Ark Nova board game: A four-sided review

The Ark Nova board game is a sprawling action selection/tableau building euro for 1-4 players. A solo game lasts about an hour. But with 2-4 you’re looking at two hours or more. And for once the high age on the box (14+) is probably about right. Not only is it long, but there are a lot of icons and mucho (oft hidden) card reading involved.

For quite a mechanical euro, the zoo theme is well implemented. Players use action cards to build enclosures, gain sponsorship, add animals, create conservation/educational associations, or get more cards. You basically build up your own zoo on your player board.

It comes in a massive box packed to the gunnels with (mostly) quality components. You’ll find two thick game boards, eight thin player boards (think Castles of Burgundy), 255 cards, more than 300 cardboard chits (and two plastic dividers to store them in), 130-ish wooden bits and a solo play cardboard tile. You can find it for just over £50 at comparison site Board Game Prices. For the mountain of cardboard you get, this is solid value for money.

Teaching the Ark Nova board game

Despite the incredible weight of moving parts, Ark Nova isn’t a hard game to teach gamers. And let’s face it – this isn’t one you’re going to pop onto the table after Christmas dinner and try to get granny to play. What makes it simple for gamers is that – while showing some unique turns of phrase – it borrows heavily from the established euro mechanism lexicon.

Some wags have dubbed it ‘Terraforming Zoo’. And that’s pretty fair. First, you have an equally daunting single stack of cards. And second, they contain an equally blistering array of icons, effects and text. Each of the 212 ‘zoo’ cards is different. And the icon explanation index runs beyond 50 items. This is, most unequivocally, a ‘cards with words’ game. You’ll spend the game playing these cards for effects and icons, opening up ways to later play more powerful cards and score an increasing number of victory points.

Then it takes the two-directional scoring track perhaps best known in Ragas of the Ganges. You start with a dobber at each end. And when a player gets the two to cross, the game moves to final scoring. One end tracks your zoo’s (public) reputation, which affects your cash income. But the other tracks your conservation chops, which is ultimately your aim. Both tracks are important. But you simply cannot ignore conservation and expect to win. Also, there can be a lot of end game points – so it’s not simply first-past-the-post wins.

Yes, but how do you play…?

Ark Nova borrows the card action system from Civ: A New Dawn. You all have five set cards below your player board and use one on your turn to take an action. However the further right (from slot 1-5) the card is, the stronger the action can be. Then, once used, the card moves left to the lowest (1) slot. Actions variously allow you to draw cards, play cards, place attractions onto your zoo board, or gain bonuses. During the game various bonus spaces will allow you to turn some of your five action cards over to their more powerful side. You’ll usually get to do this 3-4 times and choosing the right ones can be crucial.

Despite the gazillion cards and icons, you’ll all essentially do the same thing. Slowly fill your player board with cardboard chits; flip said chits as you house animals; and use those animals’ (and sponsor card) icons/powers to get victory points. Animal types (bird, predator etc) give similar/sometimes chaining benefits. While sponsors give a blistering array of in and end game goodness. But really, all this stuff is just detail.

One nice touch is the non-linear ’rounds’ system. Some actions will trigger you moving the ‘break’ counter along a track. When it reaches the end, a break (read: end of round) happens, allowing certain bonus areas to be restocked and for income to be handed out. This can be crucial, as certain bonuses are ‘one per player’ – but only one is available of each until restocked at a break. So if someone just beats you to a university or continent link you need to play a card, you better get working on forcing another break in a hurry.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I love Terraforming Mars. And get the same vibe from the Ark Nova board game. I think fans of Mars will like Nova. While those who didn’t are unlikely to be won over – unless by the theme. However, I’d put the luck element of winning a little higher here. You can largely be locked out of conservation points through no fault of your own, thanks to card draw misfortune. And those points are crucial to success. But as with Mars, it’s the playing of the game I really enjoy. Sure, it’s nice to win. But in both games there’s a satisfaction in things coming together. Rather than a feeling you particularly played better than others.
  • The thinker: I really like the action selection mechanism here. It has genuine scope to be a hugely enjoyable action selection tool for dep strategy fans. But sadly for me, this is not a deep strategy game. Your only real strategy is dictated by your individual player board, as this is usually executable regardless of your card draws. But the rest feels to me even more random that Terraforming Mars. Five animal types across five continents on 250 cards, alongside a bunch of other sub plots? And no real way to explore the card deck beyond looking at three or four cards at a time, once every few turns at best? Not for me.
  • The trasher: I wasn’t expecting much conflict in a zoo builder, so was intrigued when I saw some take-that elements. But these few cards are as poor as those in Race for the Galaxy. You can go whole games without seeing or using one. While when one does get used, it rarely feels consequential – and may not be targeted with any real meaning. Effects are short lived, so are more an irritant than a game changer. So when designing, why bother? Go big or go home. Don’t wobble around in a meaningless middle ground that does little more than add some icons to the rulebook and mildly annoy a few players.
  • The dabbler: As a slightly more casual player, you can take this game in two ways. You could run screaming from all the icons and text. Or, as I did, embrace the theme and the chaos and try and make a cool zoo! The underlying rules are super simple, the art is great, and you can really tell a story as you build up your unique zoo. And you can win that way too. Those trying to make perfect strategies will soon come unstuck, while playing the hand you’re dealt should lead to a steady string of points. Add in a bit of luck and you can ride the wave to victory!

Key observations

At the time of writing, Ark Nova was already in the Board Game Geek Top 200 with an extremely high average score of 8.7. But there are plenty of naysayers, so lets get the petty complaints out of the way first. Complaints about the zoo theme and the game being ‘ugly’ are a matter of taste. And you can make your own mind up on that without purchasing. Those complaining it has low interaction (or calling it ‘multiplayer solitaire’) are basically correct. So if that’s a big problem for you, avoid.

I don’t feel the game is overly complex. But it can play long, and is a table hog. I won’t play it with four – for all of those reasons combined. But with one (see below) to three, I think it works well. The complexity comes more from icon overload, rather than the rules. But these are clearly referenced and largely simple to understand. So after a half a play, things should be ticking along nicely.

But the real sticking point is the huge deck of cards. And how it decimates any chance of strategic planning. When you throw in a complete lack of meaningful interaction, you’re left with a (minor score-wise) planning puzzle on your board. Plus a tactical card/icon/resources exercise/puzzle fitting in with it. Personally, I’m really enjoying that. But can completely understand while other will hate it. If winning, and control, are important to you it’s probably better to avoid this one.

Solo play

As Ark Nova is super low on interaction, it won’t be a surprise to hear little changes in solo play. The ‘break’ mechanism is replaced with a small solo player board that regulates turns and breaks. This means you get a set number of both before the game end. With the simple aim of getting a positive score.

You start on 20 ‘appeal’ (compared to zero in multiplayer), which hints at this being a shorter game. And it is. But I don’t feel it loses much because of it. There is no dummy player to worry about, so it’s also low on admin. The only difference is that any interactive cards you play have a text box on which is only used in solo play, to presumably keep their worth comparable. If you enjoy the solo mode of Terraforming Mars, you’ll probably enjoy this too. With the same caveats about ‘luck of the draw’ issues.

Conclusion: Ark nova board game

I’ve really enjoyed my plays of Ark Nova and it’s a definite keeper. I like the theme, the cards and – despite the chaos – the experience. But I don’t think it deserves the hype and crazy high BGG score it is currently enjoying. I think Terraforming Mars is a better game on most levels. And especially in the balance/manipulation/effect of their large card stacks. But this is different enough for me to know I’ll turn to it on occasion for a change. If I could only keep one? It would be TM. But luckily, I don’t have to make that choice.

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