The DNA of card management: how does Ark Nova compare to Terraforming Mars? – Review

Ark Nova Feature

I’m lucky to live so close to Australia Zoo. It’s a fantastic zoo, and I used to make the pilgrimage every year before all this COVID nonsense. Going back as far as yelling Crikey! at Steve Irwin, while he fed a two-meter-long crocodile. Now, with Coronavirus warnings, and a young son, it’s more challenging to organise a trip out there. Thankfully though, there’s Ark Nova to tide me over.

Entertainment aside, what I love about zoos is their investment in preservation and conservation. Ark Nova understands this and brings conservation to your tabletop. As your score is a combination of both your appeal as a zoo and the amount of conservation you undertake.

Now, although Ark Nova abstracts these metrics away through board game mechanics. It still grounds everything in real life by using photographs of people, places, and animals instead of card art.

These photographs bring the game to life. With 128 animal cards in the game, you never get to see even half of the animals in each game. So while it’s not as good as going to the zoo and yelling at animals to wake them; it’s the next best thing.

My zoo, and player board, at the end of the game.
Without context, this looks like a right mess.

Terraforming Mars 2.0

Although Ark Nova and Terraforming Mars are far from identical, they share enough DNA to be siblings. As such, we’ll be referencing Terraforming Mars a lot throughout this review.

At the heart of both games are card management and engine building, where your hand consists of only a few cards, but figuring out how to play them is a deeply interconnected puzzle. Yet, when you do play them the reward is well worth the effort, as they usually provide recurring benefits which stack throughout the game.

As a quick aside, I got to play with Donald Trump, and as he explained the rules he said:

“We’re gonna upgrade so much, you may even get tired of upgrading. And you’ll say: Please, please. It’s too much upgrading. We can’t take it anymore. Mr President, it’s too much.”

But he was wrong.

The constant stream of upgrades in both games is extremely fun, as they allow you to go on a hero’s journey. Starting with nothing but a wooden twig and your best pair of boxers. You end these games with a powerful sacred sword and golden armour. Leaving you wondering how the heck did I get here?

Yet, these upgrades aren’t free. They come at a cost of brain matter and a shopping list of requirements. For instance, to play an animal in Ark Nova you need:

  • The right-sized enclosure
  • An amount of money

You might also need:

  • Partnership with a country
  • An amount of research
  • An upgraded ‘get animals’ card
  • Other animals of the same type in your zoo

Unsurprisingly, Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo is a complete sham. It takes a lot of work to get an animal into your zoo. Nobody is just sending you a lion.

Some of the animal cards, including a Fennec Fox, and Northern Cassowary.
You even stack the cards the same as Terraforming Mars.

What Does a Turn Look Like in Ark Nova?

What sets Ark Nova apart from similar games is its action selection.

You have five cards that describe your actions: sponsorships, animals, cards, building, and associations. These cards are placed in a line by your player board, and on your turn, you’ll select one and carry out the action described.

Where things get interesting is the selected card gets placed at the front of the line. And their position in this line determines the strength of the card and what you can do with it. For instance, if you use an animal card with 1 strength you’re allowed to place one animal, but at strength 5 you can place two.

This not only prompts you to use all of the actions in your arsenal. Since the only way to get a card to the highest strength is to use all cards ahead of it. But it also allows you to chain together turns like monkeys out of a barrel.

For example, you might have your sponsorship card at strength 3, and NEED it to be strength 5, so you look at the two cards ahead of it and figure out the best way to use these cards. This creates a three-turn chain of events you carry out to get your card strength up.

Then you start again, as using the sponsorship card resets its strength to 0.

Getting this pattern of play right is everything, but when you do get it right. Oh boy, let me tell you there are not many better feelings.

The market row, and central board from Ark Nova.
If you squint you can make out the massive deck of cards on the left.

Let’s talk about strategy

Every game of Ark Nova I’ve played is like a corgi race. Where up until the first player’s turn everyone has a nice orderly strategy for what they want to do.

Then a moment later, all plans are out the window.

You are at the mercy of the card draw for what strategy you will take.

But the brilliance, the sheer genius, of Ark Nova is that almost all strategies are viable. Every time I’ve played, the game has forced me to take a different strategy. In one game I focused on collecting monkeys and doing a boon rush, in the next game I’ll be filling out my park trying to get any animal I can get my hands on. Yet at all times I always had more than enough tools to adapt and create a zoo worthy of at least 4 stars on TripAdvisor.

Being bullied by the luck of the draw is still a factor, but the way Ark Nova gets cards into your hand is a significant improvement over Terraforming Mars. As whenever you draw cards in Ark Nova, you get a choice between drawing blind from the deck or snapping up a card from the open market.

As the game progresses, you’re able to interact more and more with this market which opens up the game’s card manipulation possibilities. So the further along you are in the game, the more in control you feel.

A damn cute picture of a Red Panda!
Red pandas are the best pandas. I will fight you.

Expect to spend time at this zoo

Ark Nova is a long game, like Sakeru Gummy long.

My wife and I, even after a couple of plays, were still spending 3+ hours each game putting our zoos together. To put that in perspective, you could watch Matt Damon’s We Bought a Zoo one and a half times in the same time slot. Not saying you would want to, but you could.

In and of itself, this is not a major criticism.

But I’ve found the back half of Ark Nova not as interesting or engaging as the initial engine building. Like at some point you’re happy with what you’ve built, and you transition from building a fantastic zoo into figuring out how to end the game.

For most of my plays, this has been conservation. And I’ve found my focus narrowing so much on conservation that I no longer care about the bigger picture. This simplifies my thinking so the only thought I have is how do I produce the most conservation.

To me, this isn’t compelling at all. Making the last 35 minutes or so feel like I’m back in school assembly, counting down the minutes until lunch.

I’d level the same criticism at Terraforming Mars as well. Both games allow you to make an engine and then let you run it into the ground. But they would be better off making the game shorter. If TV shows have taught us anything in the last decade, it’s that you always end on a cliffhanger.

It keeps us coming back for more.

Ark Nova box, with a corgi for scale
Brace your board game shelf, it’s a long box

So, Ark Nova or Terraforming Mars?

Despite its long runtime – a drag for responsible parents, and often a deal-breaker for my wife – I’ve found Ark Nova easier to get to the table than most games. Purely because of the theme and the brilliant photography.

When compared to Terraforming Mars, both games are so extremely good that it’s not a battle of which one’s better but of personal preferences. I prefer Terraforming Mars because of its heavier focus on engine building and ease of playing cards. Where in Ark Nova you often have to go through multiple steps to play a card, but I wouldn’t change this, as making you go through these steps adds so much theme that it wouldn’t make sense otherwise.

This is one of the most impressive things about Ark Nova. It’s the first board game I’ve played that’s nailed the park building. Yet that’s not the most impressive thing. Neither are the cards that combo together perfectly despite the million-card deck. No. While these are both incredibly impressive, the most impressive thing is that according to Board Game Geek this is a debut game from designer Matthias Wigge.

What a way to announce your arrival as a designer.

Designer: Matthias Wigge

Publisher: Capstone Games

See how Ark Nova compares to all of the other board games I’ve reviewed.

Ark Nova Cover
  • Build a zoo, and fill it with animals
  • Create partnerships with countries and research conservation
  • Look at all the pretty animal pictures!

6 thoughts on “The DNA of card management: how does Ark Nova compare to Terraforming Mars? – Review

  1. I don’t know what to tell you! We moved along pretty quickly in our 3-player games and our 4-player game was with one newbie and two people who had only played once (I had played twice).

    I’ll report back if I can get a 4th game in. 🙂

    1. Funnily, this is similar feedback I got over on BGG. Maybe my groups are just abnormally slow haha. And all this time I was under the impression we were quick!

  2. Great review of an awesome game! I’ve played 3 times now and I really want to get it to the table again. The length can vary, though. I’ve had two 3-player games take 2 hours or less. And one game take 3.5

    1. Y’all got anymore of those 2 hour games? Every game I’ve played has been 3hr+. With one game at 4 players taking 4 hours and we only got 2/3 of the way through! We normally play slow, but Ark Nova was something else. @.@

      1. Don’t know what to tell you. LOL This game does seem to be divisive as far as play time goes, though.

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