Around sixty million years ago on Earth, dinosaurs reigned supreme on land, but at sea, a giant struggle was still unfolding. Creatures were slowly adapting to the changes in their watery habitat and hoping to be victors in this fight for survival. The threat of a giant meteor striking the Earth was increasing all the time, so it was a race to become the Dominant Species: Marine by Chad Jensen from GMT Games.
Let me start this review by paying my respects to the late Chad Jensen, whose design work has enriched the board game hobby hugely and I feel very honoured to have finally played one of his games. Dominant Species: Marine was released after Chad‘s death, but it is practically 100% his. The game is my first encounter with one of Chad‘s brilliant designs and it is the little sibling of Dominant Species, which I had on my list for a very long time, but never dared to put on the table due to its length and reputation of being a very complex game. So when Dominant Species: Marine came out and was touted as the quicker and lighter version, I jumped at the opportunity to buy it and play it with my games group.
The game does an amazing job of retelling the story that unfolded in the oceans of Earth around sixty million years ago. I’m not a palaeontologist, nor do I know a lot about this time on Earth, other than what most of us know about dinosaurs, the meteor that lead to their extinction (or not?) and related events on land. I know nothing about events that took place in the oceans, always assuming that they were full of even more dinosaurs and that was about it.
So I can’t vouch for how “accurate” Dominant Species: Marine actually is, but when you play the game, you do feel that what happens on the board is similar to what happened during the age of the dinosaurs. Not only that, as a player, you almost feel like a god and you do what you can to allow your species to adapt, multiply and generally just survive.
Habitats and elements
You place new tiles onto the board to expand the habitats that your and the other player’s animals colonize and it’s up to you where you place them. However, the game encourages you to put like with like, such as oceans next to oceans or land next to land, because it gives you more points, but there will be situations where it will actually benefit you more if you place them somewhere else and get fewer points initially, but create a bigger point potential later on. The effect of this is that nobody can be sure how the habitats will grow and it feels like how it will actually have been on Earth all those tens of millions of years ago.
You also seed the tiles you place with so-called elements, which define what sort of animals can live there. You want the element to match one of the ones on your player board, because then your animal will be safe on that tile, but at the same time, you want to choose an element that other players don’t have on their boards. The problem is, the element you want isn’t always available, so you might be better off forgoing placing new tiles, even if that means you won’t score points.
There are also really powerful cards in Dominant Species: Marine that can give you a lot of points, but more importantly, those cards can trigger extinction events, clearing out whole sections of the game board, removing those animals who don’t have matching elements, which basically means that those animals aren’t adapted to the habitat to be able to survive. It can be really brutal and once an animal has been wiped off the board, it is usually extremely hard for them to get a foothold again.
Of course, there are many ways of getting points in the game, but they all rely on your animal having some sort of presence on Earth, so you have to be extremely careful not to make yourself vulnerable to extinction. You’re always aiming to have a thriving population at least somewhere on the map, from where you can spread out further and reclaim lost territory.
I say “lost territory”, which seems to indicate that Dominant Species: Marine is an area control game, but that’s not true. Animals can happily co-exist on the different tiles on the game board, but there will always be exactly one who controls it, which is one way of scoring points. So even though the game isn’t so much about fighting other animals on tiles, you still want to control strategic locations to allow you to score enough points to win the game. So instead of battles, the game is much more about spamming the board with lots of cubes to ensure you have the bigger presence.
Even so, the game is really very brutal, as I already mentioned. The amount of direct, negative player interaction is huge and the game can quickly develop into a tit-for-tat: you caused me to die on 10 tiles with an extinction event, so I kill off 10 of your cubes and then score heavily. I think that’s fine and I do like games with direct, negative player interaction, as long as it doesn’t become personal and players aren’t ganging up on each other.
I think Dominant Species: Marine works well when it comes to extinction events, because they target everyone indiscriminately: if your player board doesn’t match the element symbol on a tile, then your cubes will be removed, whether you trigger the event or someone else. However, it is possible for players to team up and use action spaces that remove cubes from the board whichever way they want. That does allow players to target whoever they think is in the lead.
Speaking of action spaces, I love the way worker placement is implemented. There is a list of actions that go from top to bottom along one side of the game board and each action has a number of action spaces from left to right. More valuable actions are further down the list and further to the right. So you’re always tempted to choose one of the last few actions in the list, but the game encourages you to start at the top instead. That’s because, once you have placed a worker peg, the next peg you place has to be either below or to the right. So you always have to place your pegs beneath or to the right of your lowest peg, which means you will take less powerful actions first.
That in itself wouldn’t be so much of an issue, but Dominant Species: Marine is a classic worker placement game in the sense that workers can’t be kicked out, with one exception, so once an action slot has been used, nobody else can go there. So everyone constantly tries to gauge whether they should skip ahead and bag one of the more powerful actions before someone else does or if there is still time to take one of the actions higher up on the board.
I felt that mechanism created a lot of tension and was almost like a game of chicken. You only have so many worker pegs to place and you want to make the most of them, rather than just go straight to the bottom of the board and be done with it.
However, Dominant Species: Marine feels like an Ameritrash game. I know, the term is very vague and not actually useful, but I do feel it fits here. There is a lot of randomness in the game and a large amount of player interaction. The game is also great at giving players the feel of what nature might have been like sixty million years ago, as animals get wiped off the face of the Earth, then respawn somewhere and slowly spread over the planet again, just to be wiped off again. It’s very thematic in that sense.
Some people love Ameritrash games and these people will love Dominant Species: Marine, but for me, there was just too much luck. If you ever get wiped off the planet, because someone was able to remove element tokens from the board, making your animal endangered on a number of tiles, and then plays an extinction event, you can find it very hard to come back from that. You might argue that you should have been more careful, but in reality, your animals can adapt only so much.
If you then want to recover, you need to make sure that suitable elements are on the map and if they are not, you are completely reliant on the luck of the draw as to whether you can place new elements that match your animal or add elements to your animal to adapt it to the habitats that the planet currently offers. If no suitable elements are available, it can take several rounds before they get reseeded, during which time the other players won’t just score, but they will even be able to wipe you off the planet again if you try to re-establish yourself in an area that doesn’t have matching elements. You won’t even have much opportunity to score yourself to catch up with the others. The game is basically over for you there and then.
Now, even though I don’t mind games with player elimination, in Dominant Species: Marine you’re not actually out of the game. You need to continue taking your turns, even though you have only one or two actions that make any sense for you and you have hardly any influence on the game. You’re just a zombie animal that is there because the rules don’t allow you to die. That’s fine in a short game, but in a game that can potentially take 2 1/2 hours or maybe even 3 hours, it’s a problem.
In fact, it’s not the amount of randomness that’s the problem for me, but it’s the game length. Even in a game where nobody gets knocked out early on, it feels like the game drags on a bit longer than it needs to. Yet, reducing the game time, which is driven by the evolution card deck, by removing some of the cards, for example, would actually break the game and the story of evolution would not be able to play out fully. You need the game to take as long as it does, but personally, about 2/3 through the game I’m ready to stop and do the final scoring.
There are a couple of more niggles I have with the game. Calling the genus of animals you represent, such as crustacean or reptile, an “animal” and at the same time describing the cubes you put out on the board as “species” seems the wrong way round. Either go with genus and species, meaning a genus can have several species, or choose species and animal, where a species can consist of several animals.
Also, even though the rulebook is very thorough and you just have to accept that setup takes a while, it would have been good to have some sort of cheat sheet for the setup and to restructure some parts of the rulebook so certain explanations are either in a couple of places or are ordered better. For example, it’s nice to see a description of how the game ends early on in the rulebook, but I always naturally flick to the end of a rulebook to check for the final scoring, which in the case of Dominant Species: Marine is described a few pages in on the page where the game end is described.
Saying that, there are also a lot of positives. I love that the player boards have a summary of the different actions printed on them and that the game board itself has a lot of little hints printed on it, which means you don’t really need to refer to the rulebook during play, except maybe to clarify the special actions – but these are printed on the back of the Survival card. It’s really all there in front of you.
Great story – too much luck
So, yes, Dominant Species: Marine is not for me, even though I really want to love this game. Well, I do love this game for the way it tells the story of the survival of the fittest in the oceans, but I don’t love it enough to make it a game that I will keep in my collection, because it’s just too random and too long. At the same time, and probably for exactly the same reasons, I know a lot of people will love this game and it will probably make those people buy the bigger brother Dominant Species and I think that’s great and it shows the genius of Chad Jensen.