Ark Nova is a great board game, but too complex for new players

Ark Nova is the hottest new tabletop game since wingspan burst onto the scene in the early months of 2019 an entire era ago, upending industry beliefs about what kind of games could make it into the mainstream and find commercial success. Three years later, wingspan — a non-violent game about wild bird populations — sold out over a million copies, and you can find it in your local target. That’s even with a $50 price tag and a steeper learning curve than games typically sold by big-box retailers.

Ark Nova raises that bet even further, hitting $75, a listed playtime of 90-150 minutes, and an even higher level of complexity than wingspan. Still, I don’t think it will enjoy the same kind of mainstream success as wingspannot because of the cost, but because the barrier to entry for new players is just too high.

Ark Nova is “heavier” than Terraform Marswith a weight of the complexity of the rules comparable to dark havenprobably the two most commercially successful complex games in the modern history of the pastime. Ark Nova has been widely acclaimed since its debut at the Essen Game Fair in October, with much of the online discussion focusing on how quickly the game sold out in stores. I played Ark Nova, and it’s as good as the hype would have you believe, with plenty of long-term strategy and planning and short turns to push it forward. But it’s not one I’m going to release with new or inexperienced board gamers.

The first game from designer Mathias Wigge, Ark Nova has players building their own zoos on their personal player boards. It combines a litany of ideas from other complex games into a sort of mashup of “greatest hits” mechanics, producing a satisfying intellectual challenge with very fast turns. Terraform MarsThe influence here is a definite positive, but Wigge has streamlined some of this game’s more frivolous complexities in order to avoid the analysis paralysis that infects many heavier games (especially those with economic themes).

The break track features a cute little coffee cup meeple.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Each player has their own board with an empty zoo area of ​​hex spaces on which they will place enclosures they have purchased, covering one to five hexes each, and into which they can then place animals. Each animal has a minimum enclosure size requirement and may require you to have other items in your zoo – but almost all animals also provide some sort of advantage when you play them as well. You can earn money or other bonuses when you cover certain hexes in your zoo (as in Barenpark), and as you add workers, partner zoos, or university tiles to your board, you’ll gain other immediate benefits (as in Great Western Trail).

Players have five cards showing five different possible actions (as in Terraform Mars), which include building enclosures, playing animals, playing sponsorship cards, taking cards from the central board, or acting on the association board using workers. The strength of each action depends on how much time has passed since you last used it. they run through the spaces numbered one through five below your player board, and in most cases you want to get an action down to four or five before selecting it. You can also acquire strength tokens in several ways in the game and then use them to increase the power of an action by one per discarded token. The buddy action allows you to play blue buddy cards, which usually provide a continuous advantage and end-game scoring opportunity, or to pause, advance the coffee cup token on the scoring track. break and collect income. When that break token reaches the end of its track, everyone receives income, collects their workers, and discards up to their hand size limit of three or five, while the central tableaus are refreshed. There are a lot of moving parts, but everything works fine.

This is partly because of the careful streamlining I mentioned above. One of Ark NovaThe biggest strength of is that you only collect one resource – money – unlike Terraform Mars, where you follow at least six. The money makes Ark Nova shop around, and you’ll probably run out a few times in the first half of the game. Your income is based on how many points you got, so later in the game you’ll have money and you’ll be best able to place large animals only if you’ve saved a few maps and have the correct enclosures. This makes the game more accessible to less experienced players right out of the box.

Scoring, on the other hand, takes a lot of work. Players move their chips around three tracks, only two of which are directly tied to the score. The call track covers most of your points, such as those you get for playing an animal. The hold track runs in the opposite direction to the call track, interlocking with it. These points are more difficult to obtain, especially at the beginning of the game, but they also bring important bonuses when you obtain them. The game ends when a player’s call and hold markers cross (as in Rajas of the Ganges), after which all other players take a final turn and you manage the endgame score. There is also a reputation track along the market for animal cards, and in most cases you can only take animal cards up to the location of your reputation marker, giving you gives more choices when performing the card action.

Everyone starts the game with two private objective cards, but unlike most games with this feature, Ark Nova allows you to hold both for a period of time, only requiring you to choose one once a player reaches 10 on the hold track. There are three public objectives on the association board, and the spaces on these are limited – once someone takes the most valuable spot, it’s off limits to all other players. You can also acquire conservation cards from the game, similar to how you acquire animal and sponsor cards, and when you play one you make it public after claiming a spot for yourself.

The only flaw of Ark Nova, which not everyone will consider as such, is that it has very little player interaction. The main deck contains 212 cards, and a small percentage of them are animals that allow you to do something to your opponents, like hitting them with poison chips, for example. It’s entirely possible to play an entire game without even seeing these cards, and they only last until the next break; Wigge could easily have skipped it and saved players from learning three more icons. Other than that, the only interaction is when you take something another player wanted.

A card showing a woman in a canoe with binoculars.

wingspan designer Elizabeth Hargrave makes an appearance as Ark Nova‘s ornithologist.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Ark Nova there’s a lot going on, with intimidating setup and rules for less experienced players. The rulebook is 20 pages, plus a separate appendix to explain sponsor cards and animal cards with unusual powers. There are several dozen icons that appear on the cards and board that you’ll need to learn, though the single sheet that lists them all is clear and concise.

Ultimately, it’s a game someone has to teach you; I can’t imagine someone who hasn’t played a lot of games picking this up in a store and learning it for themselves. It’s a fabulous game for people who know games, but as someone who plays all kinds of games and writes for an audience that includes a lot of casual gamers, I don’t think it’s fair to think about Ark Nova like the next wingspan.

wingspan raised the bar, but did so with a short rulebook and clear explanatory text on its cards. However, there are still communities of people who come up against it, even with elaborate video tutorials available on YouTube. Ark Nova took me about 20 minutes to install, after which I watched a nearly 40 minute tutorial video to learn how to play. I’ve probably played 500 different board games in my life, so I pretty much know all the mechanics involved here – but I’m in the extreme minority.

It’s not the price, not with Return to the Dark Tower at $175 and the next Haven of Frost at $250, but the complexity that will limit the appeal of Ark Nova. It’s an amazing game in just about every dimension – it’s just not the accessible title that’s going to enter the mainstream and expand the audience.

Ark Nova is available now. The game was reviewed and photographed using retail copies provided by Capstone Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find additional information on Polygon’s ethics policy here.

Ark Nova

Pricing taken at time of publication.

• 1 to 4 players, ages 14 and up

• Playing time: 90 to 150 minutes

• Type of game: drawing, decor collection and tile placement, among others

• Category: competitive game, solitaire game

• Similar games: wingspan, Terraform Mars

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