on the board, removing cubes permanently from the game.
The most significant action is called, appropriately, domination. This action allows you to score hexes. Rather than having regular scoring periods, Dominant Species makes scoring itself part of the complex web of decisions the players must make. When players resolve that action, they choose one of the hexes on the board. Points are then allocated to the players with the most, 2nd most, etc cubes on that space, and whichever player is dominant gets to choose one of the domination cards available that round and resolve it. It may give them another action pawn for the rest of the game, allow them to completely shift cubes around, or cause a mass extinction, wiping out everything on a portion of the board.
This dynamic creates some difficult decisions–if you have control over a number of hexes you can acquire a lot of victory points through the domination action, but if you don’t have domination there, you could be sacrificing your board position entirely. You have to be all things at all times, and you’re not going to be able to do that.
Complicating matters is how Dominant Species deals with time. That sounds heady but hear me out. Every board game has to do something to simulate the passing of time because (except in real-time games) all of the actions are discrete and time isn’t. Normally this is done by alternating actions–I do one thing, then you do, then I do, etc.
Sometimes games will play with this formula. Tokaido and Patchwork add some spice by always having the player behind in the timeline of the game go next. Twilight Imperium divides time geographically. A player will “activate” a hex, do any number of actions in that space, and then it’s locked down from any further action until the next round.
Dominant Species distinguishes itself by dividing the action selection portion from the resolution of those actions. It’s not alone in doing this (Dungeon Lords and Alchemists do roughly the same thing) but I think it’s the best implementation I’ve seen. Each player takes turns placing their pawns in available action spaces. After everyone has finished they resolve down the board top to bottom, left to right. It’s logical, orderly, easy to understand, and makes for some incredibly difficult decisions.
Going back to the domination action–it’s the last one to resolve. So not only do you have to plan that action based on which hexes you control and dominate, you have to plan based on how you think that turn is going to play out, which requires you to predict what all of the other players are going to do, but they’re also trying to predict what everyone is going to do and play actions based on that knowledge. It gets complicated. On top of that, because the actions resolve individually, if you don’t take the first domination action you have to predict which cards the players in front of you will take, and how that might affect the board state.
This is the part of the review where you will probably know whether or not you’re going to like Dominant Species. Does this puzzle solving, planning-through-time, complicated matrix of decisions get you excited like it does me? This might be the game for you. If it sounds like a headache, and not the good kind (yes there’s a good kind), then steer clear.
Still with me? Let’s talk about the ice age! The game begins with the center hex covered in ice, and living on ice sucks, no matter what kind of animal you are. But, take the glaciation action and you can expand that ice across the board, destroying animals and habitats as you go. Here’s the catch: If you manage to migrate your animals back onto the frozen expanse, barely surviving with the scraps of food remaining, you can gain a significant amount of points at the end of each round.
This throws yet another wrench into the equation. Not only do you need to carve out space for yourself by controlling and dominating hexes, if someone starts making a move into glacier territory they must be countered or they’re going to win the game. This is reminiscent of strategies like the science cards in 7 Wonders–if someone is allowed free reign to pursue that strategy they’ll win, but it costs time and resources to counter it. It’s a collective action problem that must be resolved through diplomacy. And Dominant Species is such an involved, intense game that I’ve seen actual arguments spring up over it.
The ice age also, in a crafty way, helps keep the game focused and tight. Expanding the board is also an action in the game, but because the glaciation action is so powerful it’s going to be taken almost every round, which keeps the total amount of fertile land in check. It also forces players to slowly move their cubes further and further away from the center, preventing people from camping in one or two areas and making the game dull. On top of that, the ice age also degrades habitats, which means that players have to constantly fight to gain and retain domination.
It’s a brilliantly thematic experience. The kind where not only is the language of the game tied to the theme, but the actions are as well, and more than on a surface level. Yes there’s an action called adaptation, but it actually helps you adapt to the state of the board. On a broader level you always need to be adapting, changing, and planning–evolving. Evolving not only your board position and the strengths of your type of animal, but evolving your entire strategy if the opportunity presents itself.
This is because Dominant Species does feel like a knife fight in a phone booth, yes–but it’s also spectacularly dramatic, and I don’t know how it manages to do both. It feels like landscapes are being formed, like entire species are struggling to survive, evolving or perishing. In short, it feels epic like few games do. I’ve been literally wiped off the board by round two before slowly crawling myself back to a close second place finish. But it never feels unrestrained. On the contrary it feels assured, like you’re playing a game made by a true capital D Designer. It feels…complete.
That’s not to say it’s perfect. I know for a fact that it will certainly not sit well with many players. More casual gamers or people who do not like direct conflict will want to steer clear. The game can also be a bit fiddly, particularly with determining domination. Every time someone enters or leaves a hex, adapts their animals to new habitats, or changes the food available on the board domination could change. In the heat of the game sometimes you’ll forget to check for that, and it sucks to find out half an hour later that some the information you’ve been relying on has been incorrect.
It could also be a rough time for analysis paralysis (AP) prone players. There’s just so much to keep in your mind simultaneously and so many factors to consider that you can easily spend minutes contemplating nearly every decision you make.* Finally, like nearly all direct conflict multiplayer games, it can also create kingmaking situations that are never pleasant. That said, over quite a few plays I’ve only personally seen it happen once.
Dominant Species is a brutally mean game, but it always leaves you space to climb back up the evolutionary ladder. It’s a complicated game, with decisions based on reading the other players, balancing short term and long term gains, and calculating how your decisions are going to play out over time. But it’s also surprisingly easy to learn; the entire game is contained on the board and in that list of actions. Nicely organized reference sheets explain all of the details you need to know about the actions. It’s a “crunchy” game with calculations and cubes, but it’s also thematically evocative.
Let me be clear: this is exactly the kind of game I tend to enjoy. I love heavy, thinky games, I love games with conflict and interaction, and I love games with deep attachments to their theme. But I also think, on many clear and consistent levels, that it is an excellent game. Even players who do not enjoy the experience will appreciate the clear and simple graphic design and the way it balances all of its individual elements not only on a power level, but on a level of emphasis–no individual aspects of the game overshadow the rest. They’ll be able to appreciate the elegance of the mechanisms and the way it nudges players towards diplomacy and deal-making.
I do not believe in the modern internet myth of “objective” reviews, but if I were forced to name one board game that’s objectively good, I’d be hard-pressed to find a more suitable candidate than Dominant Species.
*In fact, a particular situation happened in a recent game of Dominant Species that inspired tomorrow’s podcast about AP.
+ Thematic on multiple levels
+ Deep, complicated decision making
+ Encourages diplomacy and interaction
– A very mean, cutthroat game
– May cause problems with AP-prone players
– Somewhat fiddly