Why you should learn a game that scares you

This past weekend, my wife and I went to the Heavy Cardboard game day, and Edward was kind enough to teach us Dominant Species, the unique amalgamation of euro and war game published by GMT. It’s a pretty serious undertaking; it can take several hours and has a 4.03 complexity rating on BoardGameGeek.


For comparison, the games I’ve played in the last few weeks are Viticulture (complexity 2.98), Lords of Waterdeep (2.52), Settlers of Catan (complexity 2.37), Carcassonne (1.95), and Guillotine (1.28). I’ve also been enjoying Twilight Struggle on iOS (3.52), and I’m learning Through the Ages on BoardGameArena (4.17). So Dominant Species is above my normal complexity level, though I’ve been wanting to get into more complex games. Nonetheless, I was a bit nervous about learning it.

My wife, who is a big fan of Viticulture and Waterdeep, was also apprehensive about learning it—I had experience learning highly complicated games from when I played Twilight Imperium, whereas she had never taken on anything even close to the level of Dominant Species.


But both of us had an absolute blast. And it got me to thinking about why learning highly complex games—especially ones that scare you—is such a great thing.

A primordial battle

But first, a bit about Dominant Species. GMT Games is a big name in the wargame scene—they’re the producers of huge titles like Twilight StruggleCommands & Colors, and Combat Commander: Europe. But they do occasionally branch out into other genres; they have a few racing games, for example, and a train game or two.

Dominant Species is something else entirely; some might call it a eurogame, because of the importance of worker placement, and others could justifiably call it a wargame because of the tactical decision-making and chaotic conflict. It’s hard to put this game into a category. It has a little bit of everything: worker placement, card drafting, area control, exploration, variable player powers, tile placement . . . it’s a unique combination of mechanics that you’re familiar with, but put together in a totally new way (the runthrough below does a great job of explaining it all).

Each player takes control of a certain type of animal (mammals, insects, reptiles, &c.) and aims to be the one ahead in scoring when the next Ice Age hits. To become the dominant species, each player chooses actions to perform each turn, ranging from placing new cubes (each cube represents a “species”) on the board and exploring new areas to adding elements to their player mat (increasing their chances of dominating hexes) and scoring tiles.

The amount of points earned by any tile is determined by the number of species present on it, with the player having the most species getting the most points . . . but dominance, which is determined by the number of matching element tiles on a hex and a player’s mat, is a different story. The player who dominates a scored hex gets to draw a Dominance Card that can have major consequences for the game.

In addition, players are fighting to stay ahead (or take advantage) of glaciation, which turns hexes into barren areas of tundra, depleting resources and potential point-scoring opportunities.


The elements on the board and player mats, the hexes available, the number of species on any given tile, and the status of domination on those tiles changes extremely quickly. Other players sabotage your efforts by getting rid of elements on your hexes, destroying your species with actions and cards, and grabbing better available spots during worker placement.

There are a ton of things to think about (missing one of those things likely moved me down at least one place in the final scoring), and it’s hard to keep track of everything when it’s all changing quickly. It’s a complex game, but it’s really worth learning and playing.

(I highly recommend grabbing a copy for yourself; it’s $60 on Amazon.)

Why you should challenge yourself to learn a game that scares you

As I mentioned, Dominant Species is above average in complexity compared to most of the games I play, and it’s quite a bit above what my wife is familiar with. We were talking about it afterwards, and she pointed something out that I hadn’t really ever considered when thinking about learning games: she has difficulty with aural learning.

When she was a kid in school, this caused problems, especially in her physical education classes: teachers would explain sports and games, but she had a lot of trouble understanding and absorbing the explanations. She’s extremely intelligent (she’s finishing up her PhD in sociolinguistics at the time of this writing), but she needed visual input to really grasp the instructions. So this was a big problem with sports, and it understandably still makes her anxious when faced with the prospect of learning complex things like heavily strategic board games.

So, as you can imagine, the idea of learning something as complicated as Dominant Species was pretty daunting to her. There are a lot of rules to keep track of, and she felt like she was going to forget a lot of things and have to repeatedly ask questions. It’s a fear of “looking dumb” that’s held over from her childhood—it’s a hard thing to shake. And she’s definitely not alone.

But when we got to the game day, there wasn’t really much discussion about whether or not we wanted to take one one of the most complex games we’d ever learned. It was more like “Hey! Dominant Species?” “Sure!” We didn’t even know what we were getting ourselves into.

As you can see, I’m doing some serious strategizing. Thanks to @HeavyCardboard for taking this great photo!

And it was very complex; Dominant Species isn’t a game you can teach in five minutes. There’s a lot of new terms, action types, and rules to remember, and it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll forget at least a few things. Pretty much my wife’s worst nightmare. But you know what? It was great.

Edward, having an almost unfathomable amount of board game experience, was a really great teacher. He told us all of the rules, but he also showed some examples with tiles, species, and workers. We asked questions when we didn’t understand things. We went back and asked about things we had forgotten. And even though there were a few things we didn’t completely understand, we just rolled with it and figured it out as we went.

In addition to Edward’s teaching prowess, GMT printed a lot of reminders on their player mats of how things work. They’re not detailed explanations, but they’re enough to jog the player’s memory about what each action does and how to calculate different scores. Good game design includes making it as easy as possible to learn and play a game, and game design has improved a lot over the years. The game itself is on your side (when it comes to remembering how to play, anyway).


Someone in the group had printed out more detailed sheets with in-depth explanations for when we needed them, too, and everyone else at the table was very understanding and helpful when it came to answering questions.

Don’t get me wrong; we made quite a few errors. We forgot our turns, because the turn order wasn’t clockwise or counter-clockwise; we calculated dominance incorrectly; we grabbed the wrong color cubes; we made strategic blunders; there were plenty of little screw-ups throughout the game. But no one cared.

Because most board gamers are in the hobby to have fun—not to be super competitive, or blast through games as quickly as possible (we were at the table over four hours), or only to play with experts. They want to have a good time and share the hobby with other people. They know it’s not easy to learn the games, because they’ve had that same experience. They’re nice people, and they’re happy to help.

And when you realize that everyone—including the game itself—is on your side, it’s much easier to take on a game that’s above the level of complexity you’re usually comfortable with. You start to relax, and feel good about asking questions instead of just struggling to figure it out. Not being stressed about memorizing every rule lets you see the game from a higher perspective; you can think a bit about strategy, see synergies, get a better idea of what the game is really about. You challenge your brain to think in new ways, and you grow.

And above all, that’s why you should take on a complex, heavy game. Even (and especially) if it scares you.

So next time you have the opportunity to learn a game that’s highly complicated—or even one that’s just slightly outside your comfort zone—take it. Don’t skip out because you’re afraid of not being able to learn it or because you’re afraid people will think you’re dumb. The people around you will help, and you’ll all have a blast. You’ll learn a new game and, even more importantly, new ways to think. And what’s better than that?

(And really: buy a copy of this game. It’s phenomenal.)2


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