Review: Dominant Species
Developer: Chad Jensen
Publisher: GMT Games
Category: Animals, Environmental, Prehistoric
Price: $59.99 Amazon
BGG Ranking: 33
In my early days as a board gamer (although, let’s face it, it’s only been two years) daily I scoured the top games of all time on BGG’s top games list. Many games entered my radar, with my interest confirmed as I would hear about them constantly on podcasts I enjoyed. While I was able to play many of them, one game in particular avoided me, and I never had a chance to play a round or purchase a copy… that is until now.
GMT Games, well-known for their giant catalog of war games, brings us Dominant Species. While my familiarity with war games is lacking, I do know GMT to be one the most consistent publishers in the industry. GMT produces the critically acclaimed COIN series, which are typically four-player war-style games, based off famous militaristic history scenarios where each player has a different objective to victory. GMT also published the long-running, top ranked, strategy title, Twilight Struggle.
Violence: Dominant Species’ artwork is mostly through card art, and one or two of these have very minuscule amounts of animal violence.
Spiritual Content: There is some indirect inferences to evolution, as your species will evolve over time to adapt to changes in food sources and climate. This is a great under current of the game, and provides for some great discussion about the nature of a species’ need to adapt to an ever changing environment. This totally applies to the Christian life, and our need to learn and adapt to people, as culture ebbs and flows.
First game. One hour of rules explanation, plus two hours of gameplay in, and my brain is toast. It’s not burnt toast quite yet though, which is good, because if it was, I wouldn’t want to be at the table any longer. Instead of dwelling on the artistic thought of how we’ve painted the board with color by exploring through wanderlust, I’m lasered in on a pair of tundra tiles teetering on the edge of 12 of my most lovely mammals.
Alas, this is only one of a multitude of issues I’m preoccupied with at the moment, some of them being my domination total, and how worried I am about my animal regressing. Suddenly, I make the realization we have only just now hit the halfway mark of the game, and it’s 1 AM. I have work in the morning… but I also have to get more victory points.
Dominant Species is a worker placement, area control style game with lots and lots of player interaction. Seriously, the players make this game. At game start, you are put in control of one of six different animals, with varying presence on a food chain. Each player receives dominance cones, cubes that represent their species, and multiple worker cylinders. Rounds are set up like so: players sequentially place workers until they run out, then players will complete each action one at a time, running down the order depicted on the board; and then players will check for extinction, give out survival cards, replace tiles, cards, and chits, etc, and repeat.
The board is split into multiple hex tiles, representing different climates and environments such as wetlands, deserts, mountains, jungles, the sea, etc. Players become dominant by matching more elements on their personal tableau to individual hexes on the board than any other player present on that space.
Actions are selected by dropping a worker onto one of twelve different actions. These allow players to adapt to new elements, add elements to the board, remove one element, migrate species to a new tile, speciate and add species to three adjacent tiles, eliminate one opposing species on three different tiles, take first player, dominate a tile, and much more. In addition, there are also mandatory actions that affect the board state. These can be mitigated to an extent, but will destroy elements on tundra tiles, and force you to lose specific elements on your tableau.
Players can get points through various means, but the main way is through presence and domination. When choosing this action, the player will select a tile, check for dominance, and players on that tile will receive points for having the most species on the tile, while the dominant player will choose one of five cards. These cards can have extremely powerful abilities and could swing the game in a new direction. The game continues until the Ice Age card shows up and is selected. This does one giant score, giving out points for dominance across the board and once this round ends, players will score every single tile on the board for majority species one last time.
Whew. Maybe I’m a wuss, but this game is heavy. Luckily, Dominant Species ships with a formidable rulebook that does a fabulous job of explaining the many mechanics of the game. That said, I struggled for two games to understand the wording and explanation of the domination mechanic. Only now can I confidently explain to a new player what you need on your tableau in order to dominate certain tiles.
The wooden components of Dominant Species are beautiful. Each animal has a vibrantly saturated set of wooden components (as mentioned earlier) and once they get sprawled across the newly developed board, it is a photo worthy sight. The mixes of bright reds and deep blues laying on top of the many jungle and forest tiles underneath is very nice to look at.
Now, the graphic design and layout of the game is another story. The box has a typical GMT feel to it, sort of plain on the sides and what-not. The board is great quality, but the choice of fonts and colors on top of one another is sort of decent. Even the artwork on domination cards themselves is overshadowed from the big brown ink surrounding it.
This is a moment to turn something sub-par into something incredible, however. Never attempt this in a job interview, but I believe the weakness of Dominant Species’ graphic design to be to its greatest strength. The vast complexity of the game is greatly complemented by Species’ functional graphic design, and simple, yet beautiful wooden pieces. While trying to understand the depth of the game’s strategy, I never once felt distracted by the usual modern pretty bits all over the board. No over-the-top images, no excessive presence of miniatures, no separate scoreboard, nothing. This game excels at giving its players every single opportunity to think and to succeed. I love this.
From a gameplay perspective, there are so many different things you can do. Maybe you want to focus on having the largest population. Maybe you want to use glaciers to destroy animals on a heavily contested hex. Whatever you do, Dominant Species boasts incredibly purposeful gameplay. Every single decision you make feels respectfully impactful. Engine building and efficiency push to become the deciding factor at the forefront of your mind.
To further that, this is a game all about pacing yourself well, and timing your movements perfectly. You must pay close attention to elements you will lose during regression, as well as which ones you can gain. What about player interactions? The very core of the game revolves around the choices made around you. This game is dirty. You must carefully gauge the attitudes of those at the table and precisely initiate conflict at the right time. Yet still, you must remember the motion and order of events from the list of actions. The order these things take place is critical and timing is everything.
Much like the ebb and flow of creation, and the motion at which animals roam freely in the wild, creatures must learn to defend themselves from other predators as well as the elements.
This is the controlled chaos of Dominant Species. Every move is in the palm of your hand, yet while you dictate the board state, chaos reigns from other players’ choices. Any long-term strategy is quickly stamped out by one of the five players at the table. They laugh at you, saying, “How naive! You’ll have no luck with your temporary dominance here,” and you get destroyed by the ruthless tundra.
Ah, but to your avail, it’s now their turn to suffer. You erupt an enormous volcano on them, wiping out 15 competing species, spreading the lava out further to kill more, leaving only your own in the wake.
This might not be your thing, though. Maybe you want more control over a game. Maybe you want some randomness thrown in that players don’t decide.
The strategy of Dominant Species escapes me. I’m unsure of any entirely overpowered strategy. The balance of the game is careful, subdued, and relentless. Abilities that seemed purposeful at the front end, lose all importance towards the end, only to spring up again within the last few actions. It seems the game allows for many routes to victory.
In fact, points seem everything early game, as you slowly claw your way to earn just a dozen. However, by end game, someone picks up a 45-point domination bomb from the Ice Age card, leaving you completely blindsided. Of course, they scored by meticulous planning of elements and migrations.
Unfortunately, all of this brilliant design lends to Species biggest flaw: its length. Any game worth its salt offers meaningful decisions, and you will find no lack of that here, but that’s the thing. I’ve spent more time thinking about where to put my workers than actually removing them from the board. Furthermore, the game can change so much in between actions that you might spend another two minutes rethinking what you planned with the worker you originally put down.
I do enjoy long-form strategy games like this one, but three hours for a three player game is a bit much. Even my two-player game with my lovely wife took as long, and this was with the alternate rule to shorten the game. I admit, this could be mitigated by playing the game more and understanding what to do better, but that implies… Well, playing the game more.
I adore this game because it is one of the most strategic and rewarding tabletop experiences I’ve had since joining the hobby. I don’t adore this game because it is unforgivably long. Getting people together for a game night to play multiple games is a bit more attractive than playing only one. And if they are new to the game? I hope you thought carefully about their gaming histories, and what kinds of games they like, because this could be a big turnoff for some.
Despite the weird graphic design and obscene play time, this is a new favorite for me. I can’t recommend it to everyone. In fact, I won’t recommend it to most people.
However, most of us in the hobby like to play new games. As we dive deeper into the depths of tabletop gaming, some of us crave gaming experiences that leave us satisfied and tired from extensive critical thinking. Sometimes you have a friend who is tired of quick micro-games and repetitive ameritrash. For those already in the war games, long-form strategy camp, Dominant Species is hopefully a favorite. However, for this new person, looking for a delicacy among games, trying to find an exhaustive strategy gem, look no further.
If you want to try before you buy, you can test out Dominant Species on iPad.
A copy of Dominant Species was generously provided by GMT Games for a fair and honest review.
The Bottom Line
Dominant Species comes with an obscenely long playtime, but boasts cohesive and complex strategy for gamers looking for a nearly-perfect, heavy gaming experience.