GMT games, a prolific publisher well known for its quality wargames, has been making grognards smile for over two decades. In 2010, GMT surprised a lot of people with the release of Dominant Species, a game about survival of the fittest during an encroaching ice age that appeared to have more in common with the worker placement mechanics found in Euro style games than GMT’s previous conflict oriented offerings. Designed by Chad Jensen, Dominant Species trades the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific for the glacial arena of the frozen tundra, where the deadly implements of modern war are replaced with the ruthless hand of mother nature and the wily twists of evolution.
In Dominant Species, players control a class of animals in a biological taxonomy, and attempt to evolve their class of creatures to dominate a world being rapidly changed by the encroaching glaciers of the ice age. Players must evolve their creatures to better adapt to the environment and change the environment to benefit their species, all while engaging the other players through direct tactical conflict and cunning strategic migration. While the core mechanic in Dominant Species is worker placement, it’s about as far from archetypal genre titles like Caylus or Agricola as you can get. Players will compete for various actions through the worker placement mechanic, but how they choose to utilize those actions, and where on the board they place their genetic army of species has an awful lot in common with conflict based combat games. As one poofy-haired singer from the 80’s once expressed: “Love is a Battlefield”, and the cutthroat natural selection of Dominant Species certainly supports that notion.
I was a bit late to the party in picking up Dominant Species, and although I may have thought mean, jealous things about those lucky gamers who acquired a copy during 2010 before it sold out, I was happy to pick up the second printing in 2011; a printing which received upgraded components, as well as the removal of the comic-sans font (the bane of typophiles everywhere) from the rulebook. That being said, the components in the second edition are stellar. From the super-sturdy box, to the thick tiles and board, everything in the box screams quality. And that’s not even mentioning enough wooden bits to shock a lumberjack – and that’s okay!
It’s important to note that the components that make up dominant species are all very minimal in design: wooden cubes; cylinders; cones; and very simple, minimalist illustrations that serve more as iconography than artwork. I have to admit that in general I am drawn to detailed miniatures and colorful artwork in games. The way a game looks and feels, and the mood that it conveys can really enhance my gaming experience. GMT could have easily gone this route with dominant species, but I can honestly say that it would have been a mistake to add such embellishments. The minimal presentation of the game fits the function much better than complicated artwork would have. There is so much going on in Dominant Species, and so many pieces on the board at any given time, that miniatures or fancy art would have detracted from the playability of the game. The minimal art allows the state of the game to be delivered in a clear, concise way and benefits the game as a whole.
The Box – The dominant species box is super sturdy. I think it’s made from the thickest cardboard of any game box I own - and I really appreciate this. I recently moved my entire game collection to a different room, and while putting boxes away, I noticed that some games which I had only played a handful of times had lids that were beginning to sag. I am fairly careful about how I store my games, but regardless of how careful I am, I can’t defy gravity, and the wicked forces of time and nature hate my games.
The Dominant Species box, however, ruggedly laughs in the face of nature (in an anthropomorphically non-sagging sort of way). Millions of years from now when the archaeologists of the future are sifting through the remains of our primitive society, the Dominant Species box will still be around, when the frail boxes of the competition have perished to the elements. Future generations will doubtlessly ponder this, posing the question: “Where is the missing link that brought us from Monopoly to Dominant Species?”
Although I have waxed lyrical about a box for two paragraphs, I do have one small quibble with it. After bagging up all of the components in the game, it can be difficult to fit everything back into the box. Removing the insert, or placing some components under the insert will free enough room to comfortably fit everything, but I am one of those people who doesn’t even throw away the product catalogs that come packed in games, so you will be hard pressed to find me tossing a box insert. Not everyone is as neurotic as I am though, so this is really a small concern.
The Board – The second printing of Dominant Species boasts a large, mounted board. The right hand side of the board has spaces set aside for the placement of action pawns, with useful icons and clearly delineated areas that will remind the players what each of the action spaces accomplish. The center area of the board makes up the geography of Dominant Species, with hexagonal spaces that are filled with terrain tiles as the game progresses. This center part of the board is where the area control portion of the game plays out, as players move their wooden cubes around to claim dominance in territories of the world. Hugging the edge of the board is a victory point track. Like other worker placement games, Dominant Species uses victory points to determine the winner of the game, and although there is a strong direct conflict component to Dominant Species, pure aggression isn’t necessarily going to be the best strategy; there is a lot of subtlety here, and the mechanic of collecting victory points reinforces this.
One aspect of the game board that I really appreciated was the placement of player aids around the play area. Printed directly onto the board are reminders about the number of points that certain actions score, tiebreaker conditions, and other rule and scoring related information. Nothing sinks a game experience like constantly searching for information in the rulebook. By moving often referenced information onto the game board, Dominant Species streamlines play and makes the game experience much smoother.
Player Mats - Each class of animal in the game has its own thin cardstock player mat. This mat displays the starting statistics for a particular animal, and contains a very detailed summary of the actions that a player can take during his turn, as well as the order and steps that take place when those actions are resolved. I really wish that more games would include detailed player aids like this. Like the game board, the delivery of rules information on the player mat reduces so much potential downtime. During my first play of this complex game, I only had to look in the rulebook twice – all of the other information I needed was quickly gleaned from the information on the game components themselves.
Cards – Dominant Species uses a deck of cards to describe different rewards a player can purchase when he takes a certain action. The cards are sturdy, and have simple but pleasing artwork on them. This is the only area of the game where there is artwork for the sake of artwork, as each card has a descriptive image on it. With the minimal presentation of the rest of the game, these cards could have easily been text only and perfectly functional, but the simple, but professional images are welcome, and add a bit of character and whimsy to the game.
Element Tokens – In the game, each class of animal requires certain resources to survive. These resources are called Elements, and are represented by small cardboard tokens. The element tokens can be found displayed on the player mats, and also placed on the intersection of the hexagonal terrain tiles. Players will be manipulating their environment by removing and adding these tokens to the game board to create more habitable environments for their creatures, or more hostile environments for their competitors. Players will also have the opportunity to adapt and evolve their creatures by adding these tokens to their player mat, allowing for their animals to thrive in more varied locations on the game board.
Of all of the components, I personally find the element tokens the least compelling. They have muted colors in comparison to the vivid coloring of the wooden pieces that make up the game, and can sometimes blend in with the board. The icons on the tokens, although simple, have fairly complex shapes, and don’t share the same minimalist appeal that the rest of the game does. Aside from the iconography, I would have liked to see the element tokens a tad bit larger in size as well. Element tokens are placed at the corners of the terrain tiles during play, and they are often knocked around as the board is jostled, and rearranged. Larger tokens would not only increase readability, but would be a bit more resistant to this tile movement.
However, the game does come with a fabric bag to draw the element tokens from, which goes a long way towards reversing my apathy towards the tokens themselves. I really appreciate it when the game publisher supplies everything you need to play a game, and makes no assumptions about the materials at hand.
Wooden Bits - There is a ton of wood packed in the game box. Each of the six player colors has 55 small wooden cubes to represent their units; 10 wooden cylinders, called action pawns, used to take actions on the board; and 10 wooden cones which are used to denote which geographic areas a particular animal dominates. When first unboxing the game, all 450 of these wooden components come packaged in a large plastic bag, but GMT has graciously included smaller bags in the box so that the laborious process of sorting the little wooden bits only needs to be done once. The wooden bits are all vividly colored, although the blue components are more of a turquoise color, which seemed an odd choice when compared to the more saturated, mostly primary colors of the other bits (Black, white, red, yellow, and lime green). Quality wise, the wooden pieces are outstanding; in games that have this many wooden pieces, the odd deformed bit is practically guaranteed, but all of the bits were perfectly shaped in my copy.
Customer Service – While not a physical component of the game, I would like to take the opportunity here to lay praise on GMT for their customer service. A day after purchasing Dominant Species, I managed to get my game manual waterlogged. I watched in horror as it shriveled up like a prune. Since I take photos of games for inclusion in my reviews, I was a bit upset that I managed to destroy part of the game, and quickly emailed GMT to ask about purchasing a replacement. GMT went above and beyond my expectations by shipping me a new manual for free, despite the fact that it was my own clumsiness that destroyed the manual in the first place. I never mentioned that I was blogging, or writing a review of the game, so this level of care is indicative of GMT’s general approach to customer service.
Setting up Dominant Species is moderately simple. Players each select a color, and take a number of action pawns, species cubes, and domination cones based on the number of players in the game. Players then determine which class of animals each will be playing, and take the appropriate player mat. Each animal in the game has a special power that lets them bend the rules of the game in one way or another so choosing an animal to play isn’t arbitrary, and each player mat is tailored to a specific animal in the game. After choosing an animal, one wooden cube per player is placed on the start square of the victory point track.
Players then set up the starting world, which consists of a fixed layout of 7 terrain tiles, and a tundra tile in the center. Element tokens are placed at the corners of these tiles in a predetermined configuration to achieve a balanced starting point for all players. The initial configuration of the terrain tiles is printed directly onto the board, simplifying setup greatly. After the starting tiles have been placed, the remaining terrain tiles are shuffled and stacked in three face-down piles, with the top tile of each pile flipped face up. Players will then put species cubes on the map, in specific terrain tiles determined by his particular animal class.
Now that the geography has been set up, focus will move to the right side of the board, where the worker placement portion of the game will take place. On this side of the board there are spaces where players can put their action pawns to reserve actions during gameplay. There are 12 different actions a player can take, but some actions have details which change from turn to turn. These details revolve around certain elements tokens that can be manipulated during that turn. These actions must be seeded by randomly drawing element tokens from the draw bag, and placing them on the corresponding spaces.
The deck of cards is then shuffled and placed face down, and the top 5 cards from the deck are placed face up onto the game board. One specific card, titled “Ice Age” is always placed at the bottom of the deck. The ice age card works a bit like a game timer. When the Ice Age card is selected as a reward, it signifies the last round of the game.
Play in Dominant Species is split up into three distinct phases: Planning Phase, Execution Phase, and Cleanup. The Planning phase is the action selection/worker placement portion of the game, the Execution phase is when those actions are actually carried out, and the Cleanup phase is where the board is reset for the next round. Players continue to play through these rounds until one player collects the Ice Age reward card, and final scoring occurs.
Planning Phase - In the Planning Phase, players take turns choosing one of the available 12 actions to take. Each action has a limited number of times it can be chosen per turn, so as players choose actions, more and more will become unavailable. In this phase, the player is only choosing actions, and is not actually taking the actions, so players have to be careful that the actions they select early in the phase are not made futile by the action selection of others. Much of the strategy in the game is weighing the importance of certain actions, and creating contingency plans if required actions are taken. With 12 actions, choosing one can seem overwhelming the during the first couple of turns, but as the game progresses, and strategies emerge, this process becomes much easier. When choosing which actions to take on the board, the player must also take the other players’ apparent strategies into account; Dominant Species is as much about furthering your own agenda as it is about blocking your opponents’ progress. Actions in Dominant Species can be both offensive and defensive; sometimes a player is required to take a certain action to avoid negative consequences. An opponent may choose to one of these defensive actions, not for his direct benefit, but to deny the other players the opportunity. This interplay generates a lot of second guessing and bluffing between players, and can create a surprisingly organic social experience woven within the cerebral nature of the game mechanics.
Execution Phase - This is the phase where all of the actions that were chosen in the Planning phase are carried out. Actions are performed in order, from left to right, top to bottom. Because actions are executed in this manner, earlier actions can effect later actions. While the planning phase takes place on the worker placement portion of the game board, the majority of the Execution phase takes place on the terrain tiles. It’s in this phase that all of the plans that were made in the Planning Phase either come to fruition, or completely unravel.
Cleanup Phase - At the end of each round is a cleanup phase. This is where maintenance between the game rounds occur. The elements in the action spaces are moved and repopulated, and any reward cards are restocked.
The Actions - Dominant species is a fairly complex game. The basic flow of the game isn’t difficult to comprehend, but its complexity arises from the 12 different actions that a player can choose, and the many ways a player can score victory points. I’m not going to go into an in-depth rules explanation, but I would like to give a summary of each of the actions a player can take, because the way they interact really makes up the meat of the game.
Initiative - The first action a player can choose during the planning phase is the Initiative action. This action changes turn order, and allows a player to swap his initiative with the player directly before him. Player order can be extremely important in Dominant Species, especially because some actions can only be selected once or twice per turn, and a savvy opponent can preempt another from taking the action by selecting it before anyone else has the opportunity.
Adaptation – This is how animals change to adapt to their environment. Throughout the game players will be taking actions that allow them to grow the world, and change the element tokens that are available in that world. How well your animal will thrive in this environment depends on the number of element tokens on your player mat that match the element tokens on the various terrain tiles. The Adaptation action allows you to take one of the available element tokens, and place it in an empty spot on your player mat, making your animal more robust and able to thrive on more varied terrain.
Regression – Between rounds, tokens from the Adaptation action that were not used on the previous round move down to the Regression space. At the end of the Regression step, for each element token on the Regressions space, players must discard one matching element from their player mat. By taking the defensive Regression action, players can protect their animal by removing one element token from the Regression space to avoid a potentially debilitating loss of element tokens from their animal.
Abundance – The Abundance action allows a player to modify the placement of element tokens in the game world. Like the Adaptation and Regression actions, the Abundance action has a set of element tokens next to it. By selecting the Abundance action, players are able to take an element token, and place it on the corner of a terrain tile that does not already have one. This action can be used to make areas of the world more suited for your animal.
Wasteland - Any tokens that are not taken during the Abundance action eventually make their way down to the Wasteland action. Similar to the relationship between Adaptation and Regression, the Abundance action adds elements to the board, while the Wasteland action removes elements from the board. Throughout the game players will be placing tundra tiles onto the board, simulating the glacial growth throughout the world. If there are any tokens on the Wasteland space at the end of the Wasteland step, all matching tokens on the map that are adjacent to tundra tiles must be removed. By selecting the Wasteland action, a player can discard a token from the Wasteland space, averting the loss of that element from the map.
Depletion – While the effects of tokens in the Wasteland space can be destructive, there are times when a player may still choose not to take the Wasteland action. However, during the cleanup phase, any elements left in the wasteland space, make their way down to the Depletion space. Like the Wasteland action, the Depletion action affects elements on the game board, but unlike the Wasteland action, the Depletion action is an offensive action. Players who choose the Depletion action will have the power to remove a single element token matching one in the Depletion space from any terrain tile on the game board. This can be a very powerful action, and although offensive in nature, it is another space that a player may choose to block as a defensive strategy.
Glaciation – This is the action that causes the tundra to expand across the board. When a player chooses this action, he places a tundra tile onto any terrain tile that is adjacent to an existing tundra tile. Placing tundra tiles is a way to gain victory points, but it also devastates any species on that tile. When a tundra tile is placed, all species cubes are removed from that terrain tile, save one of each color. If the placement of a new tundra tile causes any element token to be surrounded by three tundra tiles, the element token is removed from the board. The Glaciation action is very powerful, it allows players to score points, and negatively affect their opponents. Because it is so powerful, only one Glaciation action occurs per round. Glaciation works a bit different than the other actions - although only one glaciation action is performed per round, there are 4 spaces for action pawns in the Glaciation space. These spaces form a queue that is resolved over the course of several turns; the leftmost pawn is able to take an action on the current turn, and all others are shifted over, setting up the next pawn in line to take the Glaciation action during the next round. The fact that pawns queue in this space has two important consequences. First, players must plan for this action turns in advance. Second, pawns that are waiting in line for this action are not available for use when selecting other actions. This queuing mechanic balances the use of such a powerful action, and discourages players from placing all of their pawns on the action, and monopolizing it.
Speciation – By taking the Speciation action, species cubes are added to the board. When a player selects one of the Speciation spaces, a player may add cubes to any terrain tiles that contain an element token of the type printed on the Speciation space. The number of cubes that a player can add to a terrain tile is dictated by the type of terrain. More fertile terrain like oceans and wetlands allow more cubes to be added than desolate terrain like deserts and tundra.
Wanderlust – This is the action that players take to grow the board. Players may choose a face up terrain tile from the stacks, and place it on the board. After placing the tile, the player can choose to take one of the element disks in the Wanderlust space, and add it to one of the corners of the new tile. All players then have the opportunity to move cubes from adjacent tiles onto the new tile. Like Glaciation, placing a new terrain tile during the wanderlust action will gain victory points for the player.
Migration – When a player wants to rearrange his cubes on the map, he can select the Migration action. Each space in the migration action has a corresponding number associated with it. This is the number of cubes the player can move. Players may move each of these cubes to an adjacent terrain tile.
Competition – This action is where the direct conflict occurs. When selecting the Competition action, players may remove one opposing cube from a single terrain tile of each type depicted on the space. When a cube is removed from the board this way, it is removed from play entirely, and does not return to its owner. This is extremely important, because as the game progresses and more players choose the competition action, the numbers of species cubes will dwindle. At the same time, the game world is expanding through the Wanderlust action, making it deceptively easy for players to spread their cubes too thin to be effective.
Domination – The final action is Domination. This action is probably the most important of all the actions, because two things happen: the scoring of victory points; and the acquisition of special rewards. While all of the actions up until this point have been important, they primarily serve as a way to position your animal to take best advantage of the Domination action. When a player takes the Domination action, a terrain tile is scored, and the dominant animal on that tile is rewarded a card.
Terrain tiles are scored based on the number of cubes that occupy it. Each type of terrain gives a differing amount of victory points. Points are not only awarded to the player with the most cubes on the tile, but certain terrain types also award points to the second and third placed players as well.
Although tiles are scored based on the number of cubes on the tile, “domination” is determined through entirely different means. An animal is considered dominant on a tile based on the number of matching element tokens that appear on both his player mat, and the terrain tile. The player with the most matching elements is dominant, and gets to choose a face-up reward card, which allows him to perform a special, powerful action. Some of these actions are immediate, such as removing or adding cubes and elements to the board, and some are more permanent, such as the acquisition of an extra action pawn.
When the Ice Age card is chosen as a reward for the domination action, it marks the end of the game. The current round is completed, and a final scoring round occurs, during which, every terrain tile is scored. Players then compare their scores, and the animal with the most points wins.
Dominant Species is an excellent game, and has quickly vaulted into my list of must play games. It will be a treat for people who really enjoy exploring a rule set and trying to get their head around the interaction of a bunch of moving parts. Dominant Species' many actions and scoring rules make it one of the more complex games in my collection. While it is complex, it manifests in a different way than most rules heavy games. In fact, the mechanics of Dominant Species are actually very simple. It's the way the 12 simple actions interact that add such a breadth of choice. Like the rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland, Dominant Species seems to have a never-ending depth. The more I play it, the more I understand, the more nuances I pick up, and the more I love it.
This complexity, though, will most likely make the game inaccessible to most newcomers to the hobby, and light gamers. Although they will pick up the mechanics easily, the vast number of decisions that can be made from the very start of the game may seem extremely overwhelming. Dominant Species could have been made a bit more accessible by further limiting the number of actions available at the start of the game, and slowly introducing them as the game turns progressed, allowing the depth of the game to open up as the players gained confidence in their strategy. But, targeted toward the experienced gamer, this hand-holding isn't really needed.
Dominant Species probably won't appeal to players who shy away from direct conflict in games, either. Most worker placement games forgo direct confrontation for a more passive confrontation where players jockey for position. Dominant Species definitely has this in spades, but it also allows players to directly affect others by taking their element tokens, killing off their units, and glaciating their high-scoring tiles. There is a lot of potential for "take-that" moves. Personally, I like this conflict in my games, but those who do not may find that Dominant Species was not what they were expecting.
Dominant Species does work as a bridge between pure Euro mechanics, and cutthroat competitive play, though. It's almost like two games in one, in that respect. The worker placement "Planning Phase" of Dominant Species should be familiar to anyone who has played a heavy worker placement game, like Caylus; and it also shares the same abstract, indirect conflict. But, the Execution Phase is where Dominant Species begins to really differentiate itself. The Execution phase is all about area control on a physical map, moving units around, attacking enemy units, and building a concrete positional advantage. Both aspects are needed for Dominant Species' success, and are intimately integrated with each other, but there are definitely different skills required to excel in both. It is refreshing to play a game that exercises both abstract and concrete thought at at the same time.
The minimalist art direction, and components work very well, and this really surprised me. I am not a huge fan of abstract games, and I had worried that the lack of flash would affect my game experience. In reality, it was absolutely the opposite. The game has a certain beauty in it's visual simplicity, and dressing it up would have created sensory overload. I also came to realize that the theme of a game is not necessarily found in the art or components of a game, but in the way the mechanics interact with the ideas that are offered. Dominant Species may look abstract, but it is very tied to it's theme, and the gameplay just wouldn't make sense without that theme supporting it. I think that it is quite an accomplishment for a game to portray so successfully, such a solid theme, with basic components.
The only disconnect I had from the theme was the use of victory points. I don't dislike victory points by any means, but when the theme of the game is survival of the fittest through the ice age, and the player who ultimately wins can potentially have a minimal presence at the end of the game, it breaks the magic a bit. That being said, I don't think that Dominant Species would be anywhere near as good if it didn't use victory points. The victory points add a layer of depth and strategy that just wouldn't exist if everyone was vying only for dominance at the end of the game. Without the victory points, all of the subtlety would drain from the game, and things would devolve into pure aggression. I just wonder if there could have been a more thematic explanation for the victory points.
Probably the biggest boon for Dominant Species, is the fact that even though games can last from two to four hours, time simply flies during play. It is engaging from the very first move, to the very last, and there is very little downtime, unless you have a player who is prone to take long turns by over analyzing things. It's the sort of game that you start playing during daylight, and look up to see that the sun has set, and you didn't even notice.
If you like heavy games, and don't shy away from direct conflict, then you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of Dominant Species. But, not from me - this one is in my collection to stay!
Published By: GMT Games
Designed By: Chad Jensen
Play Time: 2-4 hours