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Complete Control – Dominant Species review

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! 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!

Mid game and everyone

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!



Filed under Reviews

Counterpoints – An interview with Stuart Dagger

While the internet is an incredible resource for those who want to find out more about games, the opposite is true for those who seek something a little more tangible. Physical magazines, especially those that cover niche markets like gaming, are a rarity. Of course there’s Spielbox, the German magazine that has recently started producing an English language edition. White Dwarf is there for the Games Workshop crowd, but you’d almost think that was it. However, you may not have heard of Counter, a magazine produced here in the UK. Released every three months, each issue of Counter is filled with reviews and features – I spoke with the magazine’s editor, Stuart Dagger, all about how it came to be.

Could you tell me a little about Counter? When did it begin and have you been involved from day one?

Counter was conceived as a successor to Mike Siggins’s magazine Sumo, and so the story really has to begin there. As you’d expect in view of the geography, British gamers discovered the new breed of games that began coming out of Germany several years before they did over in America. For us it happened in the late 1980s, and in 1988 a professional, glossy magazine was launched to help spread the word. This was Games International and Mike Siggins was one of its core team of contributors. Unfortunately, as with other attempts in Britain at a professional games magazine, they didn’t sell enough copies to be financially viable and after a couple of years, they changed their name (to Strategy Plus) and switched over to computer games.

However, before that happened, Mike had struck out on his own. He wanted to write about the games in greater depth than was possible in a magazine that was hoping to achieve a mass circulation, and so he launched Sumo’s Karaoke ClubSumo, for short. This was to be a no-frills, amateur magazine for keen players of this new breed of games. About 30 copies of the pilot issue went out towards the end of 1989 and, since I was an occasional contributor to GI, one of them came to me. In that first issue, Mike said that though he was prepared to do most of the writing, he couldn’t do all of it and so was looking for volunteers to help. I put my hand up, as did Mike Clifford. Sumo struck a chord and quickly acquired an international readership. The magazine ran for eight years until it was bought by Theo Clarke and Paul Evans. They ran Britain’s other amateur games magazine, Games, Games, Games, and they wanted to go professional, combining a professional G3 with a business that would be both a distributor and a mail order seller of boardgames. Acquiring Sumo would help them achieve the sort of circulation numbers they were going to need.

From Mike’s standpoint, not only was the offer a good one, but it came at a good time. A few months previously his father had been struck down with an inoperable brain tumour. He was needing full time care and Mike was the one doing the caring. He had much more important things to worry about than continuing to run a boardgames magazine. So, after consulting with Sumo‘s regular contributors, he accepted the offer. This was at the end of 1997, and the last issue of Sumo appeared in February 1998. However, the month before, I received a phone call from Mike Clifford. He and Alan How had been talking about the situation and decided that, although they wished Paul and Theo well with their attempt at a professional magazine, they were fond of Sumo‘s ethos and didn’t want to see it die. They were planning a successor with the same spirit and format, and they wanted me to join them. Alan would handle the finances and I would be the editor — a job I’d done for Sumo for twelve months from Summer 1994 to Summer 1995, when Mike’s health wasn’t so good and he was under orders from his doctor to cut down his work load.

We saw the magazine as “Son of Sumo“, but obviously couldn’t call it that, as Paul and Theo now owned the title. So after a fair amount of head scratching, we opted for the name Counter and published the first issue in May 1998, which is when the next issue of Sumo would have been had it continued.

So there was quite a long history before the magazine even began officially! Can you remember the kind of content you had back in the first issue of Counter?

Well, not remember off the top of my head, but I have .pdf files for all the issues and so I was able to look it up! The first issue was 68 pages, and we were able to get off to that sort of fast start because of the year I did as stand-in editor for Sumo. During that time Mike still handled the finances and the mailing list, but I organized the printing and did the mailing. Each issue he would send me sheets of address labels, and, in order to be able to deal with any queries over copies that had failed to arrive, I used to photocopy the sheets before using them. I still had the file containing those photocopies when we started Counter, and that meant that although we didn’t have an up to date mailing list for Sumo, we did have one that was only two and a half years old. We were able to write to people to see what they thought of our plans and enough of them responded to convince us that we were right to go ahead. It also ensured that we wouldn’t have to write the whole of the first issue ourselves.

That first issue contained 18 reviews, 14 articles and a 5 page letter column. 14 of the reviews were written by one of the three of us and the remaining four by former Sumo subscribers who offered to help. The articles included the late Dave Farquhar (who was then Reiner Knizia’s chief play tester) on the games that Reiner would be having published over the next twelve months, Francis Tresham on the new company he was starting as a successor to Hartland Trefoil, Chris Farrell on the Middle Earth CCG and Derek Carver talking about some of the games he’d designed over the years for play with his own group.

So, since that first issue, we can assume that things must have changed a bit… How has the magazine evolved over the past few years? Any major changes to speak of that come to mind?

The decisions we took at the beginning were that we would continue with the Sumo formula of reviews, articles and a letters column; that the magazine would stay at A5 size; and that, like Sumo, we’d be text only. The reason for the last of these is that while pictures are nice, they are difficult to do well in black and white, and going for colour significantly increases production costs. Our aim was to produce a magazine that was a good read, rather than one people flick through.

Our readers seem to approve, and so we have stuck with that. It makes us a niche product, but that is something we are happy with. For everyone involved, writing for and producing Counter is something we do as part of our hobby. It was never intended to be a business, and so the important thing is that we are all happy with what we are doing. That way it continues.

It’s certainly a magazine that’s heavy on the information front, but that’s by no means a bad thing – every issue is packed out with plenty of stuff to read. I also find that the fact you have a range of writers means you get a broad sweep of opinions. Do you find the contributors ever surprise you?

What each of us tries to do when writing a review is to give the reader enough information so that they can decide for themselves whether or not a particular game is for them. And one of the reasons for that is that we have been together long enough as a team to know that we don’t always agree among ourselves, so how likely is it that a game that a particular reviewer thinks is wonderful will be thought so by everyone who reads his opinions? This is also why I attach great importance to the letter column and to the “early reactions” that are often to be found attached to the bottom of a review. It helps to provide the reader with other points of view.

Having said that, there is another consequence of our having been together for a long time and that is that we have each learned over the years which of the others has tastes closest to our own. However, no two people agree on everything and so yes, there are times when you find yourself thinking, “I’m surprised that he liked/disliked that one”, but it’s happened often enough by now for it not to be a great surprise, just one of those things that happens every so often.

So what’s the future for Counter, Stuart? When’s the next issue available?

Who knows? Forecasting the future is best left to people who bet on horses! We continue for as long as we want to go on writing and our readers enjoy reading what we have to say. The next issue, which is the post-Essen one, was just sent to the printers and, if all goes to plan, should be in the hands of subscribers by the second week of December.


Cheers to Stuart for taking time out to tell me about the magazine. If you’d like more information about Counter, including details on subscriptions and where you can get hold of copies, you should get in touch with Alan How by clicking on this link. Many local game shops carry it as well, so be sure to check and ask. In the UK, your best bets are Leisure Games and Board Game Guru. If you’re in the USA, get in contact with Funagain Games – they stock it too! It’s always a fantastic read and well worth picking up. As an extra bonus, you can have a read of an article Stuart wrote about the magazine for their recent 50th issue by clicking the link below.

Fifty from Fifty

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30 November 2010 · 12:01