Similar to the story of many other gamers, my entry into the hobby started with war games. Today I mainly play the more peaceful euro games but my fascination for maneuvering and controlling events on a board has never left me and is probably a reason why area control is my number one favorite mechanic. This is also the reason why Dominant Species caught my attention.
Dominant Species is commonly described as a war game disguised as a euro game. The euro part is that you use action pawn placement to manage an animal class. The war part is the "survival of the fittest" - what you build in the game can and will be destroyed. If that wasn't enough to sell the game to me, the designer Chad Jensen's idea of area control certainly was. Not only do you control areas but you also control the conditions that determine your control. Does it sound complicated? Not at all, let us look at the different aspects of control.
Expand your animal
First you need to bring your species, represented by cubes, to the tiles with the actions speciation and migration. The animal with the most species on a tile earns the most victory points during the special domination action. As most area control games, it doesn't matter how many species you have as long as you have the most. Many tiles award victory points for the second most species, the third most species and so on so it is possible to get a free ride at others' actions.
Fit your animal
Second, you need to fit your animal class to the tiles. You do this by placing elements, represented by chits, on your animal AND/OR on the corners of the tiles with the actions adaptation and abundance. The best fit, as measured by the matching elements on your animal times the matching elements around the tile, gives you dominance and earns you potentially powerful dominance cards during the special domination action. That's right, you have the power to fit both your animal and the nature around it! You need to balance the two - no adaptation at all will endanger your animal and remove your species.
Expand the world
Third, you need to decide which new fertile tiles to add to the world with the wanderlust action and which tiles to cover by non-fertile tundra with the glaciation action. The former action can be used to give your animal (and potentially competing animals) more areas to grow and score in while the latter action can be used to devastate areas where competing animals grow and score.
Fight your competitors
Other options include actions such as competition (remove opponent species), regression (remove elements from animals) and wasteland (remove elements from tiles). I told you this was a war game in disguise, didn't I? It is not enough to build a strong animal, you have to constantly defend it as well.
As in all good euro games, you will want to take all those actions but both your action pawns and the action spaces are limited so the competition will be fierce.
However, unlike the normal euro game you will not do all this on a private player board but rather in a crowded common world. Your species may prosper in a fertile land one round only to be endangered in a wasteland the next round so you must pay close attention to the other players' plans.
Is Dominant Species for you?
Given all this, how does it feel to play Dominant Species? Well, it is certainly a challenging experience. The game gives a lot of control to the players. There is randomness when it comes to which elements are available on the action board and which dominance card a dominant player may choose from but this information is open to all players at the beginning of a round so that they may modify their strategies accordingly. In a way it feels like an epic civilization game, where you start building an empire from scratch and experience its rise and fall through history. Dominant Species will give you plenty of memorable tales.
So who would enjoy Dominant Species? Both euro and war gamers. The euro gamer may enjoy planning his or her actions and timing when to switch from resource focus (actions to maximize presence) to victory points (actions to score from your presence). The war gamer may enjoy assessing the terrain of the board and predicting the plans of the other players to assess where to fight and where to withdraw.
So who would not enjoy Dominant Species then? The answer is again both euro and war gamers. The hard core euro gamer may shun the confrontative aspects of the game while hard core war gamers may feel to restricted by the limited actions. My own main objection is that the game can be a bit too swingy at times, particularly since most victory points are earned in the end game scoring. Even the strongest position, carefully built up during several rounds, can be reduced to nothing when the game is over. This can lead to a feeling that the first part of the game is meaningless. On the other hand it also means that Dominant Species is often an open affair to the very end. Is this good or bad? It is a matter of personal taste. The important thing is to set the expectations before introducing Dominant Species - I have seen it utterly fail with some gaming groups.
Is Dominant Species for me? (Spoiler: Yes!)
My personal opinion is that Dominant Species is a very well designed game with mechanics that fit together like a well oiled machine. The production is also great with chunky wooden pieces and big sturdy tiles. The rules deserve a special mention and I know that many agree with me on this point: they are simply the best rules ever written with a logical structure and clear examples. If you want to play an epic game that satisfy both your inner euro gamer and your inner war gamer and do not have time for Advanced Civilization (reviewed here), Dominant Species is your choice!
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