Is Dominant Species on the iPad smart enough to survive?

, | Game reviews

If you’re not hip to Dominant Species, the superlative boardgame from GMT, you probably can’t tell what you’re looking at in that screenshot of the iPad version. Allow me to explain.

Carnivorous spiders have taken over the world, thriving in its oceans. They started out feeding on grubs, but as the impending ice age forced them out of their jungles and forests into the oceans inhabited by insects and amphibians, they adapted to eating meat. The spiders were so competitive they forced other species into lesser biomes. Even the mammals that were higher on the food chain and better suited to this world’s teeming oceans were forced into the desert. No one could compete with the ruthlessly effective meat-eating sea spiders!

Darwin will never explain this because his ancestors have been eaten. Game over, indeed.

After the jump, how did I get so many points?

That was only my third game ever of Dominant Species. I have since played several more games. I have never lost, and not because I’m good. In fact, I was winning before I even fully knew what I was doing. The AI in this iPad port of Dominant Species is barely competent to move pieces around the board. The only competitive games are games with so many players jostling each other that the sheer crush of competition can make it difficult to come out ahead. Like actual evolution! I guess you could say it’s realistic.

The ineffectual AI in Dominant Species for the iPad is a damn shame, because Dominant Species for the tabletop is so brilliant. It consists of a checklist of gameplay mechanics such as:

* Worker placement
* Territory control with nuance beyond sheer numbers
* Randomized and extremely dynamic maps
* Cards as earth-shattering dynamic events
* Asymmetrical factions where the asymmetry matters hugely
* Vivid theming and unique subject matter

But what makes Dominant Species special is how well all these elements are woven together into a unified design, each feature informing every other feature. This is an ambitious game that belongs in every closet with anything more complicated than Ticket to Ride.

The main drawback with the design — and, really, is this a drawback? — is that Dominant Species isn’t easy to appreciate until you’ve played it a few times. And that’s where the iPad port is a valuable tool on the way to the tabletop version. What an ideal way to do an end run around the learning curve. This is one of those rare boardgame ports that presents all the necessary information neatly and cleanly, with comprehensive documentation accessible from any point in the game by tapping on the relevant part of the board. As a tutorial for how to play, as an introduction to the design, as a gateway to the brilliance of its design, or even as a reference tool, Dominant Species on the iPad is a five-star effort.

Unfortunately, Dominant Species on the iPad is little else. You can’t take up the slack for the miserable AI by playing multiplayer, because there is no online multiplayer support, asynchronous or otherwise. You can play locally on a single iPad, as there’s no hidden information. But clustering around an iPad is a poor substitute for breaking out the actual game. I guess you did save $50. But given how many boardgame ports actually go through the trouble of providing a competent AI, Dominant Species simply can’t compete.

2 stars