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 Könige. 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.

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