Evolve or die the ice-age cometh, time to review Dominant Species

Updated: Apr 10

So today's game review from Diary of a Lincoln Geek is on Dominant Species, and it's probably no surprise that the Rules Lawyer got this one to do. Yeah, I love my 4X games and this is another one from my collection. It's one that hasn't seen as much gameplay as I'd like, but we'll go into that more later.


So Dominant Species, produced by GMT Games, and designed by Chad Jensen, is a game for 2-6 players of ages 13 and up, and played over the course of approximately three hours. It has a great theme about the survival of species, as the world heads into a new ice age. Will it survive our review?


Players: 2-6 Ages: 14+ Game Time: 120-140 mins


Gameplay

In Dominant Species players will be in control of one of the six categories of animals: Mammals, Reptiles, Birds, Amphibians, Arachnids, and Insects. As the game progresses, your animal will adapt to the circumstances available on the board, or risk extinction. Each turn is played in several phases - the planning phase the execution phase and the reset phase:

Planning - Based on initiative order (initially dependent on the food chain but can change through the game), players take it in turns to place an action pawn on one of the available action spots on the board indicated by the circles with an eye in them. Depending on your choice of animal, you get bonus actions too.


Execution - Once all players have placed all their action pawns, you work your way down the action board from top to bottom and left to right completing the activations of each action type.


Reset - During the reset phase, you check which species are facing extinction, who earns the survival bonus, and reset the tokens for the next round.


You earn points in the game by completing dominance actions, where you score hexes based on their value, and the dominant player in that hex will claim a dominance card and use its effects. Once enough cards have been played, the Ice Age card will appear, and once played this triggers the end of the game and endgame scoring. The game can end up with very high scores and a recent 2-player game went in excess of 300 points, but the game doesn't have a specific way of recording this (although we found that you have had enough eliminated species to just mark this by stacking species cubes on the 100+ space on the points track).

The bonus points can be quite lucrative and they grow geometrically...

Bonus points can also be earned through the course of the game from glaciation actions, wanderlust actions, and for earning the survival card in the reset phase. Bonus points work slightly differently in that you calculate the value using the Bonus Point Table in the bottom left of the gameboard. The bonus points can be quite lucrative and they grow geometrically as the scale progresses.



This game is very heavy, with a lot of different actions that you really need to have at least a basic understanding of before you start your first game; meaning if you haven't got someone guiding you, it might take a while before you actually get into playing the game first time round. This complexity is for me the game's biggest problem. With the number of actions available, and the way actions are first bid for and completed, means you have to have the vision to be able to see how all the actions will interact with each other if you are going to be at all competitive in this game.




The game comes with a couple of optional variants included in the rulebook, where you can have a more random world rather than the prescribed balanced start, and an interesting variant for 2 & 3-player games where you play multiple animals and your final score is determined by the lowest of the animals controlled. I like this idea as it means you can't neglect any specific animal but adds yet further to the complexity and weight of this game.


I like the replayability of this game, with enough random elements to give each game a unique strategic challenge like any good 4X game should, without being too driven by luck.


Production

Not much to mention in this regard, the game has a lovely quality of finish and a consistent art style throughout. I do have some minor criticisms but overall, the production is very good.


So, my criticisms:

  1. More consideration should have been given to how everything would fit into the box; it wouldn't have been too much more to have the base compartmentalised to neatly store everything, rather than the common approach of a central well to dump the components.

  2. For me, once you're a few rounds in the theme of the game just isn't that prominent anymore, and it becomes more of a fancy maths problem to solve with nice artwork.

I'm really not being negative here, the game has lovely artwork and I love that the player mats have integrated player aids and action summaries to keep everyone on track.



Conclusion

First things first, I think saying this game is suitable for 13+ is perhaps a bit generous. It's very complex with layers of strategy and planning required. I would think that it should be at least 15+ and an argument can be made for higher to play this game competitively.


Dominant Species is a great example of a classic 4X game in which players will grow their species and exploit the resources available to their full extent, but there is not much 'direct' player interaction with only a few ways to actually affect another player, the biggest way to affect each other is in how you plan your actions, where you can be really very devious in preventing players using actions they will need.

Overall, this is really my sort of game and my personal rating for this game is much higher than the 4/6 it will get for DoaLG. The game is very heavy in its complexity and play time and would put off many people, even some more hard-core gamers.