The complex board game Dominant Species has moved up into the top 20 on boardgamegeek’s global rankings despite its high cost (over $60) and one of the most intricate decision trees I’ve come across. Players represent different classes of creatures, exploring and populating the planet by placing hex tiles on the board, receiving points primarily for “dominating” specific tiles. Players have a large number of potential actions but are competing for space on the board and for priority in each type of action. You have a lot to weigh each time you choose which action to take, and the cleanup and scoring in each round also takes a lot of time and effort.
There is an app implementation of Dominant Species for iPad that gives you a fair introduction to the game for $4.99, but still leaves much to be desired. I’ll review it here for completeness, but I don’t recommend it unless you want to try the game out before shelling out for the pricey boxed game.
In Dominant Species, players will build out the game board as they go, placing different land/water tiles and also putting “element” tokens on the vertices of the hexes, then populating those tiles with their own species. The bottom line is that you want your species tokens on tiles, especially water tiles, that are surrounded by several of the element tokens you also have on your card. Each player starts with two of these element tokens, depending on which botanical class he draws, but can add more as the game goes on.
The board can change in several ways as the game evolves, with tiles changing to tundra (where most species are removed, and eventually all might be wiped out) and elements added and removed frequently. Each player has a specific element type that gives him the potential to “dominate” any tiles where that element appears and he has species, but players can also acquire new element tokens for themselves and adapt to allow them to dominate new tiles on the board. The key to the game, at least in my limited experience, is the Domination phase at the end of each round: There are five Domination spaces for action pawns, and each player who places a pawn there can choose a tile on the board to dominate, where the player who has the right elements (matching those around the tile) and has species there gets a point bonus, and may get a Domination card that gives him more points or the ability to add or remove items from the board. There’s a lot more involved – players have several action pawns to place each turn, and can acquire more as the game goes on – but those are the key points. Players can undertake less significant actions like turning a tile to tundra, claiming points and potentially removing another players’ species; migrating species from one tile to another to avoid extinction; and knocking out a single opposing species token from any tile under “competition.”
The publisher of the physical version of Dominant Species, GMT Games, chose to develop the app in-house, and unfortunately they half-assed the initial release and may have abandoned the project entirely. The AI players are poor, and a promised introduction of a harder AI player remains undone after a year. The UI is also weak, mimicking the physical game rather than taking advantage of what the tablet can offer in different graphics, animation, even stuff like replacing colored wooden cubes with, I don’t know, maybe actual animal shapes? Trying to squeeze everything on to one screen – both the game board and the action selection board – means nothing is clear, and there’s still a lot of info hidden on drop-down screens. It feels rushed and uncreative, rather than an attempt to approach the game from an entirely new perspective. And it lacks online multiplayer.
I’m guessing that playing the physical game with people who’ve played before would be fun, maybe not top 20 overall fun but with enough interaction between players to keep it interesting and social. It is probably a touch too involved for my personal tastes, and I’m still not sure I understand all of the rules regarding some of the less-used phases in each round. A better tutorial, a hard AI opponent, and improved graphics would go a long way to making the app better, and with the boxed game selling for over $60 they could use the promotional boost.