WBG Score: 10
Player Count: 1-4
You’ll like this if you like: Ark Nova
Designed by: Mathias Wigge
This is the reviewer's copy. See our review policy here
You know those times when you’ve eaten a big meal? The last thing you want to do is cram anymore, right? That is until you spy the dessert menu and it looks so good that you just can’t say no. Well the original deck of Ark Nova cards is your full stomach and the new marine worlds expansion is the dessert menu asking you to cram in just one more wafer thin mint. Is it worth eating the marine world's mint? Will that deck of cards explode if you do? I’ll let you know.
As an aside I’ve REALLY got to stop talking about food in these reviews because it always makes me hungry.
Just like most of the expansions I review I’ll break down everything in sections and talk about each aspect separately (where possible) so feel free to skip to a section if you’re wanting to know about something in particular.
Let’s start with the least impactful gameplay wise. Marine Worlds comes with some upgraded score markers for each colour now in the shape of a ticket for the appeal track, a mortar board for the reputation track and a shield icon for the conservation track. You’ll also get four sets of animal tokens for your player board to replace the cubes. A penguin, a fish, a wolf (I think) and a monkey. Are these necessary? No, do they have any impact on the game? Of course not. Was I stupidly excited to get my hands on these things? Yes….yes I was. Obviously it’s your choice if you choose to use them and maybe you’ve already gotten yourself some nice upgraded bits already. For me though they just made the game feel that bit more special. Now if we can just upgrade the money?
New association board and universities
So there is a new association board included that now includes space to house a new, fourth university type…....which they obviously give you. This board is hands down gonna be a permanent addition to the game for me (get used to that phrase because I feel like I’m gonna be saying it a lot with this expansion.) When you take the new university it lets you choose one of the six new universities that have a research icon and one of the six animal types on it. These are great because not only are you getting an extra animal tag in your zoo, which helps massively if that particular type is not showing its face (much like a real zoo), but it also lets you reveal cards from the deck until you find one of that animal type. This is great! Being able to have two animal tags to go towards a conservation card (presuming you can play the card at some point) in one turn can be the difference between you scoring low for that card or giving you that push you to score higher. Get in quick though because although the new university refreshes each round with the others there is only one of each animal type so once someone’s nabbed it, it’s gone.
You can still only have three universities and only one of the new ones, but I love that it adds a bit more choice when taking one. I used to find that taking that third university to score the conservation points (depending on the board you’re playing) felt like an arbitrary decision. If, for example, research icons weren’t part of your game plan then it could almost feel like wasting a turn to do it. But with this new one that little bit of extra choice makes all the difference.
The new action cards are one of the two big things that I think most people are excited for in this box. First off there are new replacement Action cards for the base game. These are the same cards and work the same but they’ve changed some of the text to icons to make room for additional text with the new cards.
You also get new action cards with a twist. After choosing your zoos, give each player three random action cards then draft one then pass them to your left, then again until you’ve got three cards again and then pick two of the three to keep. They must be two different action types, so you can’t choose two build cards for example, then set them up as per usual.
Each of these will have their own special ability on them. For example, one animal card gives you a 2 money discount on the first animal you play on a turn. One upgraded build card lets you cover rock or water spaces and gives you 2 money for doing so.
I love that Ark Nova is slowly drip feeding us this starting asymmetry. It obviously started with the alternate maps in the main box and then the additional map pack/s and now these new cards. Personally you could tell me I’m only allowed to play with the starting map from now on and I’d still happily play this game over and over without it feeling stale. But these new additions give it so much variety that I’d have to play this game every day for a long time before It starts to feel samey. The new cards are great and add so much to the game but without ever feeling too overwhelming. They’re also a nice way to change how you play. If you’re someone who’s played a lot of Ark Nova maybe you’ve got a way of doing things, maybe you upgrade cards in a specific order. Well now this may just make you change things up a bit since each new combo of cards can take your game in different directions. If you took the combo above for example you’ll most likely shift your focus more towards filling your zoo map. Ark Nova has always been a game of shifting strategies for me, mainly because of the randomness of the cards. That’s still not going to change with these cards but having cards that may shift your focus is a welcome boost to up the replayability.
“Fish are friends, not food” and in the case of the new marine cards that’s particularly true.
Let's address the elephant seal in the room. Ark Novas card deck is too big. It makes the game very random and you'll be lucky if you get near three quarters through it in a four player game. If anyone has problems with the game then you can almost guarantee that this is one of them. So adding another stack of cards is only going to inflate the problem like a particularly puffy puffer fish. Luckily they’ve thought of that. On all the new marine cards they’ve added a wave symbol. When you draw this and place it on the display you discard the first card in the display, slide everything up (just as you would normally) and draw a card for the end of the display. If you draw another wave symbol then do the same again. If you're still doing this after about three or four cards then you should probably start questioning the person who shuffled the deck. I love that one symbol addresses two problems in the game. One was that in some games and player counts the display would barely get refreshed and this provides a good way of cycling it round. It also means that you can't guarantee a card is going to be there for you next turn and it ups that tension when it comes to choosing if you should take a card or not.
The other issue is making an already unwieldy deck of cards even more so. With this symbol you’ll be (potentially) cycling through the deck a bit more. Don’t get me wrong, you won’t suddenly find yourself reshuffling the deck every game. You’ll probably see about the same amount of cards as you normally would but it’s nice to know that they care enough to put things in place to try and help.
You now have two new aquarium enclosures (two different sizes) which you can build from the start of the game and most of the sea life will need to be housed exclusively in that type of enclosure. You can only build one of each size and they act like the reptile house in that you place cubes in them depending on the size of the animal.
Reef dwellers are the coolest part of the new animals and if you love a combos like me then this’ll be right down your E.A.C dude (east Australian current for those who haven’t watched Finding Nemo) These animals have a coral reef symbol on the right of their card and a bonus on them. It could be money, a trade, a conservation point etc. Everytime you play one of these cards you trigger the coral reef ability of ALL the reef dweller cards you’ve got in your zoo. It’s so satisfying as you start building these up and trigger more of them each time you play one. Given the fact that you're limited by the number of aquariums you can have and the amount of space you have you obviously won’t have a never ending stream of them. It’s also not wise to base a strategy on them either given the randomness of the deck, but if you do manage to get a few in play they are a lot of fun.
You’ll get a few replacement cards included. Some are different purely to change the iconography to include the new sea animals. The icons have been changed in such a way that you can leave these new cards in the deck even if you decide not to play with the expansion animals. Other cards like some of the bonus, conservation and sponsor cards have been changed to be a bit more balanced and in some cases easier to obtain higher scores.
Should you explore under the sea?
Do you need this expansion? Despite my 10/10 rating for it, no you don’t. There are very few expansions (in my experience anyway) that you “need.” If you’re still enjoying exploring Ark Nova in its base form and feel that that’s enough then there’s no real reason to add to the expansion just yet. However, if you love Ark Nova and are excited by the new stuff then you should absolutely get it (as long as you can afford to that is.) In fact if you love Ark Nova that much then you’ve probably already got this. This is one of those expansions that I never want to play the game without. It’s weird because it doesn’t do anything that will change your mind about the game if you didn’t like it. But if you’re already a fan then everything here is just gonna take that enjoyment up by a giraffe's neck. I’d potentially leave out the new action cards and possibly the sea animals if teaching to new players. More for the fact that I get bored of the sound of my own voice when teaching this game and you can see people’s eyes glaze over as you throw more and more things at them and I think the extra additions may be a touch too much on a game that can already be a bit or a teach as it is.
Marine worlds is a fantastic addition to one of my favourite games. It’s a more stuff expansion that makes just enough changes to keep the game fresh for those who need it, but not change things drastically enough that it impacts on the things that people love about the base game.