Teaching Evolution Through Board Games
Playtime: 120-240 minutes
Teach time: 60 minutes
Game difficulty: Heavy
Timespan: Pleistocene: last-interglacial into last-glacial period (approx. 90,000-50,000 years ago)
Key educational concepts: natural selection, population expansion, competition, dominance, speciation
Associated materials: paper: ‘What really is Evolution?’
Players control one of the six available animal classes (insects, arachnids, amphibians, birds, reptiles, and mammals) and attempt to control as many different territories as possible. Players strive to become dominant on as many different terrain tiles as possible in order to claim powerful card effects. Players aim to diversify their taxonomic groups in order to earn victory points. To do this players speciate, migrate, and adapt. The player with the most victory points will have their taxonomic group crowned the dominant species.
Dominant Species is a game where each player’s species radiates across a small expanding island. It is a worker placement, area-control game with lots of player interaction. Each player is in control of one of six different animal classes. Each player receives dominance cones, cubes that represent species, and multiple cylinders (the workers) that allow players to take a few of the twelve game actions each round. Players sequentially place cylinders on one of the twelve game actions until they run out. Then players will complete each action one at a time, running down the order depicted on the board.
The board is split into multiple hex tiles, representing eight different environments: wetland, savannah, desert, mountain, jungles forest, tundra and sea. On corners of each environment hex are ‘element’ chits that represent key species requirements and depicted: ‘grass,’ ‘grub,’ ‘meat,’ ‘seed,’ ‘sun,’ and ‘water.’ Players dominate by matching more elements on their personal player boards to individual hexes on the board than any other player present on that space.
Actions are selected by placing one of their cylinders onto one of twelve different actions: initiative, adaptation, regression, abundance, wasteland, depletion, glaciation, speciation, wanderlust, migration, competition, domination. These actions allow players to adapt to new elements, add elements to their player board, remove one element from their player board, migrate species to a new tile, speciate on adjacent tiles, eliminate one opposing species on three different tiles, become the first player, dominate a tile, and much more. Players can get points through many ways. The main way is through speciation and migration into environments and the domination action (the last of the twelve actions). When chosen, the player will select a tile, check for dominance, and players on that tile will receive points for having the most species on the tile, while the dominant player will choose one of five cards. These cards can have extremely powerful abilities and could swing the game in a new direction. The game continues until the Ice Age card is drawn and then selected. In the end, every environment tile is scored again.
Learning and teaching the game
The game is incredibly dense, difficult to learn, and has an extended playtime (>2hrs). Given these factors, I am hesitant to recommend this game for education purposes. If you are attempting to learn this, I highly recommend watching 'how to play' videos on Youtube.
If you are looking for a phenomenal heavy board game, look no further. Dominant Species is an excellent strategy board game. The abstracted theme makes it less useful in a classroom, but in return, the game presents players with a deep strategic game that will have you sitting at the edge of your seat staring intently at the game board. I am not alone in this praise; Dominant Species has the distinction of being the highest rated evolution themed game (according the Board Game Geek community). Just be willing devote the time to learn it and relax your ‘biologist brain.’ Then you can fully enjoy the mean and mathy puzzle of Pleistocene domination!
For a game of high complexity and long game play time, Dominant Species has moderate education value. I absolutely love that the most important ways to get points are from achieving a dominant species (and getting dominance cards=points) or for having the highest species richness in the ecosystem (and getting terrain points). This perspective is a wonderful way to quantify evolutionary success. However, for me many of the game mechanisms tied to these key biological processes felt too abstracted. For example, a dominant species in biology is a species most commonly or conspicuously found in a particular ecosystem. It is generally the most populous species or comprises the greatest biomass in an ecosystem. In this game, a player has dominance if they have at least one species in the environment and they have the highest number of matching elements (‘grubs,’’grass,’etc.) between their player board and on the environment tiles. I realize this number is supposed to be a proxy for that species’ abundance, but in execution, the gameplay associated with the elements seem superficial to the theme.
Further, the five actions associated with elements (adaptation, regression, abundance, wasteland, depletion), particularly those associated with the environment, seemed poorly connected to the underlying climatological, ecological and evolutionary processes. Adaptation is where you place an element from the main board to your player board and by doing so, you increase your ability to dominate in that element. Regression is where any elements not selected as an adaptation in the previous round ‘de-evolve’ and are removed from every players boards that match the element. Players can mitigate this by selecting the regression action, which allows them to remove one element token from this pool before it de-evolves at the end of the round. Abundance places an element on any environment where there is a free corner and wasteland is where any elements not selected as an abundance action in the previous round are removed from any tundra tile in play. Again, players can select the wasteland action to remove an element from this pool. Depletion removes all matching elements from the entire board that remained on the wasteland at the end of the previous round. These actions are incredibly important to gameplay, but really make no climatological, ecological or evolutionary sense. Why does not selecting an element as an adaptation/abundance action cause species/environments containing them to be lost?
I have a few other quibbles to fully make my point, because I know this is a sacred game amongst the board gaming community and many will be surprised this wasn’t a top pick. The fact that the different environments provide different victory points also makes little sense. For example, when scored, if you have the highest richness in a wetland you get 8 victory points, whereas in a tundra you only get 1 victory point. I realize this improves gameplay by increasing interaction, as everyone competes for the higher value terrains, but why is the wetland more evolutionarily important compared to the tundra? Wouldn’t the ability to survive in cold environments be thematically important as the whole premise of this game is a looming ice age? The true evolutionary winners would be those species that could survive the ice age. Further, the game limits speciation rates in the lower value environments, making it more difficult to amass species diversity. This actually makes some thematic sense, but shouldn’t this make those environments worth more points because achieving the highest richness in more extreme environments is a more difficult evolutionary process? My last professed quibble is the fact that you only score a single environment title per dominance action. It would be a lot more thematic if every environment tile was scored each round, as it would be a ‘global’ metric of the evolutionary success of each taxonomic class. This, however, would impede gameplay immensely and cause it to move at a glacial pace (sorry I couldn’t help myself).
Lastly, I want to briefly compare Dominant Species to the similar weight BIOS series of games. In Dominant Species, it feels like the core game was mostly developed separately from the theme, which was fit afterward to the core mechanics. In contrast with the BIOS series, it appears that the core game play is built entirely around the theme, and as a potential educational tool, which matters a lot. This difference also directly contributes to a common critique of the BIOS series, in that they can feel more like simulations than a game.
Box cover (image credit: Rodger MacGowan)
Environments (hexes), species (cubes), elements (circles) and dominance markers (cones) (image credit: Helenoftroy)
Player boards of the six classes in the game (image credit: b)
A few of the actions available (image credit: leroy43)
Game components (image credit: Nodens77)