Lots of my peers in the tabletop media and content creation space have had the chance to play Ark Nova in recent months. It feels like Ark Nova, published in the US by Capstone Games, is almost incessantly compared to Terraforming Mars and has come away from almost all of the reviews I have consumed completely unscathed.
On BoardGameGeek, Ark Nova is already the 133rd-highest ranked game of all time as of the time of this writing—and it only started shipping to Capstone’s US buyers in February. That’s quite an accomplishment!
I have a healthy sense of “trust, but verify” here at the Bell gaming compound, so when my boy Fil texted me to see if I wanted to come out to play some games, he couldn’t hide his excitement.
“Oh ****, today might be Ark Nova time! The most hyped game of the century!”
He was right, on both fronts: it was time to play Ark Nova, and it is the most hyped game I can think of since I joined Meeple Mountain, outpacing games like Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile because it’s been #1 on BGG’s “The Hotness” scale for weeks.
Executive Summary: It’s Really Good
Now that I’ve completed my first play, I do agree that Ark Nova shares at least some of the DNA of Terraforming Mars, itself an all-time classic released in 2016. You’re building out a tableau of cards while working as a business to settle Mars open a new zoo, while playing cards from your hand to set up one-time bonuses, ongoing scoring bonuses when meeting certain conditions on the board, and end-game scoring multipliers.
Ark Nova adds another layer, though: your player board is a zoo, and you’ll be adding hexagonal cardboard pieces to represent enclosures, kiosks, reptile houses, and other locations. In other words, if you thought Terraforming Mars was complex, steer clear of Ark Nova, because I haven’t even mentioned all the various game mechanics going on yet!
Remember how Terraforming Mars had tracks? The best thing about those tracks was that 3 of them (Temperature, Oxygen, Oceans) were shared by players, dictating the trigger of the end of the game. In Ark Nova, you’ve got tracks, you’ve got end-game scoring cards that are public, you’ve got end-game scoring cards that are private, you’ve got cards you can play from your hand to add more mid- and end-game scoring cards, you’ve got bonuses tied to 2 of the 3 tracks on the board, and you’ve got an income track aligned with your score, almost exactly like the Terraform Rating system used in Terraforming Mars.
But wait, there’s more!
Combos live EVERYWHERE in Ark Nova, and this is my favorite part of the experience. Each turn, a player has the choice of 5 different actions: drawing cards, building structures in your park, playing Sponsor cards, playing Association actions, and playing cards from your hand.
Each action is represented by a card that sits below your player board, aligned with a number running from 1-5. That number is the strength of the action when you play that card. So, if your Cards card is below the 4 strength slot, you can draw and potentially discard a certain number of cards. Then, the chosen card moves to the left-hand side of the line and the next player takes their turn. It’s a mechanism lifted wholesale from Civilization: A New Dawn, and one that’s good to see get more use in the hobby.
But those actions trigger many other things. I had a couple of turns where I played the Association action, then added either a Partner Zoo or a Partner University to my player board. At higher levels, that means you might get more Conservation points, one of those tracks which triggers even more bonuses. So, I played an Association action at 4 strength, then picked up a Partner University, the third of which allowed me to gain 2 Conservation points, which jumped me over another bonus, which I used to play a Sponsor card from my hand.
Juicy. I love combos; love any game that makes me feel like a boss. Ark Nova has plenty of these moments, and I’ve only played it once.
Over the course of the game, you can upgrade the action cards by earning a bonus to flip them over; each one is a little sexier on the back. You might get more cards. You might be able to build more than one building at a time. You might even be able to play 2 Animal cards while also getting a slight bump on the Reputation track (tracks!!). As your Reputation grows, you can play cards directly from the board into your table, based on your position on that track.
I like the open-ended nature of the round structure. Certain actions advance a special token on the Break track, its length dependent upon the number of players. In this way, some rounds last for just a few player turns. Sometimes, it could last for 10 turns or more. The end of rounds trigger an income phase and a reset on your hand size, but until that happens you might be holding a whole bunch of great cards, hoping to find the best ways to play as many of them as you can.
Ark Nova doesn’t have a pass action. If you don’t want to do anything, or simply can’t, you take an “X-Token” and move one card back to the end of the line. These tokens allow you to boost the strength of future actions, meaning the card in your 5 strength slot can be boosted to a 6 with a token. Having a few of these on hand all the time just gives you more options. This also means you can set up a killer follow-up turn by moving a card to the top of your strength track to execute something serious on your next action.
The game end trigger isn’t wonky, but I can’t quite determine yet why the following mechanism was chosen. Your main score is tracked in Appeal; let’s pretend that starts at zero. Your secondary score is tracked in Conservation points; that also starts at zero, but it is tracked by a marker that sits in its own section, starting near the 100 Appeal space. Those two markers spend the game working towards each other. When your Appeal marker and your Conservation marker pass each other in opposite directions, that triggers the final action of the game and all other players get one more turn.
In this way, you’ll have a good sense of when the end is coming, but not exactly when. Again, I don’t know why this was chosen by first-time designer Mathias Wigge, but I think I like it. I don’t like knowing that if I’m way behind on Appeal, I’m probably out of a game that is going to be a long sit. But that didn’t happen in my first game, so I can’t say for sure yet if the game will have a runaway leader issue in the future or not.
However, It’s Not Perfect
Ark Nova, plain and simple, is long. I would argue it is way too long, but lots of friends of mine will happily spend an afternoon building a zoo with friends. Just know, for your first 4-player game, you are gonna spend 4 hours at the table. Easy. That was my experience, and that was the experience for almost every other game of Ark Nova I’ve heard about.
The photography on most of the cards in Ark Nova is fantastic, but the iconography is not. Doubling down on this issue, there are no player aids, just a general list of icons on a single sheet to share amongst players. (Go to Capstone’s website and make yourself a few copies of the Icon Overview. You will definitely need it.)
I’m glad we have the Icon Overview versus the symbols being buried in the rulebook, but even the rulebook isn’t what I would call a winner. These things won’t collectively break the game, but for your first play or two, you are going to have lots of questions. Teaching this game will take about an hour; I watched a teaching video which was excellent, and that was 35 minutes long. A professional took 35 minutes, so you will take longer.
That might mean your first Ark Nova experience could take as long as 5 hours. The smart play? Play with 3 players for your first game (my vote would actually be 2), and ideally play it with someone who has played at least once before. I can already tell how balanced Ark Nova is, so it’s not a big deal that someone may have played before; the card draw and the starting zoo layout can help mitigate the skill of a more experienced player.
(One note on production: I recommend replacing the included money in Ark Nova with your poker chips. As with another Capstone game I love, Iron Clays are the way, my friend.)
Downtime could be quite low in Ark Nova, especially if you are playing with friends who are not prone to analysis paralysis. This could also mean high downtime, if you are like Fil and I, catching up on life as we played. But I appreciate that turns could be lightning quick, and that means that in the right hands, Ark Nova could slowly become the kind of game which plays in under 2 hours with 3 players. Just know that this could be a major factor in the overall playtime.
I’m still not sure if the limited “take that” cards in Ark Nova are a feature or a flaw. I like “take that” games, but I never loved the “take that” cards in Terraforming Mars because there just aren’t enough of them. In my single play of Ark Nova, one player seemed to have all of these cards, and 2 of the 3 he played were on me (these include Venom, Constricting, and my favorite, Hypnosis). This means that if you play this game enough, someone is going to draft a card either from the market or top of the deck and hold it for just the right moment to paralyze an unsuspecting player in the lead in time to win the game.
That won’t feel great, but it would feel better if there were more of those cards. There are more than 250 cards in Ark Nova but I don’t know the distribution, so I can’t comment if I was just unlucky in never seeing those cards all game long or not. But the inevitable expansion content coming for Ark Nova (call me crazy) should feature more of these cards, or options to swap them out of the game; currently, it feels like it is completely random when these events hamper players in the lead.
(Full disclosure: I HATE games that penalize players who take the lead. Although I don’t love the majority of their games, I’m a fan of the Splotter philosophy (Food Chain Magnate): “If you can’t lose the game on turn 1, what’s the point of having a turn 1?” For more serious games, and Ark Nova is absolutely a serious game in terms of weight, planning and mechanisms, the best player should be able to plow forward and try to win the game. In Ark Nova, I think the best person might still win, but for a heavy Eurogame, it features some elements that will feel random.)
The final scoring cards are not massive in their scoring significance, but there are only 11 of them in the box. Given that there are 255 cards in the main deck, this is strange. One of these rewards you for having as many as 24 empty hexes in your zoo. To play Animal cards, you have to have enclosures. For this card, that means you are essentially committing to playing Ark Nova without playing any Animal cards to the table. On the surface, I’m not even sure you can win that way (this IS a hot take, so I don’t want to speculate!!).
The Hype is Real
There’s no getting around it: Ark Nova is very good. It’s not perfect, and I’m not sure it is the best game to be released in 2021. But if you enjoy your games heavy, featuring lots of meaty decisions, quick turns, a personal zoo, and a buffet of combos available in mid- and late-game turns, you can’t really go wrong with Ark Nova.
Does it replace Terraforming Mars for me? A fair question. It’s unquestionably a better production with lots of gameplay similarities; this feels like an indie film script by a first-time writer that a major studio read and threw lots of budget into putting an incredibly polished product on the big screen. My understanding of the Terraforming Mars production journey is that the game’s designer worked very hard to raise the funds to get that game into our anxiously waiting hands. Some corners were cut, such as the somewhat clumsy card photography that featured family and friends of the designer, or the poor quality of the player boards which are used to track income.
I think of them as two very different games; I appreciate Terraforming Mars much more thanks to its theme, and the addition of the Prelude expansion makes it an all-timer. It’s a quicker game and the rhythm of the turns just always fits. I now only play it on my iPad when I travel, but each time I play it I fall in love all over again.
Ark Nova hasn’t earned a seat at the table just yet, but let’s say I’m getting an extra table setting ready just in case my gut tells me that I’m right. Ark Nova feels like the combination of many games to me, with elements of the spatial puzzle of A Feast for Odin mixed with many of the things I love about core Eurogamer experiences.
Ark Nova shines in both the production and the gameplay departments, and continues the obscene hot streak of Capstone Games. With Imperial Steam, Boonlake, the Iron Rail games (such as Irish Gauge), Pipeline, Coffee Traders, and the new expansion Maracaibo: The Uprising, Capstone has already cemented its legacy as the go-to American publisher of medium to heavyweight games for serious gamers. Ark Nova adds to that list, and I’m already excited to see what Capstone does next.