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Ark Nova Board Game Review

WBG Score: 9

Player Count: 1-4

You’ll like this if you like: Terraforming Mars, Meadow, Cascadia

Designed by: Mathias Wigge

Have you ever stood in your local zoo, looked around and thought. Yeah I could run one of these? Yeah me neither, I’ll leave that up to Matt Damon. But if you did ever get the urge to fill your back garden with a petting zoo, an elephant and a sun bear then you can instead save some money and avoid the headache of planning permission and give Ark Nova a go…..I mean, I know the board is big but I’m fairly sure you don’t need planning permission to put it on the table!

Zoo map.

If you're new to Ark Nova then give players Map A, a sized three enclosure and a kiosk and set them in the indicated spaces. Every player then places their animal card in slot one and then shuffle the rest of the cards and place them at random in the other spaces, blue side up. Give everyone 25 money, one association worker and eight cards from the deck from which they choose four to keep, but probably let them sit through the rules before choosing. If you’ve played before then players can choose any of the map boards they like.

On your turn you will play one of the five action cards in front of you. It’s position in the line determines how strong the action will be. Once you’ve carried out the action place it in space one on the track and push the others up one space. The actions will let you play animals into your zoo, build enclosures, play sponsor cards, take an association action and get cards.

The animals card lets you play an animal card as long as you have the required symbols present in your zoo, you can pay for the animal and you have an empty enclosure to put it in. These will have one off powers, appeal (victory points) and will also give you symbols to count towards future cards.

The build action lets you put new enclosures into your zoo. You can only build a size of enclosure up to the space your card is on the track. So if your card is at space three you can only build a size three or less. These will also trigger bonuses if you cover those spaces on your board.

Sponsors cards work similar to animal cards. You play them and they will give you either a one off ability, an ongoing bonus, an end game scoring condition or a combination of them.

The association action lets you take partner zoos (which helps with card requirements and makes some cards cheaper to play) gain universities, reputation and let you complete conservation cards. If you complete requirements for these cards you can place one of the cubes from your board on the card and gain conservation points (also a type of victory point) You can even place a conservation card from your hand and score it. Once it’s out other players can score this as well.

The card's action will get you……well cards.

Certain cards will move the break token along a track and as soon as it reaches the end then there will be a break where each player nets income, discards and removes two cards from the display and places out new ones.

Ark Nova has two main tracks. The appeal track which will move your marker anti clockwise round it and the conservation track which will move a separate token clockwise. Once one player's tokens share the same space then the game will end with each other player getting one more go. Points are determined by how far each player's markers are from each other once they’ve crossed each other. This will give you positive points. If your markers haven't crossed then you’re essentially in negative points.

River of dreams.

I’m just gonna jump straight in and say that I love the card action system. For me this is the mechanism that makes this whole game. It will bring all your frustrations and all of your triumphs throughout the game but it will also provide you with a ton of interesting decisions, because you see ark nova is all about careful planning. Which is pretty convenient since you're building a zoo!

The big challenge is getting each card where you want it and when you want it. You’ll find yourself puzzling out how to get your build card high enough to get the enclosure size you want, but also trying to figure out which cards in the higher slots to use to move down to push that card along and I’ll tell you something, that choice isn’t always that easy. You’ll often find yourself in a situation where the other cards in the higher slots are there for a reason and you really don’t want to play them just yet. It’s a system that is a ton of fun to try and navigate and will keep players constantly engaged.

I’m sure if the great David Attenborough was to look in on a game of this he’d be commenting about gamers in the wild spending our time contemplating and muttering to ourselves before we quickly strike and take our turn, only to go back to muttering to ourselves looking annoyed. I’d watch that. BBC executives, David, if you’re reading this, and I’m sure you are, get in touch.

Also did I mention the fact that you can upgrade these cards? The upgrades really open out your options. Per game you’ll only be able to upgrade a max of four of them, as far as I know anyway. I’ve not yet found a way to get all five of them flipped. All the upgrades are good, but deciding which ones to flip at the time is going to give you some other fun choices. Especially when you realise that some areas across the boards can only be accessed when you’ve upgraded certain cards. The great thing is that these upgrades are not necessarily late game flips. Just scoring a couple of conservation points will let you upgrade your first card and who doesn’t love getting new powers to play with, especially early game.

Superhero Zoo

Ark Nova is a big mish mash of popular mechanics, card play from terraforming Mars, scoring from raja’s of the Ganges and even a tile placement game. But putting a few big mechanics doesn’t necessarily make a good game. Much like the big superhero team up movies, just throwing it all together because it’s cool without finessing and you could end up with the board game equivalent of the Justice league. Take some time and thought however and you’re looking at The Avengers. (Feel free to swap those team ups around to your particular taste). It’s a shame though because both JL and Ark Nova both have bats in them!

Bats. That’s the beauty of Ark Nova though, it all flows together so well. It’s like these mechanics were always meant to be put together and now they’ve found each other at a summer camp and realised they were split at birth because their parents split up and decided to take a kid each and move to different countries……...or is that the plot to the Parent Trap? Regardless, everything integrates together so well and works to serve the others so nothing feels like it’s arbitrary. Everything is worth doing despite what strategy you decide to focus on. Just because you’re not focusing on sponsor cards for example, it doesn’t mean that it’s not worth playing one. A good card like that at the right time could easily help you grab a couple of bonuses or help boost your income. The designer has done a great job of making it flow together so well that you’ll be using a bit of everything for most of the games you play.

Even though you’ll have your hands in everything the game still gives you lots of avenues to try different things each game.

There’s a wonderful balancing act when it comes to scoring points and also a fun ramping up as the game progresses. You’ll find appeal points are easier to come by, but as you build up your zoo engine and upgrade your cards you’ll start racking up the conservation points. It starts to get so tense as you see everyone’s tokens edge ever closer to each other and you try and eek out those last few points before final scoring kicks in.

That leads me onto one of my favourite things in Ark Nova….combos! Now and again you'll play a card or move your reputation marker and it’ll trigger this cool chain of events that will see you flipping a card and getting more points and getting a couple of bonuses in a row. In my case these are usually accidental but I think that’s actually a plus point. The idea that these can happen to anyone round the table is really fun, it gives new players a chance to experience the same high as someone who has played before and probably set up one of these combos. These combos happen just enough that you get that fun high from it, but not too often that it adds to the game length. There’s nothing worse than having to sit while people are constantly taking elongated turns and you just play one card. When they do kick off though it soooo satisfying.

Can a Zoo be too big?

Ark Nova comes with a huge deck of cards, so big that even at four players you probably won’t get through the whole deck. With such a huge deck there’s going to be more randomness than in most draw decks. It means that playing to a particular strategy in ark nova won’t necessarily serve you well. If you play a sponsor card that gives you money based on reptile cards then getting reptiles in your zoo is a good play….but I wouldn’t hinge your entire game on it. With a deck that big you may find that you won’t see that many reptiles. I know that this sort of randomness and the lack of control won’t be for everyone and that’s completely understandable, things like this can be a frustration and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t annoy me sometimes as well. However if you can accept that this is a thing (and I tend to let new players know before we get started) then you can take a more adaptive approach to the game which I personally really like. It keeps me on my toes and I like that you can play with different strategies during the game and not have to wait for the next one to change track. I like that you can be playing with reptiles and then all of a sudden decide that you want a petting zoo next to the crocodiles!

This also, weirdly makes the game a bit more thematic. Most zoos have a wide range of animals so having to populate yours with a variety makes some sense. I’m not sure if this was the intention or not by the designer but it works either way.

It’s probably worth nothing as well that this is not necessarily a short game. My first two 4 player games, both with all new players, ran at around three hours each. Long games aren’t something that bother me but it’s worth knowing what you’re potentially getting yourself into. Once everyone knows the game then you can definitely get this time down and I’ve actually found that turns can go pretty quick once everyone’s up to speed.

All the small things.

There’s so much more I could talk about for this game but to keep from this getting too unwieldy I just want to touch on a few of the small things that I love.

Objective scoring. I love that you start with two end game scoring cards and you don’t have to choose which one you want to keep until one player gets to a certain point on the conservation track. It’s usually about a quarter to halfway through the game. It gives people time to see which one has a better chance of scoring some decent points before chucking one and doesn’t pressure new players into picking something at the start of the game before they’ve got a chance to understand the game and which one is better for them. It’s brilliant, every game should add this sort of thing in if they can.

The solo mode is great and is, to coin a phrase “super easy, barely an inconvenience” The A.I. Phase is simply, slide a cube. Done. After all the cubes have been moved you take a break, remove one cube, reset and carry on. You keep going until you have two cubes left. At the end of the round, if your scored at least zero you’ve won. You can scale the difficulty by where you start on the appeal track. There’s no big upkeep getting in the way of your turns and it really makes you play as efficiently as you can and it gives you a great challenge. I know it’s a big game to set up but the solo mode can be so quick that I’ve even reset and started again on some occasions.

Some of the cards (mostly the snakes) do have some take that elements (not the popular 90’s boy band) but if you’re not feeling particularly venomous then you can easily avoid these by using the solo rules for these which are on the card. I always like when games give you this sort of option when they can.

Ark Nova brings in some big, well known and unique mechanisms to create something unique, engaging and a heck of a lot of fun that is certainly worth the hype. Right, I'm off to complain about the lack of Otters in the game and insist on their inclusion in the expansion.

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