Tag Archives: GMT Games

Wee Rule – Dominant Species: The Card Game review

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?

Always with the spiders… Anyway: information on cards is incredibly clear. Species, Food Chain values, Elements… all very straightforward.

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.

Dominant Species: The Card Game was designed by Chad Jensen and released in 2012 by GMT Games. Between two and six can play (and it’s way better with more – very cutthroat!) with games taking around 15 minutes per player. You can pick up a copy now for around £25, though Gameslore have it in for £20.49 – bargain!


1 Comment

Filed under Reviews

Pull Shapes: Fighting Formations review

Matt takes on something a bit more hardcore than Dixit for the glory of Little Metal Dog.


The designer of the acclaimed Combat Commander series must have got sick and tired of being asked where all the tanks were in that game, so often did questions or criticisms along that line pop up on gaming forums. But instead of doing what the rest of us would have done, get angry and type capitalised abuse at his tormentors, Chad Jensen went and designed another tactical-level rules framework. A very different tactical-level framework. Which, incidentally, features tanks. It’s called Fighting Formations and the first iteration in the series, detailing the exploits of the Grossdeutschland Infantry Division on the Eastern front sold out like hot cakes. It’s about to be reprinted and publishers GMT sent me a copy to see what I’d make of it.

At its heart, Fighting Formations clearly builds on a lot of tried and tested tactical war gaming concepts that have been used and gradually refined over decades. Movement costs that vary by terrain, return and opportunity fire, the simulation of “assets” such as artillery through a hand of cards, different attack and defensive values for armour piercing and high-explosive fire, degradation of the standard platoon-level units into squads. If you’re a war gamer of any stripe you’ll have seen all this sorts of stuff before, although not all in the same place, and it’s implemented well here and explained clearly in the daunting but ultimately entirely digestible rulebook. But aside from doing a great job of amalgamating a disparate bunch of design evolutions into one package, what distinguishes the game from its peers are two very innovative mechanics dealing with command and combat.

The first is the command matrix, a mechanic which is far harder to explain on paper than it is to use in practice. This is wedded to two other clever mechanics: command placement and the initiative track. The initiative track see-saws between values of 1-20 for each of the two players: if it’s at any number on your side of the track, you’re the active player. At the start of each turn, ten markers are randomly distributed amongst the ten boxes on the command matrix, and each box has a value from one to ten and an associated order type such as “assault” or “move” or “sniper”. If you’re the active player you remove a marker from it’s box, move the initiative pawn that many spaces down the track toward your opponent and then pay some more initiative to activate some units and issue either the command you just took a marker for, or anything cheaper on the matrix. What you pay depends on whether they’re in command – at any point you can place one of your limited pool of command markers onto the map, and units in the command radius cost nothing extra to activate. One turn later these markers flip over and then anything in command radius costs one, then on the following turn it goes back into your supply. Units out of command cost two. So you may end up moving the initiative marker more spaces. If it’s still on your side of the track, you repeat until it’s not, otherwise your opponent gets to go. And when all the markers on the matrix are gone, the turn ends and you start over.

What the hell is happening here?

I don’t normally like giving detailed rules explanations but here it’s necessary so you can appreciate how this works, how unusual it is and most of all so that I can explain how clever it is. See, it offers the flexibility to allow each player to have totally different command allowances depending on side and scenario. The order matrix has different values for the two sides: a “2” value order is Fire for the Germans, or Move for the Soviets – so the Soviets generally pay less initiative to move, but more to fire and vice-versa, and remember that there are ten spaces on that track, six of which are in different positions on each side, so this translates into a significantly variable experience across the two players. This simply but effectively models in quite fine detail the different command and control doctrines between the two armies. Most of the scenarios also bake in further details by giving one side more command control markers than the other and by giving them a different command radius. It’s very simple. And it works to a very high level of detail. But it’s also very abstract, which seems odd when many other parts of the system clearly strive to be highly realistic. Weirdly I find this abstraction marginally more jarring than, say, the even more abstract concept of “command points” found in the Conflict of Heroes games. Exactly why this is, I can’t say, and I can’t say largely because I don’t care: I’m far more interested in how the game plays than how well it works as a simulation. But it’s the sort of thing that bothers a certain sort of historical gamer so I feel compelled to mention it, just in case.

And in gameplay terms the order matrix certainly delivers the goods. Those three relatively simple mechanics interconnect in any number of mind-boggling ways when you try and plan your turn. If you dump command markers on the map and move, your units may not be in command radius next turn, unless you save one. But if you execute orders without command markers, you’ll pay a huge initiative cost. And then, do you pull out the big stops and activate half your units before handing control to your opponent, or take baby steps and try and retain the initiative for multiple orders of your own? When you pick orders, do you do so on the basis of what you need to do, or do you try and play both sides of the matrix and keep one eye on denying cheap, useful orders to your opponent, resulting in less effective moves for yourself but huge initiative expense for the enemy? There are no easy answers, and tactically speaking it’s an excruciating delight.

The other aspect which offers significant innovation is the combat system. It uses neither the traditional combat resolution table or attack totals versus defence totals but a bizarre amalgamation of both, with knobs on. For artillery and close assaults it uses something that looks a lot like a combat resolution table. For normal fire attacks you start off with two ten-sided dice, but rather than modifying the total according to factors such as range and facing, you modify the dice you roll: up to a pair of d12’s or d20’s or down to d8’s or d6’s. Then, instead of having things like terrain and elevation affect the target’s defense these contribute to a “hindrance” factor and if either dice value drops below this, the shot misses. If it’s an opportunity fire attack and either dice drops below the “rate of fire” factor of the firing unit, it can no longer issue opportunity fire during this order. Finally, if it hits, you add your dice together and add the unit’s attack power to compare against 2d10 plus the target defense value. It’s a fiddly, procedural system which I would be happy to use if I could see some sort of interest or benefit over traditional systems, but unlike the order matrix, I can’t see what it adds either in terms of realism or game play over just rolling dice, adding defensive and offensive factors, and comparing the totals. Perhaps I can’t see what the designers intentions were because I don’t have much background in simulation-heavy war games, but I just don’t see the point in these extra swings and roundabouts.


It has to be said that swings and roundabouts are very much the order of the day here. The order matrix is a compelling mechanic, but it presents players with so many options to consider that it slows down the pace of the game considerably. The counters are crowded with information and, irritatingly, have an “inactive” and “active” side with different values, and you often need to know what’s on the “active” side in order to decide what order you’re going to pick, a phase of the game when all your counters will be on the “inactive” side, hiding that information. The resolution of opportunity fire as an interrupt slows the game down as well, and as we’ve discussed the combat mechanic is also somewhat awkward, especially when you have to start consulting tables. A lot of rulebook-thumbing will occur, a lot of markers will be got out of the box, placed and then returned later, a lot of counters will be flipped and a lot of lines of sight checked with a ruler. Again, all of this stuff will be familiar to a certain type of war gamer, and a lot of it is symptomatic of tactical and mechanical depth, but there just seems to be an immense disconnect between what the game is trying to simulate – fast paced, intense firefights – and the actuality of resolution. Not to mention what it does to the play time. For even the smallest scenarios you’re looking at 2-3 hours, with the bigger ones allegedly (I haven’t tried one) clocking in at three times that.

And this is an important thing to be aware of because you need to exercise a little caution in picking a scenario. The playbook contains the obligatory but very interesting historical background but it does something particularly interesting, which is to tell the reader where in the combat history of the unit the various scenarios occurred. This is a great little addition if you have even the vaguest interest in the history, but it does mean that the scenarios are presented in chronological order rather than the more usual order of complexity, which may prove a nasty gotcha for new players. The playbook itself is excellent, stuffed with optional rules for added tension and realism should you want them, and long, detailed and highly readable examples of play to make sure you understand the system.

Ultimately though, however clever the order matrix, however laborious the actuality of playing through the combat system, however well written the play book, what made this game stand out for me was the manner in which it straddled the mechanical and maneuver aspects of play to become something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Most games fall down one side or other of this particular divide. European-style games are all about leveraging the mechanics to give the players interesting strategic and tactical decisions to make. Historically, war games have paradoxically tended to employ often quite complex rules in an effort to put the focus squarely on maneuver and position. But in Fighting Formations successful play manages to tax both at once: you’ll need to work over some optimisation-style decisions to get the order matrix to work for you while at the same time making best use of the units and terrain at your disposal to win the scenario. And what’s utterly brilliant about this is that one manages to influence the other whilst both remain mechanically separate entities that you can consider in isolation.

To be honest, Fighting Formations is a game that I admire, rather than enjoy. It’s particular brand of slow-paced, methodical, demanding play isn’t very well suited to someone like me who has poor impulse control and the attention span of a gnat. Trying to shoe-horn it’s considerable play time into my hectic lifestyle doesn’t help. But I do admire it, and indeed it makes we wish that I did have the patience for it, and it’s a testament to the underlying quality of the design that it’s the first of the slow-and-steady war game brigade I’ve tried that’s made me feel that way.


Matt Thrower is officially just as creative as the entire history of Western civilization. Follow him on Twitter and be delighted by his musings: @mattthr

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Urban Space, man – Urban Sprawl review

It always ended up in one of two ways. Sometimes – rarely – I’d end up with the statue of Mario in the middle of my thriving metropolis. Most of the time the whole damn thing would go to the dogs, a horrendous series of disasters culminating in Bowser tearing my work to pieces once again, destroying the fine city I had created. Delete the save file. Start from the beginning again. Roads. Power. Blocks. I’ll get it to work this time.

Sim City on the SNES pretty much destroyed my mid-teens and I loved every second of it. Now, as my focus in recent years has turned to more cardboard based pursuits, I get to do it all over again. This time, however, it’s against other players and not the game itself. All the joy of building and planning a city with the added edge of competition, crushing your enemies before you. Urban Sprawl is here and it is excellent.

Behind the simple conceit and straightforward gameplay lies a wonderful game that demands you pay attention and consider each move you make. While it’s certainly a cerebral affair, Urban Sprawl never feels like it’s punishing you – it’s a heavy game, sure, but it’s a huge amount of fun…

A (relatively) quick runthrough on how to play. The aim of Urban Sprawl is to gain more Prestige than your opponents by constructing and claiming buildings on the map. By paying a certain amount of Action Points – you get a maximum of 6AP per turn – you grab permits and contracts to build. Placing them on the map costs money, signified by numbers dotted around the outside of the map. Add up the numbers on the rows and columns of the site you’re building on, hand over the cash and claim it for your own.

These buildings will (hopefully) get you some income and Prestige points as the game goes on. Some cards trigger a payout phase, worked out by seeing who has the most amount of buildings in a row or column and canny players will use their funds to try and get yet more control of the board. Not everything is rosy though – there are events that can cause a lot trouble for players. Conversely, some can be rather lucrative, gaining you yet more wealth or Prestige.

The board screams functional (a bit like Dominant Species), but everything's there for a reason.

There are other things to consider too. Vocations appear on some contract cards that allow players to take similarly labelled tiles; Education, Transport and the like. These offer some decent bonuses so making sure that you have a hand in at least a few is a good strategy. Also useful are the various Elected Positions, all of which grant you great powers. Most offer bonuses relating to one of the four types of building (Civic, Residential, Industrial or Government) but only the Mayor gets to beautify the town by placing parkland. The fact that the Mayor also gets a lovely bonus at the end of the game relating to parks doesn’t hurt either…

The Elected Positions change hands frequently during the game, so never get too settled! Clever play can ensure that you keep your hands on the role that you want though. As each election is decided in a different fashion when a Building Permits card showing the Election Box symbol pops up from the deck, it is possible to finagle yourself into a position to make sure you claim a certain role. It’s not easy, no… but it is possible.

As the game continues and the town fills up, bigger and better buildings are made available as new decks are brought into play. Starting the game with the Town deck, you swiftly move on to the City cards and finally the Metropolis stack. When the card stating that the Olympics are coming to your creation, the game ends and the winner decided. And that’s it! In a nutshell, get permits and contracts, build stuff, get cash, keep doing it. Simple!

But it’s not simple. Even with only two players, lucrative spaces on the board quickly get taken. With a full complement of four it swiftly becomes a bit nasty (in the best possible way, of course). You have to take so much into consideration; from restrictions on where buildings can be played to making sure you’ve got enough money to actually get them on the table, Urban Sprawl requires decent forward planning as well as your being able to adapt when someone else builds in the exact space you’ve had your eye on for the past couple of turns.

A golden rule is definitely Keep Your Options Open – you’ll need to. Or smash the other players’ buildings down and take over the spaces for yourself. They’re both good options. Perhaps try and combine the two?

The full game in all its glory. Utterly brilliant. (Photo by Chad Jensen)

If you’ve played designer Chad Jensen’s excellent Dominant Species, you’ll see a couple of similarities between that and Urban Sprawl; the wealth of available options, the ever increasing play area… however, they’re very different games. This latest release from GMT feels a little easier to get your head around when compared to Species, but that doesn’t mean that Urban Sprawl is light in comparison. Both games are highly challenging but – dare I say it – the later game feels… a little bit more joyous?

Perhaps it’s all down to those wasted hours with a SNES pad in my hands when I should have been sitting in a park drinking nasty cider, but Urban Sprawl just really appeals to my Inner City Planner. Creating this little town from scratch is all well and good but when you add in the competition element it’s even better. Yes, you’re all working together to make the thing, building off each other’s plays to keep yourself ahead of the rest, but it’s so much fun stomping over someone else’s hard earned expensive construction and replacing it with your own.

Who’d have thought that city development could be so gloriously cutthroat? Certainly not me, but after spotting Urban Sprawl on GMT’s p500 list all those months ago, I’m delighted that Chad Jensen has created such a wonderful game. I have a feeling this one is going to be on an awful lot of people’s Best of 2011 lists come the end of the year.

Urban Sprawl is available from the GMT site for pre-order now and will set you back $50 (though if you’re not quick, that’s going to go up, so get on it). Designed by Chad Jensen and released in 2011, it handles between two and four players in around two-and-a-half to three hours.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some building permit applications to submit…

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews