Dominant Species looks so innocent sat there on the shelf, its glossy box much the same as the other game boxes near it. Only when you pull the game off the shelf do the warning signs appear. Like some kind of immense pachyderm, that innocent box feels like it must weigh over a ton! What’s in there?
The short answer is: lots of wood. There’s 55 wooden cubes, 10 wooden cylinders and 10 wooden cones… per player. Dominant Species will play up to six players, so that’s a whopping 450 wooden pieces in the box! Every time GMT Games produces a copy of this game an entire forest must be felled. There is also a reassuringly large board measuring 22” x 34” (about 56cm x 86cm), as well as plenty of cardboard goodness such as hex tiles, little round markers and a deck of cards.
It’s big, then. To a lot of people that equates to intimidating. That pachyderm looks scary and it has turned to face you. The rule book drops out of the box and lands at your feet. You pick it up and notice it’s a respectable 20 pages long. That beast is now charging at you. Then you glance at the pages and realise how clear this rule book is. It’s incredibly well laid out and has plenty of illustrations. In fact, it is one of the best rule books in the industry and a lot of publishers could learn from it.
The charging beast has slowed and dropped to its knees offering you a ride to untold wonders.
A Beast with Teeth
Dominant Species (designed by Chad Jensen) sets each player as an ‘animal’ – Amphibians, Arachnids, Birds, Insects, Mammals or Reptiles – and gives them the task of spreading out as far across the Earth as possible as an ice age sets in. The ultimate winner will be the player with the most victory points. Players will take turns placing action pawns on a chart to select what they want to do for the round. Then, the actions are performed starting at the top of the chart and working down.
Scoring in Dominant Species is mainly achieved by having the most cubes, or ‘species’, on a space on the board. This is where it starts to get mean. Many of the actions in the game are about moving your species around the board or actively eliminating your opponent's species. To highlight the brutality of inter-animal competition, any cubes removed from the board are taken out of the game entirely. This can lead to players having very few cubes near the end of the game, severely limiting their options.
Players will also need to keep an eye on ‘dominance’. Each of the six animals needs certain things to survive; grass, grubs, meat, seeds, sun or water, which are collectively known as elements. The elements appear on each animal’s board to show their need. They also appear on the points of the hex tiles that make up the board. Each animal’s needs and the elements present on the board can be changed, added to and removed. When an animal is present on a hex tile, their dominance can be calculated by multiplying each of their needs by how many times that need appears around that hex. The animal with the highest dominance places a cone on that space to show their dominance. But what does it do?
When a player performs the domination action they will pick a tile to be scored according to majorities of cubes. Then, the player whose animal has dominance there must pick a face-up dominance card and perform the actions on it. The cards range from helpful to that player, e.g. gain action pawns, to downright mean like eliminate all but one species on a tile. Yup, this game has a full set of very sharp teeth!
A Long, Simple Beast with a Couple of Bumps
Potential players should be warned that Dominant Species is a long game, more of a Diplodocus than an elephant. Play time typically ranges from two and a half to four hours and is dependent on player count. That said, it will keep all the players in the game for all that time. Even a player with only one cube on the board can make a comeback. Play continues until the last domination card, Ice Age, is chosen and scored. The round is completed and final scoring is performed.
For all the apparent complexity in the game, the rules are very straightforward. There aren’t any rules exceptions; each action does what the rules say regardless of the situation. It’s easy enough for any player to understand, mechanically, what each action does. Plus, the actions are summarised on the players’ reference cards. The complexity comes from understanding the consequences of the actions and which actions will work best for you. Each decision is important and the outcomes will be felt for turns to come.
It’s worth mentioning again, the rule book is exceptionally clear and is easily one of the best in the industry. Terms are clearly explained and used consistently. Each action has half a page dedicated to it and includes illustrated examples. Each of the cards has a clear explanation in the rules so any queries from the card text is cleared up. It’s simply a great rule book.
There are a couple of ‘howevers’. In practice, players can get muddled with the game's terminology, particularly regarding ‘animals’, the group of species each player is playing as, and ‘species’, each players’ cubes. When a card reads something like “Remove all but one species from a tile” players always seem to interpret that as “Remove all but one animal from a tile”. It seems that players will intuitively think of their animal as a ‘species’ and even by the end of the game that mistake will still be made.
The second ‘however’ is the timing of calculating dominance. Simply put, the game doesn’t have a phase, or part of a turn when dominance should be calculated. It is up to the players to decide when to recalculate which animal has dominance. In practice, most of the actions can cause dominance on one or more tiles to change. The author of this review has found it simpler to work through all the actions pausing before the Domination actions to recalculate dominances, and then resume. This is simply because dominance only affects the Domination actions, so it's easier to do them all at once.
Even with those ‘howevers’ this game is incredibly satisfying. As the game unfolds it will tell a tale full of twists and turns as species spread across vast areas only to be beaten back by competing species, or famine or even the oncoming ice age that turns the world to icy tundras. There will be predation, evolution and adaptation. Players will find their animals retreating from the freezing wastes that spread from the centre as they desperately try to adapt to stay alive in other parts of the world. Many will die, many will fall but hopefully enough will survive to bring you victory.
Final Thoughts on Dominant Species
That sums up the beast that is Dominant Species. It’s imposing, big, crunchy and long but has simple enough rules with a large decision space and choices that have long term ramifications. It’s very mean and has incredibly sharp teeth, but is also extremely engaging and keeps all the players in the game and involved. Everything one player does will directly impact the other players. In Dominant Species no person is an island.
That beast is still on the ground in front of you. It has morphed into something prehistoric with a smooth and sleek appearance but sizeable canines. From somewhere a saddle has appeared indicating this beast is happy to be ridden. What do you say? If you can find some suitably thick-skinned friends, then you could be in for some brilliant evenings with this game!