After weeks and weeks of not having a Board Game Night with my coworkers at the university, we found a modicum of time the Sunday before finals week to get together and have an honest-to-goodness gaming experience. Because it has been such a long time since something like this has happened, I made my colleagues learn a new game with me that had been sitting on my shelf since time immemorial with nary the touch of a human hand: Dominant Species.
It is a game that is both very complicated yet very simple once you understand it, much like Agricola if you have ever played it. It’s a worker placement game in which you set up your turns and then execute them in a dynamic turn order. It’s investment and payout. It’s the struggle for survival. It’s life and death. And if you think that’s dramatic, that’s because it is. Because of all the euro-meeple worker games I have played, Dominant Species has been the most engaging for me even though it is probably the most straightforward board game I have played in a while. Other worker placement games like Village and Agricola allow players to have strategies that might not become apparent until it is too late for opponents to see, only allowing for opponent’s to counter-play after the deed is done. Did you want that stone resource? Well that’s a shame, you should have gone first in the turn order Timmy! Oh no, there are no more build options? Better luck next time Marilyn! While this type of play rewards those with solid endgame plans from turn one or three, it can seem like an uphill battle in some of these games from the very get go, making game play much more of a “race for second place” than a “do my best” scenario.
In Dominant Species every player not only sees where their opponents are placing their workers, but knows the exact order in which these turns will resolve. That means that if someone decides to, let’s say, score a round for their first move, other players have the opportunity to alter this outcome before this result happens. Everything happens out in the open and players can react BEFORE it is too late and the Blue Player runs away with an insurmountable lead. This type of dynamic turn-taking leads to very interesting and nuanced plays, as people vie to subtlety upset other player’s turns with a slight movement or alteration of the landscape. I know I am writing in broad strokes here, but imagine a game of chess in which your opponent declares “My queen will take your knight in two turns” before the play is made. In Dominant Species, you can do your best to avoid the outcome of your opponent’s play or even allow this tragedy to happen for the greater good so your plan five turns ahead can succeed. Maybe I am just dense and like things nicely laid out, but I believe having this transparency of maneuvers allows for smarter and potentially more devious play than your average game. Plus, there is a satisfying bit of gravitas when you can declare a move and look your opponent in the eye and state “I am going to make a glacier soon. That glacier will probably happen where you live.”
The only way such telegraphed dynamic play could exist in a board game, though, hinges on one crucial element that I think is brilliant: after you have declared moves and they are resolving, when it is your turn to resolve a move, you have the option to skip the move entirely. In Dominant Species the board is always changing. Turn order absolutely matters and a literal world changing event may occur before your grand machinations can take hold. So you are entitled to simply opt out of your move and pass your turn to the next player. While it may be a waste of a turn, it is a much more reasonable alternative than actively working towards the success of another player.
Now I know I’m being vague about some gameplay specifics, and this is partially intentional. This is a game that I believe can have so many different outcomes that to try and review it in a whole would be impossible. In my particular game, the King of Spiders attempted to murder every species that was not his own and specifically targeted birds with his pernicious ire. THIS WILL NOT HAPPEN EVERY GAME. We also created a continent in which the Eastern half of the world was only blessed by the sun as a resource and had such massive glaciation as to render it nigh uninhabitable. THIS WILL ALSO NOT HAPPEN EVERY GAME. So I leave you with this:
If you are a complex board game fan who is looking to move forward from standard worker placement games, I HIGHLY recommend Dominant Species. It is a game with sound mechanics that are easily resolved by the simple and comprehensive rule book (there was never a situation that could not be explained in our game), and it is a game that easily lends itself to player narratives. You wouldn’t think that a game about how some of the base species of Earth struggled to survive during an ice age would be compelling, but DANGIT if we weren’t all on the edges of our seats fighting for our lives against predators and limited resources every turn. It’s worth a shot, and if you have a solid crew and some time to ponder the tenuous frivolity of existence, pick up Dominant Species and play it. It’s a great time.