Sometimes you know from the moment you see a game that it will be your kind of thing, that it’ll be lodged in that list of games you want to play again and again for a long time. Other times it’ll come up behind you, working its way into your mind insidiously until you discover one day that you’ve actually got a new favourite game and you didn’t even realise it. GMT’s Dominant Species firmly sits in that second category as it was barely on my radar when it was released late last year, but now? Oh man. Top ten, easily, and going up. But why is it so good?
Let me take you back to the first time I played it, three of us sitting around working our way through the rulebook, desperately attempting to come up with strategies in order to pull out a win. None of us really knew what we were doing, the game ended up as over four hours of painful confusion… our brains were well and truly burnt. I somehow managed to sneak a victory but had little idea how I’d managed to do so, deemed Dominant Species as ‘alright, but not something I’d want to play all the time’. It’s a hardcore game (especially for someone who doesn’t normally get on with heavier ones) and honestly not something I thought I’d find myself sitting down to tackle again. I saw it less as fun and more of a task. But after a few days I couldn’t stop thinking about it, couldn’t stop looking back at where I thought I’d made mistakes and how I could improve next time.
Next time? I’d pretty much dismissed it, surely there wouldn’t be a next time? But it turns out there was a next time. Many next times, in fact, but why? Well… you’ll see shortly.
Dominant Species sees between two and six players each taking on the role of a species on an ancient Earth. There’s an ice age just around the corner so you need to spread yourself around as much as possible, making sure that you’re capable of surviving in a variety of environments. Of course, your opponents are attempting the same thing and there’s only room for one to come out on top but even the lowliest of insects have the power to defeat stronger species like the mammals. It just takes some good planning, a bit of foresight and some judicious destruction of your enemies!
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The playing area is built up as the game progresses, made from a variety of hexes that have element tokens placed on their corners – if an element showing on your playing board is touching the corner of a hex, you’re able to move pieces on to that space. There are seven different terrains which, when scored, provide varying amounts of points depending on how many players have a presence there. Bonus points are also available from performing certain actions in the game, which probably makes this a good point to talk about how Dominant Species actually works…
It’s all driven by choosing actions. Players have a set amount of Action Pawns (which can go up or down) which are placed one at a time, going round the table, on the Action Box. Once no more pawns remain, you work your way down the list performing the actions in order from left-to right. While it looks initially horrifying, once you know what each action requires it’s all rather straightforward and the detailed rulebook explains them all well (complete with graphic examples – have a look at the full rules here). Some actions will involve you putting new cubes down (making babies, essentially), moving others around or even destroying opposition pieces – and as each player has only a limited supply, this can make for quite a fraught endgame. Other times you’ll be expanding the board, placing element discs so you can move into new areas or removing them to make other players’ species endangered – quite the nasty move!
One of the more interesting actions is Glaciation – in other words, you’re speeding the Ice Age along a bit. You take one of the smaller glaciation tiles and choose a hex to cover (netting you a few bonus points in the process). All players on that tile then have to remove all but one of their species cubes, including you. It’s a particularly efficient way to reel in a player who seems to have managed to race ahead in getting a lot of their cubes down, especially if they’re concentrating them on one location. The final action of each round is Domination where players choose a hex to score – as mentioned earlier – but that’s not all. As well as a stack of wooden cubes and Action Pawns, each player also has a pile of wooden cones in their colour which are used to signify that they have control, worked out by multiplying your cubes by the amount of matching elements. It’s every player’s responsibility to ensure that if they’re meant to be in control of a hex their cone is there to show it – there’s a near constant flurry of activity as people switch their cones for their opponents’ as each round goes on. This is important because having domination of a hex when it’s scored means you also get to choose one of the special cards that sit on the side of the board which can bestow huge benefits. Everything from wiping out large amounts of enemy species to resurrecting some of your own is possible and can often make or break your road to victory.
On that point, something important to consider. Dominant Species is almost two games in one, the first being all about manoeuvring about the board, almost helping each other out as you adapt to as many areas as you can. However, when the end of the game kicks in (which is triggered by taking the Ice Age card during the Domination step), every single inhabited hex is scored meaning that even if you’re lagging behind, you’re still in with a chance of winning. You WILL get the vast majority of your points in that final scoring session, so even if you’re last, you shouldn’t despair. If you’ve spread your species around intelligently, you are in with a chance. It makes for an incredibly strategic game that requires an awful lot of thought, hence it being branded a brain burner since it was released.
So, it’s a hard game that will require you to pay constant attention to everything that happens for at least three hours. When you finish a game of Dominant Species you will invariably feel like you’ve done a few rounds with a heavyweight boxer, so why is it so good? It’s hard to say, but I’d put it down to the huge range of options available to you. Do you go aggressive from the start or play a little sneakier? Will you attempt to grab points at every opportunity and hope to get a big enough lead to survive the final scoring round? There are so many approaches to winning this game that it will keep you coming back to see if your new strategies can actually work. I admit that it requires a substantial investment of your time and your first game will bemuse you somewhat, but it is totally worth it. If I had to say something negative about Dominant Species, it would be that the artwork is less than glamorous – ‘functional’ is probably the best description – but that detracts in no way at all from the quality of this game. One of the finest titles released in 2010 and one that will return to the table again and again. It’s great to see GMT doing something a bit different and I hope they continue to experiment in future.
Dominant Species was released in 2010 by GMT Games and was designed by Chad Jensen. It handles between two and six players, though I’ve found it works best with four. As it’s quite a complex affair, I really recommend Ryan Sturm’s excellent How To Play podcast episode on the game to help learn the rules. If you want a copy of your own, check your local game store or online, but expect to pay a fair bit! It’ll cost you around £50 here in the UK, though you can get it direct from the GMT site for $80. Well worth it!