Dominant Species is possibly one of the most impressive games I own that never gets played. The playing time combined with the sheer brain power the game demands--it may be the most headache-inducing game I own--contrive to keep it from the table; the brilliance of its design meant that Urban Sprawl was a guaranteed purchase.
This isn't a review. I've only played it once, at London On Board, with three other first-time players. (Interestingly, each of whom also had bought a copy of the game.) Everyone had read the rules (two of us had played incomplete solo games beforehand) and we were all eager to play. As other threads have commented, this is a game that takes several plays before it can be fairly judged. Therefore, this is a session report with a generous dash of first impression.
The first third of the game, as we grew the Town, was perhaps the slowest, as the rules we'd read started to gel on the board. We made a few mistakes early on, only realizing a few turns in that some payouts were for cash, others for prestige. (No fault of the rules, here, just a lack of attention on our part.)
Without really knowing what I was doing, I started off by buying up the cheapest properties in the hope of securing media control. I got it but lost it the first turn as the player to my right built the Newspaper. (He clevely picked up the Radio Station during the City stage and stashed it in his Favour to keep control, as well.) From my solo play I recognized that the media seemed quite powerful; the rest of my strategy was as simple as: pick up as many professions (education, public service, etc... whatever they're properly called) as possible and try to cash in on those.
I met with mixed success. The moment I became Mayor an Earthquake destroyed my bank, and plays by other players stole my titles. I lost Mayor quickly and didn't pick up another political post until near the end of the game. Meanwhile, other players seemed to be racing ahead: yellow with media control collected a wealth of prestige and, well, wealth through a catastrophe of bad events: our city seemed plagued by crime waves, earthquakes and floods. (It's amazing anyone wanted to live there!) Pink sat on three political posts and kept challenging yellow for first place. Black sat far back through all this, always strapped for cash, struggling to keep up. Picking up the Contractor allowed him to strike back a few times--against me, it seemed!--but he remained most certainly in the rear.
The City deck flew by, as did the Metropolis deck. I made a desperate play: sitting in third place, I built a cemetary in the most expensive part of town. This collected me some much needed points, but I fully expected one of the value markers to move, transforming my Highgate Cemetary into Dead Man's Dump. But that never happened; I picked up a political post; and suddenly, the game ended.
At this point the last-round value of those political posts made themselves clear. Black, who'd managed to finish with a few politicians in his pocket, suddenly drew close. And then the final prestige scoring, and black's master strategy--whether intentional or not--came clear; he racked up the points on a few high-value rows, and leapt forward into victory.
The scores all ended very close. Black was laughing at his impromptu victory. I held the Corporate HQ; if I'd played it, the victory would've been mine... but everyone seemed to have a similar card they hadn't been able to play. The last minute surge in points came as a surprise, but it shouldn't have--the same thing happened by first game of Dominant Species, when the Ice Age hit... it seems to be a trademark of a Chad Jensen Euro.
Did everyone have a good time? Yes. In fact, there were a few sighs of relief. Based on some of the negative reviews, a few game owners were worried they had a dud on their hand. No one thought this after the first game. It's clearly a brilliant piece of work. As good as Dominant Species? I don't know, especially after a single play. It's surprisingly quick play time (we finished in about three hours, maybe a little less) makes it more likely to get played, but I'm guessing that Dominant Species will remain the more popular of the two.
Thematically, I found it weaker than DS. Though squeezing new buildings into our Metropolis was becoming increasingly difficult (and exspensive!) due to zoning limitations and rising property values, it didn't feel particularly Metropolitan in size, or city-like in its design. The lack of residential buildings--especially basic houses and flats--took away a bit from the sense of building up a genuine city. Who was drawing power from that Coal Plant? What customers were sifting through the ruins of my Slum Bank for their lost savings? In a lesser sense, the generic rooftops of the various buildings also broke the theme for me in a few places, especially with the strangely covered-over Ranch. I think I would've paid extra for unique rooftops that identified what each building was.
If felt a bit fiddly in places, especially when we had to determine most valuable buildings, but never difficult; we had no issues with deciphering card effects; and it never felt overly "chaotic" to me. At the end I was considering what I'd have done differently and the approach I'd like to take next time, and considering different strategies... always the sign of a good game, I think. Most importantly, it was a lot of fun and the time blinked past all too quickly.
I'm definitely looking forward to my next play.