Designer: Mathias Wigge
Artist: Steffen Bieker, Loïc Billiau, Dennis Lohausen, Christof Tisch
Publisher: Feuerland Spiele
What has Ark Nova got to do with zoo building? (Photo credits: Frank Hereen@BGG)
Ahh, Ark Nova, where to begin with this behemoth.
Hype around Ark Nova is still swirling around more than a year post-publication. The game is billed as a gamer’s game and has won a couple of awards in the board game circuit. The game is hefty not only in the physical size of the game box and sheer number of cards and components, it is also a pretty time-consuming game that is not for the faint of heart. The rules aren’t exactly complex for your typical board gamer, but does have a lot of nitty gritty details and moving parts. I guess that is what you come to expect from a game that is targeted for the niche gamer.
This is an initial impression of playing the game and is clearly not an exhaustive review. I just haven’t seen enough cards to know all the options out there. But I have seen enough to know the general mechanisms and game play to comment on the overall game play especially in comparison with Terraforming Mars, another game that is driven mainly by cards. Now there is no doubt that Ark Nova and Terraforming Mars share a similar DNA when it comes to game play: they both feature a gigantic deck of cards where players must play cards of certain types to form synergies for scoring points. Because each player only gets to see a fraction of cards from the entire deck, the knock for these games has always been luck of the draw: if you happen to draw the right cards and the synergy is there, you will have a better chance of winning. Typically, for games like these, there are loads of variable card powers along with a plethora of icons and symbols to power scoring objectives. Which brings me to the first point: if you dislike efficiency games, or a heads down experience where you develop your own personal tableau of cards to optimize scoring, then stay away from Ark Nova. In fact, the complexity of the game and the length it takes to finish each session will probably make you run the opposite direction. The current trend in gaming is all about developing your personal game board for scoring points, and in the case of Ark Nova, your own little zoo. If you already enjoy Ewe Rosenberg’s series of efficiency farming games, then I think there is a good chance you will probably enjoy Ark Nova too. I also think gamers who enjoy playing solo board games as efficiency puzzles will get more mileage out of Ark Nova as well.
Now, for folks who are like me that feel neutral or maybe even slightly turned-off by this type of low player-interaction game, I think it is illuminating to frame Ark Nova against Terraforming Mars, a game which I enjoy but not love. For me at least, there are elements of both games that I enjoy and dislike to the point that I wish a third game exists to meld the best features from these two games.
First, let’s start with theme. Both themes come through decently well, but I have to say that Terraforming Mars just takes the edge. For me this is largely due to terraforming criteria that must be reached to trigger the end game. It makes a lot sense you need to increase the oxygen levels, thaw the polar ice caps and increase the water supply. The ideas are intuitive and doesn’t deviate throughout the game as you are constantly reminded to fulfill one of three conditions to score points and earn money. It also makes sense that each player represents a corporations vying to colonize Mars to reap the economic windfall of settling a planet. The bonus VPs awarded for different achievements at the end of each game also makes thematic sense. You can also witness the rapid transformation of the barren Martian landscape into one filled with oceans, forests and cities. In contrast, Ark Nova’s score track feels more abstract. Earning appeal points or conservation points just doesn’t resonate as well when building a zoo. I mean sure, you want to make your zoo appealing, but there really is no visual reminder that my zoo is appealing other than a growing stack of cards in my tableau. While the individual zoos are neat, not seeing the animals inside the enclosures ala Zooloretto makes the card play feel disconnected. I can’t even tell you what animals I put in the enclosures at the end of the game because the board and cards aren’t necessarily linked. I think that shared game board makes all the difference in terms of thematic integration.
While Terraforming Mars takes the edge for theme, I think Ark Nova provides a more streamlined card play experience. Both games feature a large deck of cards which require some amount of cycling to get the cards you need for synergy. This special power, icon-driven card play turns off a lot of people primarily because of the complexity and tediousness of squinting at the text to comprehend the properties of the card and how they interact with each other. Sure, the first hour maybe alright, but 2-3 hours in. I felt exhausted and stopped paying attention to every card text and icons. This meant I skipped selecting and playing sponsor cards which are loaded with lots of unique powers. That said, at first blush, I feel that Ark Nova synergies feel easier to accomplish. I had no issues gathering the desired icons for set collection and the central area where cards are snapped provided additional ways to mitigate an unlucky draw. Furthermore, certain icon requirements can be supplemented by picking up collaborative tokens from a side board. This makes set collection a lot easier and less frustrating. In contrast, for TM, I often found myself saddled with a bunch of useless cards late in the game. Granted you don’t have to buy these cards, but the point is I want to buy them, but there is nothing good up for grabs. Some of the card synergies are incredibly hard to come by and hate drafting will ensure the cards you desire will never reach your hand. So while you have an engine to collect specific icons, the cards may never appear. I found this to be less of any issue with Ark Nova as most animal cards can net you some appeal points. So, overall, Ark Nova feels a lot more “newbie-friendly” in card play. Keeping in mind of course, these are all initial impressions. The struggle to find synergy just doesn’t feel nearly as brutal as Terraforming Mars.
In terms of game mechanisms, I again appreciate aspects from both game. So, let’s call this a tie. Terraforming Mars is less convoluted and simple to grok. You draft cards and you play cards in order to achieve the objectives for terraforming the planet and, in the process, earn points. That’s it. Cards are mainly picked up at the beginning of each round either directly dealt from the deck, or through card drafting, with the latter being a variant to reduce luck. Once all cards are scrutinized, players must decide which, if any, are worth purchasing. Card play will then dictate how resources are earned and spent to move up on the terraforming tracks and score points. Simple and straightforward. There are no additional mechanisms to consider beyond the cards at play. In Ark Nova, there are additional elements to consider both for the score track, and also on individual player boards. First, we have the action selection mechanism on individual player board to select and perform one of five actions. Actions are strongest from left to right on the card row and as actions are selected, the spent card is recycled to the front of the row, thus pushing all the cards one slot to the right, thus enhancing their strength. This recycling of cards is pretty elegant and most recently seen in FFG’s Civilization: A New Dawn. It is implemented very well in Ark Nova. Actions from the board include drawing cards, playing cards, picking up benefits, scoring set collection conservation points and building enclosures in the zoo. Yep, each player has a personal zoo-board in front of them where they can build polyomino enclosures of different sizes to house animals. Different animals require different sized enclosures and building them is a prerequisite for expansion. This spatial puzzle is more intense and personal in Ark Nova with the tetris-like tiles needing to fit within the boundaries of your zoo. In Terraforming Mars, the spatial element is more a land-grab in a shared space, and less a spatial puzzle of fitting differently-sized tiles on a personal board. Both are unique in their own way.
I think the major difference for me is that Terraforming Mars has that shared game board which allows for a shared experience – something that is absent in Ark Nova. Ark Nova is very much a solo effort to see who reaches the end point first. All players are siloed, barring the occasional “take-that” card, as everyone is tending to their own zoo. Sure, some cards do force a modicum of interaction – for example, claiming benefits when opponents play specific types of cards – but I honestly find that incredibly annoying as it disrupts your own planning, forcing you to check which cards are being played just to see if you earn some perks here and there. Terraforming Mars on the other hand has a shared space where every player needs to pay attention. The race to build cities or fill oceans, or to move the needle in thawing planet makes the game more interactive…. if ever slightly so. When playing TM, I feel more involved in the shared space as the race to occupy certain resource-rich region can be intense. While one can argue that the conservation points earned from the side board serves the same purpose, it somehow fails to have the same feeling. also, the common drafting area in Ark Nova doesn’t qualify as a shared space.
Having said all that, let me be clear, both Terraforming Mars and Ark Nova are cut from the same cloth and both are card-driven, heads down, victory point generating endeavors. The player who can seek the best combos, collects the most powerful sets or build an efficient victory point engine will win the game. Neither game are particularly interactive in a way that a Kramer, Kiesling or Knizia fan would gush over. But all things considered, I do think both Terraforming Mars and Ark Nova are decent, albeit very complex, games for this genre. If you enjoy these types of games, then you are in for a treat.