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Dominant Species

This month’s game day was something of a bust in one respect: we only had two guests, who already hang out often with each other (and with Eileene), so there wasn’t much in the way of contact with distant friends. But that shortcoming had a silver lining, in that Tor and Nik are both willing to tackle somewhat larger, more complicated games than most of our regular crowd. We spent virtually the whole time on a game called Dominant Species, which Nik owns and Eileene was eager to try.

Evolution seems to be a natural subject for games to explore, especially lying as it does in the sociopolitical “safe zone” of warlike competition without actually being a war, which can be a touchy, unpopular subject for German/European game market. Yet evolution-themed games as a class have historically been disappointing for a variety of reasons: too much luck, too much silliness, poor production values, religious politics and a hilarious attempt to “prove” creationism, and perhaps above all the pitfalls of deciding just how to simulate evolution as a game. Should players represent one or more species, or should they be trying to fill their biomes with a desirable mix drawn from a common pool? Should they be try to outpopulate their rivals or race for an advanced state of evolution? How frequent and catastrophic should environmental changes be? How do you simulate the haphazard nature of evolution in a game when games by definition imply intelligent design in the form of player strategies?

Dominant Species does a pretty good job of navigating these pitfalls. Players each randomly select an animal class—insects, birds, mammals, etc.—with minor bonuses such as speedier migration or free population growth. Their starting populations are seeded into a starter map of hexes defined by terrain type and “element” chips that determine which species can dominate a hex and whether a species can survive there at all. Animals don’t adapt to terrains; they adapt to the elements present in those terrains.

The turn order is long and fairly complex. Some effects happen automatically, but most are player choices. At the beginning of the turn, players take turns reserving game actions including such choices as adding a new terrain hex, wiping out an old hex with glaciers, adding population markers (“species”) to the board, altering elements on either board or animal, and scoring select hexes. Once all players have committed their action markers, the results are worked out in strict order.

Victory goes to the player with the highest point total at game’s end. One can earn points from a variety of sources, but the biggest source of points is the occupation and scoring of territory. Fertile tiles like wetlands and seas score many points, while deserts and mountains score few, with the lion’s share of either going to the player with the most species therein. Distinct from population, a player may “dominate” a hex by matching his animal’s elements to those on the hex; domination itself earns no points, but does entitle the dominating player to execute a special, one-time action that can range from wonderful to wimpy, depending on timing and board conditions.

Most of the strategy in the game, then, lies in maneuvering to populate and score the most valuable hexes. Players can’t simply populate and score, however; they must keep a sharp eye to matching elements, either to dominate a hex and earn that special action or simply to survive—an animal whose elements match none of a hex’s elements dies off. Getting caught without supporting elements is frighteningly easy, as I twice (!) discovered to my horror.

Dominant Species is an adequate simulation of biological competition, apart from its eagerness in German/European style to offer substantial bonus points for everything, including otherwise pointless or self-destructive actions. (“+10 points for occupying the most tundra! Good for you!”) More to the point, it’s a very good game of biological competition. Your limited budget of actions is tense without going so far as to be frustrating, as games relying on a limited action mechanic often do. (Usually. If you screw up like I did and lose two thirds of your population, you mght find yourself unable to score no matter how you twist, but that’s your fault.) Advancing glaciation and the constant churn of elements keep the territorial scramble fluid. The luck element is significant but kept well under control; relying on luck is a sign of trying to recover an earlier blunder. Point values are well balanced, though a first-time player will misjudge often how aggressively to pursue various objectives.

On the down side, Dominant Species requires a commitment. As novices, we spent six hours on the game, and I doubt play time will ever shrink to the advertized three hours. As Tor observed, the game is prone to analysis paralysis, the often illusory sense that you can improve your performance through painstaking and time-consuming analysis. (See 1830, Agricola, and Axis & Allies for other examples.) For devoted gamers, Dominant Species will repay commitment with a rich, continuing challenge, but casual gamers will find they’ve bitten off more than they want to chew.

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