John Kahane (jkahane) wrote,
John Kahane

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A Dominant Game

My health continues to...ail, to be charitable about this, so due to these unfortunate circumstances I have called off the Friday night gaming group.

But that reminds me... I promised to post a journal entry about the play last Friday and Sunday of the new board game that I picked up at this year's CanGames, called Dominant Species, published by GMT Games. (That's the company webpage for the game, but a better page is the BBG one.) While the game has a moderate complexity to it, I'm not going to try to explain everything to you here about the game, but instead will refer you to two excellent pieces about the game.

Tom Vasel's Dice Tower Video Review

Dominant Species Rules Explanation Video - Part 1 of 4

There are also plenty of decent written reviews of Dominant Species in a more traditional, written format on several websites, notably the BGG site, for your perusal as well.

So, what do I have to say after playing this game 2-1/2 times now?*

Move over Ticket to Ride, The Princes of Machu Picchu. There's a new, dominant game in town. While it hasn't quite usurped my love of Tales of the Arabian Knights, Dominant Species is probably now my favourite game of the lot of board games that I have here at the house, and to be honest, this game has such replayability and a sense of strategy and tactics about it that I never see myself getting bored with this game. If the game has one deficit for me, it's the sheer length of time for the set-up and take-down of the game materials and all!

I don't honestly remember all that much from the Sunday game, to be honest, and made one heck of a rules glitch in that one, forgetting that while the player who took the Domination Action scores the points he wants, it's the player who is dominant in the earth tile being scored who draws the Domination card. That said, I'll use my very first game on the Friday night as an example here.

Friday night's game started with me giving the players an explanation of the basic game rules, and showing the others how the game turn works with examples of pretty much all the rules. We talked about the Endgame of Dominant Species, which in all ways is the culmination of one's efforts in the game to survive and be...the dominant species. And then we got into the game.

It's important to remember that this was my very first game of Dominant Species, so I admit that a few mistakes were made with the rules that night. Since there were six players, we decided to use the random method of Animal allotment, and see who played what. Kathy got the Birds, Nick got the Insects, Tom got the Reptiles, Joanne got the Amphibians, David got the Arachnids, and that left me with the Mammals. Lovely choices, all. :) While I knew that this game had subtle levels of strategy to it, it also has a learning curve to it that I, for one, got caught on. To be honest, this first game's experience taught me a valuable lesson - never lose sight of the fact that while most of the Actions in the game (Adaptation, Speciation, Glaciation, etc.) have value, the Dominance cards really do hold the power and the true ebb and flow of the game.

The very first turn of the game, the Blight card came up, which allows the player selecting that card to remove all but one element present on any one tile. Since I feared the possibility that one of the other players might select it to hinder me, potentially putting my Mammals on the brink of extinction early on, I chose the third Adaptation space with my Mammal AP (Action Pawn). However, the first two players (Kathy's Birds and Joanne's Amphibians) adapted themselves to the two elements I wanted and that were present in tiles I occupied, so with nothing better to do, I selected a third Meat element. With an upcoming Wanderlust action, I made a game-defining blunder of putting the Meat element on my "home" Mountain tile rather than on the adjacent Desert tile. Either placement would have given me immediate dominance on the Sea tile I got through Wanderlust, but when David took the Blight card, he wiped out all three of my Meat elements. Oops! Yeah, one of my sneaky Mammals survived extinction, but for the next three turns players blocked me from adapting to any other elements and no Meat elements were selected for the Wanderlust action, so I was stuck with a single species and no dominations until Turn 5. Even when I finally got Meat back on the board, the other players taking the elements I needed to propagate new species blocked me from Speciating. Going last (or next to last) in Initiative order allowed the others to block the actions I needed to get back in the game... Somewhat devastating.

Note: The next two paragraphs were written in conjunction with the other Friday night players.
Anyway... Both the Symbiotic and Parasitism cards (extra APs for each animal above and below yours in the food chain) came out in the first Turn, which allowed four animals to get extra Action Pawns early in the game. I think the extra Actions each turn tended to slow our game down with 5 new players out of 6. Tom's strongly adaptive Reptiles showed good early form spreading his creatures rapidly across the earth tiles. He did a pretty decent job with the Reptiles, spreading some Sun over a large area, thus giving them viability, while at the same time protecting his Sun assets on the Adaptation/Regression and Abundance/Wasteland/Deletion actions, while at the same time setting up an extra pair of elements for his beasties to survive on. Nick's Insects displayed a good survival instinct and gathered many early scoring points for Glaciation actions and Survival. David was very pleased when he drew the Arachnids, but struggled a bit in his first game getting a handle on their ability and was very late in speciating. He scored 15 points(!!) on an early Fertile dominance action (score 1 VP for each species on a selected tile you occupy) and a mid-game Niche Biome action (where each animal with more points loses VPs equal to the 1st place points in the tile just scored) allowed him to pick up 18 points on all his rival animals, since he was in last place at the time, and scored 9 points on a sole Sea tile possession. Kathy's Birds used their migrations powers to perfection and spread well across the planet, though some of her singlets were easy pickings for the Arachnids and Competition actions by others. She scored nicely on a Biodiversity card that gained her 1 VP for each tile that she shared with another animal. Joanne's Amphibians got bogged down mid-game in the tundra and rarely developed any good dominant scoring opportunities, though she did make good use of a last turn Catastrophe event (eliminate all but one species on a selected tile and one from each adjacent tile) to score a Sea tile by herself.

In the next-to-last turn of the game, Tom's Reptiles had a huge, 20+-point lead, but he either didn't understand the Ice Scoring or he failed to plan for it, and when that card was selected by Kathy's Birds, he dominated no tiles and everyone else picked up between 6 and 15 points. In the final tile scoring, several seemingly insignificant species eliminations by the Amphibians on their Catastrophe action determined the outcome, and the Reptiles prevailed by a slim margin.

The final scores in the game were: Reptiles (Tom) 106, Insects (Nick) 104, Birds (Kathy) 101, Joanne (Amphibians) 99, Reptiles (Tom) 96, Arachnids (David) 95, and Mammals (JohnK) 76. To be honest, given my plight in the game in the early going, I was actually surprised that I came so close, point-wise and competetively speaking. That speaks volumes for the game, since even if a species goes extinct, they are not quite out of the game unless one game condition is met. I bided my time some point scoring Wanderlust and Glaciation actions, and if I'd had a bit more luck in Turns 2 and 3 with the Adaptation and/or the Wanderlust Actions, I could have quickly returned into the thick of things.

Despite everything that happened to me in that first game, I have to say that Dominant Species is probably my favourite game that I've purchased over the last few years. Sure, the playing time of the game at between 3 and 5 or so hours, may turn off some gamers, but hey, board games are meant to be played with time to play them, so at least you're warned if you decide to purchase a copy of the game! <g> But this is a board game that has all sorts of levels of strategy and tactics to it, and yet still forces the players to rethink what they might be planning somewhat depending on the actions of the other players, some of the Dominance cards (as was my misfortune to learn!) and elements that have been drawn, and by other factors that can only be seen as one actually plays the game. I suspect the game can be played without too much Competition (wiping each other out at times, although the Arachnid player always gets a free one of these to execute), but there are so many other ways through the use of Dominance cards to be cutthroat that it makes my head spin just thinking about them.

When everything else is said and done, I don't think that Dominant Species is a board game for everyone, regardless of how much I like the game and its themes. It's got a modicum amount of math to deal with, there's the length of the game issue (for those who consider it an issue), and there's the sheer level of strategy and choices that one makes during the course of the game. But for me, this is a game that has infinite replayability, a way to refine one's strategies and one's using the Turn Actions to best advantage. So please, if you get the chance to do so, please give this game a look. You might like it, too. :)

* Once last Friday with the gaming group, a 3-turn game to show spross what the game was like on Saturday, and a 4-player game on Sunday.
Tags: board games, dominant species, friday gaming group

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