Designer: Min and Elwen
Artist: Jiří Kůs, Ondřej Hrdina, Jakub Politzer, František Sedláček, Milan Vavroň
Publisher: Czech Games Edition
Like other hot games published in the past two years, I am late to the party. Most people I know have already tried the game and the vibe is clearly trending toward the positive. Most newbies like it and most veterans are ok with it, which is a positive since most old timers have a much high bar to please. Overall, my initial impressions of the game are positive as well, which is not surprising. Arnak has many qualities that makes the game approachable by different groups of gamers old and new alike, and that is an achievement. Whether or not the game will have legs with the seasoned gamers is another matter altogether. It’s tough to create something new for the market these days. But a strong game can come from putting together different elements from preexisting games in an innovative manner with several tweaks to make the game better. I think Arnak has done just that.
Since Arnak is a resource conversion Euro, most gamers, even the casual ones who have been exposed to Euros, should be somewhat familiar with the concept. Basically, players are tasked with collecting resources – usually plastic bits and wooden cubes which represent some raw materials or valuable treasure – to convert into points. Sometimes, this transaction is direct: you pick up X and get Y number of points. In other games, this process is more complex and convoluted: you pick up X and Y in exchange for Z which then needs to be paired with a specific card that allows you to move up a track and collect A which is scored based on some conversion table at the end of the game. These complex resource swapping algorithms is pretty much the foundation of modern day Euros. Thankfully, I find Arnak features more of the former than the latter conversion parameters. Most of the time, Arnak makes you pick up X and Y in exchange for points and benefit.
No doubt, one of the exciting features of Arnak is the theme. Players move through an uncharted island uncovering locations filled with resources which is guarded by a beast that if bested, will net you more benefits. There are different tiers of difficulty for reaching these locations with some remote interior locations harder to access and costing more in resources to reach, but with the rewards being more lavish and valuable. Along the way, players also pay resources to perform research and ….you guessed it, to gain points and benefits. To aid in all these endeavors, everyone will have to purchase equipment and artifacts in the form of cards. Hence, there is some light deck building elements in the game because these purchased items are reshuffled and recycled in a deck of cards that gets drawn each round for all 5 rounds. The deck building is pretty light though. You draw only 5 cards per round with chances to get more if you have the right type of cards. But because you only have 5 rounds in the game, you don’t really get a choice to test your deck and you may see only limited use of some cards if they are purchased late in the game. Wisely enough, the game mechanics is designed to encourage players to purchase artifacts (immediate use plus future use upon purchase) instead of items (future use only) as the game progresses from round to round. As a side note, this artifact/item recycling in the deck is likely the most innovative aspect of the game. Different deckbuilders have different rules on how cards are recycled during play. This is the first time I have come across a game where the types of card dictates how they are reshuffled into the deck.
For me, what works for Arnak is that it straddles the light-to-mid weight category really really really well. Here is a game that feels light enough that you don’t have to spend hours pouring over complicated rules and pondering each move, yet it is heavy and variable enough that it feels satisfying at the conclusion of the game. Mostly though, I find the resource conversion to be snappy and not laborious or convoluted. Case in point, when guardians are revealed, you need resources to take it down and in most cases, you will have a decent chance in doing so by collecting the necessary items to defeat them them out before the end of the round. This is especially true if you perform the guardian action early enough. Similarly with the research track, there always seems to be a few avenues to get what you need to move up the paths once or twice each round. In short, Arnak feels satisfying because you can see the tangible output of your resource conversion almost immediately with very little interruption from your neighbors. There is very little conflict, apart from choice denial, in this game. Essentially, you get little puffs of serotonin release in your brain every time you complete a task and this allows you to come back for more.
That said, what’s good about Arnak is also perhaps what is partially troubling me. I have never seen a game structure that is so backloaded in actions before. Yes, we have all been there before with these Euros. You start the game and after 3 rounds, you wonder if 5 rounds is adequate to get anything done. Well, rounds 4 and 5 are so jammed packed that essentially, many actions occur in those last two rounds. In fact, round 5 alone probably takes a huge chunk of the total play time because there are so many micro transactions: You play cards to get more resources which then allows you to get more cards which moves up the resource track and gets you…….. With Arnak, so long as you have cards at hand, you will quickly realize that your turn may not be over just yet. So don’t pass too early.
Perhaps the biggest disparity I saw between early and late rounds is in research track advancement where very little progress is made up until 3/4 into the game with a sudden surge in movement in the final round. I am not sure if this is style of play because it has happened almost every time we have played and with different players. Basically, once players have a few special cards in their deck along with a couple of idols, there is a sudden surge of resource conversion opportunities that allows one to make multiple moves on the research track. It is not unusual to see 5 to 6 upgrades on the track between rounds 4-5 after having barely moved the first 3 rounds. This is probably not a bug but more a consequence of how the game engine is structured. I am also not saying this is a flaw, but the unevenness in the number of actions is tough to miss. Perhaps one negative impact on the game for this uneveness is on the theme. As one of my regular gaming buddy commented, the theme for Arnak is great up till the point where all these micro transactions start occurring. All of sudden, everyone just became “heads down” and started focusing on how to optimize their conversion with conversations directed more toward oneself rather than between players.
This leads me to another concern, which is regarding replayability. If Arnak continues to see the type of progression during each outing, then I think the game might get stale quickly. It is likely that we just haven’t ventured out far enough to try wildly diverging strategies, but at first blush, it seems to all of us that the “natural” course of action is quite evident and we all had somewhat similar approaches to the game (e.g. go scout locations early as you build the deck and focus only on research toward latter stages of the game when the resources are more abundant). I am also not a big fan of buying expansions to beef up a game, so for a game to be good, it just needs to be complete from the get go.
My initial feeling for the game is lukewarm but with more plays, I have gained an appreciation of the game. Lost Ruins of Arnak is no doubt, a solid Euro – one which you can pick up and play with different types of gamers because the mechanisms are well-integrated, the rules are light and players get a sense of accomplishment throughout the game. It is a delicate balance to be able to bring the casual and lifestyle players together at one table and enjoy a shared experience. For that, I think Arnak deserves a lot of credit. As I reflect more on the game, I also noted my desire to actually pick up the game and play even after our first few outings. This doesn’t always happen. In fact, it probably happens a lot less than I would like to admit. Yet, for Lost Ruin of Arnak, I am looking forward for the next play and it is perhaps telling that the game is still sitting on the bench right by the dining table alongside half a dozen kids games that gets frequently played.