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Ark Nova Two Player Review

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All board game reviews and ratings from “A Pair of Meeples” are entirely based on the game at two players. You can learn more about our rating system by clicking below.


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Ark Nova has quickly risen the ranks but is it as great as people say?

Ark Nova Review

7.5 out of 10
Ark Nova Two Player Review Block

Is it Good For Two Players? : The best player count, emphasizes some of the better aspects of the game

When a game runs as long as Ark Nova, huge swings in scores, a large luck factor, and easily forgettable steps are not good things to have.  It can be quite frustrating when players work so hard to only come up short due to someone else’s lucky draw.

At the same time, everything matters in this game. A reason why many love this game, but why others will find it punishing.  Your actions have consequences, currency is tight and you need to upgrade and use the right actions at the right time.  A mistake can cost you big in Ark Nova.

These are all signs of a well-designed game, but the fiddliness, upkeep, and luck of the draw are ultimately holding it back just a little.  

Theme: 7/10
Replayability: 6/10
Components: 6/10
Conflict: 3/10
Fun: 4/10

His Rating
8 out of 10
Her Rating
7 out of 10

Pros

Has some excellent game design with the shifting and upgradeable action cards being the highlight of the game

Everything thing matters, giving meaning to every move

Extremely deep, complex, and strategic but boils down to players taking only 5 varying actions

Highly replayable, but the game kind of feels the same each time

Chaining rewards, tracks, and bonuses make for some extremely satisfying turns

Cons

Quite a lot of upkeep and things to keep track of

Can be pretty punishing, to the point where there's no coming back from a mistake

The end of the game and scoring system are a little weird and confusing

Too luck-dependent.  Drawing the right conservation projects can lead to huge swings in score.

Gameplay Experience:

Ark Nova Board Game Review

We were pretty excited when the popular Ark Nova got added to our collection, but before we could get down to playing it I had to make my way through the rather hefty rulebook. This is one of the more complex games I’ve had to learn recently, but after shaking the rust loose I set up the game so we could see if Ark Nova would live up to the hype.

This game is an animal to set up, at least initially.  Without having played it yet, the design was rather questionable.  That board is so freaking long. But once you get everything into the component storage, set up the cards, and understand the scoring, the lengthy board makes a lot of sense.

Ark Nova board game inserts

For our first game, we went with the beginner zoo maps which are the same for each player.  This simplified our first game a little. As we experimented with the various actions available and started to fill our zoos with enclosures and new animals, our interest was piqued.

Ark Nova is an extremely heavy game but at the same time, it’s rather simple due to players only taking one of 5 unique actions each turn.  We didn’t have the most miraculous zoos but… they were something.  We slowly started to upgrade our actions allowing us to let our zoos reach new levels.

2 hours in we reached a “break” in the game and decided to take one in real life too.  After checking some rules and discussing the game a little it was time to get back to it.

We added more enclosures and animals to our zoo and the game was picking up some.  The amount of rewards on some turns was very satisfying but sometimes there were so many things to collect that you question if you got everything.

Finally, I made my conservation and appeal trackers cross paths initiating the end game.  My wife took her final turn and we calculated the scores questioning its odd methodology, with me having a low positive score and my wife going negative.

We sat back and just looked at our messy zoos that made absolutely no sense in layout at all and didn’t know how to feel about the game yet.  All we could say after the 4 hour game was that it had promise but don’t know if it was for us.

As we thought about it later though, certain aspects and mechanics started to seem great and ingenious.   Playing it didn’t match up to how well certain things were designed though, at least on that first playthrough.

After correcting a few missed rules we sat down for our second game a few days later.  We knew our way around a little bit better this time. We upgraded our actions quicker and were building out our zoos faster than before.  

Not too far into the game though my wife was beginning to feel stuck and unable to accomplish what she wanted. This went on for a while and eventually, she was able to shift to a new path but ultimately it was too late. She couldn’t catch back up to me and I ended the game again scoring more than her.

At least for her, Ark Nova wasn’t meeting expectations.  I was being fairly optimistic thinking she just had bad luck with this go around. On a positive note though, at least the game only took a little over two hours which is a lot more reasonable in our opinion.

In the next game, we played with the unique player boards to see how much that added to the game.  A few turns in, I quickly understood my wife’s frustrations the previous day.  I had made a few mistakes and had dug myself into a hole I couldn’t get out of.  

She was upgrading action cards left and right and I was stuck with just one upgraded unable to find a move to get me further along any of the three progress tracks. This suffering went on for quite some time but eventually, I made some progress.  My wife was so far ahead though I thought there was no chance of winning.

At this point my zoo was filled almost entirely with monkeys, (I can smell it just thinking about it) so it makes sense why my appeal was so low.  

She was claiming conservation projects turn after turn and I was waiting for the end.  I then drew a conservation card that went with my cards and was able to claim that giving me another worker, which allowed me to then claim another conservation project the next turn ending the game and coming out on top.

To say my wife was frustrated again would be an understatement.  Even though I enjoyed the miraculous comeback this particular game made some of its weaknesses clear.

We’ve played many more games but I think we still feel pretty neutral on Ark Nova.  It’s extremely punishing and has some excellent and novel gameplay designs but the implementation of them isn’t perfect and can lead to some frustration.

Ark Nova Rules Summary:

Ark Nova is a pretty complex game but if you’ve played some other heavy board games it shouldn’t be too hard to grasp.

The goal of the game is to build the best zoo by filling it with various enclosures and animals while also increasing your reputation and performing conservation projects.

Each player has their own player board that keeps track of their zoo.  In between players is the massively long main board that has a market of cards and tracks to mark player’s progression.

  • Conservation Track: This keeps track of players contributions to various conservation projects, and there are a few additional ways to move along this track
  • Appeal Track:  This track mainly marks how much your zoo has grown with most played animals moving you along this track.
  • Reputation Track:  This track allows you to move along the card market granting various rewards.  As you progress along this track you also will be able to draw and play cards from within your reputation range after upgrading various action cards.
  • Break Track: When the break token reaches the end of this track, it signifies a sort of end-round where players discard to hand limits, produce income, refresh the market, and do a few other various things.

The game ends when a player has made their conservation and appeal markers cross past.  The final scores are then the appeal score minus the lowest number on their conservation space.  This allows for negative scores.

Players also get a few starting cards including two game-end goals they can pursue to gain a few additional conservation points.

Throughout the game, players have 5 actions available to them that are changing in strength each use.  When an action is used it is moved to the lowest strength spot and everything else moves up.  Below are the five actions that players have available to them.

Animals

This action allows players to place animals into their zoo if they meet its requirements, can pay its cost, and have an appropriate enclosure already built.  The upgraded action of this card allows players to also play animals from within their reputation range.

Build

This action lets players build various-sized enclosures and buildings within their zoo so they can house animals.  Each building cost 2 money per space to build.  The upgraded version of this action allows players to build multiple “different” buildings with a single action and also allows them to build some more specialized structures.

Cards

This action lets players draw cards or “snap” a single card from the visible market.  Once upgraded they can then draw cards from within their reputation range or from the deck.

Sponsors

This action lets players place a sponsor card within their zoo.  These cards often grant ongoing rewards and endgame bonuses.   This action also allows players to move the break token along the track to gain money.  The upgraded version strengthens the action, allows players to play sponsor cards within their reputation range, and also grants more money if they decide to move the break token.

Associates

This action lets players place their workers on the associate’s board.  This allows them to collect partner zoos (reduce card costs) and university tokens (increase hand limits and other benefits), fund conservation projects, and gain reputation.  If a player upgrades this action they can place multiple workers and also make a donation to increase their conservation level.

Ark Nova boils down to these five actions but the decisions on which to upgrade and when, and getting them to the strength level you need is where it gets a bit more complex and interesting.

Conclusion:

Ark Nova is almost a perfect game, it’s so close but has those few things just holding it back a little.  The problem is those few things are quite problematic for this type of game and for some players.  

When a game runs as long as Ark Nova, typically huge swings in scores, a large luck factor, and easily forgettable steps are not good things to have.  It can be quite frustrating when players work so hard to only come up short due to someone else’s lucky draw.

This is pretty likely due to the setup of conservation projects and their respective scoring track.  Scoring a single 5-value conservation project can cause huge shifts in scores, even more so if you get lucky and can claim a second one shortly after.

Sure you can try to claim your own conservation project goals to counter but that means the cards others play have to apply to your current zoo or you have to get lucky and also draw one from the deck that works with your current situation.  

You would think the visible card market would make this issue less of a problem, but even with those cards to pick from it still seems to be up to the mysterious “zookeepers” whether you get the cards you need because nothing in the market ever seems game-defining, at least most of the time.

Ark Nova is a game all about making the best of what you got, and like in any board game, let’s be honest, sometimes what you got is animal poop.  So rather than feeling like a successful zoo manager, occasionally you just feel like the janitor cleaning up after all the animals.

In this particular game, it’s just rather frustrating when it happens because you sit there and struggle trying to wait it out, get those cards you need, or shift your actions to better suit you, while your opponent is beside you winning the Zoo of the Year award.

On top of this, this game requires so much upkeep that even experienced players can forget to move a tracker, flip over an enclosure, or take some income or other bonus.  The problem is any one of those things matters and can be “game-changing”.  

Forgetting to collect that extra 5 income from your zoo map restricts your turn significantly, or maybe you forgot to move your reputation up one which would’ve given you another associate, or you just didn’t take the appeal from the monkey you just placed which would have also raised your income.

Missing any step makes a huge difference in your score due to so many chaining reward effects.  These feel awesome when you get them but remembering to do everything perfectly almost requires players to talk out loud like some sort of crazy person (opponents also typically don’t like to hear about all the rewards you’re getting).

When it comes down to it though, all these things also mean that everything matters in Ark Nova.  This is why to many it is a great game!  Your actions have consequences and there are good and bad moves.  Currency is tight and you need to upgrade and use the right actions at the right time.  A mistake can cost you big in Ark Nova.

These are all signs of a well-designed game, but the fiddliness, upkeep, and luck of the draw are ultimately holding it back.  

After some research, it seems many others prefer to play the digital implementation of Ark Nova and have rated it high or raised their ratings based on this version of the game. That alone is very telling that this game does have its problems.  

The digital version would keep track of every minute detail, reward, and bonus making sure everything is accounted for which would in our opinion reduce a lot of frustration, upkeep, and the constant questioning of if you forgot to do something critical.

While Ark Nova has a few problems, there is also no denying it has a lot of excellently designed aspects, especially the shifting upgradeable action cards. As a whole though, we just wish the actual implementation was a bit better and addressed some of the more major issues we’ve gone over in this review.

Many people love the game though so this is likely one you’ll have to try for yourself. Some will be able to look past the luck factor and major upkeep and others may find Ark Nova an overly punishing and frustrating game.

Is Ark Nova Good For 2 Players?

Ark Nova is probably best enjoyed with just two players.  The game has minimal player interaction so player count doesn’t have much of an effect on the gameplay itself.  There are some “take-that” cards but they aren’t that impactful.  

This means that when you play with more players all you will typically be doing is increasing the game length, often significantly.  Now if all players are really familiar with the game it won’t be as dramatic of an increase but it will still be noticeable.

If you’re comfortable with the game, playing Ark Nova with just two players highlights some of its best features. Since turns involve taking only one action, the game moves along pretty quickly. This means there’s minimal downtime between turns, as players don’t have to spend much time thinking or taking multiple actions on each turn.

Another aspect of the game that works much better with two players that has a dramatic effect on the game is the partner zoos, and universities, specifically the university that allows players to have a hand limit of 5 instead of three.

In a two-player game, both players can get this increased hand limit fairly quickly into the game, but in a four player game, since these tokens aren’t replaced until each break, it may be a while until some get this benefit.  The 3 card limit is very restricting and as a result, higher player count games can go even slower.

One other thing that does change with player count is the “break” system itself.  In higher player games this will be a lot less controlled, with more breaks happening and throwing off your game a bit more often.  In two player games, you will be able to control the break track in a much more strategic way.  You can use it to negatively affect your opponent or quickly gain the income you need to make your next moves.

Overall, it’s fairly safe to say that Ark Nova with two has the upper hand in most regards with the biggest advantage to this player count being the shorter game length.  It is a little long for what it is in general and in our opinion, any more players make other alternatives much more appealing.

Also, no matter the player count, something we didn’t mention earlier is that the unique zoos that players can use are likely not perfectly balanced, especially when factoring in luck.  So whether you’re playing with two players or more, if you want as fair of a game as possible you should opt to use the identical zoo maps.

Pros:

  • Has some excellent game design with the shifting and upgradeable action cards being the highlight of the game
  • Everything thing matters, giving meaning to every move
  • Extremely deep, complex, and strategic but boils down to players taking only 5 varying actions.
  • Highly replayable, but the game kind of feels the same each time
  • Chaining rewards, tracks, and bonuses make for some extremely satisfying turns

Cons:

  • Quite a lot of upkeep and things to keep track of
  • Can be pretty punishing, to the point where there’s no coming back from a mistake
  • The end of the game and scoring system are a little confusing and weird
  • Too luck-dependent.  Drawing the right conservation projects can lead to huge swings in score.

Capstone Games: Ark Nova Card Drafting, Hand Management Strategy Board Game, 1-4 Players, 90 to 150 Minute Play, Multi
Capstone Games: Ark Nova Card Drafting, Hand Management Strategy Board Game, 1-4 Players, 90 to 150 Minute Play, Multi
Capstone Games: Ark Nova Card Drafting, Hand Management Strategy Board Game, 1-4 Players, 90 to 150 Minute Play, Multi

We hope this Ark Nova two player review has helped you.

Our reviews are not paid reviews, but some games are given to us, we do not let this affect our opinions in any way. This post may contain affiliate links so we might receive compensation if you sign up for or purchase products linked to. As an Amazon Associate, we can earn from qualifying purchases. This helps cover our site's costs and allows us to continue reviewing games.


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