Ark Nova ★★ | Review

Like many fans of Terraforming Mars, I was eager to play Ark Nova. Building a zoo through cards and unique projects seemed fun, and it indeed was! Featuring a great selection mechanism, a board to build in and a massive deck, it has all the elements for a game I would like. Sadly, a lack of development and a misguided sense of balance forced me to lower my expectations.

CHOOSE AN ANIMAL

Ark Nova is, by all intent and purposes, a card game played on a board. We are given a bit of cash, a handful of chits and left to build a zoo piece by piece. Each card represents a different animal, specialist or method of scoring and it’s our job to put them together for profit. While the scoring has a few tricks, it’s pretty much a race. Whoever gets the most points, faster, wins.

The most basic way to get those points is to show animals to the public. They have a “ticket value”, which doubles as both income and victory points. But, in order to put them into play, we first need to build an enclosure. On our board, we can raise fences from one to five hexes in size. Each animal requires a different amount of space. Some even need to be next to water or rocky terrain, as well.

Like in many euro games, some spaces of the board have placement bonuses. If we build over them, we might get extra cards, a boost to our reputation or cash. Most importantly, we may also build special structures that host several animals at once, like aviaries. Other structures, like pavilion and kiosks, can be used to boost our income, but their presence is minor.

However, the strength of each action isn’t static. Rather, their power varies by when they are taken. In our player board, they are placed in order from one, the weakest, to five, the strongest. For example, at its lowest strength, Animals is useless. It doesn’t allow us to play any and is best left to recover. However, at the maximum of five, it lets us place two different animals in their enclosures, saving us an entire action.

The trick is that, whenever we use an action, it goes back to the first spot in the queue. This not only prevents us from repeating it with any sort of efficiency; it also pushes all others up, making them better. Trying to make the most out of them, while juggling the cards in our hand and the needs of our zoo is what makes Ark Nova interesting and fun.

And yet, for all it brings to the table, it’s emblematic of the game’s flaws. To make sure there were more than two useful actions, the cards were divided into three different types. If we don’t draw the right one, we are out of luck. The action will get stuck, all others will suffer, and you might lose the turn trying to fix it. It’s the first sign that Ark Nova might not live up to its promise.

BACKWARDS DESIGN

Despite being the shining example of contemporary board games, some of the design choices of Ark Nova can only be described as backwards. That is, parts of it work in ways that are strange, counterproductive or just indicative of a lack of playtesting. Ark Nova comes across as if it were rushed into release.

The most serious issue with the design is how tickets double as both income and victory points. By nature, this bakes a hard economic snowball right into it. While money is tight early on, it becomes largely limitless later on. An income of just five coins per turn is supposed to be enough to start. However, by the midgame, we’ll get up to thirty, which is six times larger.

As you can imagine, cards don’t get six times more expensive as time goes on. If they did, it would be impossible to play them on the first turn. We also don’t get six times the cards or six times the building capacity, creating a bottleneck. Ultimately, this means that our success will be determined, to a large degree, by how well we did at the start and whether we draw the right cards at the right time. This is most noticiable with animal cards.

Small animals demand fewer fences, are cheaper to play and have less requirements than larger ones. To compensate, we could expect their pay out to be lower. But there’s not enough of a difference between both to make up for the extra work in actions, space and money. Even then, why bother when you can cram up to five different birds in the same aviary? Bypassing costs is a powerful mechanic in the vast majority of games and Ark Nova is no exception.

Consider one last example. If we run out of money during a round, we can use the Sponsors card to get some. However, not only is this extremely inefficient, doing so brings the round end closer. Hence, we don’t get to enjoy our money for long before everyone gets an income phase. In the end, it siphons actions away from losing players while the winners keep on playing animals.

Above all, Ark Nova is one of those games where our decisions barely affect our opponents but we still have to wait for their turn. There are attack cards, but they are overpriced, weak and needlessly complex. I would have preferred if they had been left out and turns made simultaneous. At the very least, that might have prevented the designer from giving more turns to the first player and then trying to fix it afterwards.

THE FINISHING TOUCH

With every match, I become aware of one more issue with Ark Nova. None are game-breaking. They are all niggles which could be improved with little effort. And yet, they pile up. Little by little, they take away the enjoyment of choosing the right card or trying out new strategies. Why invest in monkeys, I found myself pondering, when I might never draw another?

In many ways Ark Nova deepens some of the flaws of Terraforming Mars. It’s longer, more complex and more prone to stalling. The chief complaint I had about its predecessor was that most of the action took place, not on the shared board, but on the cards on your hand. And yet, Ark Nova goes further and makes all boards personal, doing away with most of the humanity of the design.

It’s possible to enjoy Ark Nova whether one map is better than the rest or if koalas aren’t actually bears. But I can’t, in good conscience, recommend a game that trips over itself so often. There’s a point in which my appreciation for polish takes over and I must draw a line somewhere. I enjoy it, undeniably, but I never get to do so without this or that issue obscuring my view.

Like Terraforming Mars, Ark Nova could improve with expansions. But it’s already bloated with more content than it could ever need to. Rather, what it truly needs, is less. Less mechanics, fewer cards, to shed its weakest elements and drop them to the cutting floor. It needs polish, editing, development, getting rid of what didn’t work and strengthening what did.

ARK NOVA (2021)
DESIGNMathias Wigge
ARTSteffen Bieker
Loïc Billiau
Dennis Lohausen
et, al.
PUBLISHER
Feuerland Spiele
Maldito Games
LENGTH120 minutes
NUMBER OF PLAYERS
1-4 (Best with 2-3)SCORE★★

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11 Comments

  • As far as I’m concerned your review is right on the money. Exactly my impression of the game.

  • I’d strongly disagree about many of your points. It’s incredibly rare I have a hand of cards I cannot do things with (Around two hundred plays, only twice have I felt that I could not get synergies going).

    While the balance of Appeal Vs Conservation is critical, I will generally focus more on conservation and sponsorship, depending on cards. I will almost never play aviary or reptile house, and my zoos are generally littered with kiosks and pavilions.

    Friends I play with will often go with more if a build strategy than me; some will go more continents Vs universities, others the other way.

    The game has versatility, depth, and huge amounts of polish.

    It’s a card game with a big deck. That could mean, a la Terraforming Mars, that you can get substantial cards that are useless to you. The genius and polish of Ark Nova is that the game is about seeing opportunities in the cards you can see; and there almost always will be opportunities.

    If one plays the game in hope of seeing monkies, dissapointment can follow. But setting up so that, if monkies appear you can take advantage, us often viable.

    As players we interact strongly, and aggressively. Forcing breaks at the moment that disadvantages your opponent, snatching the cards they want, pressuring the race to the endpoint, are all about interaction, and are core to playing the game well.

    I find the monkey and snake cards sensible and effective little catch-ups, and useful microaggressions. I accept that venom and constriction can cause some confusion the first few times you play, but they are fairly straightforward thereafter.

    • I totally agree with your assessment. Like you I disagree with the reviewer. We love Ark Nova

      • Totally feel the same way. The OP failed to call out that at its heart ArkNova is a race. You accept that and the rest of it makes more sense.

        The most interesting part is the action selection puzzle. What a great game.

        • Note that I did call it a race on the first paragraph after the intro “While the scoring has a few tricks, it’s pretty much a race. Whoever gets the most points, faster, wins.”

  • Good review – it sums up my feelings on ARK NOVA as well. I agree that the game can be prone to stalling. Unlike Terraforming Mars, not only is your hand size limited ( VERY limited evem after you upgrade your Action card ) but you can’t even sell useless cards for money .

  • As with all things in life, different people have different opinions and Ark Nova is no except. I join with the thousands of people who have helped propel Ark Nova to the top 5 level of games of all time. It is a great game, almost a work of art in it’s creation and design balance.

    Obviously it won’t be for everyone. But to say it suffers from lack of playtesting? I think the OP is not only wrong but is being insulting. Having found numerous ways to accrue the points needed, I can see there has been extensive work put into balancing all aspects of the game.

    I hope that a large percentage of responses are in disagreement with the OP and that he will consider reevaluating his thoughts and perhaps concede that more people like than dislike Ark Nova.

    At the very least, show appreciation for this amazing game. Even if it’s not perfectly to your liking. No game can perfectly satisfy everyone. Your personal taste in gaming may lie elsewhere, but that doesn’t make Ark Nova a flawed game.

    • I do not have to show appreciation for Ark Nova or any other game. And that’s neither wrong, nor insulting, but the most basic aspect of criticism. How popular it is, how much you like or how many people voted for it on Boardgamegeek has no bearing, neither in my arguments nor on the quality of the game itself. A popularity list in an American website is not a gospel everyone must abide to.

      And while Ark Nova fans have certainly been open with their opinions, to the point of personal attacks, that doesn’t make them the majority. Most of my readership appreciate honest criticism, whether they agree or disagree with it, and value having a variety of voices in gaming. Regardless, I do not have a habit of bending my opinion to conform others, no matter how “unpopular” they might be. Rather, I do my job which is to provide my own, open opinion. And in Ark Nova‘s case, I think it’s a flawed game.

  • I don’t know much about Ark Nova and I’m not interested in defending it, so please don’t take this as a gotcha; I’m just curious:

    You probably like Terraforming Mars more than I do, though I too think it’s a good game. It also has victory points that double as income. From an armchair game design perspective, this looks like an obviously bad idea that lets a player with an early lead snowball to victory. What does TM do to make it work anyway, and why does Ark Nova fail?

    • It’s not a gotcha at all! In fact, it’s a very good question. Like you say, coupling income and victory points is not the best idea. It does lead to problems and Terrafoming Mars is no exception. However, there are a few factors that make the snowball less of a problem in Terraforming Mars than Ark Nova.

      The first is that not all sources of income double as victory points and vice versa. Only your Terraforming Rating counts as both and, often, you’ll get income and points independently of it. Most economic cards won’t contribute to your points total or do so inefficiently, so the coupling isn’t as severe. The coupling is much stronger in Ark Nova, as even conservation gets permanent economic benefits like upgraded cards or special benefits every income round.

      The second is that the snowball is much smaller and takes longer to get going. You start at 20 points and you may end the game with less than 50. Doubling your income is already noticiable, but you only do so over the course of a whole game. In Ark Nova, however, you do so almost inmediately. Your first animal will likely double your starting income. You may even end the first round tripling it. That’s a far higher rate of snowballing.

      The third is that the initial rate of income in Terraforming Mars is far more viable. You can play most cards with 20 income and, while it’s not great, it’s enough to play. In Ark Nova, your initial income is extremely low and remains low even after raising it a couple of times. So if you don’t do that or you stumble, you are not going to be able to compete.

      Lastly, Terraforming Mars is more balanced. Cards are more versatile, better priced and don’t require you to build enclosures before putting them into play. Still, it may surprise you to know that, as much as I like it, I would only rate the base game the base game 3 stars, only one more than Ark Nova. So the difference isn’t as large as it may seem!

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