Friday, December 09, 2005

Review: Ark

Clouds are gathering and Noah's running out of time. He needs to load the ark and he needs to do it soon. Your job is to help him find safe cabins for all of the animals and provisions without capsizing the ark. I'm talking about Ark of course, the latest game from Doris & Frank. This is a game for 3-5 players ages 8 and up. It plays in around 45 minutes.


Ark is a majority control card game / board game hybrid designed by Frank Nestel. Think of it as a board game without a board. Players compete to place the most animals and provisions on the ark.

Each card in the deck bears a picture of an animal or provision. Each card also has a weight and a temperature preference (hot, cold or don't care). Most animals are designated as omnivores, herbivores, or carnivores. Most cards also belong to one of the five victory categories: slow, shy, heavy, useful or provisions.

Players start with a hand of two cards and Noah's already loaded four animals on the ark just to get things started. On your turn you must decide whether to take two cards into your hand (one from a pool of 3 visible cards, the other from the top of the deck) or play one or two cards from your hand. Each card you play must be played in such a way as to keep the ark from tipping over while ensuring that nothing eats anything else along the way. Any time you play a card belonging to one of the five victory categories, you get to put one of your markers (they look like cute little dinosaurs) on the appropriate scoring card. Usually you'll wish you could do more on your turn than you can (which is a good thing).

Loading an ark can be a tricky business. First of all, you have to find cabins for all of the animals and provisions but you have to be careful how you assign them. No cabin can hold more than three cards. Carnivores and omnivores will eat any other animal that doesn't outweigh them, so they can't be put in the same cabin as another animal their size or smaller. Herbivores and omnivores will eat provisions so provisions must be put either in their own cabin or with carnivores. Some animals are shy and won't enter a cabin when a carnivore is around (although they'll stay there if one shows up later). Furthermore, everything has weight, and the ark must remain balanced while it's being loaded. As if that wasn't enough, some animals like the cold while others like the heat and they can't share cabins either.

You may open a new cabin by playing one of your orange disks (each player starts with 3) to the player on your right. Opening cabins is a bit painful because it means giving your opponents more playing opportunities; but when you open one, you get to take another card into your hand which takes off some of the sting.

Mixed into the lower half of the deck are five "rain cards" which act as a timer. When the second rain card is drawn, players get to choose one animal card from their hand as a "pet". Pets are placed face down and revealed at the end of the game, when they are scored as if they had been placed on the boat. When the fifth rain card is drawn, the end game begins. Players get a few more chances to play cards from their hands (at the cost of giving up one orange disk for each card played) and then the game ends.

When the game ends, the categories are scored and each player also gets one point for each unspent orange disk. Having the majority in a category earns you 10 points. Come in second and you get 6 points. You get 2 points just for placing in the category.


Ark comes in a small (roughly 9" x 7" x 1") box. Inside you'll find dozens of wooden counters in several colors, a nice black and white rule booklet, and a deck of very nice cards. The entire game is colorfully illustrated in Doris Matthäus' trademark style. Doris has done artwork for numerous games including Mü & More, Pickomino, Chicken Cha Cha Cha, and Frank's Zoo. Her style is quite distinctive, very attractive and fits the whimsical theme perfectly. All of the components are first rate and for about $20 MSRP, you get more than your money's worth in bits.


I like this game quite a bit and I definitely recommend it but I have to admit that Ark can be a little bit fiddly. I've played it several times now and while the card placement restrictions aren't really hard to grasp, there are enough of them that if you don't pay close attention someone will surely place a card illegally and you may miss it. It's happened in every game I've played. In fact, the placement restrictions sometimes feel a little too confining, making this into a bit more of a tactical game than a strategic one. You can start out with one strategy in mind but the situation often will demand that you depart from it (which is not necessarily a bad thing).

The first couple of times I played Ark I played it incorrectly but to be fair I have to say that wasn't the fault of the rules, which are pretty well written. The first time I played, my son explained the rules to me and I admit I wasn't really paying close attention. The second time I played was a day after I had skimmed through the rules myself. I was tired and I didn't pay close enough attention to what I was reading, figuring I already knew the game from my first playing, and sure enough, I totally botched it. Half way through the game we realized I'd missed some important rules and we'd been playing it wrong. Third time was the charm and every game since then has been just fine. I do recommend that you carefully go over the placement rules and make sure that everybody understands them thoroughly before you start the game. (If you like, you can download a nice little business card sized cheat sheet from my site at Also pay close attention to the endgame rules which are subtly (but importantly) different from the regular rules.

There's a lot to like about Ark. It has a charming theme. The artwork is perfect. The game has depth, offering a nice blend of strategy, tactics and luck. It's small enough to take just about anywhere. It's relatively easy to learn and it plays in about the right amount of time (45 minutes) for a middleweight game. If you're looking for a nice middleweight game that you can take with you anywhere you go then look no further.


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