Trendy zookeeping

Ark Nova

I’m, of course, talking about Ark Nova, one of the hottest titles at the moment. Designed by first-time designer Mathias Wigge and published by Feuerland Spiele, Ark Nova has been very popular recently. A Finnish game store got a few dozen copies and sold them out immediately. I managed to secure a copy for myself from the friendly local game store, making Ark Nova my first game purchase in 2022.

Ark Nova box cover

The game is all about zookeeping. Each player has a private board where they build enclosures for animals and then try to fill those enclosures with appealing animals. Appeal means ticket sales, but you also need to worry about the scientific reputation of your zoo, and you must do conservation projects to gain essential conservation points.

The game isn’t terribly groundbreaking. A big part of it is the card play, which is reminiscent of Terraforming Mars: the cards have conditions, price, tags, instant effects and long-term effects. You don’t have to buy the cards, though, you get them from card-drawing actions, but otherwise, it feels vaguely familiar.

The action mechanism is borrowed from Civilization: A New Dawn: you have five different actions and a track from 1–5 where the actions are. When you do an action, the power of that action is the value it has on the track, and when you’ve done it, it drops to 1, and other actions slide up. This is simple and clever: you need to figure out which actions you want to do, how much power you need, etc.

Finally, there’s a loan from Rajas of the Ganges: the appeal track and the conservation track go in the opposing directions, and the game ends when someone has their score markers meet. Everybody else gets one turn (this is a brutal ending rule in a game where doing many point-scoring things requires more than one turn), then it’s game over.

Your conservation rating gives you a negative score, which is subtracted from your appeal points, and that’s your final score. This means you have to get those scoring markers to cross each other; otherwise, your score will be negative. Each conservation point is worth three appeal points, making the goal slightly easier.

Hand of cards in Ark Nova
The card iconography is clean. The art is all stock photos, but the overall look is more uniform than in Terraforming Mars and works pretty well.

It’s all pretty neat, and I can see why this game is popular. Terraforming Mars has been very popular, and this pushes many of the same buttons. There’s no common board; everybody just works on their own zoo board, so this is somewhat more solitaire-ish, but there’s some competition. Especially the end game timing is critical.

The game is highly tactical. You may cook up a strategy, but if the deck does not serve you the cards you need, you need to switch gears. Some people will absolutely hate that, but this seems to be a type of game most board game enthusiasts enjoy. I don’t mind this tactical nature and the randomness stemming from it.

Ark Nova is long. The box promises 90–150 minutes, but many have reported initial plays taking three or four hours. That’s somewhat terrifying. We’re fast, and our first play was 90 minutes and the second about 70 minutes. This clearly isn’t a 30 to 45 minute game for us (like Anno 1800, box time 120 minutes, is), but somewhat over an hour is fine, especially as the setup and teardown are pretty snappy. The game keeps you engaged. I know I won’t be taking this to our game group to play a four-player game, though. The BGG crowd thinks – with a wide margin – that the two-player game is best, and 1 to 3 players are fine. Few prefer the four-player game.

Is Ark Nova worth the hype? The jury is still out, but many people do seem to enjoy this kind of game and will enjoy Ark Nova.

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