Friday, 15 September 2023

Ark Nova

The Game

It's September 2023. Ark Nova is now the 4th ranked game at It is a heavy Eurogame about building your own zoo. Each player has a player board, and you do your building and scoring on your own board. You keep expanding your zoo until one player reaches a certain score threshold and triggers game end. Whoever scores highest wins the game. 

This is the player board. Along the bottom there are 5 action cards, and they are the core mechanism in the game. On your turn, you select one of these cards and perform the corresponding action. How powerful the action is depends on the position of the card (rightmost position is strongest). You then move the card to the leftmost position and slide the rest right to fill the gap. What this mechanism effectively does is it encourages you to take actions evenly. You usually want to wait for a card to travel further right before you use it. 

The hex spaces are your zoo. You will place tiles here, and tiles are zoo buildings, mostly enclosures for animals. 

The main game board is looooong. It only serves a few simple functions. You display cards which are available to players. There are score tracks for keeping score. There is also a countdown track which determines how soon a round ends. Player actions trigger this countdown. Rounds have varying lengths. When a round ends, you do some admin, e.g. making money and discarding cards beyond your hand limit. 

I find Ark Nova similar to Terraforming Mars. Both have a ton of cards. Both are about making effective combos of cards. There are a few types of cards in Ark Nova, the most common type being animals (above). The 4 at the top left is the enclosure size you need to have to be able to bring in this animal. The 20 is the cost to play this card (i.e. to bring in this animal type). The 8 at the bottom right is the additional visitors you will attract by having this animal at your zoo. Visitors affect your income. 

This on the right is a sponsor card. Sponsors give you long-term abilities so it is best to have them played early. You'll be able to utilise their powers more. 

Tiles with yellow borders are vacant enclosures, waiting for animals. Once you bring in the animals and an enclosure is filled, you flip it over to show the green border side. 

Action cards are double sided. You can upgrade an action card to the stronger purple side on the back. There are only a few opportunities to upgrade. Don't expect to be able to upgrade all five. 

This is a smaller common board. It has information and components related to the Association action. You get to claim some special privileges here, e.g. connections with zoo associations from different continents. You need these connections to be able to import animals. Those cards at the bottom are conservation cards. When you release specific types of animals back into the wild, you get to score points. One unique thing about the game is there are two types of points - visitor points and conservation points. Normally you score visitor points by having more animals in your zoo, and you score conservation points by releasing animals back into the wild. 

This is a secret objective card you get at the start of the game. Everyone gets two. 

Normally I don't think of chicken as zoo animals. These chicken in Ark Nova can be quite powerful. Technically they are sponsors. Don't ask me how that works. They score points when you play them, and also at game end. 

Those yellow icons printed on the player board are various benefits you get to claim when you build over them. 

Every player has two score markers. They start at opposite ends of the score track. From one end you track your visitor points, and from the other your conservation points. Game end is triggered whenever any player's two score markers meet. In this photo above my (blue) markers were getting close. Conservation points (on the right) are harder to get. At this point our visitor points were close, but I was far ahead in conservation points. 

The Play

Ark Nova is a game with many cards and a lot of text to read. It is a complex, heavy game. You have a lot to keep you busy. You want to create effective combos with your cards, so that you can score more points. The game has many aspects and you can't expect to be strong in all of them. You have to pick. You must prioritise. This is what makes decision-making interesting. 

There is not a lot of player interaction. Sometimes you fight over cards on the main board. Sometimes over privileges in the small common board. Generally there is little direct aggression. Everyone is busy with their own zoo. There is not much you can do to affect other players. You can try to end the round when your opponents have more cards in hand than the hand limit. This forces them to discard cards. This is probably the nastiest thing you can do in the game. 

There is a spatial element, but it's not a big part of the game. The most important part is the card combos. You can call this a development game. After all you are gradually building up your own pretty zoo. 

At this point I had two action cards upgraded, leftmost and rightmost. 

These were my cards. I had many African animals (see the yellow African continent icon at the top right of many of the cards). I also had many herbivores (green deer icon). The convention in Ark Nova is costs and prerequisites along the left edge, and card types at the top right corner. 

3-player game in progress

By game end I had only filled about two thirds of my board. 

The Thoughts

Ark Nova did not give me surprises or excitement. It is a typical heavy Eurogame, of the type most popular nowadays. So it is no surprise it does so well on the BoardGameGeek rankings. Many experienced gamers like this kind of game. It's the current mainstream. I can appreciate what makes it likeable. If someone suggests it I probably won't turn it down, but I wouldn't seek it out to play now that I've seen what it is. I feel there is not enough drama and player interaction. No emotional roller coaster ride. You are mostly building your own little zen garden. It's intricate and peaceful. 

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