The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Dominant Species, Planning & Chaos

Last night we played a (full) game of Dominant Species; which was enjoyable enough, but I think I don’t need to play 5-10 games before I’m done.

Imagine the end game — All the pawns have been placed. We just have the competition (“Snake thinks of nothing but murder“) phase. Then the players will score 5 of the regions. Then book-keeping, then all the regions score. For simplicity we’ll say there are no important dominance cards. I show you the board (number of species in each space), and the current score. There are still ~12 actions to resolve. 7 competitions (up to three “kill a cube” each) and then 5 actions to pick a region to score.

My assertion — assuming reasonable (good, not necessarily optimal) play leading up to this, it’s impossible to correctly predict the winner at this point. (Update — Obviously it’s not impossible to predict, but I mean that if you had different groups play it out, it would change dramatically, and not be consistent, even assuming relatively equal skill all around).

This was the position at the end of our game (in fact, it was complicated because we had two rather large dominance effects left, but everyone could predict who would get which one). If I set up that position for a variety of play groups, I’d expect to see 4, or possibly all 5, positions win when the game is played out.

It’s a huge, complex evaluation problem. (Player 1 — “I should kill this piece, to improve my score, but that player will then kill me back later on. If I don’t kill him he’ll be free to kill B, and I won’t gain but B will lose. So suppose I kill that piece …”) There’s a whole cascade of decisions, tightly coupled. So you could:

  1. Evaluate deeply. This makes the game too long.
  2. Negotiate. I’m with Clearclaw, I don’t want that.
  3. Wing that mother. You still have “I need to kill X, who is my biggest threat” but it’s an evaluation problem.

But in any case, if I’ve just spent 3.5 hours on a game, I’d like to think that it’s not all a case of “Well, First A was winning, so he got ganked, then B was winning, so we put a catastrophe on his mammalian ass….” And I’m not getting that with Dominant Species.

To be fair — Five players reduced the control and made it more of an issue, but it’s still there with four. And also, it’s not badly done. But I think that this is another “You and him should fight” game (either explicitly or not). There’s certainly some room for cooperative tactics, but it’s a zero-sum game overall. And I do really enjoy our little genocidal moments together…

The point stayed fresh in my mind because we previously played Innovation, another decent game that makes me wonder why I’m bothering. I was losing, then someone else invoked a Dogma that gave me a great new technology (and let me splay a color!) due to luck of the draw, and then I got lucky again and I was off to the races. A win with no sense of achievement.

In both games I can plan, plot and scheme to my hearts content, and even bring of a brilliant (or stupid) coup, but If you’d set up the endgame and sat down groups of players and mixed up the positions, I’d be hard pressed to predict the winner. Not (necessarily) because of randomness, but just because planning seems loosely coupled with results. No, that’s too strong. Bad planning fails, but good planning doesn’t succeed nearly as much as I’d like. More so for the longer game.

We also played Peloponnes, which I think I should like but hasn’t really grabbed me.

Maybe I should just give in and play multiple games of the Resistance, Until Morale Improves.


Written by taogaming

December 7, 2010 at 5:48 pm

Posted in Reviews

Tagged with , ,

16 Responses

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  1. I don’t get the appeal either. It’s a really neat design. It’s clean and thematic. But it’s a chaos-fest on multiple levels. There’s almost nothing to plan from one action to the next within the same turn. It sold out because of the hype/buzz, but I think it’s a flash in the pan.


    December 7, 2010 at 6:17 pm

  2. 2-player Innovation has a high skill component. My friend Chris can beat my friend Brian 90% of the time. And Brian beats Andy 75% of the time, and Andy beats me 75% of the time. And when I’m not playing one of those people, I usually win.

    Eric Brosius

    December 7, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    • People keep telling me about all the skill, but I still don’t see it. Granted, my opponent may have been wrong to invoke that particular dogma, but I’m 10 games in and each feels random. Perhaps I’m just “color blind” to this particular skill. Stranger things exist in my philosophy….


      December 7, 2010 at 8:57 pm

      • It would depend a great deal on the current positions of the players at that point, and what the person was hoping to gain by invoking the dogma. If you were doing poorly, or another player is significantly ahead, it can make sense to take the risk of giving someone else that dogma action to gain against the other player. Alternatively sometimes it aids your own dogma if someone else does it first, either chewing up the lower age cards to let you get to the higher ones, or forcing them to potentially dump their hand due to Alchemy. Third, the bonus Draw when another player performs your Dogma rarely hurts.

        The more desperate my situation generally the more likely I am to activate a Dogma that another player will get to use to their advantage. Worst case I lose a game that I was probably going to lose anyway. If I’m in the lead, however, I want to minimize the opportunities for someone else to get lucky.

        The other side of the coin is the potential for randomness to be increased by inexperienced opponents. If you are playing against players who aren’t really sure what they are doing in a 3+ player game, the chances of them doing something that benefits someone else disproportionately is pretty high.


        December 8, 2010 at 4:14 pm

      • “forcing them to potentially dump their hand due to Alchemy” or other nasty dogma side effects.


        December 8, 2010 at 4:53 pm

      • It’s likely that your position was not as bad as you imagined and did not improve that much with the new card. The difference was instead that you then knew how to realize the potential of your position, where you previously had not known.

        Your heuristic for evaluating the strength of positions is probably wrong, and that makes the progression of the game seem arbitrary.

        Sean McCarthy

        December 8, 2010 at 9:33 pm

  3. Played Dominant Species for the first (and possibly last) time last night. I’m pretty much in accord with both of you. It’s clever, it’s thematic (although not as much as I’d like–without permanent mutations, I don’t really feel like an evolving species), and there’s all sorts of scope for clever plays. But with 12 different actions, some with multiple choices, 5+ actions per player, and 5 possibly game changing cards per turn, the chaos is pretty high as well. Planning and chaos is not a combination I much care for. If it were a 1.5-2 hour game, I’d give it the occasional play. But at 3+ hours, I think I’ll pass, even though it was a reasonably enjoyable game.

    To be honest, it also might be too much game for me. Too many choices and too much to take in. I prefer more focused gaming experiences. Again, if the game were shorter, there would be a better chance of conquering the learning curve, but I just don’t see that happening.

    I agree with you about the last turn. It’s just about impossible to handicap the player positions and there’s lots of scope for destructive play which might well be aimed at the wrong target. It also wouldn’t surprise me if that last turn wound up taking close to an hour. It was a first game for most of us, so we just did our best and went with the flow, but if you were to get serious about this, you’d either take an awfully long time or get pretty frustrated with the inability to estimate the effect of your actions.

    Larry Levy

    December 7, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    • The winner did stare at the board for 1-2 minutes before dealing with his last migration/competition, so clearly you can do that. I played by simply picking what seemed best at the time (and sometimes doing a meta-analysis when it wasn’t my turn). Since I prefer to play by instinct that was bad, but I think the game risks spiraling out of control (with respect to duration).


      December 7, 2010 at 8:59 pm

  4. I have to agree with you, it’s too computationally complex for each player to (attempt to) game out all of the scenarios and still finish the game in a reasonable amount of time. I think you’re underestimating the amount of prediction/control you can get over the game (by the time migration rolls around, you should have a clear sense of which region every player will try to score, and also a lesser sense of where your pieces are in danger of getting murdered and by whom), it still takes far too much time to achieve that marginal level of control. While I think your “act on instinct” approach is a good way to ensure the game concludes, I find it entirely unsatisfying to play games in that fashion, so I think this means I either give up on the game or accept that it’s 3h+.

    Fred Bush

    December 7, 2010 at 9:59 pm

    • Oh, I think you have a fair amount of control, and prediction isn’t too difficult. BUT, predicting what other players will do means having an internalized model of how They view the position, and if you are wrong it can be very frustrating. (“Why did you do A instead of B, when A is clearly better for you?”). All your predictions can be upset easily … if everyone had the same model that would be one thing, but part of the game is exploring the model. So players may do weird things that arbitrarily help/hurt other players.

      Perhaps if I got to the point where I felt the models had stabilized then it would be worth it to take more time during the game to analyze. But even so that’s probably just for the sub-phases for Migration & Murderation. Actually, I could see doing role selection as well, but the time spent would rapidly grow.


      December 7, 2010 at 10:29 pm

  5. I was just thinking of migration and murderation for planning/prediction.

    It would be painful trying to predict what opponents will do during role selection. If you’re considering making an unusual play like depletion, there are occasions where no one else gets much out of a particular action, and therefore you are best off saving it for a later AP, but otherwise just taking whatever is best for you seems to be close enough to correct to justify speedy play.

    Fred Bush

    December 8, 2010 at 1:32 am

  6. I think you’ve done a good job of explaining what I was thinking about this game (I couldn’t, or at least hadn’t, found the words). Some very neat design elements, but ultimately not my style of game. Too chaotic, too long, or the combination of those two things.

    Nice post!

    Seth Jaffee

    December 8, 2010 at 12:47 pm

  7. OK, I had pretty much dismissed Dominant Species (unplayed) anyway, but this serves as a fine final nail in the coffin.

    w.r.t. Peloponnes – it was a fine five-play game for me, in the end. But the fact that stones and wood are essentially equivalent resources meant that the game just didn’t hold up; while it’s quick enough that only 8 meaningful decisions for the game isn’t _bad_ (as opposed to in Automobile, where it was enough to stop me at two plays in spite of a very appealing theme), it meant that the other flaws soon outweighed the positives by enough for the game to hit my trade pile.

    I’d still play Peloponnes if asked, but I haven’t in the least regretted trading it away.

    Joe Huber

    December 9, 2010 at 11:48 am

    • Wood and Stone aren’t really equivalent in Peloponnes, Joe. Stone is harder to come by (particularly early on), you can get by without it early, but you need it (sometimes in large quantities) for the later buildings. The rules for them are the same, but each has its own feel.

      Larry Levy

      December 9, 2010 at 10:10 pm

      • OK, I will more accurately state – after five games, they _felt_ equivalent; there are enough late buildings requiring bunches of wood, and enough early buildings requiring stone, that if there’s a net difference I couldn’t spot it.

        Joe Huber

        December 10, 2010 at 9:18 am

  8. I’ll go ahead and step up to defend Dominant Species. I’ve played it several times and found it really enjoyable – though it does have a bit of a learning curve.

    In my experience, there is a lot of choas, but that’s only because there are so many viable strategies that it’s hard to predict how an opponent will move. Reacting to the unexpected is what keeps this game interesting. You have only partial information on what the other players will do. If your opponents always played exactly as you thought they would, well then you wouldn’t really need opponents. You could solitaire it up.

    Plus, I really enjoy how there are several differnet moves to aquire points. Migration to move into a spot for most species, or competition to thin competitors. Adaptation to become more dominant, or Abundance to add directly to the board and steal dominance.

    But that’s just my two cents. Different games for different folks I suppose.


    December 9, 2010 at 12:07 pm

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