Ark Nova board game review: whip-smart strategy with an enchanting theme

The tight zoo-management board game is a charming chimaera of some of the best strategy games out there – but still very much its own beast

ark nova board game review: whip-smart strategy with an enchanting theme
(Image credit: Future)

T3 Verdict

Arguably the leader of the pack of 2022’s board game releases, Ark Nova blends a cute theme with multiple layers of smartly designed mechanics. It’s not flawless – odd components here and there could do with an upgrade and you’ll need to invest a couple of hours in most games. But it’s a charming play, one that inherits some DNA from some of the best strategy board games of recent years.

  • +Gorgeous components
  • +Deep, pleasing strategy
  • +Clever action card mechanics
  • -Animal powers can feel underwhelming
  • -Zoo mats are pretty flimsy
  • -Not as good a fit for casual gamers

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Given it’s one of the best new board games to hit the market in 2022, and most likely best board games to buy, this Ark Nova review was always going to be a fun one to write. Not only did the zoo-building strategy game win a recommendation at the 2022 Kennerspiel des Jahres (opens in new tab) but for months it was effectively extinct in the wild –both the initial printing and second printing were pounced on so fast that it was effectively impossible to get hold of. Fortunately, this situation has now been rectified and it’s widely available but this tells you something about how hotly anticipated this game has been.

So does Ark Nova warrant the hype and deserve a place on T3’s list of best board games? Well, for any board gamers that love clever mechanics and smart design, it’s likely to be a roaring success. And even if you like a more casual gaming experience, I’d argue its cute components and rich theme will still prove sufficient to ensnare your attention.

ark nova board game review: whip-smart strategy with an enchanting theme

(Image credit: Future)

ARK NOVA REVIEW: PRICE AND WHO IT’S FOR

There’s no getting around it: Ark Nova ain’t the cheapest board game out there. Even now the mad rush on the game has calmed down, you’ll need to budget somewhere from £50 to £60. But I would argue that in terms of scale, replayability and components, Feuerland’s game more than justifies this asking price. As a deckbuilder of a similar scope, Terraforming Mars will comfortably set you back £45 and that’s eight years old with, arguably, lower quality components, so it doesn’t feel like Ark Nova’s price is at all out of kilter with the rest of the market.

And this should give you a clear idea of the kind of gamer Ark Nova is aimed at. While its gorgeous artwork and cute animal theme may make it seem like classic family fare, you’re not going to be splashing that kind of cash on a gift for your tweenage niece or nephew. In fact, Feuerland recommends Ark Nova for 14+. And given the complexity of some of the game’s systems and the depth of strategy required, that feels just right to me. Teenager or adult, anyone who has the warm heart of David Attenborough and the cold, strategic mind of Napoleon is going to get a massive kick out of this.

ark nova board game review: whip-smart strategy with an enchanting theme

(Image credit: Future)

 ARK NOVA REVIEW: HOW IT PLAYS 

Ark Nova is sometimes described as a chimaera of Wingspan and Terraforming Mars. While there’s some truth to this – it definitely inherits genetic strains of power-based deckbuilding and hex-based tile-placement from each of them – it’s also very much its own beast.

Unbox Ark Nova and you’ll likely be greeted by one thought: the artwork and components are stunning. Every card features captivating artwork – I still descend into paroxysms of cute aggression every time I encounter the slumbering fennec fox or floofy alpaca. And while the images aren’t as unique as Wingspan’s inimitable avian illustrations, they do create the feeling of populating a vibrant, three-dimensional zoo.

First of all, rather than a rigidly ordered action phase, the actions available to you are dictated by five cards arranged from left to right. Cards allows you to draw new cards; Build to build new enclosures and buildings; Animals to play animals; Association to place workers to partner with zoos and universities and engage in conservation projects; and Sponsors to sponsor projects or gain money. Each gains in strength as it moves further to the right and once a card is used it is returned to the left and to the lowest power.

While this is a simple system, it has an enormous impact on what you play when, rewarding players who enjoy squeezing maximum efficiency out of their every move.

When building, each player populates their zoo mat with enclosures made up of differing numbers of hex tiles. And they come in several flavours: single-use enclosures for standard exhibits; petting zoos, aviaries and reptile houses that can house multiple fluffy, feathery and scaly friends; and large, unique building tiles that tie in to specific sponsorship projects.

Zoo planning is one of Ark Nova’s real highlights. The hex tiles are pleasingly chunky and fitting them together in the optimum configuration is a delightfully tactile experience. No matter how many times you play, your zoo evolves organically as your needs do. While you might envision yourself becoming king of the carnivores or the reptile regent, the realities of zoo ownership can quickly lead you down other paths and this means by the end of the game no two zoos you’ve built will be quite alike.

ark nova board game review: whip-smart strategy with an enchanting theme

(Image credit: Future)

To begin with, you’ll mostly acquire animals, score sponsorship opportunities or conservation projects by drawing cards blind from the deck. But after you’ve upgraded your Cards action and as your zoo gains reputation points from partner universities, covering the map and releasing animals into the wild, you’ll increasingly be able to draft a wider range of cards from the common pool.

This allows you to get the drop on your opponents and nab the most desirable and charismatic creatures before they get a chance. Naturally, how much you enjoy this kind of mechanic is going to depend on your feelings about drafting in games. Personally, watching my opponents wince when I swoop in on a card they’ve been eagerly anticipating is half the joy of competitive games but not everybody is as sociopathic a gamer as I am.

To stick a critter into your zoo, you’ll play one of the cards from your ever-evolving hand. But first you need to meet certain conditions: you’ll need a free enclosure that meets the species’ space requirement, while some require you to have a partner zoo on a specific continent or require your zoo to contain a number of a specific type of animal. Again, this means you’ll often have a chain of priorities at any one time – first building the right size enclosure, then partnering with a zoo then placing the animal – which really rewards careful optimisation.

There are a few niggles here though. The one exception to the generally high production values are the zoo mats themselves: as in Terraforming Mars, they’re constructed from a flimsy, lightweight card that feels destined to get damaged. Given the game generally has such high production values, this seems like an odd misstep on Feuerland’s part.

Also, despite a gameplay loop built around filling empty enclosures with your unique menagerie, Ark Nova doesn’t feature any components to actually show this. When an enclosure is filled, you simply flip the tile to show it is now occupied or, in the case of aviaries, reptile houses and petting zoos, place a cube on one of the remaining spaces. I can’t help but feel that adding some animal meeples for this purpose would have really helped bring zoos to life – especially as the game already divides its critters up into seven handy categories. 

Given the top quality of the rest of the components though, neither of these is a dealbreaker. It might just be a good opportunity for some third-party upgrades for those who love to add custom components to their games.

ark nova board game review: whip-smart strategy with an enchanting theme

(Image credit: Future)

Once you’ve finally played your latest animal acquisition, you take your reward: appeal or, if you’re very lucky, conservation points. However, there are additional biological bonuses up for grabs. Each animal comes with a power that provides you with all manner of immediate bonuses, whether that’s reordering your action deck, drawing new cards or even stealing from, envenoming or constricting your opponents.

Used judiciously, these abilities can allow you to chain together some clever combos – being granted a second animal placement action, only to place a herding herbivore into the same enclosure I just filled will never not bring a smile to my face. However, this ain’t Wingspan: a lot of the powers can feel samey pretty quickly and the lack of innovation often means those moments where they genuinely turn the tide of gameplay feel few and far between.

Refreshingly, victory isn’t about who can line their pockets the fastest or force their zoo chock-full of the most fauna. Instead, success is down to increasing your zoo’s appeal points by introducing the most charismatic creatures and netting conservation points through conservation projects. The latter come in many forms: you might have to specialise in Asian animals or rack up a bunch of reptiles. You may even need to release some of your megafauna into the wild and sacrifice some of your existing appeal for the greater prize of ecological altruism.

Objective cards augment this, providing you with additional conservation points at the end of the game, should you complete their conditions. And, believe me, these are no pushover – you might need to exhibit a number of lower-scoring, smaller animals or build as many space-hungry special enclosures as you can.

Balancing these various objectives are perhaps the smartest part of Ark Nova’s gameplay loop. You’re often forced to prioritise between hitting certain objectives and exhibiting creatures with steep requirements, many of which may help you achieve other goals. This tension, coupled with the fact every game contains a different combination of conservation and objective cards, always makes each playthrough of Ark Nova feel fresh and engaging.

ark nova board game review: whip-smart strategy with an enchanting theme

(Image credit: Future)

ARK NOVA REVIEW: VERDICT

Ultimately, there’s a reason Ark Nova has been one of the hottest board games of 2022. It offers a captivating theme akin to zoo-building computer games like Planet Zoo or Zoo Tycoon, while its components are – for the most part – both pleasingly tactile and delightfully designed.

And this beauty is much more than skin deep. Tactically speaking, it offers a rich and rewarding play, with more than enough variability to keep each playthrough fresh and confounding. Novel systems like its variable-power Action cards also mean it feels distinct from most other titles you can buy and should see you reaching for it on the shelf time and again.

There are missteps here and there. Animal powers definitely offer fewer interesting game-changing moments than some other deck builders. And the zoo mats are insubstantial enough that I’m sure many gamers will replace them the second the inevitable upgrades hit the market. But that doesn’t detract from the fact Ark Nova is a joy to play and will likely prove to be the leader of the pack of the year’s board games.

ARK NOVA REVIEW: ALSO CONSIDER

As we’ve indicated above, Ark Nova shares more than a few strands of DNA with Terraforming Mars. Another strategy-heavy deckbuilder with tile placement mechanics, it’s thematically rich, allowing you to compete with other players to transform Mars into a lush, populated world. It’s also marginally cheaper at £47.99, so is definitely worth a look if you don’t mind its slightly poorer quality components.

Conversely, if Ark Nova’s critter theme makes you squee but you’re not a fan of sinking two hours into a game, Cascadia is a great, streamlined animal placement puzzler. Creating the perfect environment and plopping down bears, foxes, deer, hawks and salmon into their new ecosystems is an addictive little loop and the animals’ various scoring patterns ensure it’s still thinky enough to satisfy more cerebral contestants.

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