In the first, Defenders of the Realm, you and your fellow players cooperatively work to defeat evils invading your kingdom.
The second, Dominant Species, is set in the moments before the ice age and enables you and your fellow players to jockey for position to see who will best weather the coming climate change.
Though you may not find either game in your local Target or Walmart, they are beautiful, professional products. Neither’s as straightforward as, say, Monopoly or Scrabble, where you can get a feel for what to do after a brief tutorial, but for the family or game group willing to invest a little bit of time, they’re sure to provide years of entertaining play.
Defenders of the Realm
Eagle Games ($57.18)
As a veteran of role-playing games, I’m familiar with cooperative gameplay, but I’d never really seen it in a board game before. In Defenders of the Realm players take on various familiar fantasy roles –wizard, ranger, cleric, paladin and several others (including Barbarian, in a small expansion package) and defend the realm as it’s assaulted by a whole host of baddies. In the standard game there’s an evil dragon, an undead lord, an orc general, and a demon thing. The big baddies start at the edge of the board and work their way toward the capital of the realm, sort of like Gozilla wading through traffic to the center of town. To make things even more challenging, though, minions of each of the big guys get summoned to new locations on the board every round.
The movement of the bad guys, as well as various quests that the good guys take to find
treasures to assist in their battles, is driven by card draws. An overall winner will result… but here’s the thing – it’s almost impossible to defeat any one of the overlords without assistance, and during the battle, if you play your options right, you can maneuver to deliver the last blow and score the victory.
As you would expect, each of the player roles has different strengths and abilities. The wizard, for instance, can teleport to places on the board rather than having to spend movement points, and the eagle rider can fly.
The caveat is that the rulebook is extensive, even a little daunting, though the rules in play are pretty straightforward. We got over the learning hurdle about halfway through the first game, and Defenders of the Realm quickly became a favorite here in the Jones castle. Watching my kids play reminds me of the fun I used to have playing Dark Tower. Except that Dark Tower never had expansions to add even more variety, like new dragon lords, or new character types.
GMT Games ($61.54)
I can see that Defenders of the Realm, while seemingly complex at the outset, might be embraced by gamers more used to Clue and Monopoly. Dominant Species is a fabulous game, but it’s not for casual gamers. It is laden with rich options sure to delight those who enjoy tactical and strategic challenge, but to achieve those rewards, players will have to try several rounds before the possibilities become more obvious. Once they do, though, they’ll be playing one of the most well-structured, flexible, and enjoyable strategy games on the market.
Dominant Species offers its players the chance to be one of six species – insects, amphibians, mammals, reptiles, birds, or arachnids, all competing for dominance in a host of different environments. As the turns progress, not only are characters competing for land space, they’re maneuvering to diversify the different kinds of food sources they can consume, placing new land areas to colonize, designating what sorts of resources become more difficult to obtain, and even placing tundra tiles on their opponent’s land spaces, effectively freezing them out. Once everyone has the rules down, the game moves quickly, and interactively. The numbers of variables virtually ensures that Dominant Species won’t go stale, and means players have to keep on their toes in a constantly shifting environment – which is certainly apropos .
The themes in some games seem tacked on as an afterthought, but that of Dominant Species is integral. It may be the finest science-themed game that I’ve ever played, and is certainly one of the better tactical games, with the added benefit that it does not play slowly. It really imitates a sense of kill or be killed, adapt or die. As an added bonus, the board and pieces are lovely, durable, and beautifully made. If your (older) kids enjoy science or pre-history, or if you like a good tactical challenge and want to try out a theme without tanks or swords, Dominant Species is highly recommended.