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Subject: Kicking Down The Door: Dominant Species Review rss

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Mike
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Note - The following review is copy/pasted from my board game blog www.kickingdownthedoor.com I mention this because there may be the occasional reference that doesn't sit well out of context of the site.

Games are fun aren’t they? Everyone sat around the table laughing, joking, eating, drinking. I swear sometimes I look around and see so much joviality and merriment it makes me stop and think ‘there’s not enough booze in the world!’ Which is why sometimes I like to play Dominant Species.



See some games aren’t fun, some games are Dominant Species and when you play Dominant Species you still sit at a table but instead of laughing and joking, everyone sits there grimacing with either their heads in their hands or their fists in their mouths for hours and hours. There’s still drinking though. There pretty much has to be…

Now here at ‘Kicking Down The Door’ we’ve been recommending and suggesting almost exclusively games that serve to entice people into board gaming and make it look fun. Take Catacombs for example (I'd add a link to the review if I could) if someone walked in on you and your friends playing Catacombs, it would be easy for them to understand what was happening; after a few moments of watching you flick discs with your ungainly hams, the casual observer could probably ascertain what the general aim of the game was, that you were really quite poor at it and that it looked hella fun!

Dominant Species isn’t like that though. Dominant Species is the kind of game that if someone walked in while you were playing, they’d assume by the pained silence and looks of grief and anguish on the faces of everyone, that there must be a dead puppy on the table. Instead of a dead puppy taking centre piece though, there’s a strange geometric board littered with dozens of wooden cubes, cones and cylinders in an intimidating array of primary colours. To the casual observer this is arguably much more unsettling than a dead puppy. What’s more, if that same casual observer was to slowly back out of the room and come back two hours later in the hopes it was all a disturbing hallucination, they’d be hard pressed to notice any differences or progression in the game beyond the obvious psychological backsliding of its players.

That said, Dominant Species is probably one of the best board games ever and while it may be every bit as agonizing and difficult as it looks – it’s nowhere near as complicated.



The game sets you and your opponents as specific classes of animals fighting for some of those sweet sweet victory points by trying to impose the titular ‘dominance’ over a constantly changing landscape of various terrains. This is all done to the slow ticking down of an impending ice age that once triggered, ends the game and calls for a final flurry of scoring before someone is crowned the winner and everyone packs up in chilling silence.

At the start of the game everyone is randomly dealt a class of animal ranging from insect to mammal; each class has their own unique set of adaptations and a special ability that wont seem as good as everyone else’s. Then – depending on the amount of people you tricked into playing – you’ll all receive a specific amount of species cubes for the duration of the game and a number of cylindrical action pawns with which you’ll no doubt drive your entire class to the brink of extinction. There’s the usual shuffling of tiles, displaying of cards and after setting up the starting placement of terrains, elements and species, you can all begin the slow push to a mental breakdown.

A game round is split into two parts. The first part is called the planning phase and in the player order dictated by the initiative track, people take turns placing their ‘action pawns’ in the vacant spaces of the ‘action display’ according to the type of action they’d misguidedly like to execute. Once all players have placed all their pawns, half of them will realize they’ve made ‘a huge mistake’ and we’ll move to the ‘execution phase’ where we simply move down the display as player’s take their actions in the order their action pawns were placed and attempt to make the best out of a poor situation. This process repeats until the ‘Ice Age’ is triggered and the game ends.

In a six player game, each player will initially be given three ‘action pawns’; later on there’ll be opportunities via the ‘dominance cards’ to get more – or possibly lose some – but to begin with you’ll have three pawns with which to claim some of the thirty nine spaces spread amongst the twelve possible actions on the action display. Here’s the type of thing you’ll be doing:



First up is the initiative track; this is the all important order players will place their pawns in. The industrious chap or chapette that placed their action pawn in the single space available here, will get to move up a place in that order as well as getting to replace the action pawn they used to do so into one of the few left over ‘action spaces’.

Going first is a huge advantage, so huge in fact it’s almost a handicap. As we move through the other actions you’ll notice that like the bathroom in a large house share, a lot are better when they’re used first; to this end the ‘advantage’ of being first to place can easily turn to analyses paralysis and total cerebral collapse in the face of half a dozen actions that you need to take with equal desperation. You’ll inevitably pick the worst one just before your nose starts to bleed, while further down the initiative track, decisions get slightly easier as the more desirable actions get taken away from you.

Next is Adaptation! At the beginning of every round four random elements will be pulled from a bag and put on display. Placing your pawn in one of the three action spaces here will allow you to select one of those elements and add it to the adaptations on your personal animal display thus making your species much more resilient.



Your adaptations will correspond to the element discs that are placed between the terrain tiles on the board. Where they match will signify areas your species can survive and possibly gain dominance. Dominance? Dominance!

According to the rule book, an animal has dominance in a tile “when it has a species present on that tile and that animal matches more elements there than any other single animal with a species present” Which is a simple enough sentence when you don’t know what it means but in practice it’s a mental workload you could do without. Dominance will be important later though; right now you should be mindful of the element discs not claimed via the ‘adaptation’ action moving down a space next round to the ‘regression box’.

When resolving the Regression action, players will lose adaptations matching the elements contained in the ‘regression box’ – unless of course they displayed the unusual cunning and foresight to place an action pawn in one of the two available spaces here. Neglecting this action or being too low in the initiative track to get in on time, can result in a really embarrassing mass extinction event as your ability to survive in certain tiles disappears. Which is exactly what happened to the dinosaurs…

The Abundance, Wasteland and Depletion actions work in a similar way to ‘adaptation’ and ‘regression’ – instead offering opportunities to introduce new elements to terrain tiles and to then mitigate or cause the loss of elements from other tiles. The combination of these actions and the limited spaces available in them serve to present players with genuine conflicts as they jostle to address the balance between reinforcing their own dominance on tiles, damaging their opponent’s or just trying to not to end up extinct.



Another good way of damaging opponents is to choose the Glaciation action. Often there’ll be a high scoring terrain tile that other people are heavily invested in but in which you yourself are unable to compete; placing your action pawn in glaciation allows you to ruin everyone’s good time by placing a glacier tile on top of the terrain, making it effectively useless, removing everyone’s species from the board and snagging yourself some points while you’re at it. It’s a real dick move basically.

The other actions are the kind of thing you’d expect: Speciation is a way of getting more species on the board, Wanderlust lets you place more terrain tiles, Migration is how you’ll move cubes from tile to tile and Competition is a way of picking off your opponents. The final action though is Domination; it’s easily the most important action and if you have the mental presence to plan to any extent, you’ll have been planning for this. Either that or you’ll have just put an action pawn there hoping everything just falls into place by accident… Which is what I do. Shhhhh.

When executing a Domination action you’ll hopefully be getting some points and the opportunity to pick one of the lovely ‘dominance cards’ displayed at the side of the board. Points are awarded to the players with the most species present on the tile, while the reward of choosing a card goes to the player who has dominance in the tile. It’s crucial to remember that the amount of cubes you have in an area has no baring on domination, which instead has everything to do with how well suited you are to the environment via your adaptations and the tile’s elements.



If your good, when it comes time to take your ‘domination’ action there’ll be a high scoring tile in which you have both dominance in and the most species. You’re probably not very good though and because of this you’ll often be put in the distasteful position of giving points to an opponent so you can pick a card, letting your opponent pick a card so you can get the points or choosing to score a tundra tile where no one is present because this is why we can’t have nice things…

As is hopefully evident, there’s quite a lot going on in Dominant Species but the game isn’t complicated so much as it is crowded. The plethora of options and considerations seem to exponentially multiply in your mind the more you think about them – which admittedly sounds complicated but it’s only because those options and considerations are grounded in simple rules and intuitive mechanics, that you’re able to see so far forward that your mind melts.

Dominant Species is a painful game, but it’s painful in that good way – which is probably why I’ve had to stop myself from making a smutty joke every time I’ve written the word ‘domination’. When you’re waiting to put your action pawn down you’ve got a plan; a delicate, wonderful plan and the tension that comes from waiting for someone to take the space you so sorely need and ruin your entire life, is just plain impressive.

The tension doesn’t go away once all the action pawns have been placed though – no! It casts it’s long, prevailing shadow over the entirety of the ‘activation phase’ too, as you wait to see whether Adam will take the ‘water adaptation’ you desperately need; whether Steve will choose the ‘mass exodus’ card and send most of your species to their deaths in some barren bog; or whether Mark will punch clean through the wall and storm out when the ‘sea tile’ he obviously wants to score gets glaciated.



It’s very much a game of survival, and like in so many games where you have to manage threats and mitigate against certain disaster – it’s much more stressful than it is anything resembling fun. Which is fine, a game doesn’t have to be fun to be entirely absorbing and as rewarding as it is punishing. Further more, if you endure a palaeolithic climate crisis and emerge victorious, it feels significant; there’s a genuine sense of actual accomplishment in winning a game like this and you’ll give real consideration to amending your C.V.

That said, when you lose – what’s the opposite of a catharsis? A dirtying? A sullying? A disgrace or dishonouring? I don’t think the words exist to adequately describe such an exhaustive tragedy… It’s not a good feeling though.

Of course this level of mental investment, the ominous board, the thirty minute rules explanation and the excessive play time all serve to create a game that as consuming as it is – cuts an intimidating and unapproachable gait. This doesn’t have to be the insurmountable problem it seems like it might be to gateway gamers though. True, Dominant Species isn’t the kind of game that’s waiting for new gamers just as they get through the gate – in fact it’s at the other end of the park – but it’s possible, by the choice selection of other games, that you can easily build the novice gamer up to an evening of Darwinism wrought in board game form, even from the most crude of beginnings…



Which is all just a long winded way of trying to round off the ill judged ‘Risk Recovery Program’ I foolishly committed myself to in this article http://goo.gl/qGCZbs, and then proceeded to stagger through by recommending Fortress America, Kemet and then Cyclades (which bgg wont let me link cleanly so just check out my site or my contributions) as a way of drawing a squiggly line that probably goes back on itself, from games like Risk to games like this. While I might not have made the most direct connections, you can hopefully appreciate the sentiment.

With that dead and buried, I’ll see you next time for something different and just as misguided…
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Sky Zero
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Great review of the game I rank #1 in my collection. A true masterpiece.

The dead puppy bit had me laughing as I read. Great writing!
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Morten K
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skyzero wrote:
Great review of the game I rank #1 in my collection. A true masterpiece.

The dead puppy bit had me laughing as I read. Great writing!


It ranks as number one in my collection too. And it is most certainly possible to play for new and casual gamers. I have played with both and they have either liked or loved the experience. After a couple of rounds at least so they have an idea about what all the options are and what they mean
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Josh
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CHA was my dump stat
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Hatred and Rage, my friend. The best gaming is always about Hatred and Rage.
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Samuel Hinz
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Great Game, Great review, Great mental picture about the puppy and how it relates to this game.
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Jade Youngblood
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my #1 game as well. Well done!
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Jack Smith
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Excellent review. You hit on the points which make this the top game for us but it won't be for everyone. I have introduced non gamers to this and they did enjoy it but then they did have us to help them understand and get into the game quickly.
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Steve Erwin
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That was quite simply one of the best things I've ever read on BGG.

Halfway through our second play, my wife says: "My brain just exploded. I literally cannot think anymore."
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Bill Dixon
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"The druid said the damned thing was friendly... HOW THE HELL WAS I SUPPOSED TO KNOW!!!”
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Simply put - THE greatest, most stressful, agonizingly cathartic human experience involving cardboard. I think that walking into a room of silent adults, all of whom shift and move like they are suffering from severe bowel discomfort, is hilarious.

While the dead puppy line was great, I found "each class has their own unique set of adaptations and a special ability that wont seem as good as everyone else’s" resonated with me. I don't care which species you get, you'll always feel like you brought a stiletto to a chainsaw fight when you open the box. There are too many facets to Dominant Species to let you feel like you can master this game - always a selling point for me.

I have introduced newbies to the hobby right into this game for one reason - it shows them what is beyond the realm of Clue and Monopoly. It is nothing short of mind-blowing to see enter directly into the golden age of board gaming. I enjoy when they want to say to hell with the digital toys and doodads and come back to sit by the table with friends, live life, and engage in some aggressive mental exercise. This game is the perfect ambassador for our hobby.
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Ben Merivale
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I joined BGG just so that I could upvote this review after recovering from incapacitation onset by laughter. I just watched Rahdo's review of Dominant Species and was so nauseated by the number of possibilities branching from each action that I sought solace in a google search, only to find this, which somehow paints such masochism as immensely desirable. I now find myself with a copy in my Basket.
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