Ark Nova Board Game Review

16 February 2024
The Box for Ark Nova on a faded background Ark Nova Box
Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: this review comes after hearing a year’s worth of gushing praise. Since its release, Ark Nova has won awards and become an instant fan favourite. It’s been labelled “Hottest game of 2022” and has a lofty BoardGameGeek rating of 8.5. Tabletop Gaming even crowned it game of the year. Now that the buzz is calming, it is time to assess. Usually, reviews try to answer the question, “Is it any good?”, but this one also begs, “Does it live up to the hype?”. 

Written By Jenny Cox

What is Ark Nova Game About?

If the title isn’t a giveaway, Ark Nova has an animal theme of planning and designing a zoo. Now, the very word ‘zoo’ may be enough to have some people exiting the room, such are the ethics around keeping creatures locked in captivity. Aware of potential queasiness, the rulebook stresses this is a ‘scientifically managed’ establishment – aka one more concerned with protecting animals than with daily visitor headcounts or performing seals. Money is discretely gained from kiosk ticket sales, and there is never any overt ‘visitor’ stage. These pains will still prove inadequate when convincing some people to participate, therefore it is worth establishing where playmates stand on the issue before committing to a purchase. 

Ark Nova Board Game Box Cover – A large elephant with other annimals facing towards the viewer, with a teal blue background and the words Ark Nova in green below.

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How do you play Ark Nova Game?

When everyone is sitting comfortably with the theme’s moral grey area, the fun begins with individual playing mats upon which the zoos are built. Numbers one to five run along the bottom of the mats where each person’s action cards live. Players choose how to set them up – place a card in position one and it’s worth one, for example – but from there on cards will move back to position one whenever they are played, while the remaining cards shuffle along the line. This will have you plotting several steps ahead about the best order to carry out actions, a great use of down time should opponents take long-winded turns. Unlike in typical action-card devices, you never discard. Theoretically, therefore, the same action can be played consecutively if desired – a wonderful freedom. As the game develops, there’s also the chance to upgrade actions from level one to two, often allowing double tasks.  

The actions themselves include building enclosures and performing ‘association’ tasks, such as sending workers off to improve the zoo’s reputation or partner with universities. Actions also activate zoo cards. Players get a starting hand of four of these, which could be a mix of three categories: animals, sponsors and conservation projects. At first, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to do much with the zoo cards as many rely on other stipulations to have been fulfilled. Take the diva-ish Siberian tiger, who demands three Asian continent symbols in a zoo and a whopping 30 bucks in the bank (not to mention the ten it costs to build its enclosure). Newbies may find it quite frustrating to be slapped with rules and restrictions: “Argh! I can’t do anything I want!” they will sulk. “I’m not getting anywhere…”.  

… But get anywhere they shall. A tortoise crawl soon becomes a cheetah sprint as zoo-card combos come together with encouraging results. Recruit an ornithologist to boost funds when introducing new birds. Be rewarded for focusing on diddy creatures. Or massive ones. And if you’re still feeling iffy about being a zookeeper? Appease that Jiminy Cricket voice by playing a conservation card to release an animal back into the wild!  

One criticism occasionally levied against Ark Nova is that the zoo-card pack is stacked far too high, at 212 cards. The outcome, critics complain, is time wasted on waiting for cards to come that never do. The antidote, however, is to adapt by playing the cards you do have, rather than the ones you want. As the animal kingdom proves, evolution is the key to surviving and thriving. And, of course, having so many cards affords a lot of replayability. Although you might want to also invest in an automatic shuffler when adding the game to your cart… 

Results are tallied on a double-ended tracker. At one end lies ‘appeal’ – how attractive is the zoo to visitors? At the other resides ‘conservation’ – how much good is the zoo doing? Broadly speaking, appeal points are picked up via animals, while conservation points are collected via partnering, research and releasing animals. Focusing on either an appeal or conservation-heavy approach is viable in terms of winning, giving great scope for testing different strategies. Whichever is chosen, two counters will be placed at either end for each player, and it’s when both counters meet or pass that the end is triggered. Final scoring is a compelling, if not slightly convoluted, process as conservation points are subtracted from appeal points (sort of). Scores suddenly transform from high doubles to skinny singles, and even negatives. It should be deterring, but somehow it is a hypnotising magic trick.  

Is Ark Nova Good?

All of the above scratches at the surface of this pleasingly intricate game. There are take-that add-ons (based on animals, naturally – such as venom tokens that can be unleashed on opponents to force actions), zoo upgrades and special enclosures (playgrounds for the kiddies, aviaries for the birdies) and the break track (pick up some extra cash and reset the board). It’s probably this variety that has won so many people round to Ark Nova. Designer Mathias Wigge clearly digs his subject matter for real (he sponsors a monkey at his local zoo in Germany) and it shines through in a mechanically diverse offering that has tight play. 

Whilst Ark Nova aces the difficult part without seemingly breaking a sweat, it is somewhat at the expense of the simple things. Quality is an issue: the individual player mats are made of a card stock so flimsy they could double as wobble board instruments. The player cubes? Just boring old cubes. The two tracker counters are identical and easily confused – upsetting the score if the wrong one gets moved. And the coffee cup break token looks like a wad of rhino dung. Stumble onto Etsy and you’ll find everything from sticker meeple upgrades to paw-printed coins – a roaring trade that says more about component failings than the game’s popularity. 

More consideration was also needed in the graphic-design department. The various icons found on zoo cards are placed in an illogical fashion… you’ll get used to it and eventually speak the language but it’s a molehill to climb. Some cards are littered with information that overwhelms, while others have gappy blanks. Then there’s the photography, which gives CBeebies/cheesy vibes – perplexing considering the 14+ age recommendation. A reskin in the not-too distant future would be a step closer to perfection. 

Is Ark Nova Fun?

Curiously, Ark Nova’s problems are not enough to detract from what is a very strong proposition. It has the potential of a modern-day classic: the hex-tile placement, the set collection, the engine building. It also has one of the best uses of action cards, plus an abundance of replayability with a super-high deck of cards and double-sided player boards. Wigge has even been considerate enough to design the points tracker in landscape and portrait to work round different playing spaces.  

So. Let’s return to the original questions: Is Ark Nova any good? Yes. Does it live up to the hype? Yes. But is it the best it could be? Almost. 

Should you play Ark Nova?

We consider it a must play game. Believe the hype – Ark Nova brings in the punters with a variety most zoos would dream of. Some component and design irks veer towards ugly duckling, but overall this swan can hold its neck very high.  

Related Article: Review of Ark Nova's Expansion, Marine Worlds

Games Like Ark Nova

Terraforming Mars  

Admirers of both Terraforming Mars and Ark Nova have rightly drawn comparisons between the two: the tile placement; symbol-dependent, card-driven play; set collection; the trackers... they’re just worlds apart theme-wise. 


On the Box

Designers: Mathias Wigge

Publisher: Feuerland 

Time: 90-150m

Players: 1–4

Age: 14+

Price: £69 

In the Box

  • 212 Zoo cards 
  • 11 Final scoring cards 
  • 12 Base conservation project cards 
  • 20 Double-sided action cards (5 per set) 
  • Game board 
  • Association board 
  • 8 Player mats 
  • 90 Standard enclosures tiles 
  • 12 Special enclosures tiles 
  • 34 Kiosk/pavilion tiles 
  • 15 Unique buildings 
  • 20 Partner zoos 
  • 12 Universities 
  • 9 Bonus tiles 
  • 70 Money tokens 
  • 20 X-tokens 
  • 8 Multiplier tokens 
  • 8 Venom tokens 
  • 8 Constriction tokens 
  • 1 Break token 
  • 12 Counters 
  • 16 Association workers 
  • 100 Player cubes 
  • 2 Organisers 
  • Glossary 
  • Icon overview 
  • Rulebook 
  • 1 Solo play tile 

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