Some notes about the boardgame Ark Nova:
I was a little dubious about this game when I saw the Kickstarter for it. Some aspects were intriguing, but appeared to include a couple of mechanisms that I tend not to like: polyomino tile arrangement and worker placement. (But see below.) And the zoo-development theme didn’t really speak to me. I ended up not backing the game.
But Kam played it recently and liked it a lot, so she bought it, and she left it with me for a few days to give me a chance to read the rules and play part of a practice game on my own. And then a couple days ago we played it for real.
When I was reading the rules, the game felt to me kind of like a hodgepodge of different mechanics. Some of the mechanisms are things I associate with Terraforming Mars (especially the large number of cards, which are of several color-coded different types; also, each card has a cost, and possible prerequisites, and category tags, and instant and/or recurring effects—some of those aspects have been around in other games for a long time (like 7 Wonders), but the combination of them feels very TM to me); some others don’t feel to me particularly related to each other (placement of different-sized tiles on the zoo map, placement of workers on the association board, etc); some others are interesting but also felt not-very-coherent-with-each-other to me (the two-track scoring system, the action-choosing system (which feels vaguely related to Race for the Galaxy/San Juan/Puerto Rico, but interestingly different), the points-for-conservation-goals system).
But it turned out during play that those things didn’t feel as disparate to me as they had seemed. And play flowed smoothly—I certainly had periods of extended waffling, but I rarely felt like my choices were too limited (except early on when I was pretty money-limited for a few turns), and there were clearly multiple interesting paths to victory, and turns often went pretty quickly (when I wasn’t overwaffling).
Including setup, the game ended up taking something like four or five hours. But it didn’t feel long or slow as we played. And I’m pretty sure that it’ll get faster as we get more used to it and can spend less time looking up what various icons mean. (I remember when it used to take us 5 hours to play TM; these days, Kam and generally get through a TM game on iOS in about 90 minutes.)
(Added later: We played Ark Nova two more times over the past couple days. Our second game took a little under 3 hours; our third game took about 2 and a half hours.)
The scoring system is really interesting: you have two scoring tracks (for popular appeal and conservation efforts), running in opposite directions, and when any player’s two scoring markers pass each other, the game ends. Then you do some last stuff of various sorts, and your final score is essentially the distance between the spots where your two markers end up.
I knew all that ahead of time, but I had guessed that not much would happen after the markers passed each other, and thus that final scores would end up being on the order of five or six points. I wasn’t considering two things:
- A single space on the conservation track corresponds to about three spaces on the popular-appeal track. So if your two markers are about to cross, and then you score (say) 5 conservation points on your final turn, that means about 15 points of final score.
- A lot can happen in a final turn. In my case, I got lucky and was able to play a card (that I had just drawn a turn or two earlier) that said to take another action after I finished my action that turn—essentially letting me take two turns in a row. So I got something like 6 appeal points for playing that card, and then for my second action I did something that gave me about 5 conservation points, which corresponded to about 15 appeal points, so I scored about 20 appeal points on my final turn.
In the end, my final score was about 40, and Kam’s was about 20, so that final turn was probably what won me the game—and most of those final-turn points came from my being lucky with having a particularly good card for my final play.
(In the second game, Kam won, I forget by how much. In the third game, Kam won by about 30 points.)
I would say that at its core, Ark Nova is an engine-building game, like TM or Wingspan. There was a fun moment maybe 2/3 of the way through the game when I got to do an extended cascade of things—one action had effects that led to something else, and then something else, and so on, and it seemed to be clearly the kind of thing that the game was designed to do. My painstakingly built engine was working! It was lovely.
The game overall doesn’t appeal to me as much as TM does. Partly that’s because of the theme—the idea of terraforming Mars engages me in a way that the idea of building a nice zoo doesn’t. (I still get happy anytime anyone plays the Equatorial Magnetizer card in TM. Time to magnetize a planet!) Partly it’s just because I’ve played TM so much that the way it works feels comfortable to me now. Partly it’s because I still don’t love some of the mechanics of Ark Nova—for example, the tile placement doesn’t bug me as much as it does in some other games (I think because, unlike in some other games, it’s usually not a big deal if your AN tile placement is suboptimal), but I don’t particularly enjoy it. (But then again, tile placement in TM can also be kind of annoying, and is a significantly bigger part of that game.) I do like that the worker placement turns out not to be very worker-placementy, though; taking a spot with a worker doesn’t prevent other players from using that spot, and by around halfway through the game we both had more workers than we could use.
Anyway, even though AN doesn’t make my list of favorite games, I did enjoy it, and will be happy to play it again.