Ark Nova is, without a doubt, Game of the Year 2022. It rose to the #4 spot on BoardGameGeek and is among the most played games (that are logged) every month on that site. Athena and I both own it, which is rare for a new-ish game. Usually only one of us buys a copy of a game, so we can give it to the other one if it sucks. As I played it over 100 times solo, you might think I love it. So let's get that out of the way before we start. I don't. I think it's decent. I played it daily as a filler game when I was ill. Couldn't be bothered to put something else on the table...
2022 is finally coming to an end and, during these End Times, Athena and JW will share some thoughts on what they played this year.
In Ark Nova we're building a zoo. Not so we can look at animals and have a good time while they are getting bored and depressed, but to save them from extinction. An important way to make progress in this game is by supporting conservation projects. PC people, rejoice. Who doesn't love animals? This game beats Wingspan, because it's not just birds, it's owls and monkeys and elephants and rabbits and all creatures great and small. Just think of the table presence! So cute!
Oops, wrong zoo. This is the one.
And that's the fancy version - you won't be able to put a coloured cube in your zoo every single game. Fortunately, Ark Nova comes with a huge deck of cards, and they contain pretty pictures.
Oops, wrong cards. Here you go.
You get the idea. You don't play this game because it looks good. It's a typical euro tableau builder, that you should play mechanically. Don't look at the cards, look at the icons. Don't look at the zoo, check placement rules and bonuses.
But it's thematic! Er, well, I guess. In at least two different ways. Like I said, you are saving wildlife by putting them in cages - and sometimes by letting them out. So a lot of the thematic flavour has to do with zoo management. Gain appeal (sell entry tickets), work on conservation, gain prestige. For a large animal you need a large cage. If you've got good contacts in a continent, you'll be able to aquire animals with a discount. This all makes sense to me. Another - completely unrelated - way this game is "thematic" is that every kind of animal has its own characteristics. They let you "scavenge" for cards (get some from the discard pile), "pouch" cards for a one time bonus, etc. It is the same kind of thematic use of animals you'll find in Wingspan. Some characteristics are plain silly. Put a reptile in a cage and other players get poisoned or strangled. How does this make sense? Still, I applaud the effort that has gone into creating so many effects and making some kind of connection to the subject of the cards.
But then sometimes there are "gameplay reasons" to break with the thematic feel and you are forced to go back to focusing on mechanics. One rule I hate, is that animals don't actually live in the cages you built for them. When you set one free in the wild, the smallest possible cage that could contain them gets freed up, even if you had put them in a larger one. Because, for example, you think it's cruel to put them in a tiny little dark box with one small window.
Ark Nova combines a lot of interesting stuff we've seen in other games, and adds some new stuff (for me, at least) on top. The game ending (or, in the solo game, being won) when two scoring tracks coming from different directions, cross. The polyomino placement for bonuses. The huge deck of cards, that makes sure you won't see everything every game - you'll have to think hard how to make the most with the cards you encounter. The actions that get stronger when you don't use them, and very weak after use. The fact you can upgrade those actions to real strong versions but never all of them. Decisions, decisions. And yet, the more I played it, the more I felt the game as a whole is less than a sum of its parts. And while I recognise everything that's clever and fun, in the end it didn't make my personal Top 20.
By now you may be wondering why I played it over 100 times solo. How come it joined the ranks of Herbaceous and D-Day Dice Pocket, while taking at least ten times as long to play as those filler games? Well, it has a very good solo mode. Ark Nova is pleasant enough to play, but one thing it is not, and that's a good multiplayer game. If you ever try to play it with three or four, you'll be bored out of your skull. It takes ages before you can take your turn, then you do your one action, then you'll yawn all the way to your next turn again. So playing solo, doing one turn after the other, is great. Also, it isn't against a bot, and it isn't BYOS, but you are on a "timer" of a fixed number of rounds to play. And every round, you'll be able to take one action less (think Wingspan). So near the end, when your tableau and your zoo map may give you lots of money and lots of cards to spend it on, you will run out of time and will have to make some very tough decisions. Just like when playing against a smart human opponent, but without needing any bot or flowchart! Genius.
And, well, not every game has to have great table presence or tell a story. I'm looking forward to the Aquarius expansion (available around Essen Spiel probably, though maybe not immediately in Dutch). And I'm sure I'll get it back on the table in 2023 anyway, as it's been a while. May be a good one for these long winter nights. Après ski, le déluge, like they say in Austria. And then we'll be glad we've got an Ark. Cheers.