Ark Nova - strong theme with elegant gameplay
Game: Ark Nova
Designer: Mathias Wigge
Publisher: Feuerland Spiele, White Goblin Games
Player count: 1-4
Set-up time: ~ 8 min. (5 min. of shuffling included, good for 4 games)
Play length: ~ 50-55 min.
Win condition: win/loss
how the solo game works
Choose a map (A with extra starting advantage, 0 without special rules or 1-8 for an extra challenge), take 8 cards -- choose 4 --, 25 coins and 4 employees (1 available, 3 flat on your board until you unlock them). Set your markers to 0 conservation, 1 reputation and depending on your chosen difficulty, 20 (easy), 10 (normal) or 0 ('a challenge') popularity. Take the solo board and place 7 cubes in a colour different from yours on the left row.
In the game you'll have 5 possible actions, represented by cards under your zoo. If you choose an action, its strength depends on the position of the card; after you've performed the action, move one cube on the solo board to the right and place the action card in position 1, the rest moves to the right. This way, actions you have just played are weaker than actions that you have left alone.
The aim of the game is to make your conservation track and your popularity track intersect. If the difference between the two is negative, you have lost; at 0 or higher you have won.
You increase popularity (and therefore your income) by playing animals in your zoo. That is not always easy; animals need a properly sized enclusure that may also need to be adjacent to a certain terrain type, and can have certain requirements for symbols already present in your zoo. You increase your position on the conservation track by releasing animals into the wild, participating in breeding programs, or -- somewhat less thematic -- simply playing as many cards as you can from one continent or species.
The rules of the game are well structured, and so are the solo rules in the back, although the symbols on the solo board caused confusion for a long time (I'm still not sure why there is an hourglass next to the 6). Also unclear in the beginning: what could be found in the extra glossary, and what I still had to look up in the rules of the game, but the overview is very handy indeed.
lost in solo
This is mainly setcollection in combination with tile placement, but there's more: tech tracks, drafting, you can fulfill contracts, there are endgame bonuses, and you can choose from 10 different zoo layouts. All still there in a solo game of Ark Nova, but the pause and endgame system is different.
In multiplayer, there is a tile on the pause track that will move forward through certain actions. During the break you reset a number of components and you get paid, after which you'll merrily plod along in multiplayer until someone has their popularity and conservation markers cross.
In solo you have a small board with cubes on it. With every action you move a cube from left to right. Did you move the last cube? Then you'll start the break. Part of the solo break is removing one of the cubes so that you have one action less for the round on it before the break. A solo round always has one action less than the one before, until a round consists of only two actions, after which the game is over. A solo game of Ark Nova therefore always consists of 27 actions, and takes a lot less time than when you play with more people.
This is my beloved Planet Zoo in board game form, without the bugs. As much as I love Planet Zoo, it's screen time after a long day at work, so I'd rather put Ark Nova on the table. Okay, you won't see the animals in Ark Nova move, and you won't get little ones if you put together a good match in an enclosure, but that doesn't take away from the feeling that you are really filling a zoo with animals, preferably with a bit of focus (mainly animals that need water during their stay or rocks, as many large animals as possible or especially many animals from Asia, for example) so that you can boost your conservation points.
Ark Nova is a highly thematic game. I know some of you won't like it, but personally I think stock images instead of illustrations work great for keeping the real zoo feel. Stock images of employees are not that special, but beautiful images of endangered animals? Give me more! (Not the endangered part obviously.) And one more thing: Ark Nova isn't a cheap game, and unique artwork for all 240 cards (212 zoo cards, 12 start conservation cards, 11 endgame cards, and the 5 different action cards) would have greatly increased the retail price of this game.
Apart from the excellent stock images, the design is well thought through. The board is printed on both sides and you can choose the orientation that works best for your setup. Yes, that means that as a solo player you are sitting in front of a game board that is oriented to you alone. The pause track has a nice symbolic overview of the steps you need to take, and your zoo map has reminders for income and building conditions.
I love the action chaining you cause every now and then. Are you moving forward on the reputation track? You might get to move forward on the conservation track, where you get a university as a bonus, covering your second university space on your player board and allowing you to upgrade one of your actions. Loving it.
The five action cards work smoothly and make for great clarity. Action cards shift and get stronger as you use other actions. It's a huge puzzle to make the most efficient use of your action strengths in the 27 actions you have in a solo game, and I love efficiency puzzles. Can you do another cooperative action in this round, to make a slightly cheaper donation (in exchange for a conservation point) before a solo cube covers another donation spot? Or do you wait until after the break because you can play a sponsor card that will give you some income, even if you have to spend your only X-token to upgrade the strength of your sponsorship? Again: loving it.
You don't have an automa to manage, and yet there is a win-lose condition, which is when you succeed in having your reputation marker intersect with your conservation marker. It makes for a smooth game where you can completely immerse yourself in your own zoo, without having to worry about time-consuming automa actions. Yes, if I start at 10 popularity I usually win by now and it becomes a beat your own score, but when I start with 0 popularity -- especially when I choose map 1 or higher -- my popularity marker is nowhere near my conservation marker. So I still have a lot of games to play before I can cross off the 'challenge' in the rules.
About those maps: there are 10 different ones (see overview above) and they all make you adjust your strategy. A big plus for someone like me, who can muddle through the same strategy game after game; now i am forced to review my strategy every game. It makes for great replayability.
On Boardgamegeek, the weight is now at 3.74, but if Ark Nova really is that heavy it doesn't feel like it: you have to keep an eye on a lot of things, but the principles are clear and you'll quickly see what your zoo needs. You have a very clear overview of the five actions you can choose from, and all that's left is keeping an eye on your cards in hand and the cards in the open supply.
I have no problem with this, but there is nothing really innovative about this game. The scoring mechanism with the two opposing tracks is from Rajas of the Ganges, there are countless tile laying, grid covering games where you receive bonuses, set collection is nothing new either and indeed, the whole thing is quite reminiscent of Terraforming Mars -- except for the theme of course, and drafting also has a smaller role. Is that bad? Maybe if you already own similar games, but I own Terraforming Mars only on Steam, and Rajas of the Ganges doesn't have an official solo mode, just to name a few objections.
There are a lot of cards. Shuffling takes some time, but then you can get in 4 or maybe even 5 games of Ark Nova with your shuffled deck of cards. It saves on setup time, but it can also cause terrible card luck. When you draw a starting hand with only conservation and sponsor projects for instance, or with animal cards with such high playing requirements that you can only play them somewhere in round 4. That's a big drawback if you consider the importance of setcollecting -- as many animals as possible from Africa, as many primates as possible, mainly animals that need rock area next to their habitat -- and you may end up with your two final scoring cards not earning you any points. Or you are unlucky with the starting conservation cards and barely draw any conservation cards the entire game. However, you can reduce that luck factor a bit by quickly upgrading your card action.
It took me a while to separate the action cards association and sponsors. The symbolism is clear enough, but an empty conference room doesn't exactly scream association, and I don't associate someone sitting on a terrace tapping a tablet with sponsorship.
And in the minor distress category: if I move the cards from the supply during a break, I regularly bump into my popularity marker. Fortunately, popularity points are always retraceable, and it's quite possible that more motor-savvy players simply don't have this problem.
I'm having a hard time remembering if I've already moved the cube on the solo board, and spent many half a game reconstructing how many actions I'd done since the last break. So I've gotten used to placing the action card under the solo board when I choose an action, and immediately slide over a cube. Not completely waterproof, but it's better than nothing.
I was a bit wary of a hype but Ark Nova has a reason to be hyped. Yes, it looks like Terraforming Mars, but Ark Nova plays a lot more relaxed in solo; you won't be truncated if you fail to complete certain objectives within a certain number of rounds. And no, Ark Nova doesn't introduce anything new mechanics wise, but the mechanics chosen for this game fit the theme very well, and the theme is well implemented throughout. And then those excellent, clear actions, the system of increasing action strength, the possible action chaining and the aforementioned efficiency puzzle. It makes Ark Nova into a smooth, challenging and thematically strong solo game, where you can completely immerse yourself in your own zoo for an hour. Or for a few hours, because building zoos is addictive, and a new game is set up in no time.