It wasn’t supposed to turn into this three-day thing, you know? Friday’s gaming was a spontaneous thing, the result of one James Walter and the colorful box he carried to a work meeting and then to dinner right after the meeting. It was just there, you know? We had to try it. I can’t be blamed for that.
Saturday, though. For Saturday, I don’t have the luxury of that excuse, because I was enticed purely by one sentence: “who wants to play Dominant Species?” The answer was me. I do. I want to play this game. This is how day two of the gaming binge got started.
Dominant Species is a strategy board game where you take the role of one of five different groups of animals and try to survive the encroaching Ice Age. It plays similarly to a tabletop war game, except that there’s really no war to speak of beyond this hilariously awesome combination of dropping glaciers on people and competing for resources.
The animals on offer are mammals, reptiles, birds, arachnids, and insects. Each one has a special ability: mammals are highest on the food chain (and thus win ties) and can survive extinction events. Reptiles can resist regression (which otherwise takes away the adaptations you need to survive). Birds can migrate more spaces than other animals. Arachnids have a particularly insidious power: they can preemptively eliminate other animals during Competition; they’re like tiny venomous assassins. Insects go first during each turn and can reproduce like crazy.
This was my second time playing dominant species and both times, I’ve picked the reptiles. They’re not the most powerful species, in my opinion, but I’m loyal to my scaled brethren. The goal of the game is to spread out across the board (which is arranged during play by placing hexagonal tiles to represent new terrain) and accumulate victory points while trying to survive. The various ways you can be eliminated are starvation due to lack of resources or competition, where other animals kill you off.
The real charm of this game comes from the massive amount of strategy. Each turn plays like this: there is a section of the board divided up into phases, with each phase representing a different strategic option. You have a limited number of tokens that you can place in on the phases to pursue those strategies. Some a limited in number: only three people can select the Adaptation, for example. You won’t be able to do everything. Once everybody has placed their tokens, each phase is resolved and you see who lives, who dies, who reproduces, and who runs away to a lonely corner of the map and tries to hold onto “Snake Mountain” for the entire game while everybody else kills each other or gets glaciated.
The glacier mechanic is particularly fun. The game starts with the center hex covered in a glacier. Each turn, whoever is first in line on the Glaciation phase gets to place a new glacier tile anywhere on the board as long as it touches at least one existing glacier. This glacier kills off all but one animal of each species on the tile and also removes necessary resources from the board. It’s very fun steering the glacier towards your opponents. It’s very frightening when they steer it back towards you.
There’s a lot more strategy that goes into the game and you have to balance a lot in order to win. If you specialize on one resource, you might die off if that resource vanishes. On the other hand, if you engage in too much competition, you might not dominate enough areas to earn points. There’s a lot going on.
The game does have a rather long set-up time and takes a while to play. We didn’t hit the actual endgame by midnight and just ended up calling the game. I think part of this is due to the fact that both games we played, we were learning (we were all new the first game and had one new player the second game). Once you “get it”, things go a lot faster.
It’s a more complex game than King of Tokyo or Cards Against Humanity, but this is a core tabletop experience. A huge board, a lot of pieces, a ton of strategy: this is the kind of game that you’ll come back to again and again. I like how perfectly it captures the feeling of trying to survive as resources go scare, land changes, and then your land is overwhelmed by venomous spiders. The competition mechanic is more passive than other war games, but that makes for a nice change of pace.
It took up my entire Saturday night, but when you get right down to it, a Saturday night playing Dominant Species is a Saturday well spent.