Ark Nova is a game about building and then filling a zoo with a variety of animals. Published by Feuerland Spiele and Capstone, it was one of the hit games from last year's International Spieltage (Essen) but it is only this year trickling onto retailers' shelves.
Players receive a personal zoo map onto which buildings of different sizes and shapes will be added. Once buildings are added, animals can be placed providing that they have enough space in each enclosure. Controlling these choices, players have a set of five action cards which are laid out in a row. The lefthand side is value 1 through to the rightmost, which has value 5. As players take actions, one at a time, the value of the action is where it was located in the row. This card then moves to the leftmost spot and all other action cards shift one spot to the right. This action selection idea provides players with plenty of planning choices and is the central game mechanic.
As players add animals to their zoos, they score ticket points for the appeal of their zoo along a track which doubles up as the base income they will receive. Another track, running in the opposite direction measures the conservation level, which is increased by the play of specific cards. When, like in Rajas of the Ganges (Huch!), the markers of these two tracks cross the game ends, but with some additional end-game scoring possible.
The range of animal and other cards is large (212 unique cards, with some stunning art by Loic Billiau, Dennis Lohausen and Steffen Bieker) so many situations occur that will never appear in a game again. The variety and subject matter dovetail together well so you do get the feeling of building up your zoo in quality and quantity.
There are also goal cards that are known at the beginning of the game which provide targets for the players as these can earn significant conservation points. There is a race to achieve these goals as, once taken, other players have fewer options. More goal cards may be added during the game, increasing the range of ways to improve your conservation.
I really like the game as there are many options to consider, as well as many paths to follow. Tho' it's a heavy game that's likely to take at least two hours to play, (there's a lot going on!), its solid and internally consistent theme helps to drive its appeal and keep players fully engaged. The player interaction is mostly of denial rather than 'take that' conflict, as when you do something before someone else it means that players have to think how to make progress another way. There are just a few 'take that' cards that directly target other players but the designer has marked these so that they can be optionally excluded from the deck if you prefer a 'friendlier' game. In our plays at Board's Eye View, scores have been closely bunched, which helps confirm that Mathias Wigge's elegant design offers multiple routes to success. And there's also the option of solo play.
I expect that Ark Nova will be one of the best regarded games of the year. Before its general release Ark Nova has certainly been one of the most eagerly anticipated. Deservedly so!
(Review by Alan How)