Ark Nova (Game Review by Brandon Kempf)

  • Designer: Mathias Wigge
  • Artist: Loïc Billiau, Dennis Lohausen, Steffen Bieker, Christof Tisch
  • Publisher: Feurland Spiele & Capstone Games
  • Players: 1-4 Players
  • Time: 90-150 Minutes (according to BGG)
  • Times Played: 5 (3-four player, 2-two player)

Hype, hype, hype, hype, hype, hype……..

Honestly, that could be the review of Ark Nova based on the buzz that is going around the board gaming community at the moment. A game that somehow managed to grab folks in spite of its fairly hefty rules overhead. We all know that there is a bias that leans more towards heavier, rules laden games than there is to simple family weight games, but normally there is at least some modicum of awareness to this, but I’m not seeing it here with Ark Nova. I am seeing unabashed, frothing at the mouth (shout out to the Cabal) love. Which is why, even in short supply, I sought out a copy and wanted to try it myself. I honestly have not gotten excited about a game like Ark Nova in a long while. The heavier Euro scene has kind of become a desert of rehashed mechanisms and subtle variations of efficiency gaming slapped on top of a meaningless theme. Ark Nova seemed different. Then I dug in and you immediately get that Terraforming Mars card play feel, and you get a bit of the big box Uwe Rosenberg tetris, polyomino feel and most importantly you get that action selection mechanism that was the only redeeming thing from Civilization: A New Dawn. Couple all that with the unique scoring mechanism similar to Rajas of the Ganges and you have the makings of either a complete mess, or a masterpiece. Or do you? Maybe there is room in between for some in between. That’s a whole lot of comparisons being thrown around in the first paragraph, I realize that, but I think the best way to look at Ark Nova may be to see where its influences came from and then try to figure out if Mathias Wigge has improved on them. 

Ark Nova is an economic game where each player is building a zoo. Players have a board in front of them representing their zoo, when it starts the zoo is pretty barren, these animals aren’t going to just appear in your zoo wanting to be imprisoned now are they? You have to build your zoo, adding enclosures for the animals, some Kiosks so the people coming to your zoo know where to go and buy things, and some pavilions so they have a place to relax and enjoy their $12 drink in a commemorative plastic cup. 

A game of Ark Nova is not played over a specific number of rounds or a specific number of turns. They players control the action of when the game ends. Players keep taking turns, one after another, pausing only when someone triggers a “break”; this is a maintenance phase where you can gain income and do a handful of other things. After that “break” is over, play continues on until a player manages to get their scoring markers on the appeal and conservation track in the same area or even cross. This is the part that is similar to Rajas of the Ganges. These two tracks are running in opposite directions on the board. The Prestige track will move by playing animal cards from your hand and the conservation track will move through doing conservatory acts like possibly releasing animals or completing conservation projects. Of the two tracks, you will move the Prestige track faster than the Conservation track. When a player triggers the end of the game, each other player gets one more turn before the game ends. It’s important that folks understand how the game ends, you have to be moving both tracks, and you have to be keenly aware of when the game may end.

At the heart of Ark Nova are the five actions that you choose from on a turn. Each turn consists of one action and then play moves on to the next player. This is also where a bulk of your teaching, if you are so lucky to be the teacher, will be focused. The players have to understand what the actions do and why the actions are doing what they do to progress the game. Each player has a display below their zoo board with the five action cards numbered one through five. The number corresponds to the “power” that the action has when you take the action. So if you are doing an action from the three spot, you have a power of three. After you finish the action, the action card that you used moves down to the one spot and the other actions move up to fill in the gap. This is the Civilization A New Dawn action selection mechanism that I am sure has been used before, but that’s what I recall it most recently from. 

The five actions that players can choose from are:

  • Cards
  • Build
  • Animals
  • Sponsors
  • Association

The Cards action allows the player to gain new Zoo cards from the deck or from the display. What you gain is based on where the action is on your action board. Cards are the heart and soul of Ark Nova. The Zoo cards you gain are going to be the animals that you can place in your zoo enclosures, they are Sponsors that help your zoo and they are Conservation cards which obviously will help you on the Conservation track. You want to have cards in hand to play, so you need to be drawing cards quite often. There is a hand limit size that you have to get to when the Break happens, you have to discard down to three cards, or five cards if you have an ability given to you by one of the Universities. This also moves the Break token up the Break line, moving the game closer to a break in the action for an income phase 

The Build action is based once again on where that action is on your action board. You can build an enclosure of that size or smaller in your zoo. You need enclosures before you can place animals in your zoo. When you first start playing, the Build action only allows certain enclosures and buildings to be built, but you can improve this action, just like you can with all of the other actions, and more special buildings open up to you. You pay, in money, two coins for every space of the enclosure, or enclosures that you are placing, so a four space enclosure costs eight coins.

The Animal action will allow you to place as many animals from your hand as the action space allows. In order to place animals in your zoo though, you have to meet some requirements. First you have to be able to afford them, animals have a cost in coins. You have to have an enclosure open and ready for them of the size specified on the card or larger, one animal, one enclosure. Unless of course you have a special enclosure like the Reptile House, Bird Aviary or the Petting Zoo, those can hold more. Or the animal itself is considered able to cohabitate with another animal. All of these requirements are spelled out on the Animal card itself. After playing an Animal card, most cards will have a supplemental action you can take because you played the card. Animal cards are also where players will gain a majority of their Appeal points.

The Sponsor action allows you to play a Sponsor card from your hand. The Sponsor card has a cost associated with it and as long as it is at or below the power of the Sponsor action when played, you may play that Sponsor. Sponsors offer a lot of immediate benefits and also will offer some endgame benefits as well. If you don’t want to play a Sponsor card, the Sponsor action can also allow you to move the Break marker up the break track a number of spaces equal to the power of the action, pushing towards a break and income. 

The Association action allows you to send people from your Zoo to form alliances, or Associations, with zoos in other continents, which gives you a discount on animals that originate from that continent and also to form Associations with Universities. The Universities will provide you with reputation gains and also some research, which is a requirement for some cards to be played. You can also do Conservatory things through the Association action and gain more Conservation points. Later in the game, with the improved Association card, you can also pay for Conservation Points. 

There is also a “skip” action that you can do if you choose to not do anything, or cannot do anything. You simply take one of the Action cards, move it to the one space on your Action board and gain a multiplier token. These multiplier tokens may be used to make actions more powerful. 

There you go, every turn you are going to choose to take one of these actions, then fulfill those actions based on the power of where they are on your Action board at the time of taking actions. All to try to increase your Appeal for your Zoo and gain Conservation points along the way to get to the end of the game. 

As mentioned, these Action cards can be upgraded through gameplay, making them far more versatile and allowing for more to be done on your turn when taking them. Upgraded actions are also necessary to move up the Reputation Track past a certain point. Do you want a third or fourth partner University to get more discounts? Gotta upgrade that Association card, which also allows you to make donations for Conservation points. 

There are a lot of little rules not covered here, but if you understand how you are going to gain Appeal points and how you are going to gain Conservation points in order to make those two tracks cross paths eventually, you basically understand the game outside of some rules of tile placement and animal placement, along with a whole bunch of icons. I mean it wouldn’t be a card game without tons of icons, would it? There are a couple chances to move animals around when you build special enclosures (Petting Zoo, Aviary and Reptile House). 

The Break phase is really simple to do. When a player triggers a break by moving the Break token to the end of the Break track, they finish their turn and then do the Break phase before the next person takes a turn. First the players have to discard down to three cards, unless of course  they have the University that allows them to have five cards. Then players will remove any tokens that remain on their action cards, these tokens can be there through their own actions or by chance if other players play one of the cards that allows them to interact with other players. These are mostly bad things, but there is a x2 token which players can earn that allows for a double action, but it goes away here as well if not used. Everyone calls back their Zoo employees that were used to form associations on the Associations board. You clear off the first two Zoo cards on the one and two spots on the offering and refill, then you gain income based on your spot on the Appeal track plus any bonus income that is earned through cards and through Conservation acts. After that is all done and players all have their income, play continues. 

The last thing to explain is exactly how scoring works. When someone triggers the end of the game and everyone else takes their last turn the game is over. Players will then look at their cards that score points and add them to the correct track. At the beginning of the game the players are dealt two end game scoring cards (unless you are playing with the starting decks) and by the time it gets to scoring they should only have one. The end game scoring card is usually something that gives you a goal, i.e. have certain animal types in their zoo and rewards Conservation points based on that. Once the score markers have been moved on the Conservation and the Appeal track and are in their final position, it’s time to figure victory points. In the scoring area where your Conservation Marker ended, find the lowest appeal in that area, this becomes your target number. Subtract this Target number from where your appeal marker ended and this will be your victory point total, the highest total wins. Before you ask though, yes, negative scores are quite possible. In order to have that positive number, your Appeal marker and your Conservation marker have to cross each other. 

I realize that we just had a review of Ark Nova last week on this same blog. It’s one of those things that just kind of happens from time to time. I don’t know that I will have any vastly different thoughts than Tery, I tend to not read other reviews until I finish with my own, so I apologize for any overlap that we may have here. Ark Nova is not the type of game that I am accustomed to reviewing. It’s not the type of game that I have any real predilection to enjoying. I just wanted to offer my thoughts to those who have things in common with me in the gaming world. It just so happened that two of us were writing it at the same time and considering that the game has shot up the Board Game Geek charts in limited availability, we figured it couldn’t hurt to talk about it twice. 

Before we get going too much further, I have never particularly enjoyed Terraforming Mars (and that’s the big comparison, right?) all that much. I think it’s a flawed game that rewards digging through the deck and makes you pay for needless cards, plus the art is fairly comical which pulls me right out of the game. I will still play Terraforming Mars because I know a lot of others enjoy it, but I never pursue it. Ark Nova on the other hand fixes those things in Terraforming Mars that bother me. I don’t have to pay to keep cards in hand, I don’t feel as reliant on digging through the deck to find just the right card with just the right icon and while the art still isn’t particularly great, Ark Nova’s presence is a vast improvement over the clip art of Terraforming Mars

Everything mechanism wise in Ark Nova feels very familiar. I truly don’t believe that there is anything new going on mechanically. Ark Nova is a mish mash of mechanisms from other places, a mish mash that works, and works really well. Making it truly more than the sum of its parts. Make no mistake though, there are a lot of those parts, and as with any game with a lot of parts there is a bit of overhead that could possibly hinder enjoyment. Ark Nova is a bit of a bear to teach, although I think that with each chance I get to teach it, I will be better and more efficient. My first try took about thirty minutes and I felt there were things that I missed. The caveat here is that I tried to teach it to three other new players. Yeah, our first play was a four player game. Second teaching came in at just about twenty minutes, you kind of learn what you actually need to teach prior to playing and what you can teach or figure out as you play. 

Five plays in now. Our first play at four players and subsequently two plays at two players and then two more four player games. The four player game can have a lot of downtime. I don’t think that four players is the preferred player count, especially when learning. The two player games were very nicely paced, even when teaching the other player. Two plays so far have used the starting decks as chosen by the publisher. This is something that really helps games like Ark Nova. Games with lots of choices and lots of paths that the players can take. Those starting decks can help new players focus and find one or two things to shoot for in the game while not hindering them and making them stay on course. You can still ad lib outside those starting decks, in fact you have to. Personally, I am glad that they came out with these, even outside of the box after the fact. I know that lost feeling all too well when starting games like this where you see all the icons and you see all the end game goals and you just don’t know where to start. So thank you to the design team for doing these starting decks. My third and fourth plays we went in without those starting decks and definitely felt more aware of what we needed to be doing, even without the guidance, so the training wheels really worked.

The downtime that I mentioned in the four player game can definitely be seen as a positive, it really depends on how you look at it. It allows the players enough time to have their play fully planned out before their turn. There are very few things that can change what a player is going to do on their turn. The other players cannot really affect you all that much. There are a few cards that have some negative interaction, making actions less powerful or making you pay money to take actions, but those are few and far between in a game with over 200 cards. We played with them in two of our four player games, but never saw them in both of our two player game, or we just never played them to gain anything. Second two player game I played one of them to no effect. Those cards that can have those negative impacts are mostly a catch-up mechanism for the players behind. If you are ahead on the Appeal track or Conservation track, they won’t affect other players. Ark Nova really is one of those multiplayer solitaire games for the most part. There is minimal interaction between the players. The interaction of the players is mostly done through denial, i.e. taking cards, universities, zoos or Conservation projects that the other players may want. 

As with most games like this where you are drawing cards a lot, there is going to be some luck involved. As I’ve said, you really want to match those Conservation projects as best you can and sometimes there are not going to be cards offered that will allow you to do that directly, so you have to draw. Like the Stones said, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try some time, you might just find you get what you need”. In Ark Nova that means make best use of what you get, don’t get frustrated, all of the cards will benefit you in the long run, you just have to do a bit of cost analysis to figure out just how much you gain from playing something that isn’t necessarily what you are searching for. There are alot of things to track here as well, I haven’t mentioned that some of those Sponsor cards do allow you to gain benefits when other players, or you yourself, play cards of certain types. So while most of the time you will be head down in your own zoo and cards, you do need to pay attention to make sure you get the most out of your sponsors.

In a recent four player game, one of the players was really frustrated at the ending. Claiming that by having that abrupt ending it cost him a lot of points and thus the game. This is a frustration I have seen mentioned in a couple of places as well. Should a two to four hour game that rewards planning end with the possibility of uneven turns? I don’t mind the ending, you can definitely see the ending coming as the game really builds up as you play, almost to a crescendo at the end with all of those extra points coming from end game cards and Sponsor cards that reward you. Turns out mostly what was causing the frustration was a misunderstanding about the rules, but I can still see how it may feel a bit “unfair” to have a game end like this. On the other hand, you have a lot of turns in between beginning and end to execute your plans, if one turn at the end is making the difference, maybe it isn’t the plan to go with. On the other hand, I do wonder about the balance of the player boards. In our last four player game one player had the beginner board, I had the 0 board and two others used random boards. Those random boards finished in third and fourth. Now maybe after you play with them a couple times, they become a bit more balanced but at first blush, they may not be, at least when playing against the starting boards. 

I do wonder sometimes what makes games like Ark Nova catch fire like it has, or like Terraforming Mars did. There is a barrier to entry that is greater than so many other great games, it makes it really tough to introduce to the table. It’s definitely a big game, both in rules overhead and in table presence, it makes you want to invest in a larger table just to have enough space for everything comfortably. Something about these kinds of games let, no not let, they make the players feel clever, feel like they have found a way to outsmart the other players, and the game as well. It rewards focus, but lets you feel like everything is open for interpretation. Sure, I could simply follow the Conservation projects, but where’s the fun in that? Let’s explore and see what else we can do. I love that one of the personal end game rewards gives you points at the end of the game for having empty areas of your zoo. The more empty spaces, the more Conservation points you gain. I would have never thought it would work, but it did. That’s why I have really been enjoying Ark Nova. It almost feels like an open world so to speak. Don’t be fooled, it really isn’t, you do need to focus, but there are rewards for exploring a bit outside the box and that feels really good to most game players. 

I love hyperbole. You want a more hyperbolic/Opinionated take? This is the Opinionated Gamers after all. This takes Terraforming Mars and makes it obsolete (unless of course you crave that cooperative feel of moving up tracks, digging for cards and an unnecessarily tighter economy), it makes most of the big box polyomino messes that Rosenberg has done and just murders them, it takes that action selection mechanism from Civ A New Dawn and manages to do it better and the scoring mechanism from Rajas of the Ganges and makes it far more interesting. If you are a fan of multiplayer solitaire titles, throw that copy of Castles of Burgundy onto the trade pile. This is how you do a kitchen sink Euro. I do think that the weight is a bit lighter than what BGG is claiming. It may be a bit of a lengthy teach at 20-30 minutes, but ultimately the game is pretty simple while in play and the well done iconography makes even that part a breeze to learn. I think this is why Ark Nova has kind of caught fire so to speak. It’s a big game, with a lot of rules overhead, but truly, while in play, it’s intuitive and a joy to play. 

There hasn’t been a zoo game this good since Animal Upon Animal. (Thanks to Chad Roberts for that joke)

Addendum: There is a solo mode included in the box, as with most solo modes it is lost on me as I tend to ignore them. If I do play it eventually, I may update that here, but don’t hold your breath, I’ll probably leave it for our solo players to discuss. 

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it. Brandon, Doug G., Lorna, Tery

I like it. Dan B., Chris Wray


Not for me… 

Thoughts from the Opinionated Gamers

Dan B. (1 play): I enjoyed my play but I think this is definitely hyperbolic. I personally don’t enjoy Terraforming Mars very much, but there’s no way Ark Nova will make it obsolete for people who do enjoy it as TM has lots more interaction and in general a much different feel. Ark Nova may be a better game than Civilization: A New Dawn but it’s also a lot longer. Ditto for Rajas. And I don’t get the Castles of Burgundy comparison at all, the games feel very different to me; in particular Castles has more interaction and, despite the dice rolling, less randomness.

Doug G (4 plays, all 2-player): Shelley and I LOVED this one, playing it back to back to back (which takes QUITE a long time) and then playing it again the next day. The Terraforming Mars and Rajas of the Ganges scoring were our first impression comparisons (as stated by Brandon above), and the amount of text on the cards can be daunting, but boy is this good! Lorna is right that the inclusion of animals is certainly a plus!

Lorna (9 plays mostly 2 player): When I first heard about the game it went on the Wishlist because Animals-yay! and Feuerland. I was a little apprehensive after being disappointed with the last heavy game from Feuerland. I was quite happy to be intrigued immediately with the game. Loved\ the way the action card mechanism and the scoring works in the game. I also like that it is more tactical than some other heavy card driven games. Yes, there are combos, but you are not guaranteed to get the cards you need in a timely fashion, or at all. You have to make the best of what you are dealt. I strongly dislike games where one person knows the magic cards to grab and goes and gets them immediately. Amongst the top of my list of favorites from last year.

Chris Wray:  The design is clever.  It intricately weaves the best parts of many great games.  I love the theme.  I’d happily play it.  But can we talk about the ending?  

I must admit that I’m automatically suspicious of games without an equal number of turns.  In Ark Nova, where it is possible to earn a decent number in a given turn, I’m extra suspicious. I simply reject the notion that the one appeal you get at the start of the game (which I suspect is just enough to compensate for being later in turn order) is enough to solve the unequal turns issue. In most games, I don’t care if I’m first or last. In Ark Nova, I really want to be first.  If this game ever gets an online adaptation, I strongly suspect we’ll see a small — but significant enough to matter in competitive play — first player advantage that derives primarily from how the game ends.  

I can think of half a dozen different ways to end this game, and I genuinely think the designer chose one of the worst options. It is abrupt, and in a game where most moves require at least two actions, frustrating.  I like the game. I was enamored with it the first few times I played. But I’ve had two games (out of six) where the ending was a major source of frustration.  To have a 2-3 hour game that spoils in the last five minutes is enough to keep me from loving this design.

Now about the length: this really is a game that goes longer with more players.  The game is probably best with two players. I agree with Larry that four players becomes a problem.  That said: these extra long games would be solved if people would just think on other players’ turns! 

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2 Responses to Ark Nova (Game Review by Brandon Kempf)

  1. Very little of this review made me think of Castles of Burgundy. My impression of that title is that it is far shorter than Ark Nova…. don’t really see how Ark Nova would “replace” it…

    • Brandon Kempf says:

      It was a hyperbolic stretch, but Castles is held up as THE multiplayer solitaire game. Ark Nova has a lot of that multiplayer solitaire feel to it. Plus you are playing on your own map, laying out enclosures trying to fill it. Very little interaction outside of denial of cards. Mostly playing head down in your own zoo, very much like Castles of Burgundy.

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