Dominant Species represents a game of some contradiction. The gameplay is essentially clever and elegant, but the packaging in which it is delivered lacks style. Fundamentally, people’s attitude towards this game will fall down to how much they prefer style and/or substance.
What strikes me as the most engaging aspect of this game is the inherent balance of its gameplay; it is a game affected by a number of interlocking systems that replicate evolutionary stakes preceding an ice age. The route to success is best chartered by those who navigate between excess and paucity, and constantly keeping the dual demands of growth and conservation of energy in check.
In playing this game, you are manipulating the evolutionary changes of one of six animal classes: insects, arachnids, amphibians, birds, lizards, mammals; each begins the game in a state of relative equilibrium, but as the game progresses, the impending ice age forces a survival of the fittest. The animal class that has the most amount of victory points when the ice age arrives wins, by virtue of being best positioned to survive.
The ‘world’ of the game is created through a series of hexagonal tiles, which start in a circle of seven hexes, but slowly expands outwards with new tiles as they are explored. As the ice age settled in, previously viable land tiles become frozen and converted into tundra, reducing the amount of food and living space across the world.
Each round begins with the placement of a number of cylindrical Action Pawns (“APs”), with the order of play by default, being the food chains (see the animal classes listed in the order above). The class with initiative goes first, selects one of the available spaces, and this continues in a round robin until all possible APs are exhausted; noting that there are certain cards that will allow yourself and other players to increase their number of APs.
After APs are placed, the associated actions are carried out in the predetermined order.This addresses each action as a single row from top to bottom, and multiple actions within that row from left to right. So for actions with multiple options, there are strategic choices about the order in which you place your APs. Most actions that allow for multiple APs, will allow the same player to choose that action multiple times.
Rather than going through each of the actions in detail, a quick summary of the jist of their work:
- Initiative allows you to place your class of animals to first place in the initiative;
- Adaptation allows you to expand what types of food your class can eat, and is followed by a Regression phase that universally removes certain types of food from all animals (the actions for this space preventing that regression);
- Abundance allows the player to select a food source and place it on the world, and is followed by two subordinate actions of Wasteland and Depletion, which have differing effects to reduce food sources in the world;
- Glaciation allows one player to turn a tile into a tundra;
- Speciation is a quick way of placing more of your animals on the board;
- Wanderlust allows you to add more tiles to the world;
- Migration allows you to move animals across the board;
- Competition allows you to eliminate other animals from tiles you have a vested interest; and
- Domination allows you to claim Victory Points according to certain conditions, as well as providing a Dominance Card to the player with the most significant control over that tile.
The game continues until someone selects the ice age during Domination, which precipitates the ending. Points are rounded up and a victor declared.
As much as I enjoyed this game, I was fairly disappointed with the implementation. Functionally speaking, the implementation is very good; it does what it needs to do, provides you the game well, but there are none of the refined features that make the game play truly immersive and enjoyable.
Yes, there is a tutorial, but it is almost entirely dependent on textual readings that will inevitably become a barrier for large numbers of people who just want to jump into the game. There is nothing to ease the participant into play, and no attempt to perhaps explain some of the strategic rationales behind choices. Yes, there are quick in-game textual explanations for each step, but they still don’t get over that first initial barrier.
There are sound effects too, but there is no music or accompanying ambient sound. The menus, and other parts of the interface are crude and basic, which is where the premium games have taken the opportunity to add much superlative and possibly superfluous art; but then that is the point of artistry, to move beyond sheer utility.
Most of me loved this game, and that fact that I’ve come out the other end with a mostly positive disposition speaks highly of the game play itself. However, I recognise that a lot of people are going to throw their hands up in frustration; firstly at attempting to learning the game, and then at the lack of immersion. If you are the type of person that enjoys strategic games, then I encourage you to make the effort to discover the game, and if not perhaps wait for an update until the UI is more engaging.