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Jesse Dean
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Dominant Species, by Chad Jensen, is somewhat of a rarity from GMT. GMT has made a name for itself as a producer of quality conflict simulations (i.e., war games); it has so far avoided dipping its toes into the eurogame market. Dominant Species is a step away from the war game trend. Though it is quite a bit meatier than many other eurogames, it is definitely not a war game or a hybrid like Labyrinth: The War On Terror or Twilight Struggle.

So what is Dominant Species all about? Well, as its name implies, the game is about the conflict for dominance between animal species, with the additional twist of the threat of an impending ice age. The game overall stays very true to the theme. Even the most abstracted parts of the game fit logically within the context of the theme, and there were only a few instances where I felt an obvious disconnect.

I became interested in Dominant Species almost entirely based on reading the rulebook. Reading it filled me with such enthusiasm that I had pre-ordered the game within a week, and happily played it for the first time within 48 hours of receiving it. This review is based on reading the rulebook, thinking a great deal about the game, and playing once. I think Dominant Species is a game of such obvious quality that it was worth reviewing after a single play.

Components



The game's components are good at conveying information about game state, which is helpful because there is frequently a lot of information to absorb. I wish that the designers had used something more thematic then cubes, cylinders, and cones to represent the different animals' presence on the board, but animeeples would probably not have been economically viable choice.

All players receive their own personal player mat. The mat provides a summary of the game actions, as well as a location to place survival elements acquired during play. This is very helpful for new players, but I suspect that after the first play or two it will mostly be ignored beyond being used to keep track of which elements any individual player has.



I am red-green color blind, so I always appreciate it when games are produced that I can play with minimal difficulty. The two areas that pose potential problems for me in Dominant Species are the terrain tiles and the player colors. GMT gets an A+ for the terrain tiles, but a more middling grade for the player colors.

The terrain tiles are helpfully designed with the name of the terrain type on them, different terrain pictures, and reasonably different colors. The only ones that I had any initial difficulty telling apart were the sea and wetland tiles, and the different pictures and names were enough to completely eliminate this difficulty.



The player colors are less easy for colorblind players to differentiate. The green and red are close enough in tonal value that in certain lighting, it is difficult to tell them apart. This is annoying, but is only likely to be a problem if color-blind players are playing with 6 players or using the 2- or 3-player variants that use all six colors. My usual player numbers for games of this sort are 3-5, so I will either have to play something else with 3 or make sure that I play in adequate lighting to tell the colors apart.

Structure

Dominant Species is a worker placement game where all of the actions have an effect on the ability of each animal (controlled by a player) to assume one of two dimensions of area control. Actions are resolved Caylus-style, with each player placing all their workers (called Action Pawns) down before the action types are resolved top to bottom, with specific sections being resolved left to right.

The rules of the game are well-written and very clear, and I came away from them reasonably impressed and with a pretty good idea of how the game would end up playing. GMT has also kindly made the rule book available for download here on BGG, so if you are still indecisive about whether you want to acquire this game after reading this review, then I highly recommend checking it out.

There are two types of area control in the game, both of which are centered on individual tiles. The first type of area control is determined by simple cube majorities. Each different terrain type has anywhere from 1 to 4 scoring categories on it, with the person having the most cubes getting the most points, and point totals descending from there. This is the source of the majority of the points that are scored in the game. The second type is based on having the most elements on your animal sheet (representing adaptability within a particular environment) matching the elements on the tiles (representing the environment in that particular tile). The number of each type of element your animal possesses is multiplied by the number of that element on the board to determine your overall score. Having the highest score on the tile gives you Dominance.



One of the things that really stood out for me during play is how much impact each of the animal's special abilities has on the game, without requiring an extensive list of special abilities and powers. Each animal has three characteristics that define it: its place on the food chain, its place in the initiative order, and its single special ability. The animal's place on the food chain has an impact on the first type of area control, with cube count ties resolved based on the animal's relative position in the food chain. Initial initiative is determined in reverse food chain order. These two facets seemed to end up reasonably balanced in play, as the ability to gain majorities without actually needing to have a majority is mitigated by easier access to prime actions by the animals that are higher in the initiative order. The individual special abilities also seem reasonably balanced, with most providing a reasonably interesting bonus. I will discuss these abilities below on the section on each of the actions.



At the beginning of each round, the board is seeded with new options. Dominance cards are placed until 5 are available; new elements are placed in the Adaptation, Abundance, and Wanderlust areas; and new terrain tiles are flipped until three are available. This provides some variation between rounds without introducing too much randomness; everyone knows what can happen on any given round and can compete for these opportunities.

The first available action, which only one person can take per turn, is Initiative. By taking this action, you move your piece up in the turn order and then move your worker to another empty, spot on the board. Because a player does not lose a productive action by taking Initiative (though the player will be the last to take an action), one player each round will find it advantageous to take Initiative. Who takes it will depend on how badly each player needs access to other actions in the game; however, being first in turn order has a major impact on a player's ability to control the flow of the game, so all players should carefully weigh the value of claiming a specific action against first taking Initiative.

The second available action is Adaptation. Adaptation provides new elements for your animal, thus enabling your species cubes to gain dominance over a wider array of potential terrain tiles. This is the first of two different sets of linked actions. Any of the four elements that are not taken from the three available Adaptation worker spots will drop down to the Regression section. Most of the animal types can take up to four different elements. Amphibians are special: they start with three water elements on their card at the beginning of the game, giving them an advantage in the pursuit of Domination.

The Regression box occurs automatically any round there are elements in it (basically every round after the first), causing all animals to lose an element beyond their initial element if it matches up with the element in the Regression box. By taking one of the two available Regression actions, the animal is able to block itself from losing one element. Reptiles get a free Regression action each turn.

The combination of Adaptation and Regression leads to an interesting tension that can dampen one's desire to ramp up too quickly on acquiring new elements. If you get too many elements at once, there is a reasonable risk that you will have to decide later whether you want to protect one (or more!) of your elements by spending an action, or let them disappear and lose board position to those to those who are not running that risk.



The next available action is Abundance, and it allows the person taking it to place one of the four available elements on the board. No more than two people can take Abundance per round, which means at least two elements will always move down into the Wasteland action.

Wasteland occurs every round after the first, regardless of worker intervention. Each element in the Wasteland spot will cause all elements of the matching type that are touching a tundra tile to be removed from the board. By taking the Wasteland action, one worker may remove an element from the Wasteland box, preventing it from being removed from the board.

The element in the Wasteland box that is not removed from the board then slides down to the Depletion box. By taking the Depletion action, one worker may remove the element in the Depletion box from any one spot on the board. I am not quite sure how useful this is, as generally it seems that most elements that make it down to this part of the board are ones that no one cares about anyway. However, I suspect that more experienced players will work on guiding particular elements down to this spot over the course of multiple turns to allow them to attack opponents on key sets of tiles. I am not yet sure how viable that strategy is.

The next available action is Glaciation. This only occurs once per round, but it is so valuable that individuals can place their pawns such that they can get first crack at it on the following round (or even later). The reason for this is the sheer power of this action. By playing Glaciation, you are spreading Tundra tiles across the board, destroying the scoring potential of particular tiles, removing elements from the board, and reducing the presence of species. In addition, it is one of a number of items that uses the triangular (1, 3, 6, 10, etc.) bonus points table, with the quantity of bonus points based on the number of adjacent Tundra tiles.

After Glaciation is Speciation, which has six available spots, each associated with a particular type of element, that enable a particular animal to place additional species cubes in each terrain tile that is adjacent to that particular element. The quantity of cubes placed depends on the terrain type of the tiles adjacent to the element, with Seas and Wetlands producing the most species cubes and tundra providing the least. Insects get a bonus from the Speciation action, allowing them to place an additional species on the board wherever they want every round.

Wanderlust is another valuable action, as those who take it have a big impact on how the board develops, both in the form of where tiles placed as well as what elements are placed on these tiles. Tile placement allows for the same triangular bonus points as provided by the Glaciation action, but with the points based on adjacent tiles of any type rather than simply adjacent tundra tiles.

Migration allows for the movement of species cubes from their current location into adjacent ones. The earlier you take the action, the more you can take. Birds get a special bonus for Migration, in that they can move their cubes two spaces, giving them greater flexibility in movement.

Competition allows for the elimination of opponent species cubes from the game. Each selection of this action allows for the elimination of one cube in each of three different terrain types, with the limitation that only cubes in locations where you currently have some of your own species cubes can be eliminated. Arachnids get a bonus elimination of a single cube from any of their current locations every round.

Domination is the final action and the one that all the other actions are set up for. The player taking the Domination action selects a tile; then, two things occur. First, the tile is scored based on the tile type. Each player who has species cubes on the tile gets victory points based on the number of cubes they have relative to everyone else. Whoever has the most cubes gets the first value, whoever has the second gets the second most, etc., until all the possible places on that tile have been scored. Second, whichever species is Dominant on that tile gets to pick one of the Dominance cards and play it.



After the Domination action occurs, each tile is checked to see if any species on it go extinct (mammals can save one extinct species cube per round). The Survival card goes to whoever has species on the most tundra tiles. Then players score points, using the same triangular scoring noted above, and restock the board before continuing on to the next round. The game repeats this cycle of rounds until someone selects the Ice Age card, which is always seeded at the bottom of the deck. This triggers a final triangular scoring based on the number of tiles each player dominates. The game ends at the completion of that round.

What Works

Overall I am very enthusiastic about Dominant Species. This game probably most closely parallels Age of Empires III, but while I found Age of Empires III to be poorly thought out and not particularly interesting, Dominant Species is incredibly tense and riveting, with enough going on to keep even the most discriminating gamers engaged from beginning to end.

The game does a great job of providing multiple avenues to victory. While the bulk of the scoring will come from the Domination action, players can earn reasonable amounts of points by taking specific Dominance cards, placing Tundra tiles, placing Wanderlust tiles, and by having a presence on more total Tundra tiles than any other player. Points are very granular; small amounts are earned regularly throughout the game, with occasional big chunks provided to players who work for them.

The varied and dramatic ways that a player can impact both the board state and other players is also a big plus. This game is in no way a multi-player solitaire experience, and there are plenty of ways to impact other players in both minor and major ways. These range from taking the Competition action, which lets you eliminate enemy species cubes in regions you both occupy, up to some of the nastier Dominance cards like Catastrophe that could potentially cause opponents to lose 5 or more species cubes in one fell swoop. Similarly destructive actions are also possible with careful board play, by setting up individuals to suffer extinctions, but I am not sure how frequently this will occur with skilled play. By the same token, these effects aren't random. Every player should be aware of potentially harmful things that can happen to them from the beginning of the round, and sometimes even earlier in the cases of Regression, Wasteland, and Depletion. The only thing you won't know about ahead of time is the potentially nasty card effects, but just keeping in mind that it is ALWAYS better to go first will help out here, as players should be using the Initiative action each round to jockey for better positions.

I am not a person who cares much about theme. What matters to me is how interesting the game is, and what new challenges it presents to me in the course of game play. If given the choice between an average game with a great theme and a great game with a really awful theme, I will take the great game with the awful theme every time. Despite this, I can really appreciate a well-integrated theme, particularly in a eurogame where themes usually take a back seat to mechanical soundness. Dominant Species is one of those rare eurogames that combines a great mechanical foundation with an equally great theme. Almost without exception, every aspect of the game has a good thematic explanation, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of the items I am uncertain about are simply cases of me not knowing how that particular item is thematically relevant rather than them having nothing to do with the theme.

Potential Downsides

There is a lot to keep track of in Dominant Species, especially later in the game. Each time a new element is added or taken away from a player reference card or the board, it can have a dramatic effect on the relative Dominance level on multiple locations on the board. Because this can affect a player's decisions across multiple actions, each time a shift like this occurs, the dominance markers have to be corrected. This took up time that would probably have better been spent on decision-making. Personally, I only found this a minor annoyance, and my gaming group is already developing methods to speed up this process during play, but I can see how others could find this particularly tedious.



The fact that Seas and Wetlands do not have the water element is humorous. I can understand why the game designers made this choice from a mechanical perspective, but I am guessing that theme nuts might find that to be grating.

The one mechanical item that I came away from the game uncertain about is the real impact of having first access to some of the more powerful Dominance cards. The first player has the ability to have their choice of Dominance cards each turn, and by being able to select these items, the first player is able to have a powerful impact on the flow of the game. This is mitigated to some extent by the fact that all players will know there are powerful effects available to be taken from the Dominance deck, so there should be quite a bit of jockeying for Initiative. There are also typically multiple powerful effects each round, so the second Dominance action will not usually be significantly worse than the first one. Initially, by going for first Dominance each round, a player is giving up the ability to potentially grab valuable tiles through the Wanderlust action or getting the elements of their choice. So there is definitely an opportunity cost in going for Dominance as a first action every round; I am just not yet certain it is quite enough.

Final Thoughts

I can easily recommend Dominant Species to any gamer who likes (or doesn't dislike) worker placement games, who has no problems with games that can last 3 hours, and who likes complex games with many moving parts that create a rich, dynamic game mechanic despite a high initial learning curve. If you tend to prefer lighter, more streamlined games, than this one is definitely not for you.

I currently rate Dominant Species an eight, but that is mostly due to the fact that I tend to not rate games higher than an 8 before I have explored them in great depth. I fully expect this game to climb to a 9 within the next few months, and I think it may even have 10 potential. I love meaty gamers' games, and Dominant Species really delivers in that regard.

Dominant Species is an excellent surprise, a deep and intelligent game that virtually came out of nowhere to be a very strong contender for my Game of the Year. So far, no other 2010 game I have played has quite compared to Dominant Species, and I wonder if any of the upcoming Essen releases will have what it takes to compete with it. I really hope they do, because I would love it if 2010 ended up being a year of multiple great games rather than just one. It really has been a pleasure to play and think about and I can't wait to get it back on the table.
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A. B. West
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Great review, Jesse. I too have read the rules, but remain on the fence for a purchase. I have a question after your first play. Do you imagine the play time will be significantly less with more experience? Less players? I'm concerned about the 3 hours play time.
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Jesse Dean
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Yes, I could see it going down. I have seen reports of other groups playing it with 6 and finishing it in 2.5 hours. It is quite possible that 4 is actually the slowest number. With 5 or 6 players you are going to be taking Dominance cards faster, and will be able to get to the game ending Ice Age card faster. Similarly with less players you can either play with the full 6 species and have the same effect or just play with less species and then just have turns go by faster. We also have a competitive group and had some deep thought times. I didn't end up minding these so much, because I was having to think a lot myself, but I could see that also being less of an issue as time goes on.

That being said, I can't imagine it ever getting down below 2 hours and 15 minutes to 2 and a half hours.
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Tom Shields
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A great review Jesse; I have the game & hope to have it on the table at this Wednesday's game group. Hopefully I can get a four player game so I can proceed; it's hard to imagine a 3-player getting off the ground. One species will probably provide enough brain drain. It's hard to imagine managing two species in this game.


If anyone has tried it as 2 or 3-player, I hope you kick in with thoughts.

I do think GMT did a great job with the board & bits. I was surprised.

If this game truly is this good, there'll be lots of opportunities for pimping it with animal meeples a la Agricola.
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Great review; love the title.

I consider myself a staunch skeptic of new releases, but I have to say this looks awfully impressive.
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Jesse Dean
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I expect, based on my play, that 2 and 3 players will be even more of a brain burner than 4 if you use the advanced rules. Keeping track of 2 or 3 animals is more complicated than 1!
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Adam Ruzzo
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I wonder if the game would be significantly affected by taking out 2-4 dominance cards (from the original 25)? This might speed up play by 10-15 minutes.
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Paul Lister
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Jesse, great review - this has just been added to my must haves and from a fellow red-green color blind gamer thanks for the heads up
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Jesse Dean
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I hinted at it above but I would like to note that I had a lot less trouble with the game in natural light. In my apartment (where the game playing space is on the opposite end of the room from the window) I had the most problems.
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Jesse Dean
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Bridger wrote:
I wonder if the game would be significantly affected by taking out 2-4 dominance cards (from the original 25)? This might speed up play by 10-15 minutes.


I would hesitate to do something like that simply because I am not sure how that would change the balance of the deck. I suspect the designer had very good reasons for including each and every card in the deck and I would hate to unintentionally mess with that.
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Adam Ruzzo
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doubtofbuddha wrote:
Bridger wrote:
I wonder if the game would be significantly affected by taking out 2-4 dominance cards (from the original 25)? This might speed up play by 10-15 minutes.


I would hesitate to do something like that simply because I am not sure how that would change the balance of the deck. I suspect the designer had very good reasons for including each and every card in the deck and I would hate to unintentionally mess with that.


So would I, but if it's a decision between taking a few cards out to cut the time down and not playing at all...
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Cindy Nowak
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Once someone starts using the Domination action, it goes quickly. But when people see the points - and the screwage potential - they go for it.

That being said, I think more experienced players will look to set things up for that action sooner in the game. And that will speed up the game.
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scoutmom wrote:
Once someone starts using the Domination action, it goes quickly. But when people see the points - and the screwage potential - they go for it.

That being said, I think more experienced players will look to set things up for that action sooner in the game. And that will speed up the game.


Why wouldn't the Amphib player be playing domination actions from the begining? They are in the best position to take the biggest points on the board.
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Bridger wrote:
Why wouldn't the Amphib player be playing domination actions from the begining? They are in the best position to take the biggest points on the board.


I will admit to not thinking very clearly due to pain meds this morning...but why do you say that?
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Jesse Dean
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Because I suspect that unless the Amphibian takes Glaciation in the first round someone else will and place it right on the wetlands to prevent the Amphibians from grabbing the big points that location provides.
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Glaciation - in the two games I played - wasn't utilized until later, when you could effectively remove a larger number of other species from the board. It seems to make more sense strategically to get your own species on the tile and then choose the Domination action to score it for yourself. Remember, being the Dominant species on a tile and Domination scoring are calculated differently.

My choice is to get my own species on the higher scoring tiles, choose the Domination action and then the Dominance card. I used Glaciation on tiles where I had a lower presence - or none whatsoever - to remove the other species from the board.
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Jesse Dean
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Right, but you are not going to take the Wetlands tile from the Amphibian, so why not shut them down so they don't get a big advantage from it?
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doubtofbuddha wrote:
Because I suspect that unless the Amphibian takes Glaciation in the first round someone else will and place it right on the wetlands to prevent the Amphibians from grabbing the big points that location provides.

But... but... the amphibians brain isn't big enough to think so far ahead. This sounds like mammal thinking.
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Jesse Dean
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Right! So you shut those stupid amphibians down.
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doubtofbuddha wrote:
Right, but you are not going to take the Wetlands tile from the Amphibian, so why not shut them down so they don't get a big advantage from it?


Why not? Domination scoring is based on number of species (cubes) present, not matching elements. Why wouldn't I Speciate the tile, then Domination and give myself the big points. If need be, I place an element there first, then speciate, then domination.

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Jesse Dean
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You Dominate if you have the best matching symbols. You get victory points based on having the most species. So sure you can go onto the wetlands and potentially get the most victory points, but the amphibian will get the domination card and will have a head start on species cubes, so if it takes Speciation too then you don't have any advantage on the tile. Just glaciating it away seems safer.
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Cindy Nowak
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Glaciation
Glaciating away a high scoring tile at the start of the game also eliminates any possibility of you becoming Dominant and having that option as well. Although, starting glaciation on the first turn would certainly speed the game up!
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Excellent review. This has certainly piqued my interest. Up until now I hadn't given the game a second thought on account of its publisher (wargames aren't really my thing), but now I see the error of my ways.
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scoutmom wrote:
Bridger wrote:
Why wouldn't the Amphib player be playing domination actions from the begining? They are in the best position to take the biggest points on the board.


I will admit to not thinking very clearly due to pain meds this morning...but why do you say that?


a) The amphibians start out with 3 elements on their animal card. This allows them to dominate their starting area (6 matches) much easier than any other animal (4 matches).

b) Their main starting area is the highest scoring area in the game.

c) Their other two starting areas are the 2nd and 3rd highest scoring areas in the game (even if they score 2nd there they will get decent points).


The only thing that could throw a big wrench into this is if someone speciates or glaciates the wetlands zone.
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Cindy Nowak
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Bridger wrote:

The only thing that could throw a big wrench into this is if someone speciates ... the wetlands zone.


Which is one of the things I believe I suggested.
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