Mother Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but that doesn’t mean she can’t enjoy a good strategy game every once in a while. That means Dominant Species should be right up her alley, assuming she can figure out how the game works.
Dominant Species is an iPad conversion of a strategy board game published by GMT Games. It depicts Earth shortly before the last Ice Age, with arachnids, insects, amphibians, birds, reptiles, and mammals competing to survive and prosper as glaciation overtakes the land. It’s a nasty, brutal struggle of… well, of placing pawns, moving little cubes around in hexes, and drawing cards. The game is a little abstract that way.
In the board game world, Dominant Species is known as a “worker placement” game. You have six pawns, which you use to choose the six actions you want to do during the round. Each action is a simple event within the game, such as adding a food source to the board or scoring points. You have many more choices than you have pawns, and you can do the same action more than once if you like.
Crocodile vs Rhino, only on Nature’s Pay-Per-View
Worker placement games work a lot like computer programs, with the players calling the subroutines that will help them to score the most points and win the game. This makes worker placement games easy to adapt into computer games, but it also makes playing the game feel a lot like programming a computer.
In the case of Dominant Species, playing the game feels a lot like programming a computer without a reference manual. The rules are not difficult, but the tutorial does almost nothing to help you learn them. It shows you how to place your pawns and move your creature pieces, but it never tells you how the different game events work, or why you should choose them. You learn a little bit about the mechanics and nothing about the strategy, which means you’re likely to spend your first game flailing around and wondering why you’re losing.
The only way to really learn the game — assuming you don’t have a friend to teach it to you — is to read through a long and sometimes opaque manual. You’ll find the most important part (what the various events you can choose actually do) several clicks deep.
If you squint hard, you can pretend they’re ripping each others’ heads off
The game also hides important information in the menus at the upper left corner of the screen. This isn’t a fatal flaw, but it’s a big difference from other board game conversions like Ticket to Ride, which makes sure that everything you need to know is right there on the main screen.
Once you’ve learned the game, you’ll appreciate the strategies that are available. There are many ways to win, and each type of creature has its own subtle strong points. On the other hand, you’ll also notice more little flaws. Once you’ve started taking an action, for instance, you can’t undo or cancel it. That’s inexcusable in a game that can be lost with one misplaced tap. The lack of asynchronous online multiplayer also limits the game’s long-term appeal, though that would be a difficult feature to implement given the game’s structure.
Dominant Species is not a bad game. In fact, it’s a very good game. But it’s difficult to learn and presents a lot of information crammed into a counter-intuitive interface. If Mother Nature ever does play this game, let’s hope she’s not easily confused, or that she’s in a forgiving mood. After all, it’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature’s strategy gaming…