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It’s pretty safe to say that Dominant Species is one of my favourite games (in fact, here’s a review where I extol its many merits). Sure, it’s a bit of a beast, especially with a lot of players, but it’s an incredible playing experience. Different species will battle for supremacy as the world is revealed, performing actions to improve their lot while running the prospects of others. Now designer Chad Jensen has moved on to create a card game based in the same universe (which is probably our universe, isn’t it?) – but does it match up?
First up, you’ve got to go into Dominant Species: The Card Game not expecting a deeply complex experience. This is way lighter and really has little to do with its much bigger brother aside from shared artwork and the idea you’re aiming to rule terrains. It’s a game that is far more reliant on pushing your luck, managing the cards in your hand and hoping you can outthink the opposition.
Played over the course of ten rounds, it’s all about scoring more points than your opponents. This is done in two ways – through Food Chain dominance and having more Elements than anyone else. At the start of each round, a biome card is flipped over revealing what you’ll be contesting. Each card is suited to one species but lethal to another, bestowing a bonus and penalty on certain cards that will be played. Each turn, you take a card from your hand and place it in front of you, adding to your Food Chain total. Once everyone has passed, you work out how much you have and the highest total is the winner for part of the game, scoring points dependent on what round it is; one point for the first, two for second, all the way up to ten. Once a round is done, you get to draw an extra two cards, then you go all over again.
Winning a round also allows you to move your token up the Dominance Track. This is very important for the final round only as the amount you win ends up being the amount of cards you may take in that last set of turns. If anything, this is probably the best way that theme is brought into the game – it’s a real survival of the fittest game mechanism. Obviously if you’ve won the most rounds, you’re a stronger species, so why wouldn’t you get more cards which will hopefully give you a decent points boost at the end of the game?
Each card also has at least one Element icon which will net you points should you match the most between cards you’ve played and those on the current biome card. While it’s very important to win the rounds, these extra points really make a huge difference in taking the lead or even staying in contention. It’s definitely an area not to be underestimated, especially in the tenth and final round where all Elements are taken into consideration.
Another thing to consider is Suppression (a posh way of saying that your cards aren’t as good as they could be). You see, each card is actually double ended with a black number showing a ‘healthy’ status and a lower, red ‘suppressed’ number. Should a card be played with one of the species’ icons depicted in a red circle with a slash, you get the choice to pick a matching species and flip that card around. Get another with the same icon and you can have it removed from the game entirely as it’s now considered extinct. Judicious use of these can swing the game in your favour, especially in later rounds where the bigger points are on offer.
Dominant Species: The Card Game isn’t just about numbers, though. There’s also a decent smattering of Action Cards, reminiscent of those game changers you fight over so much in the original title. Rather than playing a Food Chain card on your turn, you also have the option to drop one of these instead which can often give you something of an advantage. Whether it’s diving into your discard pile to retrieve a particularly strong card or forcing your opponent to remove things from their Food Chain, these are powerful cards that can really turn the tide.
It’s a game where your decisions on how to play really matter. Do you try and rule the game early, getting low points but a decent amount of cards in the final round, or bid your time and try to take the big point hauls later on? With a limited hand you could well be forced into holding off interacting with others for a few rounds, but pushing your luck might just pay off with some unexpected good scores. As I’ve played a few more games, I’ve found that it’s very much a matter of reacting to opponents’ choices and occasionally just going for it when you feel the time is right. As mentioned previously, there’s no way that it could have the depth of the original, but as a quick playing card game there are still plenty of options to explore and entertainment to be had.
If you’re looking for something that will scratch the Dominant Species itch in a quicker play time, The Card Game – in all honesty – probably won’t suffice. It’s an entirely different type of game that links to the original in a few basic ways but really feels like a whole new experience. Not to say that it’s a bad game; it’s not at all. In fact, it’s meaty and fun with plenty of opportunity to screw your opposition over – the kind of card game I very much enjoy. Don’t go into it expecting the depth and immersion of its much bigger sibling. Instead, just see it for what it is – a comparatively accessible game that still has enough bite to keep more hardcore gamers interested.
Having played a half dozen times now, I agree that this is a great little card game with a heaping helping of screwage. I love it, but it was a little too much targetted attacking for some members of my game group who prefer the more indirect conflict in 7 Wonders and Biblios.
This game really punishes players who don't know when to sit out a biome, because without a way to replenish more than a couple cards at a time until the tenth and last biome it is easy to blow everything on one escalating arms race and then hand the next 2-3 biomes to whoever sat out and saved their cards. This is most likely to happen in 3 player games.