Have you ever wanted to visit the best zoo on Earth? Finding which one is the best is not a trivial task so, why not try to build your own zoo with Ark Nova and show your friends how great it could be?
How To Play Ark Nova
Ark Nova is easily one of the best board games I have played in the last few years. I have been driven to it by its beautiful graphics and game mechanics but, most important, as it allows you to build a zoo!
If you are wondering how you could achieve this and also beat your opponents in the process, this article may help you to get through your first game.
Let’s Plan Your Zoo!
Before even starting the game, you will probably realize that Ark Nova is one of those games that requires a lot of space on the table.
Overall the setup is pretty straightforward and it starts by placing the main game board in the centre of the table. If this is your first game or the first time you play it on a different table, I recommend placing next to the player’s boards (zoo maps) and the 5 action cards below the action spaces. This should allow you to assess if you have enough space to properly set up all areas without risking having to move all the boards once all the game pieces are already on it.
Assuming overall space has been assessed, you can fill the game board starting by placing a deck of Zoo cards on one end of the game board. Considering the size of the deck, you can split it into a couple of separate piles just to make sure they will not fall. Before placing the cards, I also recommend shuffling them to make sure the game will not suffer from “memory” effects of past games.
Once cards are placed, move 6 of them to the relative spaces on the board but make sure to place them face down. Last but not least, prepare separate groups of 8 cards to give to each player.
On the same board, place each of the hexagonal player tokens on the three scoring tracks. All players start at zero on the conservation and reputation tracker. Just in case you struggle to find them, the first one is the green scoring track on the external part of the game board while the other is the black one in the centre, around the spaces for the 6 face-down zoo cards.
On the appeal track (brown one on the external part of the game board), player tokens are placed in turn order so the starting player starts at zero and so on. Do not forget to place the coffee token on the space corresponding to the player count on the break tracker and to randomly place four hexagonal yellow bonus tokens on the empty spaces on the board.
Once all actions related to the setup of the main board are completed, you can place the Association board on a side of the main board (or wherever you have space). On the association board, you will need to place one token for each university and for each partner zoo. There are only 4 copies of each of these tokens (one per player) and it should be relatively easy to set them up using their colour codes.
Once this is completed, it is time to add the conservation project cards from the corresponding deck. These cards are placed on the bottom of the collaboration board depending on player count: 3 for up to three players and 4 for four players. The rest of the deck is left on a side to be used during the game. If you are setting up a 2-player game, you should also put one player token on the first space of each of the conservation project cards and on the first three spaces of the collaboration board in the area with the red background. You can use cubes of any colour not used by the players.
The above concludes the setup of the game boards and it is now time to finally set up the player boards. Each player first gets one map that represents their zoo. There are 4 identical copies of a map marked as “MAPA” just below the notepad that could be used for your first game. In addition, the game includes 4 maps marked as “MAP0” for intermediate games and each of these 8 maps show a different asymmetric map on their other side (MAP1-8) for a more experienced player. For your first game, the starter version of the map is obviously highly recommended.
Note that some of the maps instruct players to place empty enclosures or features at game start. The expert-level maps also have asymmetric abilities players can use.
During the game, you will build your zoo on the map but you will also need to have a set of cards on one side of your map to show which animals and sponsors you have added to your zoo. This is represented by placing these cards one above the other and leaving just the first row of each card visible. The upper part of the card shows all the icons you need for the rest of the game while the rest of the card contains requirements and immediate effects no longer needed once the card is played. Make sure each player has space on one side of their zoo board for this set of cards.
Players will then place their action cards on the numbered spaces below the map in random order. The Animal card should be placed first on the first space and then all the other cards should be randomly placed. The left and right borders of the zoo map provide players with trackers of both conservation projects and collaborations. Each of the 7 spaces on the left should be filled with a player cube while the 4 collaboration spaces on the right should be filled with association worker tokens. The remaining cube tokens should be left on a side to be used later.
Finally, each player takes 25 money and 1 association worker token and places them on the notepad on the zoo map. This area represents the resources that could be used during the game.
Once all players have completed their setup, they should check their pile of 8 zoo cards set aside earlier and choose only 4 to keep. Each player should also draw two objective cards and keep them covered. As all players have made their choice, you could flip face-up all the 6 zoo cards placed previously on the main board.
When you have placed the two organizers with all the tokens in play, you will be ready for your first turn. One personal note on the organizers: disregarding the comment in the rulebook, there is enough space in the organisers to keep all your tokens if you decide to merge a few of them together. I made the choice to have one of the organizers fully used for enclosures and one for the rest of the tokens but any alternative works as far as it speed-up your setup and play.
A Red Panda? I Wanna See The Panda…
Ark Nova‘s game mechanics are very neat. Although it does seem there is a lot to take when you first go through the rulebook, in reality, the game is pretty straightforward and rules are quick to be learnt.
The first important aspect of this game to understand is that there are no formal rounds and no fixed game duration. Players take actions in turns till the end condition is met but they also periodically trigger a “break” event once the coffee token reaches the end of its track. This event is generally useful to all players as it allows them to collect income based on reputation, on conditions listed on the cards in the zoo, and to score kiosks and gazebos. Triggering the break could also be used strategically as it also allows a player to get an “X” token (see later). During the break all players can remove condition tokens from their cards, take back their collaborations tokens and get rid of the two rightmost cards on the board. Most importantly, a break forces players to discard cards down to their hand size. This last aspect could generate serious damage if a player has built a great hand and they are just waiting to deploy their strategy.
During each turn, players can play an action card. The position of the card (1-5) defines the effect of the action played (“strength”). For example, a BUILD card played at strength 1 allows a player to build a 1-space enclosure while playing it at strength 5 allows you to build a 5-space enclosure. All cards are used at their base level (blue side) at the beginning of the game but they could be upgraded to their red side during the game to become more efficient. In addition, you could use X-tokens to increase the strength of an action up to 5.
Once an action is played, the corresponding card should be moved back to position 1 and all the other cards should be shifted to the right to fill the open position. Obviously, if a card was already in position 1 nothing happens. A good suggestion is to take the card in hand while completing its effect and then place it back and move the other cards.
During a game, players will have some opportunities to upgrade their cards to the red side. The easiest way to achieve it is by increasing their score on the conservation tracker or by adding a second university to their board but a similar bonus could also be obtained from the map or from some card effects. It is important to note that it is very unlikely players will be able to upgrade all 5 cards. Choosing which card to upgrade first is therefore a key strategic choice.
All cards are very self-explanatory and all conditions and effects are listed on them very clearly. A brief summary:
Build: This action allows you to build an enclosure of a size up to the played strength by paying 2 money for each space. Playing this action at strength 3+ will allow the player to also build the special enclosure “petting zoo” and when you upgrade this card you will have access to 2 more special enclosures. Enclosures can be placed in any empty space not showing a lake or a rock icon and they need to be placed on their “unoccupied” grey side. There are also a few spaces that could be filled only if the build card has been upgraded to the red side. If you cover any bonus icon by placing the enclosure, you get the bonus immediately.
Animals: Once you play this card you can play animal cards from your hand up to the maximum value showing on the table (no animals at 1, one animal up to 4 and 2 animals at 5). To be able to play an animal, you should check that the enclosure meets the conditions on the left corner of the cards and that your zoo also meets all other conditions on the same side. These could require you to have an additional animal of the same type, continent, partner zoos or universities, research icons etc. To play an animal you also need to pay its value in money but if you have a partner zoo of the same continent as the animal the price could be reduced by 3.
Assuming all conditions are met and the cost paid, the animal should go on your “zoo” deck on the side of your zoo map and the enclosure it will fill should be turned to its coloured side. Any special effect of the animal will then be triggered and executed if possible and if the player wishes to do so.
Cards: This card can be used to replenish your hand by drawing some cards from the deck (and discarding others) as per the table depicted on it. As an alternative, if you play this card at level 5 (3 if the card is upgraded to the red side) you can “snap” a card from the 6 ones face up on the game board. If this card is upgraded, you are also able to draw cards from the same face-up cards depending on your reputation.
As you will soon find, playing this action is the main way to draw new cards but it will move your tracker two spaces closer to trigger a break.
Sponsors: This action has two possible scopes. The first one allows you to play one sponsor card from your hand and add it to your zoo gaining its effect. In some cases, these cards will also have an end-of-game effect. Alternatively, you could advance the break tracker and gain as much money as the strength you used to play the card.
Association: The Association card has multiple possible effects depending on the strength of the action played. Not surprisingly, all these effects are focused on the Association board. The first slot is unlocked only if your card is upgraded to the red side and allows you to make one donation every time you play the card. When donating, a player pays the amount of the lowest slot available and gains the corresponding donation point. The slot will then be covered using one of the cubes from the right side of the player board (unlocking the corresponding bonus too) and will not be available for other players.
Playing the card at strength 1 does not provide any benefit. Strength 2 allows players to place one of their association workers to gain 2 reputation point while strength 3 and 4 allows a player to get one partner zoo or university. Note that until a break is triggered and the board replenished, the token taken will not be available for the other players.
Playing this card at strength 5 allows players to support one of the conservation projects in play or to add a new one and support it directly. Players can support a project if they meet any of the conditions listed and they do so by adding a cube from those on the left side of the zoo board. Each project can be supported only once by each player and each slot can only be used once. Timing is key to getting the highest bonus while avoiding other players will steal your slot.
Players can also add as an alternative a new conservation project from their hand (and support it immediately). The new project always takes the leftmost slot on the top of the association board moving any other project that already presents one slot to the right. Note that if any project reaches a slot corresponding to a value higher than the player number, the project is discarded and any cube on it is sent back to the player’s general supply. Any point obtained by the project discarded this way will not be lost.
One last point of note: each player can only have one association worker per slot on the association board. To add a second one, the player will need to spend 2 association workers.
All Visitors Please Reach The Exit. Thanks For Your Visit!
As mentioned above, Ark Nova does not have a fixed duration. The end of the game is triggered once players’ tokens in the appeal and conservation trackers pass each other or end up in the same scoring area. Note that this means that they may be in the same appeal OR conservation scoring area, they do not have to be on an overlapping area. As you will find out in a few seconds, being the one triggering the end of the game does not mean you also have won the game.
Once the game end condition is triggered, all players other than the one triggering the end condition will play another round. Once this last round is played, the final scoring will take place.
To finalize the score, all players should first score their final scoring card. Even if at the beginning of the game all players were given two scoring cards, they should have discarded one when the first player reached 10 points on the conservation track. If this has not happened by the end of the game, one of the two cards should be discarded before starting the end-game scoring. In addition, all the cards in each player zoo with end-of-the-game icons (light brown) should be scored in this phase.
Once all the scoring is completed, players will need to calculate their victory points and the final ranking. The calculation is pretty straightforward although the rulebook may not result very clear at first glance. In summary, each player first checks the lower appeal value showing in the green scoring area where their conservation token is. This value is then subtracted from their value on the appeal tracker. If you triggered the end of the game, your appeal is likely to have passed the conservation token therefore your score should be positive. Having at least some cards with end-game scoring and fulfilling your scoring card is also an effective way to ensure a good positive score. Negative victory points are not uncommon, unfortunately.
As usual, in Ark Nova, the player with the highest positive score is the winner and that means you made the most successful zoo!