Friday, 14 September 2012

Dominant Species: The Card Game

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Dominant Species: The Card Game is played over 10 rounds, and in each round the players compete over a biome card. On your turn, you play a card or pass for the rest of the round. There are two types of cards. An animal card has a number on it (called the food chain value) and some icons (called elements). The number lets you compete for dominance (scoring you a number of points equal to the round number), and the icons let you compete for matching icons on the biome card (worth between 1 to 4pts). Some animal cards let you suppress another animal card in play, by rotating it to the weaker side, or even discarding it if is already weakened. The other card type is the event card - just follow instructions on it. E.g. boosting the food chain value of your cards in play, forcing everyone to pass immediately, allowing some players to draw a card(s).

Once everyone has passed, scoring for the round is done. Other than dominance scoring (total food chain value) and elements scoring (matching icons), the player or players with the highest dominance score get to advance on the survival track. This is quite important, because before the tenth and last round, instead of drawing 2 cards like previous rounds, you draw a number of cards equal to your position on the survival track. Also at game end, you gain 5pts for having the highest survival position or lose 5pts for being lowest.

The biome for the last round is preset, so everyone knows what's coming. At any one time, both the current biome being fought over and the next one are known, so you can plan ahead a little. Each biome card determines whether a certain animal type (e.g. mammals, insects, birds) gains some advantage or disadvantage, which will also help you plan how to spend / conserve your cards.

And that's almost all there is to the game. Sounds simple? And completely different from the predecessor?

The game board is small, and is only a tracker. This is purely a card game. The cards with white backgrounds are tundra cards, a type of biome card. The icons on the cards indicate elements that can score, and the two species icons on each card show species that gain an advantage / disadvantage for the round.

My animal cards. The number is the food chain value, used for competing for dominance. The icons are the elements. Some cards have icons of a stop sign on top of another species. That's the suppression icon. You can suppress one already-in-play card of that species. The bottom half of an animal card is its weaker side, to be used if the card is suppressed.

An event card. Some events take effect immediately. Some are in effect for the rest of the round.

The Play

We played a 4-player game, which seems to be a good number. Not too many players that the competition becomes too brutal, and not too few that it becomes boring. We quickly discovered the importance of, ahem, "sharing". When two players tie for dominance scoring (or element scoring), both earn the full points. So if two (or more) players are leading, and they can agree on a joint victory, they can stop spending cards to compete with each other. This is attractive because cards are scarce. It is painful to have committed many cards, only to be outspent by others and win nothing. It is important to learn when to concede, when to fight, and when to negotiate. And maybe when to backstab too (although that didn't happen in our game; not that I was thinking about it mind you).

The race on the survival track is tense. The 5pts for being on top is lucrative, and the -5pts for being behind is scary.

In the last round everyone will go all out, since you don't need to save cards for the future anymore. There is a twist though. A round can end in two ways - when everyone passes, and when a player passes while holding no more cards. That means in that final round you won't be able to play all your cards even if you have many more than your opponents. You are restricted by the player who holds the fewest cards. So having many cards for Round 10 only means that you have more cards to pick from, and hopefully that means you will be able to play better quality cards than others.

Our game came quite close. Everyone was within striking distance when Round 10 started. Round 10 felt like the final big boss battle in many computer games. It was the culmination of 9 rounds of hard work. No more Mr Nice Guy cooperative nonsense. It was Highlander time - there can only be one! Lots of suppression occurred, even causing animals to be killed off. All the most powerful cards had been saved for that climactic fight. I won Round 10, and eventually the game.

My hand of cards for Round 10.

The Thoughts

The card game version of Dominant Species is a very different animal from its predecessor, but I was pleasantly surprised that it has some similar feelings - especially how important the last round is and how you need to keep it in mind throughout the game. The game also reminds me of Taj Mahal. You usually draw only two cards per round, and you can't afford to compete fiercely every round. You need to pick your battles. Getting tied up in a long, brutal fight can be disastrous. Win or lose, you come out resource-starved. What also surprised me is the game can have a fair bit of negotiation and cooperation, because sometimes it's win-win to agree with an opponent to tie for dominance. You both score the full points, and you can conserve your cards by not prolonging the fight. However there is also a risk of getting betrayed - the opponent who ties with you and promises to not continue playing any card after you pass may have a sudden change of heart after you pass.

I like how the dominance scoring escalates. You really cannot allow yourself to miss out too much in the second half when the dominance score is 6pts and above. In the early rounds, the dominance scoring has few points, but it is still important because you need to advance on the survival track, which has a big impact in setting up for Round 10 and in game-end scoring.

It's a card game, so there is luck. But there is enough information to allow planning ahead and strategising. This is meant to be a quick (and sometimes nasty) game, just don't expect a summarised version of Dominant Species.

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