Friday, September 28, 2012

Critical Analysis of Dominant Species

As mentioned before, I am teaching a game design course this semester in which my students are creating educational games for the Indiana State Museum. The students have chosen their topics and are beginning the prototyping process, and we noticed that several dealt with issues of biodiversity and the ice age. To this end, we added Dominant Species to our collection of reference games. I had a chance to play for the first time last night. This post is a combination analysis and critique of the game, looking at the game from the perspective of learning.

Given this perspective, it is important to note that the game is neither designed nor marketed as an educational tool. What we're doing in this class—and what I'm doing in my scholarship—is studying the various mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics of games and relating these to learning objectives. The criticism I offer below is based on an attempt to understand how the game impacts the player-as-learner.

The end of a game of Dominant Species
(Photo by Janek S, CC-BY-SA)
Dominant Species is a competitive worker-placement game with area-control mechanics. Most of the board is dedicated to the placement of hexagonal tiles, each of which represents a different biome on Earth. The game is set during the dawn of the ice age, and over time, these fertile biomes are replaced by frozen tundra. On the intersections of hexes are placed elements—circular tiles that represent water, sun, grubs, seeds, meat, or grass. Each player has an animal class (such as insects or mammals) along with a supply of wooden cubes, each of which represents a species. For example, as the mammal player, each of my white cubes represented a species of mammal.

Along the side of the game board is a structured presentation of all available actions. The main game loop consists of two fundamental phases: assigning action pawns to reserve actions (worker placement) and then executing these on the Earth (area control). These actions result in such effects as: adding biomes; adding or removing elements; adding, removing, and moving species; and scoring victory points. As the name implies, one wins the game by earning the most victory points before the end of the game.

Having the most species on a tile can earn a significant number of points when scoring a tile, but having the most species is not the only way to progress: having your animal match the most elements on the tile grants "domination," and it is through this mechanic that one unlocks potentially-powerful, once-per-game special abilities, realized through Domination Cards. Hence, a primary tactical consideration involves balancing the need for quantity of species and the need to match elements on your animal card with those on tiles. The best situation for scoring is that you have both the most species and domination on a biome, but because scoring is done at the end of the round, it's easy for circumstances to change before points are computed. That is, a tile one dominates at the start of the round may be vastly different by the end of the game.

The balance of number of species and dominance is central to decision-making during the game. There are very few random elements in the game, and so much of one's consideration is devoted to seeking patterns in the game and predicting opponents' moves. No one at my table had played before, and so as one might predict, a major challenge was in simply seeing that there were opportunities to advance one's position—that is, in recognizing the patterns of the game. This speaks to the the primary learning outcome of any game: learning to play it. (See Jonas Linderoth's excellent DiGRA article on how game-based learning is always bound up in the affordances of the game.)

The available game actions and their resulting effects demonstrated notable alignment of theme and rules. Adaptation involves adding an element to one's animal card, meaning that you have a better chance of dominance in a biome that features that element. Wasteland eliminates elements from around tundra tiles. Migration moves species to new biomes—and this is an action in which birds excel. In our game, there was an early rush for adaptation as players grabbed diverse elements in an attempt to dominate their biomes. However, this adaptation  produces a concomitant dependency upon the elements. Later in the game, these elements began to disappear through a combination of glaciation and "depletion"---a player-initiated action to strategically snipe elements away from the board. These environmental changes produced significant shifts in power. The interested reader can refer to the rulebook for a full list of actions.

Element Discs
(Photo by Tony Bosca, CC-BY-NC-ND)
The alignment of theme and mechanic permits learning through metaphor: as migration works in the game, so migration works in reality. However, these metaphors are broken in interesting ways. In the presentation of the game pieces and the rulebook, a player appears to control a class of animals: for example, I "was" the mammals. However, much of the strategy comes from clever placement of new biome tiles (wanderlust) and replacement of existing biomes with tundra (glaciation). These are player-initiated and player-executed actions, but clearly, ice age mammals could not simply flip over new continents and migrate there. So, who is the player? I suggest that Dominant Species is actually a competitive "god game" in the vein of Populous, where one has control over creation and an investment in a particular population. This is not bad, but it is implicit, and it introduces dissonance.

Metaphoric misalignment can also be seen in the elements-matching mechanic. Sun and water are treated and distributed the same as grubs, meat, seeds, and grass, despite the fact that in reality, there is a clear dependency among these. The distribution of biomes and elements could lead to a sea without water or a desert without sun, and either could have animals thriving in it. Note that there are six elements and six animal classes, and each of the six classes has one type of element printed upon it: that is, for each animal class, there is one element type that it always matches. This mapping of elements to animals may be fair and balanced in a variable powers game, but it doesn't follow from the theme. For example, my mammals were always dependent upon meat but not always upon water.

Cubes represent species; cones represent dominance.
(Photo by Tony Bosca, CC-BY-NC-ND)
Our game was won by "tundra spiders." The player controlling the arachnids got early control of the tundra tiles, and by the time we realized the implications to his score—the bonus points for which rise geometrically with the number of controlled tundras—he had far exceeded anyone's ability to catch up. It is notable that the rest of the players tried in vain to cooperate to limit the arachnids control of the tundras. This doomed attempt at cooperation was fun for the players! However, looking at what a learner might take away from this, I'm afraid it's a mixed message at best.

It need to add that terminated the game after 3.5 hours rather than play it to the end, so there may have been more possibility for shifting scores later on. This brings up another important criticism of the game: in what might be described as beautiful and intentional irony, the game moves at a glacial pace. Even a seemingly simple action such as removing or adding an element has the potential of shifting dominance, which is tedious to compute. This thread describes some attempts to make this easier, and I may experiment with using dice to this end in my next play. Reflecting on the dynamics of the game, I think it needs to be as long as it is, so that it can realize the ice age theme and get the player through significant environmental changes.

Dominant Species' biggest strength is its representation of animal behavior in the face of resource dependence and a changing world. That this takes a significant amount of time may be necessary for this outcome: I suspect it would be harder to demonstrate this in a shorter game, since players would not have the time to acclimate to a situation before dealing with the change. The game is very well themed around ice age animal behavior, but some very enjoyable parts of the gameplay are misaligned with this metaphor. It would be an excellent challenge for someone interested in science education to modify the game to keep the best of what it has to offer, replacing player control of Earth with a neutral environment.

Dominant Species was designed by Chad Jensen and was published in 2010 by GMT Games, LLC.

Author's note: I play a lot of games, but I write about few of them. I've been telling myself for months (maybe years) that I should use the blog to write more of this sort of article. I also have a vague recollection of people telling me they liked my Deus Ex article. You may see more articles like this in the future. Even though the blog is primarily for reflective practice, I do also try to consider what both of my readers care about, so feel free to let me know what you think.


  1. Thanks for taking the time to write this up. I haven't played this game but I like reading deconstructions of how games work. In other words, my hobby aligns nicely with your research interest, so I'm always going to be in favour of more like this. :-)

  2. So my initial reaction in the context of someone who doesn't play board games and spends time reading science/environmental material is that the lack of dependency between the species of animals is inaccurate and a missed opportunity. It's a very anthropocentric view of nature, in which a species becomes "dominant" by just happening to choose the "right" element. Why decouple the meat from the mammals? The seed from the birds? Again and again articles are published about why we need honey bees to grow food. I'm swinging into hippie territory, so brace yourself, but the fact that our ultimate dependence on ALL of nature, not just "MEAT" for example, needs to be consistently explained and taught and retaught and reinforced is a reflection of what's wrong with the game you described.

    Again, this is entirely my take from the nature/dirty hippie perspective...I can't make comments on how such a game would be played or whether it would end up being far more complex and more even more slowly. Or if it would even be remotely fun...which is really the point in the end. ;)

    1. Interdependence of species---life as an interconnected system---is really lost in Dominant Species. I think it would be a great challenge to make a game about becoming dominant while maintaining balance, but this is a victory-point-driven game: more dominance == more points == win.

      The math shines through the theme. This is evident from the starting board condition, where each animal type has exactly four species on the board and is dominant in one of the six biomes. It's a perfect mathematical balance, but this is exactly what makes "water" nothing like water, or "meat" nothing like meat.

      Addressing the point at the bottom of your comment, I have enjoyed the game. That is, learning to play and understanding the patterns it has to offer is fun---and of course, the competitive aspect is enjoyable, and the emergent story of "tundra spiders" was an integral part of shared experience in the magic circle. I hope that my analysis inspires others to consider how a game could be designed that introduces more scientific learning without sacrificing the fun.

      Thanks for posting!

  3. Nice breakdown, Paul. I don't get the chance to play many games that I dont own, so I'd enjoy more breakdowns.

    I wonder, are there any games where the game is competitive - only 1 true winner - but the players can collectively lose somehow? Imagine a similar game where the goal is to be the strongest species, but if you weaken the other species and upset the ecosystem then everyone can lose.

    I'm not sure how fun that sounds, but it's a real concept to learn through playing.

    1. That's an interesting question, Josh. On one hand, there are games like Monopoly, where others' loss is your gain: another player's losing money leads you toward a victory condition. In a game like Cosmic Encounter or Settlers--where you can have short-term alliances or resource exchange--you can build parts of your strategy on others' successes, as long as they don't succeed faster than you. In Cosmic Encounter, for example, if another player has the ships to ally with you, it increases your chances of winning, but at the "cost" of also helping them. However, in the kind of game with a sole winner and short-term alliances, it's still the case that others' loss is your gain.

      Right now, I cannot think of any game that uses a mechanic as you mention, where you need others to succeed in order for you to win, lest everyone lose. It's an interesting idea that might lead to novel dynamics.

    2. The game you're looking for is CO2, by Vital Lacerda. It's an economic game themed around running a renewable energy corporation. Players are rewarded for expanding their empire into every continent and supplying green energy, and at the end of the game one winner will emerge. However, the game has the potential to terminate early with no winners (everyone loses) if the global CO2 levels reach a certain point. So it's in everyone's interest to ensure that carbon emissions are decreasing, which requires a certain amount of cooperation, while also advancing your own individual interests. As a game goes, it's good but the weakest of Lacerda's designs.