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DOMINANT SPECIES: MARINE

Published by GMT Games LLC
Designed by Chad Jensen. Developed by Kai Jensen. Box Art by Eric Williams. 

Eleven years ago Chad Jensen and GMT Games introduced us to a brilliant new game about survival of the fittest, the strongest, the ones that do what is necessary to make it to the next step/era. Dominant Species was a ground breaking game back in 2010. Now Chad Jensen has revisited the era of the dinosaur and literally taken it to the next level; the 'sub' marine level!

The board represents an area of land and water from around 60 million years ago, represented by a shape created from 37 hexes, 22 of which are sea, 5 as deep water and 10 as various land spaces. Around the six points of the central hex are placed one of each of the six element counters - element counters affect every hex they intersect with, thus 3 hexes per element in most cases.

 

Players either choose or are randomly dealt one of the Animal Displays. These are of different colours so that other players can see whose Action Pawns are where on the Action Display - the Pawn colour matches the Animal Display. There are also White Action Pawns which players can use temporarily; these Pawns can be used as regular Pawns or on the Special spaces of the Action Display - regular Pawns cannot use the special spaces.

Each Animal Display features a different species - Reptiles, Fishes, Cephalopod and Crustacean. Each animal begins with three element counters pre-printed on their display and three empty spaces where other element counters can be placed; of the three printed elements, two are identical. 

Pages 4 and 5 of the rules book give an excellent visualisation of the 4-player setup.

By adding more elements to the top of your Animal Board you expand the world for your species and make it survivable for them. You are limited to the number of elements you can add, but there are possibilities to expand this.          

Species move/migrate on the board during Wanderlust, that is when a new hex is placed on the board, and you, and the other players, may move species from tiles that are adjacent to the new hex. This movement is made on the main game board, but the game mostly resolves around the mechanics are found on the Action Display.

Your species can move into, and survive in, hexes which are fed by one of the elements associated to them. species cannot move into hexes where they have no associated elements. If the species loses an associated element from its Animal Board any that are in hexes controlled by the lost elements they become endangered and will be removed from play, and out of the game, should an extinction event occur.   

The Action Display changes during play as players place Pawns and remove element counters, take different actions etc. There are some very specific rules on how to use the AD and managing this Display is the most important aspect of the game. One of the main things to remember is that unless your species has a trait like Flight you have to be very thoughtful before placing Pawns on the AD. The Action Display is replenished from top to bottom after every Round.

With the exception of the White Pawns, player (coloured) Pawns may never be placed on the AD to the left of any of their previously placed Pawns. In this case, 'left' also means in any of the categories above the last Pawn placed (as if you consider going up the AD as going backwards and going left as going backwards then you are doing the same thing - or in most cases (there are exceptions as I have mentioned such as Flight) not doing it.       

During play some of the hexes on the board may become Vents, either a Smoker or a Geyser. One Action and a few Event cards affect Vents.                                                             

 

At the start of play, well actually just before the game commences, each species is dealt three Trait cards from which the player chooses one and discards the others. Each Trait is unique to your species and each is useful in its own way. I am not convinced that they are well balanced though and I would be surprised to hear that every Trait had been tested on every species against every other Trait on every species - rather like the original Magic the Gathering™ having 400 cards and no way could all variables have been tried.

I know that we have had Traits that work better against others and have been advantageous for a species, so obviously we have had Traits that don't work as well when in play against others; however there does always seem to be one species that appears to have a 'better' Trait than the others - this is how it seems, but isn't always how the game plays out; the 'better' Trait species isn't always victorious.

The hexes on the board have VP scores marked on them, such as 8-4-2 the reason for which is fairly obvious - higher number of pieces on the hex scores the higher value of VPs (not sure why I said that considering I just said the scoring was obvious) and does depend on the number of players.

Evolution cards are in a display from which players select one to resolve. Some of these cards show the skeleton of a fish. If this card is chosen then an Extinction event begins. This is when all endangered species are removed from play (not just discarded but actually removed). Cards with complete fish icons begin Survival events and the player with the most species on Vent tiles scores Bonus points.

A minor (to me amusing) irrelevance: The element counters are randomly drawn from the Black drawstring bag - in our case this is a White bag with Black drawstrings - and the Terrain markers are drawn from the Red bag (arguably this is also a Black drawstring bag as it also has Black drawstrings even the though the bag itself is Red).

On the board you can see the Food Chain. This has an illustration of the species type with a small box either side of each drawing. Top of the Food Chain are the Reptiles, then Cephalopods, Fishes and finally Crustaceans. On the left hand box of each the players put one of their wooden cubes; this is moved across to the right hand side when the species has acted - this is just a reminder of who has played this Turn. The order of play is always in the reverse order of the Food Chain. 

Turns comprise of one or two actions. Placing Pawns onto the Action Display or Retrieving Pawns from the Action Display. If you do the former remember you can never place one to the left of those previously placed and if you do the latter you are taking back all the Pawns you have played and ending your Turn.

The AD is made up of several sections: These are the basics. I could expand on these departments but they are completely explained within the Rules and briefly explained on the player's Animal Boards.

Abundance: 3 spaces. Take an element from here and place it on the board.
Autotrophs: 2 spaces. Removal and swapping of elements from Vent tiles.
Depletion: 1 space. One element type is removed from the Earth/Board.
Adaption: 3 spaces. Add an element to your Animal card into a vacant grey space.
Regression: 2 spaces. May cause species to lose an element.
Speciation: 5 spaces. The placing of new species from your Gene Pool onto tiles of the Earth.
Wanderlust: 3 spaces. Expand the Earth by placing a large hex tile onto a vacant blue .
Tectonics: 2 spaces. Adding a new Vent to the Earth.
Migration: 4 spaces. Moving species from Hexes to adjacent hexes.
Competition: 4 spaces. Elimination of opposition species.
Evolution: 5 spaces. Scoring a tile and possibly resolving an evolution card.
Domination: # spaces/players. Score VPs on the score track by controlling one of the element types.
Retrieve: Return all your own Pawns and those you currently control (White Pawns) to your supply.

 

DOMINANT SPECIES: MARINE is all about survival - eradicating all other species while ensuring your own species of Animal goes from strength to strength in spite of the other species attempts to survive. It's a management game with elements (literally) of area control. It is also one of those games where you should be planning ahead and having a Plan B to fall back on in case another player affects Plan A before you can accomplish it.

The 24 page Rules book covers everything in full detail; all the cards, counters, Display Sections, everything. Player's Animal Boards also have the relevant Turn information and brief Action explanations. Each Animal Board is two-sided, with the flip side having 6 blank element spaces instead of 3 printed and 3 blanks. This gives players more options but also makes their species more vulnerable. 

COMPONENTS

As expected there are some natural comparisons and some obvious differences between DOMINANT SPECIES: MARINE and DOMINANT SPECIES. Both are games that strategy gamers should own. If you have the time for a long session then DS offers an exceptional game with different complexities. For players with less time available who still want the experience of fully thoughtful challenges, then DS:M is shorter in game length, a little less elaborate, but just as intricate as the original.

Both are superb games that require focus and a reasonable amount of concentration, neither can be flippantly played. There is little actual face-on player interaction, but there are many opportunities to affect opposing players plans. Often your choice is whether to do that or to do something that is more sympathetic to your own Animal/species. Too often you want to do more than is possible, that is always frustrating, but it is usually the sign of a good game when you are left, each Turn, wanting for more.

Dominant Species: Marine (now in its second printing) is not a typical GMT Game but it does have typical GMT component quality, Rules and price (seen online from £56.79 to £70.19) GMT P500: $59.00 (£42.55) RRP: $85.00 (£61.30)

 

© Chris Baylis 2011-2021