Terraforming Earth

Only an estimated 3,900 tigers remain in the wild.

Ark Nova, designed by Matthias Wigge and so widely acclaimed that it’s been distributed by literally one dozen publishers, is easiest to describe via amalgamation. There’s the sprawling market of Vlaada Chvátil’s Through the Ages, the escalator of five action cards from James Kniffen’s Civilization: A New Dawn, and the vaguely aggravating card draws of Jacob Fryxelius’s Terraforming Mars.

It’s wildly popular. I think I know why.

Just kinda wander round the zoo.

I go to the zoo.

Going into Ark Nova, that sense of familiarity was the first of two inescapable details. The effect was not unlike recovering a dusty Now That’s What I Call Music! album from sophomore year, except upon playing the disc it turns out Smash Mouth has been replaced with a younger, fresher, less inebriated cover band. Reading the rulebook was an exercise in déjà vu, apart from the very real possibility of assuming too much about how a system worked and having to eat crow later. All familiar. But dissimilar enough that I found myself returning to portions I’d skimmed and uncovering new particulars.

During play, it feels not only like an homage or an iteration, but also as a doubling-down. That’s most evident in the cards themselves, broken into three types of varying utilities and rarity. It’s as though, after growing sick of one futile dig after another for a particular card in Terraforming Mars, Wigge decided to design his animal cards to be more open-ended, more widely usable — only to then ensure that the conservation projects that make up the lion’s share of everybody’s score are as constrained as ever.

Which is it? That’s the question that kept repeating in my mind as I played. Is this a smoother Terraforming Mars or a woollier one? Perhaps it’s a less vicious Through the Ages — except the sudden appearance of a venom token or the rude theft of a precious card casts doubt on that conclusion as well. The system that survives most intact is A New Dawn’s card escalator. Here, the idea is pickled down to its sweetest form: five cards increase in effectiveness every turn, and then drop back to the bottom as soon as they’re used. Each can be upgraded to unlock new options, some of which seem more or less essential. In the end, only four will make the cut. Is this a necessary decision point or an artificial limitation? Probably both.

Meanwhile, the second inescapable detail is bound up with the first. Namely, by the time I got around to playing this thing, it was already beloved. You don’t get to 1.8K ratings on BoardGameGeek without sparking something in the public’s imagination. My interest was not only evaluative, but anthropological. Surely there was something deeper to Ark Nova than a compelling assemblage of game systems.

Both times.

The card system is lovely.

Ark Nova is about building a zoo. Not just any zoo. A modern zoo. A conservationist zoo. A zoo that tries to peddle its kitsch as near to crowd-pleasing attractions as possible. Okay, maybe that last part isn’t necessarily very modern. Point is, it’s a game that proposes a setting and tries to make an ethical statement about it. Does that statement make any sense? No idea. I probably know less about designing a modern, conservationist zoo than I do about the theory of terraforming Mars. But the set dressing is sufficiently evocative that I’m willing to take it at its word.

Here’s an example. As I mentioned earlier, Ark Nova uses three types of cards. Animals and sponsors are your bread and butter, mostly in the sense that toast requires a fairly high bread:butter ratio. Sponsors offer special effects and scoring bonuses, but they’re nothing without a healthy stable of animals drawing visitors to your zoo. Most actions have some effect on your animals, whether acquiring more of them, building exhibits to house them, or actually placing them.

Conservation cards are the third type. These are the ones you build toward, offering big rewards for amassing certain icons or accomplishing other objectives. These rewards are all but necessary thanks to the conservation points they award. Positioned on the opposite end of the scoring track from your appeal — your basic points — conservation becomes your “point floor,” subtracting from your appeal to formulate a final score. If you don’t put real effort into conservation, your zoo can be profitable, but it won’t win.

At its best, Ark Nova leverages this contrast. It’s nearly always easier to build appeal than take part in conservation projects. There are fewer bottlenecks, fewer steps between you and a hefty payday. Other times, a conservation card might ask you to release an animal into the wild. This loses you its appeal — the animal is no longer drawing customers into your zoo — but offers a significant bump in conservation score. More importantly, this demands an actual tradeoff. Ark Nova is asking you to sacrifice a portion of your game engine. Usually that’s a no-no, something amateur designers might find themselves cautioned against, especially given the current emphasis on positive interaction and climbing power curves. It’s also a stroke of genius. Where plenty of games plaster a setting over their systems and call it good, Ark Nova walks the walk. It encodes a real-world tension into its systems, pitting conservation against your organization’s capital needs. Not all the time. But often enough.

I once accomplished the "Release a bird" conservation project by accident.

Conservation projects are where the bottlenecks happen.

What does winning mean in Ark Nova? I’m not entirely sure. In the past, I’ve discussed how board games can often be subjected to moral critique by examining how they drive players toward victory. In Ark Nova, it’s possible for nearly everybody at the table to score negative points because they focused on the business of running a zoo in lieu of emphasizing a conservationist ethic. That’s a statement in and of itself, not to mention one of its grandest departures from Terraforming Mars. In Fryxelius’s game, capital was your driving concern. Here it’s essential but undoubtedly secondary; a means to an end rather than the end itself.

This isn’t to say Ark Nova is anti-capitalist. If anything, your score deriving from a sum of appeal and conservation might be read as a proposal — or a fantasy — that businesses will set priorities above the appreciation of assets and income. It’s a poignant hope. Coupled with the gradual repair of the natural world, it speaks all the more vividly. Is there an outside force measuring these zoos against one another on the basis of both profitability and conservation? Who knows. Our occasional glimpses beyond the confines of our boards are limited to partner zoos and research universities, the occasional grant, the existence of guests and sponsors. Perhaps this is a better question for the game’s absences: there are no board members who insist on profit over survival, no slashed funding courtesy of state legislatures, no climate deniers writing angry op-eds about how stupid it was of you to reintroduce a giraffe to the savanna. This probably ventures too far into the metatextual. After all, you also don’t worry about whether you’re paying your workers a living wage.

Gah, I'm feeling existential.

Everything everywhere all at once.

But the point stands. Ark Nova does many things well. Some of those things are borrowed or iterated from other titles, as is the norm in game design.

What it does best, however, is more novel. It balances the excitement of operating a business with the desire to see the natural world knit back together. And not only as a matter of “theme.” Rather, as tasks that are easier left undone but must be done anyway. Building a profitable zoo isn’t a simple matter. It requires careful placement of exhibits, attentive selection of cards, synergies and hires and whatever else. But these details are all easier than its ultimate goal. That intermarriage results in something profound: hope. Hope that someone might care more about prosperity than profit. Hope for concrete local steps that can still attain global connections and impact. Hope for a generation that’s watched a third of the natural world disappear within our lifetime.

Hope. Because Earth is far more touchable than Mars, Ark Nova asks us to imagine the terraforming of our own backyard.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on July 13, 2022, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Wow, this leaves my review in the dust.

    This is one of you best, I think. And I’m glad you liked the game too, as it’s one of my favourites now.

  2. Christian van Someren

    Great review. Ark Nova was a big hit with me as well. On the surface, it looks derivative, but it delivers far more than the sum of its parts.

  3. Great Review Dan, as always. I am very on the fence when thinking to get this game or not. My assumption is, that it is very low on interaction and even when it delivers theme and mechanics wise, this can be a problem.
    How did you find interaction in this game?

  4. I’m going to respectfully disagree, on two fronts.

    First, I think to a big extent you dropped the lede in this review — how the game plays. Granted, you’re a deeper thinker than most and I don’t expect the typical rules explanation and paragraph of “thoughts” that most reviewers plop out onto the page. But for me personally this game has some real issues with how it plays, and you didn’t seem to address that part of the game much at all. In short, the card deck is a mess. My hope is that at some point in the future they’ll issue an expansion that is a replacement deck, smaller and tuned to a particular set of play characteristics that pulls the game together more completely. (This would be a stunning money-maker for the company, as they could do it annually.) As it stands now the current deck plays me instead of the other way around, and I don’t think that calls people to the table. Some cards are just junk in some situations, some are more or less junk in all situations. Your hand size is oh-so-small. This game needed more editorial review to tighten the bolts before taking flight. As it stands now you’re playing a game that seems to indicate you have control, but the cards are going to require you to change plans to deal with what you’ve got. This game promises one thing then delivers another, which feels off to me.

    Second, all that thematic stuff you speak of is pretty whisper-thin. At times it’s not even clear why you’re doing what you’re doing, short of moving a peg down the score track. That’s fine, I don’t expect a game to challenge me that way very often. But Ark Nova’s theme at times actually muddies game state, because it’s kind of all over the place and there isn’t a clear unifying concept to each of the types of cards. It’s kinda sloppy. Granted, it has no auctions which I generally dislike and no vote-by-placing-pieces-somewhere” which I clearly detest, so this title should be in my play space. But while playing I find myself having to actively set the theme aside in my brain in order to understand what it is I’m doing. Those conservation cards you speak of more or less mean discarding my most useless card, regardless of what it is, because there’s no change to the state of the world around me. Pitch the cheapest card, doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing, or what point in the game you’re in. It’s very mechanical and not a very interesting decision. It certainly doesn’t have an intellectual impact for me.

    Thank you for not discussing the box art. The more that’s ignored the better.

    All of that complaining behind me, I think it’s an ok game. I played Lords of Vegas this past week which is clearly better, because its theme, actions and the binding of the players and game state all work as a team. I don’t even care for gambling/Vegas/Frankie themes. But the game is unified. I think Ark Nova is less than the sum of its parts, but there’s still solid concepts there. And I think it’s that monster deck of cards that truly is its downfall. An trimmed-down version of that deck, or a replacement deck that pulls the disparate parts of play together, could turn this into a Through The Ages level title. It remains to be seen if that appears.

    • Stephen Thompson

      I’ve seen this view of the game from people who haven’t played it very often. There is a whole discussion thread on this topic in the BGG forum for this game. The overwhelming response to your sentiment from gamers who have played this 5+ times is that the game doesn’t need any fixing. In fact, the thought that it needs “fixing” is often tied to a desire to make this game more like Terraforming Mars or like some other game. If you accept that this game does “play you,” to a certain extent, then it starts to make sense.

      The game is more aligned to Faiyum, in my opinion, than to Terraforming Mars. In Faiyum, you must try to make the best of cards that become available and combine them together in ways that will help you develop at least some type of engine. Like Faiyum, its possible for someone to accidentally adopt a strategy that just happens to align with cards that come out – for Ark Nova, the big unknown is the availability of Conservation cards. If you try to push a certain strategy that is not supported by the Conservation cards that come out, you’re going to lose. Period. I don’t think that is a game flaw. I think it is a different game design approach – that’s all.

      I don’t think Ark Nova “plays the player,” as you stated. Unlike a game that offers no agency to change direction/strategy, Ark Nova gives you lots of opportunities to dump your cards and to pull more of them or to make big changes in your zoo. Yes, you may not find the cards you’re looking for, but if you’re passing up Conservation cards that you think are “not a good fit for your strategy,” then that’s on you. You need to change your strategy and make those Conservation cards work, I learned this the hard way the first few times I played where I refused to utilize any of the “release to the wild” Conservation cards because I didn’t want to lose appeal. My opponents went ahead and released animals to the wild, lost Appeal points, but in the end they all beat me. This game isn’t for everyone, and if what I’ve described doesn’t appeal to you, then I suppose this isn’t your type of game.

      • Thank you for the feedback. I think I covered a lot of ground that you didn’t opt to address, but I’ll certainly consider the one point you spoke to in detail. For the record I’ve played twice.

        The question always becomes this — how much do you continue to invest time-wise, when there are other options you’re more eager to get to, and that your fellow players are pushing to get to the table? Given that much of my concerns with the game don’t involve strategy I think its chance to salvage my opinion of its shortcomings is likely small. But you never know.

    • Stephen Thompson

      Yes, I agree with you regarding how much time to invest in a game that does not appeal to you in the first two plays. It sounds like it just isn’t your game for the reasons you mentioned, which is totally fair.

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