I turned the box in my hand over. “Ark… ARK NOVA. Why are you throwing this?? It’s like… THE hotness right now!”
“Dude, I live in a house with twin toddlers, a dog, two cats, and an unwanted family of skunks. I do not want to play a game about building a zoo. I live in one.”
“OK. I get it…” I fumbled with my phone in my pocket like Matt Damon in The Departed. It buzzed loudly.
“Crap… that’s Sarah. She flooded the basement.”
“Again?” said Tony, dumbfounded.
“Yeah, I need to go home to pla-err, to clean up. Sorry!”
I hurried out before he could stop me.
That is the true story of how I received my copy of Ark Nova.
Ark Nova is played over many turns. During each turn, players pick one of five action cards to play from a slot numbered between one and five. Once played, the card moves to the first slot, and all other cards slide to the right. The higher the numbered slot, the more powerful the action.
The five actions (which can be upgraded to their more powerful version on the other side) are as follows:
- Card – Advance the Break token and draw cards from the deck or the board
- Build – purchase and place one or more place building(s) of your choice on your zoo board
- Animals – play animal cards from your hand and/or the board next to your zoo
- In order to play an animal card, an appropriate unoccupied enclosure must be present on your zoo board
- Association – perform one or more association actions, based on the power of the card:
- increase your reputation, allowing access to more animal cards on the board
- gain a partner zoo, providing discounts for animals from the partner zoo’s region
- gain a partner university, increasing your hand limit, reputation and/or research
- play a green conservation card from your hand or the board
- Sponsors – play one or more blue sponsor cards next to your zoo OR advance the Break token and take money
Note: The only interruption to the game flow is when a Break is triggered, during which an administrative/upkeep phase is performed. After that, play resumes.
Your zoo is measured by three tracks—the Reputation Track, as well as an Appeal track, and a Conservation Track. Similar to Rajas of the Ganges, the scoring counters on the Appeal Track and the Conservation Track move towards each other. When a player’s Appeal and Conservation scoring counters meet, the endgame is triggered. Once the game is over and all bonuses and endgame scoring opportunities are calculated, the player with the highest score wins.
I lied to you. In my last review, I told you that Clash of Cultures was my favorite board game. It was… at that time. It is now my SECOND favorite game. Ark Nova has replaced it. I will play Ark Nova EVERY TIME it is suggested. I LOVE this game!
I will get my three minor issues with the game out of the way.
- The game plays long at three players. To be honest, I prefer the two-player game. I won’t ever play a four-player game of Ark Nova. There are many other Euro games that are better suited for four players.
- There are four types of attack cards in the game. They seemed tacked on as a way to increase player interaction. I cannot remember playing a card explicitly for its attack ability; instead, I played the card because it fit my zoo and it happened to include an attack ability.
- Endgame scoring is not elegant. In fact, I have to pull out the rule book at the end to remind myself of the scoring procedure.
Otherwise, for me, this game is perfect. It scratches a similar itch to Terraforming Mars and Wingspan (more the former than the latter) as a tactical card game with hundreds of unique cards. I love all three of these games, but Ark Nova is my favorite.
The action slot selection mechanism (exactly like Civilization: A New Dawn) is the mechanism that drives the game. The cards are great, like the appearance of a Ferrari, but this mechanism is the engine. Balancing when to use your actions versus waiting a turn or two so it is more powerful can be maddening, but in a fun way. Some actions let you do more of that action while others allow you to choose from more powerful options and multiply an action by its slot value. Planning out which actions to do at what power level (combined with utilizing good card play that can allow you to manipulate your cards) can make the difference between a win and a loss. Finally, you can utilize X tokens to pump up the value of an action. I really liked this gameplay addition that provides an additional way to manipulate the power of the action you select.
Terraforming Mars fans will be at home as Ark Nova’s cards mimic the layout, but not the terrible art, of that game. There are 212 cards, divided between Animal, Sponsor, and Conservation Projects, so the combo potential and replay value are significant. Animals are played into enclosures on your zoo map (more on that in a bit) and are the main source for Appeal points, while Sponsor cards add unique buildings or opportunities to generate money, Appeal or Conservation points, and end game scoring. Finally, Conservation cards allow you ways to dramatically increase your zoo’s Conservation points, as well as release animals to open enclosures for animals you have yet to play.
Cards are either taken blindly from the deck or from one of six spaces on the board. During every Break, two cards are removed from the board. This prevents market stagnation. There is no drafting in this game, so you are more dependent on card draw luck in Ark Nova; however, upgrading your Card action and increasing your Reputation will open up your card draw potential. This game is definitely VERY tactical. Your best laid plans may take a 90-degree turn when a string of good cards becomes available to you.
Another similarity to Terraforming Mars is the use of a map to place your buildings; however, each player builds on their own zoo board, not on a shared board. To be honest, I prefer Ark Nova’s approach. I liked seeing my zoo flourish on my map. Where do I build my enclosures? Do I build them next to rocks or water so that animals that require such an environment can be played? Or do I cover up some of the map bonuses instead?
Finally, I appreciate the following about the game:
- Great storage solutions to expedite setup
- Interaction between the Association board and Association workers creates combos that increase your zoo’s growth potential
- Multiple map types to increase replay value
- Included Glossary for explaining complicated cards
- MANY icons that can be intimidating at first, but make sense as you gain experience with the game
If you like tactical card games, do yourself a favor and play this game. It is not a revolution in board gaming. I mentioned four other games in this review that clearly influenced Ark Nova’s design. What makes this game a classic is the way these different mechanisms were blended together to create a unique game that is a joy to play.
Oh, and by the way, this is designer Mathias Wigge’s FIRST game. I cannot wait to see what he has in store for the future (besides the already announced, and totally expected, expansion to Ark Nova called Aquarius).
Final Scores: 5 Stars – My new favorite game in my collection.
• Mix of proven mechanisms and a great theme provide a great game
• Action card slot mechanism is great/frustrating, and I love it
• Cards provide substantial replay value and combo opportunities
• Constructing your zoo and seeing it grow is entertaining
• Won’t touch a four player game – it would take too long
• Attack cards seem like a tacked on solution for more player interaction
• End game scoring is not elegant