Once in a while, wargames publisher GMT decides to zig when everyone else zags, and prints a game that doesn’t fit their usual line-up. They did it years ago with titles like Winds of Plunder and Conquest of Paradise, and more recently with the cute Leaping Lemmings. This time around, GMT takes out the big guns: acclaimed wargame designer Chad Jensen (of Combat Commander fame), one of the biggest boxes and boards ever to roll off their assembly line, and a mammoth leap back in time to present us with Dominant Species, an evolutionary battle that’s roughly 90,000 years old. (Talk about a different breed of conflict simulation!)
Each player takes control of an animal class (insect, arachnid, amphibian, reptile, bird, or mammal) and tries—through adaptation, migration, or outright competition—to dominate their habitat and thrive in an ever-changing environment.
The game is played on a big hex grid that starts out empty except for the six hexes in the centre of the map, occupied by terrain tiles: mountain, savannah, desert, forest, jungle, wetland and the menacing tundra. Elements (in the form of little cardboard discs) are placed on tile corners, making it possible for a single element to touch (and thus affect) up to three different hex tiles.
Animal species are represented by cubes on the hexagonal tiles; but before you throw them to the four winds and exhort them to Reproduce! be aware that species fare much better when they’re sitting on tiles with elements that match their own.
See, each animal class comes with a little display board that not only summarizes every action you can take in the game, but also displays the elements your animal needs to thrive. Some of those elements are built-in—printed on the display—but others will need to be acquired along the way.
The game’s main concept is that of dominance. On a given tile, an animal is considered dominant when it matches more elements than any other animal present, where a match is a correspondence between an element on the animal display and elements on the tile it occupies.
So in a contest between reptile (with two sun elements printed on its display) and amphibian (with three water elements printed on its display) sitting on a tile that sports a water element disc and a sun element disc, amphibian will dominate (three matches against two).
Such dominance is planned and executed through clever use of the Action Display, where players program their actions for any given turn. Each player is handed a number of cylindrical markers that they place (in initiative order) on any free action space on the Action Display. Once every last marker has been placed, the Action Display is resolved, one action after the other.
Without going too deep into the rules, available actions (or consequences through lack of action) are as follows:
INITIATIVE: Change the initiative order (to play earlier).
ADAPTATION: Add an element to your animal display.
REGRESSION: Lose a specific element from your animal display.
ABUNDANCE: Add an element to the board (on a tile corner).
WASTELAND: Remove specific elements that touch a tundra tile.
DEPLETION: Remove one specific element from anywhere on the board.
GLACIATION: Add a tundra tile to the board (with several effects, such as earning bonus points and returning a bunch of species—wooden cubes—to their owners).
SPECIATION: Add species to the board in a particular pattern.
WANDERLUST: Add a terrain tile to the board (thus expanding the playing space, i.e. “earth”).
MIGRATION: Move your species around.
COMPETITION: Eliminate opposing species in certain situations.
DOMINATION: Score selected tiles (based on the relative number of species on each).
Player’s can’t do everything on any given turn: selecting where each action marker will be placed is one of the agonizing aspects of the game. Plan correctly, and you shall live. If not—well, there’s always the next game.
Dominant Species also features a deck of 26 dominance cards, each one packing a powerful effect (good or bad, depending on what side of the table one is sitting). Five of them are laid out face up on the board; each time a tile is score via a Domination action, whoever is dominant on that tile gets to choose one card and execute it. At the end of every turn, played dominance cards are replaced. When someone plays the Ice Age card (always set up at the bottom of the deck), tiles are scored one last time and the game ends. Highest VP total takes the evolutionary cake.
As has been mentioned before, the board is large: a mounted, heavy leviathan of a playing surface, with the linen finish GMT fans are growing accustomed to. Every useful tidbit of information is present and accounted for (including the food chain chart, handy for breaking scoring ties), with plenty of space to lay out tiles and move cubes on them.
I do find the board a bit bland, though. The decision to use earthy tones and somewhat washed-out colours make for a good thematic fit, just like the unassuming terrain tiles create a nice, even useful contrast with the herds of cubes that get dropped on them. But it certainly doesn’t make for an eye-catching display, which is a bit unfortunate. Compare this to the gorgeous box cover art: the board almost looks like it doesn’t belong to the same game.
Speaking of the box, it’s a beast unto itself: double deep and sturdy like there’s no tomorrow. (Connoisseurs will recognize the packaging from the C&C: Ancients line.)
The cards are fine, with clear text and nice illustrations, and should last well into the next ice age. But wargamers beware: this game comes with a metric ton of wooden components! Cubes and cones and cylinders galore, in six colours, and with a nice, smooth finish. I like me wooden bits.
Chad Jensen was lauded for his rules writing in Combat Commander, and his mastery of that arcane art is abundantly clear in Dominant Species as well. But at 20 pages, it makes for a daunting foray off the beaten path. However, players of so-called Eurogames will be comfortable with most of the concepts presented here, and the slew of illustrated, full-color examples shouldn’t hurt the proceedings.
The rulebook is very much organized like that of a wargame. Far from turning into a nuisance, such military precision actually helps the learning process.
Additional rules are provided for those who’d like to shake things up with a random “starting earth” set-up, as well as optional variants for 2- and 3-player games (with each player controlling several different animals). The each-player-controls-several-colors variations are usually not my cup of tea—and I do prefer the standard Dominant Species rules—but they work well enough here.
After playing the game several times, I can testify that Dominant Species is great fun. There is a lot of stuff to do, but each action is simple and one flows naturally into another. Actions are also very thematic; the evolution of each animal class and the ebb and flow of the entire game somehow feel right.
Howerver, even though individual actions are easy to understand and use, the repercussions of said actions are complex and spill over pretty much everything. The removal of a single element from Earth, for instance, can create a major upheaval. So be prepared for decisions that might get fairly complicated to make—even though implementing them is easy.
In most cases, however, the hurdle will be the play time, which the box lists as three to four hours. While a four-hour gaming session is cotton candy to the average wargamer, I suspect many a Eurogamer might have a problem with that. (Yes, some Eurogames do take entire days to play through, but those are the exception and not the rule.)
In my experience, actual game length for Dominant Species goes something like this: take a basic game time of 1.5 hours and add 30 minutes for each player. This gives you 2.5 hours for a two-player match, and 4.5 hours for a six-handed slug-a-thon.
And do factor in additional time with newbies around the table.
Still, time is a concern of relative importance. While some gamers will relish sessions that take a long time to develop and come to a head (I’m certainly one of them when the game is right, and this one certainly is), others will refuse to play anything over an hour. To each his own.
So if I had to expose one flaw in Dominant Species, it would be that it’s engineered to bring out a nasty case of Analysis Paralysis in the best of us. Because a single decision can affect so many different things (spread over several turns!), some decisions simply require a lot of numbers to crunch. There’s no going around it, but it’s worth the extra work!
Dominant Species is an excellent, meaty game that requires an entire evening to play through. For some this will be a fatal flaw; for others, a coveted special feature.
There is a simple way to shorten the game though: remove some of the dominance cards from the deck. Since the game ends once the entire deck has been played through, a thinner deck will mean a shorter playing time.
Yes, the absence of a few cards might create a slight unbalance (I’m mainly thinking about Intelligence and Parasitism, both of which grant an additional action cylinder to certain animals), but their showing up late in the game also screws the concerned players. To be as fair as possible, if I decided to trim the deck by removing a handful of cards at random, I’d probably make sure that these two are either both in or both out.
Reading the rules will give you the impression that checking for dominance (which changes constantly and more times than you’ll be able to count during a game) will be a bore. It does get repetitive, but it becomes second nature after very little time.
So don’t let dominance scare you.
Another first impression to put aside: when you first read the dominance cards, you’ll get the feeling that some of them are really overpowered. This is not the case. After just a couple of plays, it’ll become apparent that each card can be devastating if played at the right time (just as each of them can also have next to no effect, if played at the wrong time.)
And a final word about the number of players.
I was afraid the standard two-player game would be merely an adequate learning tool, but it turns out to be a vicious and tense affair. Don’t let those seven actions per player and wide open Action Board deceive you. And if you get into a six-player game, be prepared for a truly epic adventure!
Now go out there and dominate.