Survival of the fittest is the name of the game in Dominant Species, which is a very well designed worker placement game that is cutthroat and will tax your brain for the entire 3-4 hours that you are playing it. This game is not necessarily a wargame but does mix area control, the major mechanic where players vie for control of different land tiles to score victory points, and a very slick action selection mechanic that keeps players on their toes with a need to plan ahead to not make a mistake and waste their efforts. The original is one of my most favorite area control games, due to its very interactive and thinky mechanisms but also for the fierce competition that ensues as players fight for the entire game to gain their slot atop the evolutionary mountain. The only real problem with Dominant Species is the rather long playtime, especially if playing with 6 players. Well, that problem has now been addressed (notice I didn’t say fixed as it really isn’t a problem) and the game has been modified to play in 2+ hours while still giving a very similar experience.
Dominant Species: Marine, like its predecessor, is a game that models the titanic struggle between species but this time at the end of the last ice age and what that entails for the creatures trying to survive by adapting to changing conditions on the Earth. Players will control the future of one of four of the major species of aquatic-based animals of the time including reptiles, fishes, cephalopods or crustaceans. This is where we come to the first major difference between Marine and the original Dominant Species.
At the start of the game, each of the species will be nearly exactly the same as each is just its base self with no special abilities assigned as was the case in Dominant Species. If you remember, those species in DS had abilities assigned that took into account the advantages of that species. For example, the Arachnids could eliminate species on tiles through a targeted competition ability while Birds could move two tiles during Speciation as they spread out to get to new lands before the other species to set up shop and start gaining greater domination.
In Marine, while none of the species start with an assigned trait or ability but each such species will be dealt three Trait Cards that they can review and then assign one to their species that will hold throughout the entire game, unless they gain an Evolution Card that allows them to change during the game. This change was one of the most interesting parts of the game as each species really felt unique and were not forced to focus just on one strategy. I played Fishes as my species during our first play, and I chose to use the Flight Trait Card which allowed me great flexibility in how I used my basic Action Selection Pawns. Normally, players have to place their pawns from the top of the Action Selection menu down to the bottom. Once you place in one spot by rule you are not allowed to place your other pawns above that one.
With the Flight Trait, I was able to ignore this rule and could place my pawns anywhere that I wanted to which allowed me to take advantage of some of the better actions, such as Speciation and Migration which are located in the middle of the menu, before other players could get to them. I still could not place my pawns between two existing pawns but this gave me lots of options and allowed me to get established fairly quickly.
The only other aspect that made species unique from the outset is their position on the Food Chain, which establishes the turn order throughout the game. In Dominant Species, players could take an action with one of their pawns to move up in the turn order but that is not the case in Marine. The order of play used throughout the game is simply the reverse of the Food Chain that is printed on the board. The order is Crustaceans first, followed by Fishes, Cephalopods and finally Reptiles. This was something that I don’t think that I liked. It felt kind of arbitrary in this game as in Dominant Species it was important to occasionally invest and use one of your actions to move up on that turn order. But, after only one play, I still felt that the game was well balanced, and while I benefited as the Fishes and going second in the game, it didn’t seem to really make that huge of a difference. I did win the game but it was more about how I managed to gain control of higher valued terrain through the shrewd use of the Migration action and also in being able to obtain some of the more powerful Evolution Cards from doing the Domination action more than my opponents.
2-4 Players vs. 2-6 Players Means Faster Playtime
As I mentioned earlier, my only problem with Dominant Species is the long playtime, particularly with full 6-player counts. I really don’t think that long play time is a problem when the game is engaging and keeps players on their toes in making decisions and trying their best to do what they need to do. Our group is generally very slow playing anyway, but with all of the choices and the range of actions that can be taken, Dominant Species turns into a full 5 hour game if we are playing 6 players. We have one member of our group that we all love, because he is so smart and so good with strategies (I am not going to mention who it is but his name is Matt), but Dominant Species seemed to cause him some real issues with analysis paralysis as there are just so many choices and strategies. This AP really seemed to show up near the end of a turn as he was checking out each option to make sure he could maximize the points possible.
In Marine, the player count is very different being just 2-4 players and right off the bat this can save 90 minutes to the game’s play time. But that is not the only reason that playtime is a bit quicker. The action selection mechanic is a bit different and is place your pawn on the chosen action space and then immediately take an action. You no longer have to wait for all pawns to be placed and then sit while all players execute their actions in pawn order. This element will be discussed a bit more in one of my later points but it really seemed to speed things up and I really liked that. We were able to get in a 4-player game in about 2 1/2 hours and feel that now that we are more familiar can be played in about 2+ hours. This is a lot shorter than Dominant Species and was a welcome change as the pace of the game just kept moving along as there was less down time while we all waited for players to make their agonizing selections.
The Name of the Game is Spreading Out
I have always been told in life that 99% of success is just showing up. I don’t know if I totally believe this axiom but it makes some sense, although it is probably more like 65% showing up. Showing up to the party on each tile is pretty important in this game. Don’t take this the wrong way though. You cannot possibly control every tile but you have to make sure you have and maintain a presence so that you are in the scoring range and can reap the benefits of just showing up when tiles are scored during the game or in the end game. This aspect is also more balanced as all species start the game on the center tile, which is a Coral Reef and everyone can move out from there.
What I mean by having a presence and being in the scoring range is this. If you look at each of the tiles, you will see that at the very top of the tile are listed some numbers. These numbers are the VP values for the tile and the number of numbers shown equate to how many species can score on the tile. For instance, if you look at the Coral Reef tile located in the center of the board there are 3 VP numbers listed at the top of the tile; 6 VP, 3 VP and 2 VP. This means that only the top 3 species on the tile will score VP’s associated with the listed values. This is more than say on Sand Plains or Open Oceans as only the top 2 species will score. So with the situation shown on the Coral Reef below, the Reptiles (purple) will score 6 VP as they are tied for the lead with 3 species present but gain the advantage on tie breakers as they are listed at the top of the Food Chain, the Cephalopods (orange) are also tied for the lead with 3 species but are listed 2nd on the Food Chain and will score 3 VP’s, the Fishes (blue) are tied but fall at 3rd in the Food Chain and will score just 2 VP’s and the Crustaceans (brown) are tied with 3 species but are in last place and will not score any VP as they lose the tie breaker to the Reptiles, Cephalopods and Fishes. This Food Chain concept and your place on the tile is very important and you must keep an eye on this as others will Migrate and Speciate into this tile to try and displace the current leaders to take more VP’s when the tile is scored.
It is important to try and control the most valuable VP tiles, but is more important to simply make sure you have a presence on them and are going to score all of the time. This will take a lot of focus, paying attention to other players and the actions that they are taking and how that is changing the situation, and being willing to sacrifice what you want to do sometimes for doing what you should do to stay in contention.
Beware of Being the Leader
We know that in games, whenever one player begins to pull away with a nice VP lead, the other players will immediately change their strategies and attempt to conspire against that leader to make sure they don’t run away with it. This is human nature. At least in these type of games and being in the lead can be the worst thing that happens to you while playing Dominant Species: Marine. This is especially dangerous in this game as there are some really nasty and damaging Evolution cards that players will begin using on those they perceive as threats, or in other words, the one that is in the lead.
In our play, I got fortunate and pulled off some nice Dominations to gain additional Special Action Pawns and used these fairly deftly to gain lots of scoring opportunities with the Evolution action and chose the nice cards that were there for me to use gaining 15-20 VP’s with a few card plays in a row. As I began to pull away, I immediately could see the hate in the eyes of the other players and suddenly they all began to see red and a bullseye painted on my back! In general, my first impression is that there is some real balance of potential in-game scoring opportunities from actions such as Wanderlust, Tectonics and Evolution/Survival events to generally allow players to not play bloodthirstily and take actions that typically are seen as hurting the other players. But, this quickly can change when there is a perceived run away leader as things can get nasty as there are opportunities to attempt to hurt the leaders such as conducting a Depletion action by selecting any one element on Earth that matches an element type in the Depletion Box. Or the nasty Regression action where at every Reseed event, Regression triggers and for each element type present in the Regression Box, every animal without a cube in the Regression section must remove one element disk of the same type from its animal display. These can be used to very devious effect by players to really cripple a leader. So, the moral of the story here is to hide your intentions, stay fairly close to the other players until the time is right and then strike and take your lead but doing so early results in nothing more than a hard rest of your game.
Evolution Spaces are Hard Choices
One of the keys to victory is the shrewd use of the Evolution cards. These cards will give you VP’s typically, or they can give you a huge advantage, such as gaining a new element type on your animal or adding an element type somewhere on the Earth to help out your situation and improve the survivability of your species or its place in the Domination hierarchy to gain the Special Action pawns. The very interesting design situation here though is the order of terrain types on the Evolution Action area on the board and how it creates a very interesting and somewhat tense decision. When you choose this area, you are trying to score points through scoring a tile type that you have a majority on but you also get to take an Evolution Card from the display on the left side of the board. The higher scoring terrain tiles are listed first with Land, followed by Kelp Forest, Ocean Reef, Seamount, Seagrass Meadow, Open Ocean and Vent. You can score the higher points tiles but this will mean that you are choosing the lower numbered cards spaces and will not have access to the higher level cards in the Evolution Card section on the board. When I say lower level or higher level, this has nothing to do with the ability or benefit of the card but simply where the card sits in 1 of the 5 spaces on the board. If the card you really want is located in the 5 space you will only be able to get to that card if you choose the Evolution space with the 5 listed next to it. But, if the card you want to play is located in the 1 spot, you can actually get to that card by choosing any of the spaces. This will be a very tough choice but more often than not, you will choose the best cards while trying to maximize your scoring from the tiles.
The Evolution Cards are the game timer and when they are exhausted and the final Asteroid card is played, then the game will come to an end. Sometimes players will want to usher this end in as they have the lead and don’t want to offer other players more time to score more points or gain greater presence on higher valued tiles. This design choice was very well done and really created some interesting choices for players throughout our play.
Differences from Dominant Species
Marine is similar to Dominant Species in many of its mechanics and the basic concept but it introduces some new changes to the system and makes this game a bit unique. We already covered at least a few of these differences in the post with the Trait Cards versus assigned special ability to species and then the change in the turn order/initiative system. Here are the major differences.
Action Selection is Immediate
One of the largest changes to the game came in the form of the main engine in the Action pawns and the action selection. In Dominant Species, players would place their Action pawns on the spaces they wanted to take actions from in turn order and once all pawns were placed starting at the top the actions would be adjudicated. This meant that sometimes you were choosing your action before you really knew what might happen as someone going begore you might be taking the element or action that you really wanted to take. In Marine, actions are taken immediately whenever a pawn is placed instead of waiting after all pawns are on the board. This change will give players a lot more flexibility in their strategy, as they can choose from what actions they actually can and want to take at placement and gives the game the added benefit of a quicker play time. I was worried about this change before we played the game, but after playing we found that it made for a good strategic game but gave a bit more freedom and was less punishing!
Domination is no longer on a per-tile basis and doesn’t use the cones of death (or of Dunshire if you watch Parks & Recreation). In Marine, players will check dominance for each element type found over the whole board representing primordial Earth. The deciding factor about whether a player dominates an element type is independent of whether one or more opponents also dominate it. The Domination action calls for a player to determine their animal’s matching elements and this is done by counting the number of that element type on your animal display and then multiplying this count by the number of tiles on Earth that contain at least one of your species and at least one of that element. The basic concept here is that the more tiles you occupy that contain that element the higher your matching value will be. This value is then compared to the element’s current target number as shown on the board on the VP Track. If the player’s element count exceeds that target number, they will now be considered to dominate that element. Multiple animals can dominate the same element simultaneously
The benefit for the action will be that the player will gain access to the Special Action pawn of that element. These Special Action pawns are really useful and provide the player with a more flexible pawn to use that can be placed in normal action spaces but also unlocks the Special Actions shown at the end of the board areas with the white pawn on them. Special Action pawns can also be used to bump an opponent’s basic pawn off of a space in order to take an action that would otherwise be blocked. They can also be placed anywhere on the action display (where basic pawns must be placed in top-to-bottom order only). And at the end of the game, each special pawn awards its owner VP’s according to its highest achieved dominance value.
Shown in the picture below are two of the Special Actions, one in the Migration area and the other in the Competition area. The Migration Special Action allows the player to move any number of species on the board one tile. This can be a great way to spread out your species to gain advantage or presence on a lot of terrain tiles. The Competition action allows the player to remove 2 different species cubes from two different terrain tiles or 2 from 1 terrain tile. This can give you the edge on these tiles and can be really handy…and mean!
Speciation is a fancy way of getting more of your animal species onto the board and placed on terrain tiles. This action will allow the player to gain a lead on the terrain tiles but also will set them up for Migration or Wanderlust Actions to further spread out and onto tiles that are uninhabited but that might offer greater VP’s. When a player takes the Speciation Action they will get to choose any one element on Earth that matches the element type associated with the action space on the board where their pawn was placed. The player then places new species from their Gene Pool onto any number of the adjacent tiles. Generally, the number of species cubes that the player gets to place is determined by the terrain type and how valuable it is in VP’s. For example, up to 4 species if the tile is Open Ocean (the least valuable in scoring with only 2 and 1 VP spaces), up to 3 species if the tile is Sand or Seamount (3 and 2 VP for Sand and 5, 3 and 2 VP for Seamount), up to 2 species if the tile is Reef, Kelp or Seagrass (6, 3 and 2 VP for Reef, 7, 4 and 2 VP for Kelp and 4 and 2 VP for Seagrass) and up to 1 species if the tile is Land (the highest scoring terrain tile with 8, 4, 2 and 1 VP) or Vent. These numbers are slightly different from Dominant Species and seems to balance out the ability for players to get to the higher value tiles.
Which is the Dominant Game?
This is a bit of a hard choice, but I simply love Dominant Species. It is one of the most elegant and smartly designed worker placement games I have ever played. The game play is intriguing with the varied options and choices, can change on a whim with other player’s cut throat actions, and is extremely meaty and satisfying, even when you lose. I would suggest that everyone checks their feelings at the door when you play though as is it can be in your face action! Marine is much the same experience but seems to be more approachable and might open the door for more players to get into the tougher and more vicious DS by giving them a taste of the system but without some of the more bitter angst and consternation over planning your actions. I really am amazed by how the slight changes to the game have created a new experience for us and while the game felt familiar, it definitely tries some new tricks and gets away with them in the name of faster play time and a bit more approachability.
If I had to choose, I would say that I prefer Dominant Species to Marine but both are great games and will be enjoyed by players of the original or can simply be used as the main introduction to the game. They both have a place on my game shelf and are meant to be played and enjoyed by any player that enjoys area control, tough decisions and take that elements. If you are looking for a snack of the game system to get a nice taste, Marine is your choice while Dominant Species will always be the super involved 5 course meal for me that forces me to loosen my belt and push away from the table after gorging myself for hours.
Here is a look at our unboxing video to give you an idea for the components in the box: