Lost Ruins of Arnak board game: A four-sided review

The Lost Ruins of Arnak board game box, picturing three adventurers approaching a lost temple through the jungle

The Lost Ruins of Arnak board game is a deck-building and action selection euro. It takes 1-4 players about 1-2 hours to play, or longer with anyone who is a bit prone to analysis paralysis. It’s listed for ages 12+, but slightly younger gamer kids could probably manage.

This is an unashamedly nuts-and-bolts thinky euro game, about turning stuff into other stuff to get – you guessed it – victory points. As such the theme isn’t really important. But in fairness it is well realised here, with all the requisite parts fitting nicely together and making thematic sense. But no, you will not get the, “We’re on an adventure with David Beckham!” experience the box art art might suggest.

The artwork and iconography are excellent throughout and the components range from average to excellent quality. And there’s plenty in the box. Double-sided main board, four player boards, player aids, 120+ cardboard chits, 50+ cardboard tiles, 40-ish plastic tokens, 16 wooden pieces (8 with stickers), 110 cards and a score pad. Despite weighing in at just under £50 in the UK, it feels like decent value for money.

Teaching the Lost Ruins of Arnak board game

As much as any game can be, Arnak is a joy to learn from the rulebook. Everything is in a sensible order and given plenty of room, with lots of illustrations. Not that the rules are taxing for gamers. There’s nothing new under the sun here, so anyone familiar with euro games will be on solid ground. You need to learn everything up front, so you may get a few glazed looks in the teach. But once you get going there are very few stumbling blocks.

Players start with a deck of six cards, drawing five to use each round. There’s a row of available cards to buy, bought with two of the game’s currencies. Money buys equipment cards, while compasses let you ‘discover’ (read: buy) artefact cards. Equipment is placed at the bottom of your deck, while artefacts can be used the turn you get them. The downside being, in later turns, artefacts always have an activation cost. The game plays out over just five rounds, with the spread of cards moving from more equipment to artefacts as you go. Thematically, you’re moving further from Amazon to the actual Amazon, I guess.

Your initial deck starts with two money, two compasses and two fear cards. More fear cards are picked up through the game and, as with original deck-builder Dominion, they give negative points and clog up your deck. But also as with Dominion, the game gives you ways to ‘exile’ cards from your deck to avoid this. So, you have the choice of trying to run a tight deck by using actions to keep it lean – or going more freeform and buying a bunch of stuff hoping it all falls together. I’ve seen both work.

The actions

The board is split into three areas: the shop (discussed above), the map and the research track. Players have two meeples that can be sent to map locations each turn, to either discover or use an existing action location. Discovery is a bit of a lucky dip, but will usually be more rewarding. Sites yield a combination of the five game currencies, plus a few other adds (draw a card, gain a fear card etc). Each new site also has a creature guarding it, which can be bested for points and a small one-time bonus.

The research track is where you’ll largely spend the other three currencies: tablets, arrows and jewels. Each player has two tokens (magnifying glass and notebook) which move up the same track. And each token gives different rewards as it ascends. Thematically, you can’t write stuff in the notebook until you find it with your magnifying glass – so the former can never overtake the latter on the track. And of course, the notebook gives cooler rewards.

The game arcs nicely, with later rounds lasting way longer as players’ abilities increase. But it’s one action each per turn, until all players have passed, so it rarely bogs down too badly. Points are awarded on cards, for progress on the research track, for discovering sites and for besting monsters.

Solo play

the Lost Ruins of Arnak board game has solo rules. Set up is straightforward, adding a set of 10 action tiles for a dummy player. Five of these are set, with the other five having easy and hard versions. So you can slowly swap in hard tiles to increase the challenge. You take turns as normal, with the AI flipping a tile and doing its action on its turn. Thankfully the actions are simple, even when there is more than one option. So it doesn’t slow things down much. Basically, it is getting in your way while churning cards/tiles.

I’d put this solo mode in the ‘medium to good’ category. Easy to implement and almost as annoying as ‘real’ players. The only downside is it doesn’t add anything to your decisions, which a good AI will. However, the Arnak website does have a sign-up for a solo campaign which is allegedly ‘coming soon’. If that comes along and I get a chance to give it a go, I’ll update this review with the details. But you can sign up for updates if you’re so inclined.

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’ve said a few times the game lacks originality. But little touches still impress. The fact the available card mix changes turn to turn (from 1:5 to 5:1 artefacts-items) is both thematically and mechanically clever. Artefacts feel more impactful first time, so ramping them up later makes sense. Elsewhere, assistants are added early on the research track to help you build a bit of strategy. This again works thematically but also helps the game’s arc, helping ramp up your options and differentiate players in those early-to-mid rounds. Design-wise, it just feels satisfying – as if it has been lovingly constructed.
  • The thinker: Lost Ruins of Arnak is a perfectly enjoyable light workout for the brain, great for an evening of chat and a glass of something warming with friends. Each round is its own puzzle, with the light deck-building allowing you to shape your strategy a little as you go – but things are mostly tactical. Happy to play anytime, but equally a little forgettable.
  • The trasher: This game looks very cool and invokes Indy – but has none of the adventure that goes with it. Sure, the theme makes sense – but there’s nothing for a combative player to get their teeth into. It’s OK, I’ll play it. But meh.
  • The dabbler: I wasn’t sure about it on my first play, but I really love this one now! The little nods to theme throughout are great: if you best a dragon guarding a site, later it will grant you a free ride to a site you need to get to. While the swiss army knife card lets you choose a couple of a list of options. They’re small things, but they draw me in. The pieces are great and the artwork is lovely, helping create the atmosphere. And the rules feel instantly familiar, so it is super easy to get into (and a great player aid helps too). Instant favourite!

Key observations

I have to start here: The lost Ruins of Arnak board game brings nothing new to the party, being simply another rearranging of the game design toolbox and being pretty. So why do I enjoy it so much? Especially while feeling hypocritical after giving a hard time to the likes of Wingspan. On reflection, its easy. I found Wingspan to be solitary, tepid and frankly boring. But I find Arnak a thoroughly enjoyable brain workout, with the puzzle being subtly altered by the choices your opponent makes each round. Sure, I wish it had done just something original and clever. But I’ll take it as it is.

Some complain it is a largely solitaire experience. It’s hard to argue against this, but then it isn’t an actual criticism – just a choice. If you want cursing and boiling blood, look elsewhere. However, what other players do can matter, so has an impact. The game is largely about efficient resource conversion. You can normally get what you want – especially later – but how can you get it most efficiently? It’s this puzzle – and how other player’s ruin it (often by accident) that keeps people coming back to this kind of euro game.

For a ‘deck-builder’, there can be very little deck-building. As a comparison, this is a deck-builder in a similar way to Concordia. You start with six cards and will probably have 10-15 by the end of the game. So if you’re looking for a game of devastating combos and card-driven engine building, this isn’t it. However, even with this small number of cards, you’ll see players taking different strategies.

Luck and replayability

The level of luck may bother some, and has certainly lost me at least one game. Personally, I think the game is short and breezy enough that I don’t mind. But it is definitely a factor. The luck of the card draw is a potential issue, of course – but very minor. The bigger one is the random tile draws for locations – and the creatures that guard them. You may draw a location giving you the items that match what you need to defeat the creature guarding them: boom, dead. Then I may not – leaving the monster on the board, plus me with a fear card and a slight feeling of, “It’s not fair!” But again, for a game of its length, I’m OK with that.

In a nice nod to replayability, the flip side of the main board has a second map. This mixes up what is needed to visit the dig sites, as well as making changes to the research track. It doesn’t add any new components, nor add any rules. But it’s a nice touch to add something no one would’ve complained about if it hadn’t been there. And its the kind of thing CGE has consistently done over the years, helping them gain a great reputation in an industry where that commodity in a publisher is quite hard to come by.

Conclusion

There’s a lot of good will towards CGE as a publisher. They do things right, from the way they treat the media (even small fry like me) to their customer service. And the care they clearly put into production. But it feels a long time since they’ve had a genuine hit in the euro category. Well, I think – and hope – they have one here. The lost Ruins of Arnak board game is an early contender for game of the year and will certainly break into my all-time Top 50. Mechanically and thematically sound, it looks great on the table and offers a satisfying and competitive puzzle. Apart from lacking a spark of originality that could’ve made it a classic, you can’t say fairer than that.

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