Since we got Ark Nova two months ago, we have played over 30 games, including some 2-player games. That’s 1 game every other day on average. Considering each game takes 2+ hours, this clearly shows how popular this game has been in our household.
With 30+ games under the belt, I think I can write an in-depth review of Ark Nova with more strategy thoughts.
It’s All About Timing
Ark Nova is a racing game. One player can abruptly end the game and all other players only have one more action. It means you may not be able to spend all your resources or play all the power moves you planned. It sometimes feels cruel. But it’s a great design. It makes each game 2+ instead of 3+ hours. It also makes each game heated from the midpoint. Everyone needs to pay attention to the progress, as any player may start dashing to the finish line at any time, and everyone else has no other options but to follow.
The peculiar condition that triggers ending (Appeal and Conservation markers cross) also means even as the leading player, you’d want to calculate when exactly to end the game. If you have three power moves planned, e.g. play two strong animals and support two conservation projects, you want to end the game right on the 3rd move. Not before, not after. And you want to make sure these three moves are tight, without too many low-return moves in between. It almost feels like 收官 (“play the endgame”) in Go. You can absolutely lose a game with a great start because you mess up the endgame.
At its core, a racing game is about the efficiency of each move. Every player has the same amount of actions so “action” is the most precious resource. The “Coffee Break” mechanism in this game is a great way to disrupt other players’ plans to make their moves less efficient than yours. This gets us to the next point…
Interaction Under the Hood
An early impression of Ark Nova is usually “lack of interaction”. Everyone is building their own zoo happily. Someone got lucky and won. Is that so?
After playing ~10 games, I realized this game has plenty of interaction. It’s just at a deeper level. Taking the Coffee Break as an example, when you find your opponents are low on cash and you have more cash to spend, you may want to stretch this turn so they have to do a few wasted moves to wait for income. When you have sent your associate and your opponents haven’t, you may want to enter break so they waste the opportunity to use associate for this turn. We found ourselves watching the coffee break token much closer when we get familiar with Ark Nova.
The card display and conservation projects are also huge interaction points. Pay attention to other players’ strategies and snap/draw/dig cards they want. Counting other players’ icons and competing for conservation projects. It’s much less likely to win if you ignore other players after everyone knows how to play.
Luck And Balance
As a card-driven game, Ark Nova inevitably has some luck factor. Several new players scored wins at our place. While considering Gaia Project, which has a very low luck factor and is one of our favorites, it’s nearly impossible to win for new players when playing against experienced players. A few strong cards that combo nicely from the beginning can really boost a player’s chance to win the whole game.
But this game’s luck factor can be mitigated by the 6-card display. Experienced players tend to favor getting known cards instead of getting unknown cards from the deck. And we often say you have to find the strategy based on your cards, not find cards based on your strategy. Overall I think Ark Nova has the right amount of luck to give people hope and excitement, without breaking the game.
So what about balance? Are there game-breaking combos? I think there might be, but not too many. Any two cards are fair combos from what I see. And if someone gets three or four cards that exactly combo together… it can be a bit game-breaking but they’d also be really lucky to get the exact three or four from 200+ cards.
I do feel different strategies have some balance issues. For example, I think focusing on small animals generally pays off better than on large animals, because small animals grant you many more icons so you have an advantage in conservation project competitions, and large animals’ benefits are often highly situational and rely more on getting the right cards at the right time. But it could also be me over-indexing conservation projects. Research icon also feels a rather strong strategy as the combo can get pretty wild.
In summary, Ark Nova is a solid game and worth the hype in my opinion. Get one while you can. And play!