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)
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.
(Photo by Tony Bosca, CC-BY-NC-ND)
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)
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.