One of my favorite game bloggers, Matt Drake of the now-defunct Drake's Flames
, offered perhaps the most pithy insight into what makes a game good. I’m going from memory here, but Drake’s basic contention was that a good game is one where everybody cares about what’s happening on the board all the time.
This apt criteria jumped to the forefront of my mind during our last Dominant Species
contest. We were at about the midpoint of the game when I realized that the table had fallen absolutely silent.
Our game nights are usually marked by lots of riffing and banter and snacking and drinking, so the sudden silence was shocking. There was no sound except for the soft taps of action pawns being placed on the board. Everybody knew the stakes and was in the zone, straining to see the edge that would keep their species in the hunt for domination.
Each of our players was in charge of a whole class of animal (insect, arachnid, mammal, etc.) circa 90,000 BC, in the face of an imminent ice age. And each of those pawns they were holding in their hands could claim one of twelve different actions on the board: Your mind goes down the rabbit hole of multiplying dependencies as you decide whether to increase the kinds of food on which your animal survives, place new food types on the map, trigger population explosions or kill off competitors in hexes you occupy.
But your options aren’t limited to manipulating your animal — you can jigger the map as well, introducing new hexes to the board or expand the tundra zone that grows from the center of the board.
All of these choices — with the overlay of changing game conditions and the effect of other player choices — create many “deer in the headlights” moments. Imagine if someone rolled you out of bed and threw you, half-asleep, into a roiling mosh pit and you’ll start to get an idea of how rowdily this game stomps through your neural pathways. Dominant Species is a nasty piece of work, as you’ll discover the first time you realize that your reptiles are going to get squeezed out by rapidly breeding enemies if you don’t take two specific actions — and you’ve only got one action pawn in your hand. Or the first time somebody plays the Mass Exodus card and pushes your poor mammals into a hex where they immediately starve.
Dominant Species uses classic “Euro” worker placement and area control mechanics, but it has the soul of a wargame. It’s a brain-burn, it’s merciless, it’s intense — and glorious. At the end of a game, you really feel like you’ve really experienced something. The twelve available actions are a strategic toybox that you can use to snap together several viable strategies. Whether you discover the right combination of moves at the right time or just choke on the options is another thing altogether, but win or lose, I always finding myself trying to bookmark future variations I plan to try in the next game.
I always want a next game, because while party games and middleweight titles are great, sometimes you need to see who has the focus and chops to win a real slugfest. That's when you put Dominant Species on the table and see who has the mettle. Learning it is a project. Thinking through it is a study in focus. And winning it is an achievement.
Nate Warren is a Colorado Springs-based copywriter who offers both the veteran gamer and the uninitiated a local window into the burgeoning and wildly creative world of hobby and designer board games enjoyed by fanatics and connoisseurs — around the corner and and across the globe.