DESIGNER: Matthias Wigge
PLAYERS: 1 -4
AGES: 14 and up
TIME: 90 – 150 minutes
TIMES PLAYED: 4
It’s been fun playing some older games and some games that have been sitting on our shelves unplayed for far too long, but I was anxiously awaiting my copy of this game. I had heard good things from friends who had managed to snag a copy, and I was curious to see if it lived up to the hype. Spoiler alert – I think it does.
In Ark Nova you are designing your very own modern zoo. You want your zoo to be the best zoo around, and certainly better than those of your fellow zoo designers.
What are all these bits? There are several enclosure tiles that are used for the animals in your park, some of which are generic and some of which are specialized. You have a variety of building tiles that will give you a benefit of some sort moving forward. You have some markers for things like extra action points, bonuses and snake effects (more on that later).
You also have cards. Lots and lots of cards. There is a very large deck (212, to be precise) of Zoo cards that are used in the play of the game, as well as scoring cards and a set of action cards for each player.
Next comes the aforementioned boards. There is one, very long main game board as well as a smaller board where certain actions take place. Each player also gets a personal board; these boards are double-sided and there are more boards than players so that you can choose to go with a beginner or more advanced option. This board is the base for your zoo.
Each player gets a set of wooden bits in their player color as well.
You also have the rulebook, a glossary that explains some of the cards and key terms, and a sheet that gives you an overview of the numerous icons used in the game.
Once the board and components are all set up, each player gets 8 Zoo cards; they will choose 4 and discard the rest. Each player also gets two scoring cards that are kept face-down in front of them; you will eventually have to discard one, but not until later in the game, so you have time to figure out what will work best for you.
The game takes place over a series of rounds, but there is not a set number of rounds. There is a track called the “break track”; certain actions cause the marker on that track to move forward, and when it reaches a certain point an interim scoring is triggered (more on that later) and then play continues.
OK, so now we’re ready to play. On your turn, you are going to take one of 5 actions. You have five action cards below your player board; everyone starts with the animal card in slot one and their other 4 cards randomly distributed to the other slots. You start the game with the cards on level 1; you will have a chance to upgrade these cards to give you a pumped-up version of the same action.
To take an action, you select any one of the cards in front of you and move it down slightly to indicate that you’ve chosen it. You are going to take that action at level X, with X being the slot the card is currently in. You take the action at that level, you move it to slot 1, and then slide all the other cards down one space.
So what are these actions?
Let’s start with the card action which will let you draw X cards, depending on the level of your card. You draw these cards from the face down deck. You may also have to discard, and if so that can be from the cards you just drew or from your hand. If the snapping action is available at the level of action you are taking, you can take any one card from the face up display.
Upgrading this card to level II, which happens on various bonus spaces, will allow you to draw cards either from the face-down deck OR at or below the level your piece has reached on the reputation track.
Next let’s look at the build action. You can’t just let your animals run amok all throughout your zoo; at a minimum you need enclosures for the animals to live in and kiosks for the patrons to spend their money at, and maybe you want to have a fancy specialty building or two. The build action will let you do that; you can build one item up to the level of the action the card is on – so if your build card is a 3, you can build a building that is one, two or three hexes in size. Pay $2 credits per hex and place that building on your board; it must be adjacent to another building and it cannot cover a rock or water space.
Once you upgrade to the II side, you can build any number of buildings up to the action level you are at, and can also now build the aviary or the reptile house, which will let you house more animals in one enclosure (more on that in a minute).
Now that we have cards and enclosures covered, let’s talk about the animal action. This is how you play those animal cards in your hand. You may play the number of cards indicated by the action level that the card is at.
The number at the top left of the card indicates the minimum size of the enclosure the animal can live in – a 4 would mean you must have a 4 or larger enclosure available. If there is a rock or water symbol next to the number, the enclosure must be next to one of these spaces.
Below that you will see the number of credits you need, as well as any additional requirements you must meet. Most animal cards have symbols in the upper right corner that indicate their category and the continent they are from; once you play an animal card or otherwise add that symbol to your zoo, it counts towards any requirement.
Animals may also have a one-time special effect that you do when you play it. They will always also move you along on the appeal track, and may also move you on other tracks as well – the symbols on the bottom right of the card will tell you.. Put that card in front of you once played, so that the symbols on the right are visible.
When you play the animal card, you flip over the enclosure you want to put them in and put one cube of your color on the enclosure to indicate that it is occupied. In general that type of animal is permanently assigned to that area, although some special buildings and card effects may allow you to move them, in which case this enclosure becomes available to you again.
Upgrading this action lets you play cards from the display as well as your hand, and may let you play 2 animals.
Running a modern zoo also requires support. The sponsors action lets you play a sponsor card from your hand of the same or lower action level your card is at. Sponsors give you some benefit, whether that’s a special building, and income/boon of some sort, or an immediate bonus. It may also move you on a track or give you an end-game scoring opportunity. You can instead choose to use it to take some money and move the break token up.
Upgrading to level II lets you play one or cards, including from the display, or to get more money for taking the break action.
Whew. That is a lot. Are you still with me? Good, because we are down to our last action, and that is the association action. Play one of your available meeples (you start with one and gain others on various bonus spots and through card actions) onto a space on the association board that is the same or lower value as the spot your card is on. There are lots of options here
You can increase your reputation (the card track). You can gain a partner zoo, which will give you a permanent continent symbol and may give you an immediate bonus on your player board. You can gain a partner university, which will give you some immediate bonus and/or permanent symbols. You can also claim a conservation card, which will give you some number of conservation points.
The game will have some number of conservation cards from the conservation deck (based on the number of players) from the start of the game. Taking this action allows you to either place a cube from the left of your board on one of those existing cards or to play a conservation card that you have in your hand (from the Zoo draw pile) and place a cube. You have to meet the criteria to place the cube, and you take the listed reward, plus that cube unlocks either a one-time or ongoing bonus from your player board.
Upgrading this to level II will allow you to do all those actions, but now you can also donate money to gain one conservation point.
That’s all the actions. We’re going to jump back to the card action for a moment, because when you take that action you move forward on the break track. Once the marker on that track reaches the identified space the player who caused it gets an X token (which lets you improve the value of an action one time) and then an interim scoring and income phase happens. Play then continues as normal until . . . .
The game ends when one player’s pieces on the conservation and appeal track meet or pass each other. All other players get one more turn, and then a final scoring occurs. All players score their final scoring card(s) as well as any end-game bonuses; all of these move you on one of the tracks. You find the lowest appear number on the space your conservation marker is one – that’s considered your Target Number. Subtract your actual appeal value and that’s your score. Highest score wins, and ties are broken in favor of the person who supported the most conservation projects.
MY THOUGHTS ON THE GAME
The game itself is well-made. The game comes in a rectangular box and it is hefty, since it has many components. You’ll be spending some time punching out bits. You are going to see a LOT of baggies. A LOT. Friend, do not be distracted and put all your punched bits into this plethora of baggies without taking out all of the boards, because once you take out the boards you are going to discover two large, plastic sectioned storage bins for all these bits that you now need to take out of the baggies and put into these bins.
The components are of good quality, and I appreciate that they included the storage bins, which makes set-up and put-away much faster
It is a table hog, and the main board is very long, so you’ll need to be sure to play it on the right table; I am very glad we had upgraded our table just in time for this game to arrive.
The rules are well-written and clear and are laid out in a way that makes sense to me. While we did have rules questions during the first couple of plays, we were always able to find the answer quickly. They are long, but that is only because it is a complex game. We did get a couple of rules wrong here and there, but when going back to the rules the mistake was clearly ours; we had just missed it.
My only negative in the production/explanation is the various tracks; we had some confusion over which track was which. There are icons on the board, but the board is big and it took us a little but to remember which was which, so maybe a larger icon or words at the start of each track would have helped. However, this is a pretty minor negative, because after the first play it was much less of an issue.
Onto the game itself – I love it. I have played it four times now; three times with two players and once with three. Every time we finished I immediately wanted to play it again. We didn’t, because it is a long game. Our first game took almost 5 hours from set-up to finish, but subsequent games have been between 3.5 and 4 hours. My enjoyment has not diminished over these plays.
Why do I love it? Well, It has lots of elements I enjoy in games – card interactions, tile placement and resource management – so I was attracted to it right away. What keeps me firmly in the “love it” camp is how well it all works together. The design is flawless, and everything interacts and flows well. Nothing feels too clunky or like it was added just to fix a problem. Despite the long rules and variety of things to keep track of, it all makes sense. While other players could take something that might affect your turn, you can generally plan out your actions for at least a couple of turns to maximize your efficiency and engine. You are rewarded for good planning, but you aren’t hamstrung by it; if a curveball comes your way it is possible to adapt and often you have more than one good choice anyway. You can’t do everything you want to do unless you find a way to get yourself symbols and discounts, because money isn’t exactly tight, but it’s not free-flowing either, and some of those exotic animals are expensive.
I also like the fact that the game doesn’t have a set number of rounds, so it is hard to know when it is going to end. You may in fact be in control of when it will end and know that while the other players do not; the tension of that decision adds another layer of interest to this game.
Another benefit to the game is that it can be adjusted to the level of the people playing it, even if the players are not all at the same level. You can choose to start on the basic board with the recommended cards, which will even direct you as to what your first few actions can be. You can choose to start on a slightly more advanced board, or you can choose to randomly distribute the asymmetric boards. You can give a newer player an easier player board to give them a slight advantage to adjust for the learning curve. I don’t mind being behind in a game I am just learning, but it can feel bad to be horribly behind and have no chance, so this attempts to mitigate it a little bit. (Or a lot – in our three player game the new player with the beginning board beat us. I am totally giving credit to that board advantage. . . . .)
Some people are likely to compare this to Terraforming Mars, and I can definitely see why they say that, but it didn’t occur to me until others mentioned it. It has cards and card interactions, but that’s hardly a new mechanic and it neither seems derivative or like I’m playing Terraforming Mars with animals; this game feels new to me, even if it is using mechanics we’ve seen in other games.
I am very much looking forward to more plays of this, as well as to giving the solo game a try.
COMMENTS FROM OTHER OPINIONATED GAMERS
Comments from other Opinionated Gamers
Larry (5 plays): What’s new in the zoo? For me, Ark Nova is neither the bee’s knees, nor the cat’s meow (it’s not even my Game of the Year). However, based on my five 2-player games of it, it’s a very good design that’s been entertaining enough for me to give it an “I Love It” rating on the OG scale. The variable strength action system works very well and gives you scope for planning, as well as some interesting decisions. There are lots of ways of scoring points (in fact, most of the time I don’t put many animals in my zoo). Luck with the cards can definitely affect things, but if you don’t count on perfect cards appearing and conservatively work with the cards you do acquire, you should manage just fine. It’s an interesting game that’s well designed and well developed and it’ll probably continue to get a lot of play with my group.
Playing time continues to be an issue. So far, all of my games have lasted about 2.5 hours, and that’s with just 2 players. I expect we’ll be able to get that down to an hour per player, but that still means that 3-player contests will require a significant investment in time and that playing with 4 just won’t fly. Maybe things will improve with experience, but I have my doubts.
I have no reason to believe that the player mats and final scoring cards are unbalanced, but it sure seems as if some of them work better for certain playing styles than others. So until I can expand my skill set with the game, it won’t surprise me if my winning percentage is dependent to some extent on my starting position.
While I may not be quite as enthusiastic about Ark Nova as some others, it’s still a fine game that I’m happy to play and figures to be one of my top games of last year. I continue to be a bit puzzled about how such an involved game has become a runaway hit (I can easily see it crashing the Geek’s all-time top 10 list). But since games of this complexity are my favorites, I guess I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. (And that’s quite enough animal aphorisms for one short comment!)
Dan B. (1 play): I was not at all sure I would like Ark Nova as I am not in general a big fan of games with enormous decks of cards in which you need to find synergy (e.g. Terraforming Mars). However, I figured I should try it. I was pleasantly surprised; it’s possible I just had a lot of lucky draws but I didn’t have that much trouble finding some cards that worked together – not killer combinations or anything, but even a small income boost here and there early in the game is helpful. It flowed well and, while I was also concerned about game length, I think we took a bit less than two and a half hours for a four-player game.
That being said, I don’t see a compelling reason to play with more than two given the limited degree of interaction and the potential for a long play time – there’s definitely interaction in the conservation projects and there are cards which give you bonuses for cards other people play, but I’m not sure that’s all worth the increased play time.
There are also some more take-that style cards, but we played with a variant which is apparently common in which the solo game actions on those are used instead. That is fine for some cards but on at least one (Hypnosis) the solo action is much too strong, so I would re-think this variant if you are tempted to use it, or just remove those cards.
I would also suggest not mixing the basic and advanced boards as we did that for the game I played and I (having not played before and with the basic board) won by a respectable margin. I think the difference between the boards is just too large,
RATINGS FROM THE OPINIONATED GAMERS
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Tery, Larry, Brandon K, Steph
- I like it. Dan B.
- Not for me…
I knew Ark Nova was a long game, but whoa, that first photo of the game on the table makes it look like you need a really long table to play this game. I wish people didn’t love it so. I don’t want to buy it because I like my games a reasonable length and for three players and up, but I feel like I’m missing out on a gem.
It would definitely be too big for a card table-sized table, but I think a dining room table or a usual con table would be okay.
Game time has decreased with each subsequent play, so I expect that 3 hours would be more of a likely length with those familiar with the game. A fried told me he recently completed a 4 player game in closer to 2 hours.
I think the length is being exaggerated. I played a 3 player game yesterday which was over in a little over 2 hours. Everyone had played a couple of games previously, but not a great number. A two-player game taking four or five hours? Something is very wrong.
I suspect it’s a bit like any player-controlled game ending. People said Anno 1800 and Maracaibo were too long, but really it’s about realising that it’s a race. Those other two games usually go far too long when the players, or a sub-set of them, are playing poorly and don’t realise that they should be the ones pushing to speed the end game.
If you play Ark Nova with a pretty good/efficient player or players then, barring massive AP, they will make sure the game length is much more reasonable as they will trigger the end game in a reasonable time.
Clearly you have never played a game with my husband, champion of AP. . . . :-) That 5 hour game included the rules explanation, so closer to 4 hours of actual playing. Our Maracaibo play times are down to two hours, and I expect we can get this closer to that over time.
Larry, I always trust your judgement – and now eagerly await the other games you consider the bee’s knees. We’ve found play time didn’t increase as much as expected with 3 since it often gave you time to consider your next move. Thanks OG for all the years I’ve used your site as no1 go to.
Thank you for a great review. Although I think its good, I could not find any rules in the rule book that states you shall put a cube on an enclosure to show that it is occupied by an animal. Only the specified tiles that have markings for cubes needs that. But I think its a good idea.