First Impressions: Dominant Species

pic784193This is a game I’ve been eager to play for a long, long time.

Dominant Species has gotten a lot of praise over the years, and the theme instantly hooked me. It tickled the part of me that was so fond of “edutainment” as a child. Not that I expected a learning experience—I’m fully aware of the basics of survival of the fittest by now—but combining an unusual theme I was taught in school with a game reminds me of the days when those topics were made more engaging and more palatable with games or video.

My expectations were for a robust and highly thematic game outside GMT’s wheelhouse. After all, they’re a publisher best known for war games, not something like this. I wanted to develop my species into the most competitive ones around, even though the cover of the box kind of made it look like we’d be teaming up like some kind of weird rag-tag band of animals teaming up for an action movie. Like a prehistoric version of the A-Team.

So how did it stack up? Pretty well, as it turns out—though it’s a very different game from what I thought it would be.

Let’s start the theme. I expected, naturally, to take the role of a species. The truth is… stranger that. Much like in Twilight Struggle where you don’t really play the US or USSR so much as vague forces of history in favor of one side or the other, in Dominant Species, you play vague forces of nature rooting for a particular class of animals. You don’t play one species but several, and most of the decisions you make are not directly related to your species at all. You might make a tile provide new needs for the animals inhabiting it, remove those resources, or cover it entirely with ice, among other ways of changing the board rather than your critters directly.

That’s just one of the ways in which the theme of the game is obtuse. It’s hard to say exactly who you are in the game, and it’s hard to say how exactly you win. There’s no one goal, you just try to be… the best, somehow. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself—I love Terra Mystica, a huge offender in this regard—but it sure does make the game a beast to understand. You have several possible goals, not just one, and a bunch of factors you need to juggle to position yourself such that you can seize opportunities when they come.

It’s one of those games where none of it makes sense until all of it makes sense. there are so many actions you can take, and while each individual one might be simple, you’re not going to really grasp why you would do one thing or the other until you understand the way they all fit together.

It’s also a volatile game, where the board can change drastically from one turn to the other. You need to focus on turn-by-turn tactics rather than long-term strategies. It was a double-edged sword. Everyone’s position is tenuous, so a lead is rarely guaranteed. It’s not like Twilight Struggle where a prolonged lead means inevitable victory unless you make a blunder. On the other hand, it also means that a mistake can be absolutely catastrophic. You can recover from a setback, but early in the game, one player was wiped completely off the map. He recovered enough to come close to the other two, but was essentially out of the running for winning the game by the second or third round (and this is a long game to sit through that sort of thing).

In short, there is no security in this game, just an ever-present risk of disaster.

I may have made the game sound like a mess. Sure, it’s not elegant by any means, but it is a clever machine. We had fun playing it, after all—it’s just that it felt each of us would have had more fun if we really knew what we were doing, especially if all the players were.

As for the positives…

The game is deep. That’s the result of the mess: options. It’s an almost inscrutable collection of mechanisms, but I got the distinct impression that once we got the hang of it we could make it sing. It’s complex, but not haphazard.

It actually combines some robust European-style game mechanisms. The two clearest examples are worker placement for the action selection, and area control on the map. There are some clever innovations, too, namely in the ordered resolution of actions and the way all the bookkeeping is represented on the board. You can predict several important details about the near future at a glance.

I’m excited to see how my opinion changes over multiple plays; no doubt much of the game has yet to reveal itself. For now, I can say this: Dominant Species is a heavy and cerebral game, with an interesting but abstracted theme. You’ll have more fun playing it once you know what you’re doing, and especially if everyone at the table does, too. It’s not so much of an investment that you won’t have fun the first go around, so do give it a try if you get the chance.

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