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.
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)|
|DESIGN||Mathias Wigge||ART||Steffen Bieker|
|NUMBER OF PLAYERS||1-4 (Best with 2-3)||SCORE||★★|
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