Over on Boardgame Geek there ain’t no hotness like the new hotness. The first instance of this I noticed was in 2005 with Caylus, a complicated worker-placement game that was associated with all manner of wonders and visions. In 2007, miraculous healings were attributed to Agricola, which was an elaborate worker-placement game. Last year the birth of a two-headed pure white calf heralded the arrival of Dominant Species, an intricate worker-placement game. It was on every Best Of list last year except mine, because I hadn’t played it. Yesterday I addressed that shortcoming.
Having now experienced (and, for the record, won) the current zeitspiel, what did I think of it?
It was…okay. It’s not strictly a worker-placement game; there’s a large portion of area control in it as well. Both of these things are elements I like. For me, though, the main problem was how Baroque it was. Since it’s a GMT game, home of a lot of complex wargames, and designed by Chad Jensen, who is a designer of complex wargames, there’s an emphasis on simulation that was not going to be avoided. Hence, the game has layers upon layers, wheels within wheels, and an interlocking puzzle-box nature to it which, ultimately, kind of overwhelms the player. This is not a game to play with people who have difficulty making decisions.
The thing is, at its heart, it’s not that complex of a game. It can, in theory, be taught reasonably quickly. But so much froo-froo has been added onto it in the name of realism and simulation that one soon gets bogged down in a lot of fiddly details which just become intrusive after a while. I literally had to just ignore certain aspects of the game after a while because otherwise it all just became static. For example, you can adapt to start eating a new type of food. That’s fine, that makes sense. But then there’s a bit where if people don’t take all the food adaptations some of them threaten to go away and similarly if certain food tokens don’t get placed on land tiles they then may disappear from the map and whatever. (There’s also the nice aspect of each tile having two different types of control on it which must be constantly recalculated because all this food-token-shifting will cause it to constantly fluctuate.)
In addition to all of this hoo-hah adding complexity to the game, it also adds time. Dominant Species is not a short game. So the question is: do I want to spend that time playing one overly-convoluted worker-placement/area-control game, or several more straightforward games which, ultimately, deliver a similar experience? When I play Stone Age or El Grande or Endeavor, I don’t find myself wishing, “this game is okay, but it really fails to accurately simulate regressive trait developments in emerging species.”
There’s a lot to like about Dominant Species, though. For one thing, it’s brutal. Nature is red in tooth and claw and having a wargame designer simulate it for you means this isn’t a fluffy “oh heck you took my spot I guess I’ll just get cloth instead!” Eurogame. I imagine that people who aren’t me feel pretty pleased with themselves if they’ve navigated their way to winning this beast (I credit a slap-fight between the two most experienced players as the only reason I won.) The spare design of the game, while turning off a lot of folks who are upset it didn’t include more shades of brown, tan, mahogany, and umber, helps what could be a very cluttered and noisy board give the information it needs to give at a glance (to some extent). And, as I say, underneath all the layers is a fairly easy to learn game.
The fact that I’m underwhelmed by Dominant Species comes as no surprise. Not only am I a miserable old coot who hates everything, I similarly didn’t much care for Caylus or Agricola (though I like Dominant Species more than either of those). In my old age, I’m just not that crazy about long, drawn-out games, since the icy hand of death could clutch me at any moment. And while I appreciate a strong, well-developed theme in a game, there’s a point where I want to play a game, not fly a space shuttle.
If it makes anyone feel any better, I’m rating Dominant Species a six. That’s not a terrible rating. After all, the other New Hotness of 2010 was Hansa Teutonica and I frickin’ hated that thing.