What do you get if you take all of your favorite game elements – area control, worker placement, variable player powers – and cram them into one game? If you’re designer Chad Jensen, you end up with Dominant Species: an area control game where each player controls one of the major animal classes (mammal, reptile, bird, amphibian, arachnid, or insect) and attempts to have that class grow and thrive, adapting to the available food sources and spinning out more species, while the threat of the oncoming ice age looms ever larger..
The game takes two to six players, although I’ve only played it with four or higher (and in fact, I suspect that four players is the sweet spot). At the start of the game, there are a half dozen hexes on the board, with various food sources spread out between them, and each animal has a handful of species in play. This is an area control game, but there are two types of area control. The first one is simple: if you have more species in a hex than anyone else, you’ll get the most points when that hex is scored. Animals higher up in the food chain win ties, so the mammals win all ties, the insects lose all ties, etc. (Turn order starts out in the reverse of the food chain order, so inserts move faster than everyone else…and they’d better, to not get eaten!) The second type of area control is dominance: each animal has a number of food markers (“elements”) on its display, and if you have at least one species in a hex and match more markers than anyone else, you’re dominant over that hex. For example, if you have two meat and one grass on your display, while the hex has two meat, a grass, and a water, your total dominance score is 2×2 (meat) plus 1×1 (water), so you beat anyone with less than five dominance. There’s no tiebreaker here, however; if there’s a tie for first, then nobody is dominant on this hex.
Why do you want to be dominant? One of the actions (remember, this is a worker placement game) that you can take is to score a hex; when this happens, points are awarded based on the number of species in the tile, then whoever has dominance gets to take one of the five cards that are available each turn. These cards can do all kinds of things, from awarding extra action pawns to killing everything in a hex, and fighting over them tends to be fierce!
So what are the other actions? You can gain initiative, which moves you up in the turn order. You can adapt, which adds another element to your display (to a maximum of six), making it easier for you to survive. You can add more elements to the board, and more hexes. You can add another glacier to the board, forcing species to flee the oncoming ice. You can add more species to the board, or move the ones that are already there. You can also kill off some of your opponent’s species, of course. Finally, there will be upcoming events that may be unpleasant for you (removing elements from your display or from the board) and you can use actions to prevent that.
As with all good worker placement games, there are always more places that you feel like you need to go than you have action pawns to actually play, and with a limited number of each action available, you never know if it’ll still be there when play comes back to you. Further, each species has a special power, so different actions tend to have different values; I find this to be one of the best features of the game. The mammals, for example, can keep one species from going extinct each turn (this normally happens if a species ends up in a hex with nothing it can eat), while the arachnids always compete (allowing them to kill other species without using an action pawn) and the birds can migrate several hexes rather than just one. The amphibians, which I had in my last game, have no special power…but they do start the game with more elements on their display than anyone else, allowing them to dominate more hexes early on.
This is definitely not a quick game, or a cheap one; it tends to run around four hours, and retails for $79. However, if you have a group where you can get it out, it’s totally worth it; especially with four players, you’re usually pretty involved so there’s not too much downtime. In the wrong group, however, I could easily see this getting very political (“I’ll leave you alone on that hex if you attack the spiders on this other hex”); fortunately, that’s not really how my group plays (and it could be that you enjoy that style of play, I just don’t care for negotiation games). Still, I was impressed enough after one play of this game to preorder the second printing (the first sold out very quickly); I don’t think it’s going to be my favorite game, but so far I’m really enjoying it. What I like about this game is that it feels really “meaty”; there’s a lot going on, with more actions you feel like you need to take than action points available to take them, and every decision has a direct impact on the game. Additionally, I enjoy the assymetric play, with each person needing to choose a different strategy based on his special ability and the other species on the board.