Dominant Species Board Game Review
By MARK WILSON
Year Published: 2010
Playing Time: 120-240 Minutes
Every bad thing you’ll read about Dominant Species is true:
- It can be long for what it is.
- It’s brutal and unpredictable.
- The Dominance cards are very swing-y and at times will feel unfair.
- The components inspired the parody game Cones of Dunshire (as seen on the Parks & Rec TV show), and it’s easy to see why. The art and components are an un-thematic mess.
I’m only going to offer meager rebuttals toward any of those. They’re valid critiques.
So now that I’ve dug that hole, I’m going to set to the work of telling you why I really, really like Dominant Species.
Dominant Species – The Basics of Play
My reviews tend to assume the audience knows the basics, and this is no exception. Dominant Species is an area control game by way of worker placement. Expanding and “dominating” territory in one of a handful of ways will net you points, and you’ll be navigating in and amongst a bunch of other species as they vie for dominance, as well as several event cards that could be potentially catastrophic for one or more players.
Length and Complexity
The game that reminds me of Dominant Species (DS) is Food Chain Magnate (FCM). The basic rules for both are surprisingly palatable for such “complex” games. It’s maneuvering within those rules that introduces the occasionally intimidating complexity both games are known for.
FCM’s humble opening rounds quickly give way to staggering numbers of choices. DS remains a bit more bounded in terms of total overall choices, but the implications of each decision you make (and just as importantly, the ones you don’t make) are equally staggering.
The result isn’t good or bad, but amounts to a few considerations:
- Despite the chaos, the more experienced player(s) will have some advantages, since they’ll understand how to navigate the chaos. This has implications for the experience level of those you’re playing with, and how they may (or may not) enjoy it. The most experienced player won’t always win, but the new player almost certainly won’t.
- The likelihood of analysis paralysis (AP) soars into the stratosphere in the game’s later rounds. This is how people end up complaining about 5-hour sessions of DS. I’ve personally topped out around 4 hours even with max players, and most are more like 3 hours. But we all also know to keep the pace of play moving along, so this will vary between groups.
For the type of gamers that enjoy being able to endlessly study a game, but never truly solve it due to the human aspects, this is a gold mine.
The strategy forums for Dominant Species on Board Game Geek are some of the most robust in the entire hobby. And yet, there’s nothing approaching a definitive strategy, because the weight of even two players working against you will always be more powerful than any individual strategy you muster.
Brutality and Caprice
Let’s get this out of the way: the brutality of the game is a feature, not a bug. Unless it’s the Insect faction harassing you in-game, in which case it’s also literally a bug.
It’s also something I don’t mind. If a game delivers really epic moments, I don’t mind slogging through the depths that occasionally come with capricious, brutal games.
And yet, one of the criticisms I’ll level against DS that I think is at least slightly damning is that when you combine the brutality with the length, it’s very possible for a player to more or less know they’re out of contention…but with an hour and a half of play to go.
Mind you, this is rare. The game allows you to charge back from near-extinction more quickly than some realize. But if you spend long enough getting pummeled, even a great second-half strategy won’t make up for it.
Table talk and metagame strategy is intended to partially make up for this. No one’s deliberately picking on the player in last place. But sometimes doing what’s best for you is also going to hurt another player. If that player happens to be hurting already, you can only shrug at such moments and hope they even out over the long haul.
And at some point, you’re going to feel the rage of a thousand suns due to some random Dominance card that you don’t have a chance to draft before it’s taken and used to devastating effect. Good or bad, I play for moments like this. If you don’t, though, this probably isn’t a great game for you.
Et Tu, Components?
It’s like the game went out of its way to make sure there was some low hanging fruit to pick on.
To be clear, the components are perfectly functional. I’m categorically NOT the type of gamer to gush over miniature-laden games, or those with lavish artwork that commands attention over the game itself, nor do I need my games to be more than functional in order to love them to death.
But really, Dominant Species?! I mean, come on.
Whatever. I want to talk about my appreciation for this game. The components make me laugh, and could definitely help sell the theme more with a little bit of effort, but they work fine.
Closed or Open? Sandbox Elements in Gaming
Worker placement games, by their very nature, limit choice. They don’t have the same freedom available in many other genres, where you might have only half a dozen actions, but 100 different ways you could implement those actions.
I’d call most worker placement games “closed.” This isn’t pejorative. I enjoy several worker placement games. I use it only for descriptive purposes.
Dominant Species is worker placement. But it’s an “open” game. Why? Because the worker slots remain static throughout the game, but the ways in which you can execute the actions they allow is myriad. How exactly do you choose to evolve? Where do you move, and in what numbers? Who to attack, and where? Which dominance card to select, and which hex to choose to score? How to configure glaciers in ways that affect the entire board state?
My group will even bargain for certain placements or selections, which adds minor negotiation elements to the game. No traditional worker placement game can boast of this kind of interaction, or at least none that I know of.
It’s this “open” side that I love. It’s where the true game happens. And it’s why Dominant Species transcends some of the trappings of worker placement games, which can become formulaic if the only interaction is in the action selection itself.
Theme and Emergence
It might be cliche to talk about emergent complexity, but I think the label applies better here than for many due to its open nature. There’s never a dull moment, and never an action that has no implications for you. Everything is important to everyone in some way.
I love having to pay attention to everyone’s turns. Here, it’s a necessity not just to watch it unfold but to try to predict it at times.
I also want to talk about theme vs. setting. The setting (art, components, etc.) is hindered by the components, but the theme (war for survival) is alive and well in any session of Dominant Species. You’ll really feel as though you’re clawing your way to the top of the food chain, elbowing other species in a dance for survival.
The game is alive with this theme. You just have to sink into its gameplay before that theme becomes evident. In that sense, it’s got a bit in common with Tigris & Euphrates, another of my favorites. T&E looks bland and seems dry, until you’re staring wide-eyed as your empires rise and fall before you. But it takes a commitment in order to evoke these emotional moments.
DS lacks the elegance of Tigris & Euphrates, and I did say that the opening criticisms were valid. And so they are.
The conclusion I come to, then, is that I love the core of DS, despite the flaws I see around the edges:
- Most rounds feel super satisfying, even if I’m losing. But an occasional round will have you watching as your plans get nuked for seemingly arbitrary reasons (like the order of draw in Dominance cards).
- Most rounds feel tense and exciting. But every now and then, they drag to the point where the game loses momentum.
- I can’t believe they approached component design like it’s an abstract experience, but I love that it plays like a tactical, thematic wargame more than its individual mechanics and components would suggest.
I love 80% of this game, and dislike the other 20%. But I tolerate the 20% because the 80% is so damned delicious. You’ll have to put up with some of that 20%; and it may be too onerous for you. This is a game with a distinct audience, and it’s going to polarize anyone outside of that wheelhouse. If you’re in the wheelhouse, though, you’re probably in for a good time.