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Subject: McBamf Reviews #5: Dominant Species rss

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Michael R

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Introduction

I must confess, Dominant Species was not love at first sight for me. Those of you like me who frequent your friendly local game store enough to have the aisles, shelves, and titles memorized so that you know what you’re about to look at before it passes your eye will understand this: it was just part of the background. Sure, at one point I picked it up, checked it out, watched a few minutes of video on it, even. But for some reason I didn’t find it all that appetizing. Maybe it was all of the cones, cubes, and chits.
But I guess at some point I hit gaming puberty because I started to feel differently about heavy euro games. One day, walking down that same aisle, my eyes befell that same thick, black and white spine, sitting next to the likes of Dominare and Dungeon Petz, the same as it always had. But for the first time, I felt the urge to actually sit down and see what this game was all about. One thing led to another, and it ended up on my game table.
I mention this as a forewarning that this is a meaty game—no pun intended. BGG currently has it at a weight of 4.2, and while I would opine that that’s just a smidge high, there are a lot of things happening at once. No one thing in the game is complex, save for maybe one, but there is some mental complexity in managing all of the intersecting mechanisms.
So if you’re not ready to up your dose of gameplay density, or if you simply prefer to avoid games that put your brain on a treadmill for a few hours, let me save you the 2000+ words in the Overview below and tell you this one isn’t quite for you.
For everyone else, let’s take a look and see if this one lived up to its newfound appeal.

Overview

In Dominant Species, you are trying to be the… well, dominant… um, species. This is achieved by having the most points at the end of the game.
The game accommodates up to six players, each of whom represents a different class of the animal kingdom: Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians, Arachnids, and Insects. Each animal will be populating, spreading across, and competing for various tiles laid across the board. Different tiles represent different land types – wetlands, desert, and ocean to name a few.
Animal species are represented by cubes in their player’s color. Ideally, players will want to have their cubes on tiles touching one or more of their desired elements, which are round tokens laid over the corner of one or more adjacent tiles that depict different types of requirements to live – grubs, meat, and grass, to list a few examples.



Players will first select and then execute actions over an indefinite number of rounds. Before I get into these actions, I should touch on a couple of key game concepts:

Dominance: This is the one thing I mentioned in the Introduction that might seem a little complex to some. It seems a little counterintuitive at first, but makes sense after a round or two.
Animals in the game require specific elements to survive on a tile. Elements are represented by round tokens depicting a specific need—grass, meat, and sun to name a few examples.
Each player has two (or, in the case of the Amphibians player, three) tokens of the same element preprinted on their player board – these can never be removed. Each animal begins the game with a different element—meat for mammals, sun for reptiles, seed for birds, etc.



Players can add additional desired elements to their board throughout the game. These can include more of what’s preprinted on their board and/or new elements.



Wherever a player has one or more cubes, they need to assess if they have dominance on that tile. In simplest terms, they do this by multiplying the number each desired element on their player board by however many of those same elements touch the tile.
For example, if a player had two grubs, a grass, and a sun on their player board, and they had at least one cube on a tile touching a grub, two suns, and no grass, then they would have a total match of four (2 board grubs x 1 tile grub + 1 board sun x 2 tile suns).
Whoever has the highest match on a particular tile has dominance for that tile. They place a cone in their player color on the tile to represent this.



If there is a tie for the highest match, there is no dominance for that tile. This is updated the moment dominance on a particular tile changes.

Endangered: If a player has one or more cubes on a tile that does not touch at least one their desired elements, those species (cubes) are considered endangered. This is not good, as you can assume, and we’ll get into why in a bit.

Each round will begin with players assigning one action at a time in player order, which is initially in reverse food chain order (Insect, Arachnid, Amphibian, Bird, Reptile, Mammal), but can be changed throughout the game. To assign an action, players simply place their action pawn (a wooden cylinder in player color) on the appropriate spot on the action track. Some actions have only one action space, while others have multiple spaces.



Let’s take a quick look at each action:

Initiative: This action allows the player to jump ahead one space in turn order, beginning next round. Also, after everyone has placed their action pawns and the new turn order has been resolved, the player can reassign the pawn placed here to another unoccupied action space, essentially giving them a bonus action for the round.

Adaptation: Four element tokens will be drawn from the bag each round and placed next to this action. Selecting this action allows a player to place one of these tokens on their player board, either adding a new element or strengthening their dominance with one already on their board. Players can have a maximum of six elements on their board. They can’t deliberately remove elements, but other mechanics in the game can result in removing elements whether the player wants it or not (see below).

Regression: This action is resolved regardless of whether a player placed a pawn here. Elements not selected using the Adaptation action will slide down to the Regression box at the end of each round. Since there are only three action spots for the Adaptation action, this means there will always be a minimum of one element token in the box.
When this action is resolved, each player must remove one element token for each element that is represented in the box. So if the box contained two grass and a grub, each player would remove a grass and a grub from their board and return them to the bag.
Taking this action, which can only be done by a single player each round, enables that player to save a single element type on their board from the Regression action.
The Reptile’s special ability is that they get one free use of this action each round, even if they didn’t place their pawn here. They can still place a pawn, however, if they wish to spare themselves from regressing two elements.

Abundance: Like Adaptation, four random element tokens are placed here each round. Selecting this action allows a player to place one of these tokens on a tile on the board. The token can be placed anywhere on a tile that currently doesn’t have one. This can enable the player to begin placing species here or strengthen their dominance on this tile.

Wasteland: Like Regression, this action contains the elements that slide down from the box above it each round. And like Regression, this action resolves every round even if someone didn’t select it. When it resolves, all elements on the board touching tundra (which we’ll come to momentarily) are removed and placed in the bag. This can be devastating if you have a lot species on a tile where the element removed was the only thing saving you from being endangered.
Taking this action allows a player to remove one token from the box before the action is resolved.

Depletion: The element tokens in the Wasteland box slide down once more and land here. One player can take this action each round, enabling them to remove a single element tile on the board that matches one of the tiles in this box.

Glaciation: There are four action spaces for this action; however, it is only resolved once each round, using a “next in line” method. Once it’s taken, the remaining action pawns will move down one space and be resolved in a later round.
This action allows a player to place a tundra tile on the board, adjacent to an existing tile where tundra already exists. Tundra tiles are smaller than normal tiles, allowing them to be easily placed. However, once placed, that tile will only be considered tundra for the remainder of the game.
When tundra is placed on a tile, all but one of each player’s species is removed from it. Those species are returned to their player’s pool – this is the only time in the game where removed cubes return to their player (any other occasion means they’re removed from the game).
In addition to placing the tile, the player will score bonus points based on how many tundra tiles are adjacent to the newly placed one. This can be determined using the bonus point track printed on the board. Bonus points increase exponentially, so the more tiles you place next to, the better.



Not specifically related to this action, but very relevant to tundra, is the Survival card. At the end of each round, this will be given to the player who has the most cubes on tundra tiles, collectively. If there is a tie, no one will hold the card. Whoever holds the card at the end of each round will score bonus points determined by the number of tundra tiles where they have one or more cubes.

Speciation: This action allows players to place new cubes on the board. Each action space has a different element printed next to it. When resolving this action, a player can place cubes on a tile touching one of the associated element tokens. The number of cubes a player can place on a single tile depends on the type of terrain – two on desert, three on forest, four on ocean, etc.
The Insects player gets one free use of this action without using an action pawn, and can place a single cube on any tile. Placing a pawn here will grant them additional uses of this action.

Wanderlust: Taking this action allows a player to take a tile from one of the three set aside stacks and place it on the board, adjacent to one or more existing tiles. That player will get bonus points dependent on the number of tiles adjacent to the newly placed one.
That player can also take one of the four element tokens placed next to this action and put it on the newly placed tile.
Then, in player order, each player has the option to move any number of their cubes onto the newly placed tile from adjacent tiles where they have one or more cubes present.

Migration: This action allows a player to move one or more of their cubes to an adjacent tile—or, in the case of the Birds player, one or two tiles away.
Each action space is associated with two terrain types, plus tundra. Players can move any of their cubes currently on a terrain space associated with the action space they chose.

Competition: This one is pretty straightforward. Selecting this action allows a player to remove another player’s cube on a tile where one of their own cubes is present. The Arachnids player gets a free use of this action each round, without having to place a pawn. However, placing another pawn will allow more than one use.

Domination: Taking this action will trigger scoring for a single tile. When resolving this action, the player selects a tile on the board and assesses who has the most cubes on that tile. That player will score the highest amount of points for the tile. Ties are broken by being highest in food chain order.
Different terrains grant different amounts of points and for different numbers of people. The desert, for example, gives four points to first place and two to second, while the ocean gives nine to first, five to second, three to third, and two to fourth.



After scoring, the player who has dominance for the tile, if any, must select a face-up Dominance Card and resolve it. Each round starts with five face-up Dominance Cards. If multiple players select Domination, the later someone chose this action, the fewer choices of Dominance Cards they’ll have.
Dominance Cards have different effects. Some grant one or more players additional action pawns; others allow the active player to remove cubes from the board or select an action for the next round in advance. Most of these cards are fairly powerful, and a few can be devastating.
Note that the high scorer and the player with dominance for a tile might not be the same player, as one is determined by the number of cubes and the other the number of element matches.


After all action pawns have been placed, actions will be resolved on the track, top to bottom, left to right.



At the end of each round, all endangered species are removed from the game - with the exception of the Mammals player, who can save one of their endangered species (i.e. one cube).
Then, the player with the Survivor Card scores and relevant element tokens slide down or are placed back in the bag. New element tokens are drawn from the bag and placed for the Adaptation, Abundance, and Wanderlust action spaces.
The Ice Age Dominance Card, which is always at the bottom of the stack, is the trigger for end game. Once someone selects it, they resolve it and players finish the round. A final scoring is done, in which each tile on the board is scored (no dominance is assessed). This will finalize the score and determine the winner. Ties are broken by being the highest in food chain order.






Gameplay
Let me be honest: I have never won this game.
Let me be more honest: I have never not placed last in this game.
Now let me be even more honest: I have never not enjoyed this game. It’s like whiskey: it burns a bit, but it hurts so good.
At the core of my reverence for the game is its refusal to let you focus on just one thing. At once you have to maintain your population to score tiles, your dominance to avoid being on the wrong end of a Dominance Card, your presence on the tundra tiles to score some of the biggest points in the game, your element tiles to control where you can be on the board, and the placement of your action pawns to ensure you are making best use of the available actions.
Speaking of actions, not only is which action you take important, but when. Some actions only allow one pawn, so you might have to take them earlier and sacrifice a spot in player order for another action. For example, the Regression action offers the chance for one player to avoid losing one of their element tokens. That might be worth not getting to score first on the Domination action and get first crack at the Dominance Cards.
There’s also a tactical aspect you have to constantly consider. For example, taking the Glaciation action can have some major implications for the current—and future—rounds, as it can wipe out an opponent’s ability to score a big tile, while at the same time awarding you points for placing tundra. Competition can eliminate an opponent’s species and knock them down in scoring placement on a tile, but Migration and Speciation can help bring in reinforcements. If this sounds war-like, that’s because the game is a bit war-like. In fact, this is the most aggressive eurogame I’ve played. And I fancy myself a somewhat seasoned eurogamer.
The gameplay in Dominant Species is refined to near perfection. Every move you make is part of a bigger machine. Whether that machine cranks out points or animal chow depends on your ability to make the right move at the right time.
I say near perfection because of my only real gripe for the game: the Survival Card. Whereas everything else in the game seems so symbiotic—terrain tiles support element tiles, which support species, which allow dominance, etc.—the tundra scoring seems to stand out as its own simplistic area control mini-game. That in itself wouldn’t earn any red marks from me, except that once several tundra tiles are out, the game can easily become all about them. Players can no longer focus on their individual strategies, as they have to get species onto the tundra to avoid a runaway leader who can earn large amounts of points each round by holding the tundra majority. Should that player get himself onto say, six tiles and hold the majority, that’s 21 points. Opponents have to either spend pawns on the Glaciation action to ensure the tundra is placed where the tundra leader can’t increase their hold, and/or populate and migrate units to tundra to steal the majority, weakening their hold on their own tiles.
I can hear you telling me, but that’s called strategy, McBamf. And yes, I agree, it certainly is. But it’s a strategy that, should a player focus on it—which they inevitably will—gradually forces itself upon everyone, eating away at the opportunity to partake in the more elegant mechanisms of the game.
I know that sounds like a big gripe, and maybe it is. But at the end of the day, this game still plays solid. The tundra tile strategy isn’t a broken one, just one that stands out awkwardly like Sheldon Cooper at a beach party. It doesn’t directly lessen the quality of gameplay, it just shifts your focus away from the other elements that make the game special.
I should note this game is long. With two players, it took about two and a half hours. With four, it went for about four. I’m not complaining; for all the different considerations the game demands, the timing is about right. But if time is an issue for you, be aware that this one plays like a Christopher Nolan movie.
One other thing on gameplay: the player powers. It (sadly) took me three plays to realize this, but it seems the lower you are on the food chain, the better your power is. For example, the Insects can populate once for free, and the Arachnids can kill off a species once for free (the most powerful ability, in my opinion). Meanwhile, the Mammals can save a species from extinction once for free, which is nice, don’t get me wrong—in some rare occasions that can enable the Mammal player to score some points they otherwise couldn’t—but those lower animal abilities, to me at least, seem to be a bit more powerful.
I think this is a big plus, actually, as it provides a great counterbalance to the tiebreaking ability the higher animals have when it comes to scoring.
Overall, the gameplay here is polished and (almost) flawless. The mechanisms connect to each other seamlessly and make for some very interesting strategy avenues.

8/10

Components

Remember what I said in the Introduction?
Cubes, cones, and chits. That makes up the majority of the components.
But that’s not to say the game is ugly. The terrain tiles are varied enough to give the board a textured look as the map is built out, and the Dominance Cards have some pretty decent illustrations. The player boards are a little flimsy, and might wear a little after a good number of plays, but I think everything else in the game is built pretty solid. The terrain tiles and game board itself are pretty thick.
Nothing in this game is going to make a superficial passerby do a double-take, but this game didn’t come to town to look pretty. It came to Darwinize your gaming group and offer detailed miniatures, and it’s all out of detailed miniatures.
Also, I want to call out the rulebook. Nothing incredibly special but it does do something I’ve come to find is incredibly valuable in a ruleset: provide examples for all the major actions in the game. I literally had no questions after reading it. Considering the weight of the game, the rules could have easily been a nightmare. That they weren’t is a credit to the publisher (GMT).

6.5/10

Theme

Some games deliver theme through components and artwork. Others, through gameplay. Some even do both. This one, as you can imagine from reading Components above, is definitely among the latter. If you hid the game box and player boards, an outside observer with no knowledge of the game would have no clue what they were looking at. In all probability, they would think they were looking at some kind of war game. Which, as I stated previously, is half-true.
Still, once you’re in the know, the theme makes an appearance here and there: mainly through the Dominance Cards and player abilities. Have I mentioned I like the player abilities? Not only for the previously stated reasons, but also because they do align thematically with their respective animals. Insects populate, Birds migrate, Mammals survive, etc. This was very well thought out.
Overall, however, the needle is going to point slightly more toward abstract than thematic. I can’t say that I care, though, as its strength is not really built on theme. So this rating is kind of like my Home Economics grade in high school: not very high, but irrelevant to the big picture.

5/10

Final Thoughts

Dominant Species is probably in my top ten list of favorite games. I’m not typically the most competitive gamer, but this game has a great talent for making competition the DNA of every action, therefore removing the need to go out of your way to be aggressive. If you populate or migrate, you’re competing for control of a tile to get points. If you adapt, you gain a new element that enables you to compete for dominance of new terrain types, or more of the same element, establishing or tightening your grip on tiles you already dominate. If you wanderlust, you create new land you likely intend to control and/or dominate.
The built-in competitiveness of this game, combined with an elegant ecosystem of actions (see what I did there?) is what makes it shine. You play it like a euro, but win it like a war game. This is probably a good time to mention it might not be a great pick for players who take aggressive moves against them personally. This game is like a room from one of the Saw movies: you’re stuck in a small space with several people who have to beat each other down to survive. There’s simply no other way to play the game.
Dominant Species delivers a unique game experience that offers great action chemistry, dynamic player interaction, and extremely meaningful decision-making.
Will it use your brain as a punching bag? At times.
Will it eat up several hours of your life? Without a doubt.
Is it a solid, well designed, competitive euro game that deserves a place on your shelf? Absolutely.

9/10
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Ed Stat
United Kingdom
Salisbury
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'the most aggressive eurogame I’ve played'

Yup, me too

'You play it like a euro, but win it like a war game.'

Neat and accurate summary...

'it might not be a great pick for players who take aggressive moves against them personally'

Correct! I speak from personal experience...

'offers great action chemistry, dynamic player interaction, and extremely meaningful decision-making'

D'accord!

Thanks for a very good review - not least because I agree wholeheartedly with your perspective laugh

Incidentally, was not cheap but I have not regretted investing in the upgraded pieces. I think they make the game look better and they seem to help players to grasp the (slightly) tricky dominance thing? Here's a pic of one of my games in progress with the new pieces:



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Geoff Burkman
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Solid review. One note: the Survival card only changes hands at the end of each Round, which is the only time Tundra majority is assessed.
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Michael R

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7downup wrote:
'the most aggressive eurogame I’ve played'

Yup, me too

'You play it like a euro, but win it like a war game.'

Neat and accurate summary...

'it might not be a great pick for players who take aggressive moves against them personally'

Correct! I speak from personal experience...

'offers great action chemistry, dynamic player interaction, and extremely meaningful decision-making'

D'accord!

Thanks for a very good review - not least because I agree wholeheartedly with your perspective laugh

Incidentally, was not cheap but I have not regretted investing in the upgraded pieces. I think they make the game look better and they seem to help players to grasp the (slightly) tricky dominance thing? Here's a pic of one of my games in progress with the new pieces:





I'm digging those components, Ed. Since this is one of my favorite games, I think it might be worth it to grab them.
Thanks!
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Michael R

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MisterG wrote:
Solid review. One note: the Survival card only changes hands at the end of each Round, which is the only time Tundra majority is assessed.


Thank you Geoff! I corrected the verbiage.
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Chris
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Birmingham
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Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars, where you will be forced to drift aimlessly farther into the vast, empty abyss of space until a lack of food, water and oxygen causes you to succumb to Death's cold embrace.
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McBamf wrote:

I'm digging those components, Ed. Since this is one of my favorite games, I think it might be worth it to grab them.
Thanks!


From what I've seen, they work out *obscenely* expensive, more than TWICE the game itself even!
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Candace Mercer
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Where do you get those pieces? They are awful cute but I feel they make it harder to evaluate the game state than with the cones and cubes.

Great review, but I have to disagree w your call on theme, I feel this is very strongly themed, the gameplay is a lot like evolution, nature is a harsh mistress.

That being said, while I love the game the only 2 times I have ever felt bad about a game was with DS. Both times I was the spiders and everyone hates the spiders. One game was w newbies and was esp hurtful in that one player was verbally giving instructions to others on how to take me down. I had told them how important controlling the cards were, but I was still allowed to throw down most of the worst cards. So hence the hate. I felt it went beyond gentle banter and reasonable trash talk to active ganging up on. Now I know there is a tendency in any game to target the leader, but this went beyond. The other incident was very similar with different people...most experienced. People just do not like being eaten every turn.

I did have a proud moment w DS too, when my then 13 yr old daughter beat my gaming guru who had initially turned me onto the game. It is the only times I have ever seen him sort of lose his cool. [not proud of that part - just saying how well she did]. She played fair, she nailed him. It was a legendary defeat.

So my point is, this game is NOT for the faint-hearted - you have to be able to dish it and take it.
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Ed Stat
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I got the species meeples (speeples?) from meeplesource. As noted above, they are flippin' expensive, but I like to pimp my favourite games, so...
 
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Ed Stat
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candio wrote:


the only 2 times I have ever felt bad about a game was with DS. Both times I was the spiders and everyone hates the spiders...

... this game is NOT for the faint-hearted - you have to be able to dish it and take it.


I quite agree; playing the spiders is like painting a target on your back. Personally I quite like the birds; people tend to think they are fairly harmless, but their mobility can be useful for the tundra bonus and a late game dispersal
 
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Nicholas Dewald
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Olathe
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7downup wrote:
I got the species meeples (speeples?) from meeplesource. As noted above, they are flippin' expensive, but I like to pimp my favourite games, so...


For anyone interested, I just bought the meeples as replacements for the cones but kept the cubes. For me, this makes it easier to differentiate dominance markers from species markers.
 
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