Game Buzz: Dominant Species

GMT is a company primarily known for wargames.  That is not to say that their games have not been widely accepted by the hobby at large.  Six of their titles are currently in the BGG Top 100 – Twilight Struggle (#3), Commands & Colors: Ancients (#15), Paths of Glory (#19), Combat Commander: Europe (#23), Here I Stand (#48), and Battle Line (#62).  The company puts a lot of effort into producing high quality games, but their components often leave something to be desired.  Their games tend to feature a lot of conflict (they are a wargame company after all), and so I’m not always too interested.  However, I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about one of their latest games, including Tom Vasel calling it one of the best games of the decade.  So, I took a look.

Cover art - image by BGG use Rodger MacGowan

Dominant Species was designed by Chad Jensen, with art by Jensen and Rodger MacGowan.  You can play the game with 2-6 players ages 13 and up.  The game length is 2-4 hours, so be prepared for a long haul if you sit down to play.  The theme is pretty interesting – it’s 90,000 BC, and the ice age is approaching.  You’ll be playing as a species of animal (mammal, reptile, bird, amphibian, arachnid, or insect) trying to gain a foothold and become the dominant species on the planet.

The game comes with a board that is divided into 35 hexes; six animal displays, one for each species; 27 cards, including one Survival card and 26 Dominance cards; 31 large and 12 small hexagonal tiles that will be used to create the terrain; 330 wooden cubes that will represent the various species; 60 wooden cylinders to act as animal action pawns; 60 wooden cones to serve as dominance markers; 120 round markers that represent elements (resources); 6 square markers that show initiative; a cloth bag; and a 20-page rulebook.  The rules are pretty well laid out, which is a nice change from some GMT rule sets I’ve looked at.  There are illustrations, definitions, component breakdown, and clearly labeled sections to help you find what you’re looking for.

Each player will get an animal and determine initial initiative (which is in reverse order of the food chain – insects first, then arachnids, amphibians, birds, reptiles, and mammals).  An initial setup of the seven terrain types (sea, wetland, savannah, jungle, forest, desert, and mountain) gets set in the middle of the board, with a small tundra tile placed on the sea space (in the middle), with the remaining tiles shuffled and placed facedown in three stacks of 8 (top tiles face up).  The Dominance cards (minus the Ice Age) get shuffled with five placed face up in the Available Dominance Cards space.  The Ice Age card gets placed on the bottom of the remaining deck.  Two of each type of element (grass, grub, meat, seed, sun, and water) are taken out and placed on the vertices of the hexes in an indicated pattern.  The remainder go into the bag.  Twelve get drawn out, with four going into the Adaptation section, four into Abundance, and four into Wanderlust.  Each player gets cubes and cylinders for their species based on how many players are in the game, and then places 4 on various pre-indicated spaces of the board (two on one tile, and one on each of two other tiles).

Board - image from BGG user Chad Jensen

The game is played over a series of “more or less” simultaneous turns.  Each turn follows the same sequence – planning, execution, and reset.  During the planning phase, you’ll be placing one action pawn on one of the eyeball spaces associated with an action of the display.  During the execution phase, you’ll be carrying out these actions in a specific order.  During the reset phase, you’ll be reseeding, some species might go extinct, and points can be scored by the player in possession of the survival card.

During the planning phase, you’ll be placing pawns.  This phase goes until no one can place anymore.  What are your action choices, you may ask.  Go on.  Ask.  So glad you asked!

  • Initiative – This allows the player who chose it to move one space ahead in initiative order.  The pawn that was here gets moved to an empty eyeball, effectively giving you another action to choose.
  • Adaptation – Three pawns can occupy this space, and get removed one at a time, left to right.  Players can choose one element from the adaptation spaces and add them to their animal display, giving them another element they can use later.  You can’t have more than six elements on your display, but you can have multiples of a single element.
  • Regression – For each element present in the Regression Box, you’ll have to remove one element of that type from your animal sheet.  There are default elements printed on your sheet that you won’t have to remove (not that you could).  For each pawn you have in this section, you can prevent one element from being removed.  There are two available spots, plus one permanent space that will always belong to the reptiles and doesn’t need a pawn.  The Regression box will be filled with leftovers from the Adaptation phase during Reset.
  • Abundance – As with Adaptation, players with pawns here can take an element (two spots).  However, these will go onto a vacant corner of a tile.
  • Wasteland – The player who has a pawn here can remove one element from the Wasteland box and return it to the draw bag.  After that, every element present on a tundra tile that matches the elements in the Wasteland box get removed from the board and returned to the bag.  The Wasteland box is filled from the Abundance box during Reset.
  • Depletion – The player who has a pawn here can choose one element on the board (on earth) that matches an element in the Depletion box and return it to the draw bag.  The Depletion box is filled from the Wasteland box during Reset.
  • Glaciation – The first pawn here will add a tundra tile to any non-tundra space that is next to a tundra tile.  You’ll remove any surrounded elements, and gain VPs based on how many tundra tiles are adjacent to the one you just placed.  Species that were on the affected tile all get whittled down to one each, with the remainder returning to their owners.  Any other pawns that were placed on the glaciation action (there can be up to four) will get shifted forward during Reset, so they won’t be available to place in the next Planning.
  • Speciation – Players with pawns here can choose an element on the board that matches the space the pawn occupied, then add cubes to the tiles surrounding the element.  You can add up to four on the sea or wetland; up to three to the savannah, jungle or forest; up to two to the desert or mountain; and no more than one to tundra.
  • Wanderlust – Pawns in this area can take a large tile from one of the three tiles and place it on the board.  It must be adjacent to another tile of any type.  The player can also take one element from the Wanderlust area and add it to a corner.  VPs are gained based on the number of other tiles that touch the tile you just placed.  In food chain order, players can move any of their species from adjacent tiles to the new tile.
  • Migration – Each player with pawns here (six spaces available) can move a certain number of their species cubes to an adjacent tile, based on the number of the action they took.  Birds can move two spaces.
  • Competition – Here, you will be able to compete in three different terrain types – two that your pawn straddles and tundra.  Arachnids will get to compete for free (and first) without placing a pawn, but only in one terrain type.  You can only compete on tiles where you have species and where there is an opposing species.  You will eliminate one opposing species from the tile, returning them to the box (out of the game).
  • Domination – When your pawn is removed, you choose one tile for Domination.  The animal with the most animals on the tile gains a number of VPs, while second through fourth will also get points if the terrain allows it.  Ties are broken by those higher up on the food chain.  Also, the dominant animal on that tile will get to execute one of the face up Dominance cards.  You determine dominance by having at least one species present that matches more elements than any other animal present.  If you match zero elements on a tile, you have an endangered species and cannot claim dominance on a tile.

After all actions are completed, it’s time for Reset.  All endangered species are removed from the game (mammals can choose to save one endangered species).  The player with the most species on tundra tiles gets the Survival card and scores bonus VPs based on the number of tundra tiles he occupies.  New domination cards are drawn to replace any taken; Glaciation pawns slide to the left; tiles remaining in the Regression, Depletion, and Wanderlust boxes are returned to the bag; Wasteland tiles slide to Depletion; Abundance tiles slide to Wasteland; Adaptation tiles slide to Regression; the Adaptation, Abundance, and Wanderlust boxes are refilled; and any face down top terrain tiles get flipped face up.

The game ends when the Ice Age card comes out.  After final scoring, the player with the most VPs wins.  Ties are broken by those higher on the food chain (go mammals!).

And there you go.  It’s a big game with a lot of interesting things going on.  There’s a high level of player interaction going on, with a high level of abstract mechanics.  In essence, it’s a worker placement game, but it’s worker placement with conflict thrown in.  It looks fascinating, and I’m excited to try it.  I worry that little rules will get lost in the rulebook – it seems kind of oddly organized.  The flow of play is organized in a linear fashion, but a lot of terms are defined up front without you knowing what’s going on.  However, it seems fairly easy to follow, though it might take a play or two to really get the hang of things.

I have to compare this to Twilight Struggle.  Not that the two games have ANYTHING to do with each other, but I think Dominant Species really has the best chance to cross over into the Eurogame market of any game since Twilight Struggle.  Leaping Lemmings came out last year and didn’t really catch on despite its “family friendly theme” (if you can call suicidal lemmings trying to escape being killed by a murderous eagle so they can jump off a cliff in peace).  Battle Line, the GMT retheme of Reiner Knizia’s Schotten-Totten, is also pretty well respected, but the addition of tactics cards have added a level of randomness that turned some people off.  While the others in the top 100 are obviously beloved, the levels of conflict and lower production quality probably keep some gamers away.  The length of Dominant may prevent some people from taking a look, but I think that this is a worthy addition to the worker placement craze and I eagerly await my chance to get it out.  The game retails for $80, so be prepared to empty the wallet a bit if you want it.

That was a long one.  Thanks for reading, and insert clever tagline here.

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