Thursday, 19 May 2011

Dominant Species

Plays: 3Px2.

The Game

Dominant Species is a game with a rarely seen theme - the evolution and survival of various species of animals as an ice age approaches. Players are animals (here defined as whole animal classes, e.g. reptiles, mammals, insects), and their pieces on the board are species. Competition in the game is in two main aspects - to be the most populous, and to adapt the best to your environment. There are a number of different ways to score points, but most points come from these two.

The key concept in the game is adaptability. Each terrain tile on the map of Earth has some elements which represent what kind of environment it is, e.g. whether it has an abundance of vegetation, or fruits, or water. Each animal (remember this refers to a whole animal class) starts with being very well adapted to one specific element. This means it can only survive on terrain tiles containing that element. As the game progresses, players are able to evolve their animals to adapt to other different elements or to adapt even better to some elements that they have already adapted to. They also modify elements on Earth, making it better suited to their animals or worse to their opponents' animals. When species of two or more different animals coexist on the same terrain tile, they compete for dominance, defined as who is best adapted to the environment (i.e. composition of elements) of that specific tile. Players match the elements on that tile against their animal to determine who is best adapted. This means if you adapt very well in a few elements, you will likely dominate terrain tiles with these elements, and if you adapt weakly to many different elements, you can live in more places but may not dominate much.

Having dominance is important for being able to claim and use dominance cards, which have various effects and can be very powerful if used in the right situations. There is also a scoring near game end based on dominance, which players need to be prepared for.

Starting setup for beginners. I (green, amphibians) had more Dominance cones than others because I adapted to 3 water elements while the other animals only adapted to 2 sun and fruits elements respectively.

My animal. The amphibians have 3 water elements pre-printed on the animal card, and only 3 available slots for them to adapt to new elements. This animal card has a summary of all the available actions in the game.

The game is driven by a worker placement mechanism similar to Age of Empires III . There is an action selection section on the board, on which players take turns placing their action pawns. After all action pawns are placed, all actions are resolved one-by-one from top to bottom. Other than modifying elements on Earth and elements that your animal adapts to, you can do all sorts of other things, e.g. breed more species, kill opponents' species, explore and find new terrain, migrate your species to different terrains, spread the tundra (representing the coming of the ice age), and very importantly, score a tile based on population. Sometimes animals will lose abilities to adapt to certain elements, and this is something to watch out for. It is not necessarily bad, because sometimes you want this to free up slots for your animal to adapt to other elements.

The action selection part of the board. The black eye spots (Sauron?) are where you place your action pawns.

Some element tokens in the action selection section remain for future rounds and impact the actions available. E.g. if an element available for Adaptation is not picked by anyone, in the next round it becomes a Regression element, i.e. animals will lose this trait.

Ways to score points:

  1. Spreading tundra (game term is Glaciation).
  2. Discovering new terrain (game term is Wanderlust).
  3. Picking a single tile to score based on population (game term is Domination, which has a completely different in-game meaning from Dominance or Dominant and is often a cause for confusion).
  4. Some dominance cards give points.
  5. Bonus points every round for whoever survives the best on tundra.
  6. Near game end, there is a one-time scoring for Dominance (how well adapted to their environments the animals are).
  7. At game end, there is a one-time scoring for every terrain tile for Domination (population).

The Play

In the first game that Allen, Han and I played, Allen was the reptiles, Han was the birds and I was the amphibians. As the amphibians my unique ability was that I was adapted to 3 water elements at the start of the game, as opposed to other animals which had only 2 start elements. Unfortunately there were not many water elements on the board in the early half of the game, so I didn't do so well in Dominance (i.e. comparing adaptability). I didn't do Glaciation (spread tundra) or Wanderlust (discover new tile) much, which in hindsight I probably should have done more, because both gave points. Although throughout the first half I more or less managed to keep up with the others in points, my board position didn't look good, and I ended up resorting to violence a lot. Many of my species had died (left the game permanently - your number of species is limited), so I wanted to try to trim down Allen and Han's numbers too. That didn't turn out to be very helpful unfortunately. I (amphibians) was lowest in the food chain, which meant when it came to Domination (i.e. comparing population), ties were resolved not in my favour. I was first to use up all my species cubes, intentionally trying to flood the board by numbers. I think that helped a little, but not much. In the last round, because I had used up my species, I didn't take any more breeding action (game term is Speciation). However I forgot about Glaciation. I had a bunch of my species killed by Glaciation that round, and species killed by Glaciation are the only exception in that they go back to your supply. Had I anticipated that, I would have done breeding so that I could get more species onto the board to fight for Domination.

For the specific tile scoring (game term is Domination), points are awarded not just to the animal with the most species (most cubes on the tile), but often also to others with lesser presence. During the game I managed to keep up mostly because I managed to stay in second place for many tiles, so when Han and Allen scored "their" tiles, they also gave me some points.

Still in the early game. Tundra has spread once.

Allen lead the game in points for most of the game. Han was best tundra survivor most of the game. That was a steady points income. Han's adaptability approach was to focus on fruits. His animal (birds) has 2 default fruit elements, and he gained even more during the game. At first we didn't know that element was fruits. From a distance it looked like a bra, so we started calling Han the king of bras. Han was overall most successful in adaptability (Dominance), and near end-game the one-time Dominance scoring gave him 45pts. He jumped into the lead, and eventually won the game. All hail Triumph (lingerie brand)!

The yellow bra.

Late game. Look at all those yellow cones! (Han's)


In our game Domination scoring (specific tile scoring based on population) was the most claimed action. Most of the time all slots were claimed before anyone started placing action pawns on other action spaces. Whenever Domination (most populous) scoring is done for a tile, whoever has Dominance (best adapted) must pick and execute a Dominance card. So we tried to make sure there were tiles where we had the most species and at the same time adapted best. However it wasn't always easy to do. Dominance cards have all sorts of very interesting powers. Some can be devastating, some are quite situational, some have different importance to different players depending on the board situation.

In the second game, Allen was the insects, Han the mammals and I the arachnids. This time we used a random starting setup, which I found much less troublesome and also more interesting. Scores were close throughout most of the game. We made fewer silly mistakes. The game still took quite long to play, about 2.5hrs, i.e. not much quicker than the first game. I think this is because many actions in the game have many implications, so we must do things step by step, and not try to do things in parallel, which we usually try to do whenever we can (Merchants and Marauders in 50 minutes!).

The random setup that we used for the second game. Lots of suns, but too bad none of our animals needed suns.

I remembered how important the one-time Dominance (adapting best) scoring was, and tried to stop Han from gaining Dominance too much. Unfortunately he still did much better than either of us, and scored the max possible 45pts again when it came to the last round. Thankfully for me this time I went for the Survival scoring and managed to get many points from it. I scored 20+ points for a few rounds. Survival points aren't worth much in the early game because there aren't many tundra tiles, but towards late game it can be very lucrative if you have species on many tundra tiles.

One memorable event in this second game was Allen's usage of the Blight card in the first round, removing 5 elements from the central tile. That was rather devastating for Han, but did not hurt Allen because he had very few matching elements at the start anyway. Later in the game Allen did a Wasteland action which also hurt me. That Wasteland action let him remove all sun elements next to tundras, and in this game I was the only animal which needed sun elements. Some of my species now faced extinction. Most painful would be losing species on 3 tundra tiles, because that would greatly reduce my Survival score. Also very painful was losing Dominance in a few terrain tiles. Thankfully I had chosen a Wanderlust action that round, and I placed a new tile next to two of my endangered species, and added an element to that critical tile intersection that allowed them to survive afterall. That new tile was a wetland tile, and since only I had presence in that area, I scored a lot of points from it all for myself.

The Blight card, which Allen used to great effect.

I won this second game, mostly because of the Survival points. It was quite a close game. This game we all did better in spreading our presence and most tiles have species of all 3 animals. The Domination action was still a mandatory action - everyone picked it until all slots were occupied. I picked it often not because I had good scoring tiles, but because I wanted to deny others from scoring even more. I wonder whether that's a right thing to do and whether other game groups play like this.

In the late game, most tiles have presence of all 3 players.

That's me, in samseng (gangster) negotiation mode, declaring, "You hurt 6 of my brothers, and I will make sure 6 of your brothers will never walk again". Actually, I'm just counting 6 migration actions to allow me to maintain most presence on tundra tiles.

The Thoughts

Dominant Species is not a hard game to learn and to play. All the actions make sense. The complexity comes from the fact that many actions have a lot of downstream impacts. At the start of a round you need to read the available Dominance cards and consider the various possibilities. Will they help or hurt you? Will they help or hurt your opponents? You need to make these considerations for many of the available actions. Elements that may be removed due to Wasteland or Depletion can have a big impact. Elements available to be adapted to via Adaptation can be a big help. Glaciation and Wanderlust actions can be very damaging and helpful respectively. This is definitely not a game to play with people who over-analyse. I prefer to play it with a mix of quick analysis and gut feel. I try to analyse the board situation by taking a high-level view, I don't want to count every single species on every single tile. You can calculate all the possibilities (this is a fully open-information game), but it is just too time-consuming and it's going to be a fun-killer.

Calculating and recalculating Dominance is tedious. That's why you need the cones as reminders. Still, you often need to recheck and update. I don't mind tedium as long as the game is good. Just like Indonesia. But this is not as bad as Indonesia. The components are fine. Functional and not ugly, these are my requirements. Again, I don't really mind components as long as the game is good. That's why I seldom talk about game components.

Dominant Species is an area majority game, a genre that I'm generally not a fan of. However the game is rich enough that I don't mind the area majority part. The area majority mechanism is just one of many interesting mechanisms in the game.

In this game it is important to have both long-term and short-term perspectives. You need to grab tactical gains to make sure you don't fall behind, and you also need to prepare for the two major scoring events at game end - the Dominance (best adapting) scoring and the Domination (most populous) scoring. There is also the Survival scoring which can be a significant factor.

The Dominance cards drive the pace of the game. They add a lot of flavour and story, and they are also an important part of creating variability. They are not there for the sake of theme only.

The game is long, and I would hesitate playing it with 6, maybe even 5. But it's a fun ride, mutating your animal and spreading it far and wide, shaping Earth and its elements, and doing all sorts of nasty things to other animals. The game (and the players) can be rather brutal at times. Species can go extinct. High-scoring terrain tiles can turn into low-valued tundra. Some Dominance cards are devastating. But hey, life is tough (especially during the Ice Age), get used to it.


Anonymous said...

Wasteland action happens automatically, you don't choose to activate it. Putting a worker there only prevents it from happening. (It removes one element from the wasteland section)

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

you are right. i think it was only by our third game that we realised that. i had completely misunderstood that part and had taught the others wrong. oops.

Anonymous said...

I purchased 20 dices in each species' colors in 10 mm to use as a counter for dominates, so for each player that has a dominants count > 0 on a tile they place a die showing their count, in their color. You can then just look at each occupied tile and see where everyone stands. Ex, red player shows a 4, green a 6, you have a yellow 3, you know you need to bump by 4 to take dominants away from green with a 7 which would require two green dice on the tile.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

That's an interesting idea. Definitely useful to be able to see things at a glance. Would it be too much overhead though? When there are changes in elements on the tiles, and when there are changes in elements that the species can adapt to, that would require recalculation and updating of every die wouldn't it?