Some games have names that make you think one thing when they are really something else.
Whether that’s good or bad, I couldn’t tell you. I guess it depends on whether what you thought it was turns you off or not.
When I first heard of Ark Nova, I was picturing some space game where you are building a huge ark to take animals to some other planet that humans have colonized, in order to try and create something like a second Earth.
Almost like you are an alien Noah.
Of course, while the game is about keeping animals, it’s all very earth-bound and domestic. You are creating a zoo and trying to help conserve animal wildlife the world over.
So not quite the same thing.
Seriously, space arks would be cool.
Anyway, Ark Nova is a 2022 game (technically 2021 but really it hadn’t reached many players until this year) designed by Mathias Wigge with artwork by Loïc Billiau, Dennis Lohausen, Steffen Bieker, and Christof Tisch. It’s published in North America by Capstone Games and plays 1-4 players.
Players are planning and building a modern, scientifically managed zoo where enclosures support the animals’ way of life. You are also forming associations with partner zoos and universities around the world and contributing to conservation projects.
Thus, you are trying to balance conservation and making your zoo attractive to the general public.
How does it work?
Let’s take a look.
(Reminder: you can click on all pictures to enlarge them)
Ark Nova is a heavy game, at least as far as mechanisms and trying to figure out how best to implement them is concerned. Thus, I’m not going to go into huge detail about how to play.
I’m just going to give you a bit of the basics.
Each player will have a zoo mat and five action cards that they will be using to fill up their zoo (as well as do conservation and gain sponsorships). If you play the basic side, you will also start with a size-3 enclosure in the bottom left of your zoo.
During the game, you will be building enclosures for animals as well as other possible buildings, and filling your zoo (though that isn’t very good if you don’t actually bring in the animals to fill all of those empty enclosures).
The main board is where the card track is as well as the Appeal/Conservation point track is. When you gain Appeal, you move your Appeal marker up the number of tickets shown on whatever gave you those points.
If you get Conservation points, you move from green space to green space using your Conservation marker. These two markers are moving toward each other.
When the markers cross, that’s what will trigger the game end.
The row above the cards is the Reputation track, which can give you bonuses and can also determine where you can draw cards from.
The five action cards are randomly distributed into your five action spaces at the bottom of your zoo (except the the Animal action is always going to be in the first space).
During your turn, you will use one of the action cards and use it with power equal to the space it is in. So for the Cards action in space 3 above, you will do what’s under the 3 power on the card (in this case, draw two cards and discard one from your hand).
Once you’ve completed the action, you move that card to the “1” space and shift all the other cards forward to fill the gap.
The Sponsors action will let you play one Sponsor card from your hand with the maximum level of whatever the power of your action is.
So the Okapi Stable will require a Sponsors action of 6 power or more. The only way you can do that is by spending an “X” marker which will let you increase the power of an action by 1 for each “X” you spend (you can get these markers in a variety of ways).
However, Sponsorship: Reptiles only requires a power of 3 or more.
The Build card will let you build one building up to the size equal to the power of the action. You have to pay 2 money per hex that the enclosure covers. They then must be placed so that they are adjacent to one building already in your zoo.
Thus, the size-4 enclosure pictured cost me 8 money to build. They’re placed like this because they’re currently empty.
How do you flip them over?
By bringing in Animals.
The Animals card will simply allow you to play an Animal card (or perhaps 2 depending on the power of the action) to your zoo. You pay the cost of the card (the black square on the top left) and you need to have an empty enclosure in your zoo of at least the size in the brown hex on the top left of the card. Any other requirements are underneath that (The Cotton-Top Tamarin requires 2 Science tags already in your zoo, for example).
Animals have tags in the top right, usually an animal type tag and a continental tag (sometimes 2 animal type tags!). When you play the animal, you get the benefit in the bottom right (the Indian Rhinoceros gets you 9 Appeal points) and you can do any action that’s on the card (Panamanian White-Faced Capuchins let you Pilfer, for example).
When you play the animal, you flip one of your empty enclosures of the proper size and that is considered filled. You also get the benefit in Appeal points, Conservation points, and maybe Reputation points.
Finally, there’s the Association action. Depending on the strength of the action, you can form partnerships with zoos all over the world, you can form a partnership with a university, or you can even contribute to a Conservation project.
If you do a Conservation project (the green cards), you have to meet the requirements for one of them (bottom of the board) and place a cube on what you are fulfilling. Or, if you have a Conservation project card in your hand, you can play it (top row) and fulfill one of the requirements there. This is a great source of Conservation points.
As the game goes on you, you’re going to be filling your zoo, playing animals and sponsors to your tableau, and trying to get your point markers to meet.
Once that happens, it triggers the end game. All other players get one more turn (you don’t, which is something important to keep in mind). Then end-game Conservation points are scored, and your total score is the difference between your Appeal points and your Conservation points (for end-game scoring your Conservation points are considered equal to the smallest Appeal point level where your marker is. So in the above picture, you have 20 Conservation points. For final scoring, it would be equivalent to 64 Appeal points).
If your markers haven’t crossed, it is very likely you will get a negative score! Like my first game, where I scored -18 points.
The highest score is the winner!
Is Ark Nova a zoo with beautiful landscapes and lots of interesting animals wandering about for you to look at? Or is it a rundown mess where the most interesting animal in it is the mosquito?
Honestly, there is so much more to Ark Nova than I was able to mention above that it’s not funny, but I didn’t want the description to overpower the rest of the review.
If I had played this game prior to doing my Top 25 games played of all time list, it would have been on it, and possibly near the top.
Oh well, next time.
This is an amazing game. It scratches a bunch of itches, some that I didn’t even know I had.
Of course, it has the tableau-building where chaining the tags on your cards is required to get even more points (cue Terraforming Mars).
However, it also has the point-scoring mechanism where you have two tracks moving toward each other and where they meet (and how) determines your final score. That’s been in a few games but I’ve never played them before.
Thus, it’s new to me and I love that too.
There are also so many decisions to make on how you want to improve your ability to do things, though some are fairly standard.
You definitely want to form partnerships with zoos and universities to give you more options (one university partnership lets you discard down to 5 cards instead of 3 when it comes time to do that).
Zoo partnerships will give you a discount on playing animals from that continent. Each partnership track gives you the ability (when you have enough of them) to upgrade one of your action cards to make it more powerful.
That’s one of the most important things to do in Ark Nova: upgrade those action cards.
There are only four places to do that and you have five action cards, so one of your decisions will be “what card do I not need upgraded?”
Don’t be like me and get an extra bonus for completely covering your zoo (you already get 7 Appeal points if you do that) and then choose not to upgrade your Build card, the only one that will let you completely cover your zoo! There are two spaces in your zoo that you can’t build on unless you’ve upgraded that action.
The trick with Ark Nova that makes it so wonderful in my head is that while it’s a truly heavy game with some meaty decisions, the mechanisms themselves are actually fairly easy.
You choose an action and you do it, and you slide that action back to the bottom of the queue.
If you really need to do something, you can use any X tokens to increase the power of the action before it gets to one of the later slots.
Or maybe you don’t need it to be uber-powerful (like Thanos). You just need a Level 2 Build action because you just need a 2-space enclosure.
Sometimes that’s the case too.
It’s all of the various possible combinations that make the game appealing and makes it heavy, at least in my estimation.
The sponsorships make the game even more intriguing because they can guide what you want to do, if you can get the cards for them.
They can gain you an immediate bonus, perhaps a bonus every time a certain type of card is played (like the one under the Veterinarian above, which gave me 2 Appeal each time I played a green herbivore tag into my zoo…notice all the herbivores?).
If you can get the right combinations going, you can be well on your way to victory.
But the game rewards changing tack, at least during the early part of the game where you can have a plan and then realize that the cards you are getting point toward a different plan.
That’s why another thing I love about the game is that you are dealt two final scoring cards, but you don’t have to choose which one to keep until somebody has crossed the 10 Conservation point threshold.
By that time, you should have a good idea of which one is more feasible.
In card games especially, where you don’t always know what’s going to be coming out, that is so invaluable.
On the materials side, the artwork in Ark Nova is simply gorgeous.
The animals look amazing and even the sponsorships are pretty good.
The action card artwork is ok, but the rest of the cards just pop into your eyes like smooth classical jazz pops into your ears.
There are 212 cards in the game that consist of conservation projects, animals, and sponsorships. Even in a four-player game, we didn’t come close to going through them all.
That’s both a good thing and a bad thing.
The good is that many of them will be fresh for you until you’ve played the game a lot.
The bad is that you are sometimes less likely to get some of the cards you really want. You may be drawing a lot of reptiles and the sponsorship that gives you something for reptiles is nowhere to be seen.
That’s not too much of an issue, though. If I minded that, Terraforming Mars wouldn’t be in my Top 10 games.
You also need to be careful of space. It is definitely a table hog, between all of the player mats and the really long-ass central board. At least the board is double-sided so you can orient it however you want.
The game can drag a bit at 4 players, especially if one or two of them are new. Our 4-player game last weekend took 3.5 hours with one newbie and the rest of us only having played it a couple of times.
I think the sweet spot is at 3 players, but as long as I have the time, I wouldn’t turn down a 4-player game. I’m not sure how well it plays at 2 players, but it seems to scale ok.
Ultimately, I don’t think there is anything really new in Ark Nova. But the old stuff that the game uses, it uses extremely well.
If you get the chance, you really should try your hand at Ark Nova at least once.
There is so much good about it.
The only reason I’m not buying it is because we have two copies in our game group already so it would be a waste.
But I will play it any time it’s on offer.
It’s what the macaw tells me to do.
This review was written after 3 plays