For a long time there was a divide in the board gaming hobby between Eurogames with their economic designs and dry themes and American games with their more militaristic, aggressive nature. But every once in a while, a game with bring the two crashing together like a force of nature. Dominant Species is one of these cataclysmic games.
Dominant Species brings the worker placement idea from games like Caylus, Agricola, and Stone Age, but uses it in a core game where players get to be downright nasty to each other. After all, this is a survival of the fittest, and that sentiment is felt throughout the design and play of this extraordinary game.
In the game, players control one group of animals (mammals, birds, insects, etc.) at the beginning of the last ice age and fight to have the most populous and most well-adapted species on the earth. Each cube you have is a different species of that type which spread throughout the globe on hexagonal terrain tiles.
The bulk of the gameplay is selecting which three out of a series of actions you will choose to do each round. I wont go into what each actions do, but the main ideas here are helping your animals adapt better, getting more species on the board, moving species to different tiles and exploring more tiles, and causing an ice age which more or less wipes out a tile.
What you are trying to do is become either the most populous on a give tile, which gives you points, or to be the most dominant in terms of evolutionary suitability, which gives you your pick of available bonus cards which can usually be pretty awesome to have. Most of your actions revolve around trying to stay in control of the best and/or most places on the board.
To be honest, there is a lot to this game. It is very meaty. But once you get a handle on it, everything seems to work together in a way which makes sense. The most interesting yet hard to grasp idea is that of dominance, where you are competing with players to have the most matching adaptations to the available resources on each tile, which has nothing to do with population. But once you understand it, a lot of the fun strategy requires trying to maintain this dominance. Its quite unique and very cool.
Like a thundering mammoth, Dominant Species has a lot of bulk. It’s a very heavy box loaded with components. The main features is the heavy board, which doesn’t look like anything fancy but is very functional, with the tile placements on one side and the action spaces on the other. Everything is clearly laid out.
The action cards are awesome, with great artwork of various animal species matching the action of the cards (for example, Fertile has ants swarming all over the card, the Ice Age card is shaded icy blue to stand out, etc.). The lad tiles also look great, with deep colours and just enough artwork to get a visual picture of the landscape. The sea, desert, jungle, etc. tiles all look exactly how they should.
The player bits consist of cubes for the species, cylinders for the action pawns, and cones to indicate dominance on each tile. I don’t see cones in games too often, so right away they’re interesting. The cubes may seem boring, but with how often they are spread out and taken on and off it works well. The colours of the components are more subdued, but this gives the game an interesting looks. The bits here may not be overly excited, but it makes everything easy to visualize.
Dominant Species is a very meaty game, and the theme of evolution is ever-present in the game play. You truly do feel like you are constantly struggling for survival and adapting to constantly changing circumstances, whether it be the creeping glaciation, the lack of resources, or invasion of your territory by other creatures.
There is a lot going on in Species, with a lot of rules to pay attention to. But this is a good thing, for those patient enough for a long and complicated game such as this. The wide selection of actions creates very interesting strategic dynamics in the game. There are a lot of interesting and varied ways to get what you want or to take away what others have. There are sneaky ways, like destroying available resources, more direct ways like competing for space or mass migrations, and combinations with the cards that can cause all types of events.
Dominant Species is long, around 4 hours long. Its heavy, both physically and in its rules set. It’s also incredible, unique, and very satisfying. It shows how far you can take a Eurogame into the war game realm, all while having an interesting theme that you can actually feel. A game for the ice ages!