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First Impressions: Ark Nova, or Playing Wildlife Lottery

W. Eric Martin
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Apex
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Board Game: Ark Nova
Is it time to talk about Ark Nova, the debut design from Mathias Wigge? Given the game's presence on BGG's "The Hotness" since its debut in October 2021 from publisher Feuerland Spiele, apparently every day is time to talk about Ark Nova!

Following initial reports on Ark Nova's length — a 45-60 minute teach, 3-5 hours to play — I had decided to pass on the game as being outside my wheelhouse, but at GAMA Expo 2022 Clay Ross of Capstone Games, the U.S. licensee, essentially forced a copy into my hands and said, "You should really give it a try."

So I did.

In Ark Nova, you create a zoo in whatever style suits you best. You can focus on reptiles, birds, predators; you can have a petting zoo or a focus on large animals; you can forgo animals for the most part and instead focus on finding sponsors to fund research; you can participate in a variety of conservation projects, and if you want any chance of winning, you should do as much of this as possible.

Aside from the conservation projects, which are open on a first come, first served basis, Ark Nova fits the mold of a greenhouse game akin to The Princes of Florence or Agricola. We each have our own greenhouse in which we can do pretty much whatever we want with the money and resources we have on hand. Every so often, another player does something that costs you money or resources or that impacts your plans, and you can do little more than respond to what is effectively a divine intrusion. You can try to anticipate how an opponent's actions might affect you, and doing so is akin to reading the newspaper to catch up on their press releases. Oh, are they about to launch a new product? Then we better get something on the market first...

You're presented with goals both public and private, and you're welcome to pursue them as doggedly as you wish, but you're somewhat at the mercy of the 212-card animal, sponsor, and conservation project as to what you'll get. If you need herbivores or animals from Africa to complete conservation projects and don't draw any, well, draw better! Or at least draw more, and maybe you will find something to fit together to get points onto the board.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
End of a two-player game; look at all my useless money

Getting points is one thing; keeping them is another matter. You score appeal points by, among other things, adding animals to your zoo, but at game's end you lose appeal points based on the position of your conservation point marker, so you need to move both markers toward one another so that you'll lose as little of what you have as possible. This need was not yet cemented in my head during my first two games. Effectively I was building sand castles in front of an oncoming wave, and I hadn't mixed in corn starch or baking soda to make it more permanent.

One creature missing from the giant deck in Ark Nova is Frankenstein's monster, which is ironic given that the design feels like an amalgamation of many other games. Nothing seems particularly unique or innovative, but all of the parts have been crafted into a game that engulfs you during play. Yes, both of my games — one with two players, another with four — lasted three hours, but I barely noticed the time while playing. I was head down trying to figure out the best way in which to order my actions to get the most out of them, trying to solve the puzzle of using random cards to meet fixed goals, and I'm eager to play more to see whether I can do better, by which I mean avoid realizing five turns too late that I'm doing something dumb.

In the video below, I cover gameplay in broad strokes and talk more about what I've learned after two playings:

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