Analog Game Night: March 2012 – Dominant Species

Image submitted to BGG by Ivan Prat – Used with permission

We failed to get Dominant Species to the table during Cabin Con 2012 but in this month’s game night we brought out the great beast and finally gave it a go.

I was first taken by the artwork. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea but, for me, it falls in line with another recent title Vanuatu and to some degree, another one of my favorites Tal der K├Ânige. Its beauty is in its simplicity. A 3rd printing is due to ship later this summer and although they’ve boosted up the richness they’ve kept, for the most part, a simple design. I’m very tempted to purchase the 3rd edition but more on that a bit later.

I’ll not really go into the rules much as there are many. The game has a listed play time on BGG as 3 hours and we managed to get it done (the first playing for all six of us) in about 4.5 hours. So, yes, it’s a big commitment for those used to much shorter games. The rulebook weighs in at 20 pages so, again, a big commitment. I, unfortunately can’t speak to the quality of the rules, as I was taught the game by others, a rarity in my group since I’m one of the two to three teachers. Another rarity is that I don’t already own a copy…yet.

At a high-level, the game felt like El Grande mixed with Vanuatu: chaotic area majority mixed with a modular board and worker placement. Players take on the role of one of six creatures (insect, arachnid, amphibian, bird, reptile, mammal) and begin the game with a set of worker pawns and species cubes (the numbers are determined by the number of players). The board is populated with an initial set of terrain tiles that represent different scoring opportunities, the beginning of a glacier/tundra (placed on top of the center hex), and “element” chits of various types (grub, grass, sun, seed, meat, water) at the corners of the terrain tiles. Different animals begin the game with an innate ability to prosper in hexes that have specific element chits at their corners (e.g. insects like grass for example).

Image submitted to BGG by Nicolas Acosta – Used with permission

Your job, is to try to grow the hexes of the earth to score points, and to populate and create majorities (dominance) of your species cubes by placing them onto and migrating them to appropriate terrain tiles. Which tiles are appropriate for your species changes over time as well as your ability to survive disasters, adapt to changing conditions, etc. There are two types of dominance for any given terrain tile. The first only requires you have to have at least one cube on the tile but the value is determined by evaluating the element chits that are at the corners of the hex as they related to your creature. If you’re better/stronger at surviving on that terrain type given the elements that are available, then your creature will be dominant. This comes into play throughout the game when scoring a tile for victory points. The second type of dominance is more like El Grande in that you determine the ranking of species on the tile based on the number of cubes. In a very thematic manner, ties are determined by the natural pecking order of species (e.g. birds are generally higher on the food chain so they would break a tie with insects). Again, this ranking scores points for numerous players when the tile scores throughout the game. Depending on the tile’s terrain type, points are awarded for as few as 1 player (only first place) on tundra to as many as 4 players for sea and wetlands. The more players that can earn points on the tile, the more the tile is worth. For example, a tundra tile earns the single player only 1 point. But a sea tile earns the 1st-4th players 9, 5, 3,and 2 points respectively.

Image submitted to BGG by Brian P – Used with permission

Each round, in turn order (this is also variable), players place their “workers” on one of the action “eyeballs” one player at a time until all workers have been placed. There are 12 actions available to each player when placing their worker but there are limited locations to place a worker. The earlier in the round you go (the variable turn order), the more likely you’ll be able to place a worker on the location your absolutely need to have. In other words, like many worker placement games, you can get shut out of taking a particular action. After all workers have been placed on the actions (intitative, adaptation, regression, abundance, wasteland, depletion, glaciation, speciation, wunderlust, migration, competition, and dominance) the workers are pulled off and in a top-to-bottom/left-to-right order and the action performed. The actions can be roughly summarized in order as: adjust turn order, become better at surviving in tiles with specific elements, protect yourself from losing the ability to thrive as well in certain elements, place elements on the board, destroy elements on the board, actively target a specific element on the board, place a new glacier/tundra tile (displacing many species on the tile), place cubes on the board, lay out a new terrain tile, move cubes around on the board, attack species cubes, score a tile.

At first, the number of actions is daunting. There are so many variables it’s difficult to get your head around what represents a good move. The moves themselves are relatively simple but choosing what to do when…well, that’s where the fun is. When a tile is scored, the player (if one exists) that has the element-style of dominance, which may not necessarily be the player who chose to score the tile, or strangely enough, may not even be a player who earned any points for scoring the tile, has the option of choosing a card. The cards contain text that describe what occurs immediately when the card is chosen. Some cards grant players points, others create catastrophic impacts on the board killing species, destroying elements, triggering the growth of tundra, etc. Again, the El Grande similarities are strong here.

As I said, the game ran 4.5 hours. Very long for my group and, in general, long for my tastes as well. However, I really enjoyed the game. The theme really helped me like it more than, say, a space-themed game. The theme was well integrated so the rules, felt, well, right. Easy to understand and keep straight. I really look forward to another play and given that the 3rd printing is coming out soon and given they’ve kept the artwork relatively simple, I’ll most likely lose my willpower and purchase a copy for my collection.

Initial Thoughts: Hawaii

I first played Hawaii at Great Lakes Games 2011. At the time, the only production version available was from Germany and I really wanted to take it for a lap around the table. I don’t read German but, luckily, I found someone to teach it to me and with only that one play, I was hooked. I preordered the English version from Rio Grande Games and in the few weeks since it arrived, I’ve managed to play a few games solo (playing three players). I can’t really give a solid review of the game per se given that I’ve not played it enough times “live” but I thought I’d regurgitate my thoughts up to this point.

Hawaii doesn’t fit neatly into any one particular category of games exhibiting flavors of worker placement, set collection, and resource management. The board, like the game Luna, comes as numerous narrow strips and when assembled like a puzzle, leaves an enclosed, unpopulated area in the middle. Numerous cards/market-stalls (the same for every game) are shuffled and randomly placed within this area to form the island. The board is directional with a beach and smaller islands on the southern border and the randomized market stalls stretching to the north.

In front of each player is a little hut to hold secretly, resources gathered during the round (i.e. shells, fruit, and feet…yes feet)as well as an angular shaped piece of cardboard (much like the game Vikings) where collected tiles will be placed while building villages. In addition, each player is represented on the board with a large meeple. The game is played over several rounds where players, in turn order (variable from round to round), starting at the beach, travel/walk from market to market buying the goods that each market is offering. Players must pay feet to travel from one market to the next and they must pay shells to buy the goods. The goods offered come in various types: (village huts, tiki masks, boats, hula dancers, surfers, fruit, gods, etc.) On each turn, it’s up to each player to decide which market to visit and in which order to visit them. The number of goods for sale in each market varies from round to round as well as the price of each good. In general, the earlier you arrive, the cheaper the good but there’s no way to predict the price of any goods from round to round or how many will be available since each market stall uses a nifty randomization mechanism where one to N spaces are populated with markers pulled from a bag. The markers have numbers from two to six (the cost in shells to buy a good). Each market also has a limit on the total cost of all goods available from that market in the round. If you pull a token causing the sum to be too larger, the token is NOT placed in the market (one less good available that round) and the token is flipped over and represents fish that can be gathered with another action in the round.

Most purchased items are placed directly into your personal village building area according to some relatively simple rules. Some tiles provide more goods of a certain kinds at the beginning of each round (e.g. additional feet, shells, fruit) but provide no points, others score end game points, etc. However, to score any end game points, you must make sure that your village is long enough. And of course, you can buy items (tiki masks) to reduce the length you personally need to make the village to score points at the end of the game. It’s unfortunate but it does happen that you may not be able to score anything for a village you’ve worked hard at but failed to complete by game end.

Resources can be tight at times (oh….I wish I had one more foot!) and you can get shut out of purchasing a resource you really need because someone got there before you. They’ve layered on a few more features with a little token (the token/price you take when you purchase a good from a market) collection mechanism each round to help you score points during the game (similar to the strength/battle points in Kingsburg) and if you’ve got enough boats (and feet), you can visit a set of islands on the south end to collect points and special tiles without buying them. When you’re done walking around the island and/or run out of resources you return to the beach and eventually make your way to the turn order track where you can decide what order you’d like to go in for the following round. They sweeten the deal by placing ever increasing token values by choosing to go later in the subsequent round.

At game end, players simply determine which of their villages met their personally defined minimal required length, score any end game points, and the player with the most is the winner.

I really like the variable order of the market stalls. Form one game to the next, you have to adjust your strategy based on how close a stall is to the beach. Those near the north end of the island can be very costly to get to. I also enjoy the Kingsburg like strength mini-game and the inclusion of those tokens into the mix to determine turn order. Lastly, I think the components are very well done. Kudos to Rio Grande Games for nice production quality, rich artwork, and a clean set of rules.

I’ve played enough games to see that although the variable board does mix it up a bit, it may not provide enough variability to drastically adjust your strategy. I suspect there are two or three basic strategies and once you see the layout of the board, you’d just pick the one that makes the most sense and stick to it. That said however, there is enough tension for the little decisions throughout the game to keep it exciting. I don’t suspect analysis paralysis should play much of a role but time will tell.

Box Front photo by W. Eric Martin – Used with permission