Solo Gaming: Ark Nova

A section of the main Ark Nova board with the outer track showing tickets that increase in number counter clock-wise around the board and larger green chevrons below those that increase in a clockwise order. Two yellow tokens are on the board, one at 58 on the tickets, the other on 16 on the green marks (around the 76 ticket). This indicates a negative score.

Ark Nova has quickly become one of my favorite games. I love zoo-themed games and to have one that’s on the heavier side is right up my alley. I enjoy the action selection mechanism in this game, where you can take the same action over and over, but usually you want to wait until that action is in a more-powerful position. I also love trying to figure out how to play the right cards in the right order to chain things together and gain the most benefit from each card.

In the solo version, you are simply playing against the game, trying to get a non-negative score in just 27 turns. Below I describe the game play changes and how it worked for me, but I don’t go in-depth into the basic game play. For that, check out one of the many reviews or playthroughs on YouTube.

Game table set up for a solo game of Ark Nova. The main board is toward the top with cards laid out. The association board is to the left with three conservation projects, all the partner zoos and university tokens. In front is the player set-up with a zoo map, action cards laid out beneath it, and a hand of cards. Player tokens are in their places on the zoo board, with extra cubes nearby. Two game-end scoring cards are off to one side. And the solo tracking board has seven red cubes and sits near the player's zoo map
Solo set-up for Ark Nova

Game play

There is very little that changes to the set-up for the solo game of Ark Nova. In fact, you set things up identically to the multi-player game, but don’t use the break token. When laying out the starting basic conservation projects, none of the spaces are blocked (which they are in the two- and three-player game. You start with 20 appeal, at least for your first game. You’ll also need the small solo board and seven cubes from a player color you’re not using. Those cubes will go on the squares on the left side of the board.And that’s it for set-up changes.

The game proceeds with you taking turns as normal. After each turn, you’ll slide one of the cubes on the solo board over to the right, starting from the top and making your way down. However, you don’t move the break token for actions that require it — you can still earn money for “moving” the break token, but breaks are only triggered after the last of the cubes on the solo board are moved over.

Rectangular board with seven red cubes lined up along the left side. There's a number next to each cube, except the bottom one -- one through six, and the six has an hourglass below it. On the right side are icons showing the steps during the break, with a coffee mug at the bottom, iconography showing that one of the cubes goes to the association board, and then the other normal break actions.
Solo board for Ark Nova

When that last cube is moved over on the solo board, a break is triggered (and the solo board reminds you of this with the break symbol under that cube, which is revealed when you slide it over). The first step of the break is to place the topmost cube on the lowest-cost donation spot available on the association board. Then the break proceeds as normal. At the end of the break, the remaining cubes slide back to the left column.

Thus, each round you have fewer turns until the break is triggered. When there are just two cubes left, and you have slid both over to the right, the game ends. You tally up your final score as usual, scoring your game-end goal and any sponsor cards with end-game scoring. If your score is zero or higher, you win.

Association board with five red cubes and two yellow in the donation area, a yellow worker on the final spot, and three conservation projects below and another above.
Association board with red (non-player) tokens clogging the donations
How did it work?

The solo addition is super simple — the only upkeep is to slide a cube at the end of each turn and then move a cube to the association board when the break is triggered by the solo board. This means that it doesn’t get in the way of the game play, and just allows you to plan each of your turns and plow ahead.

I found the game to be very tight. You get 27 turns over the course of the game, which sounds like a lot, but it only allows you to use each of your actions an average of five times, which seems like way less than we would do during a multi-player game.

The change in the way the break triggers, and the fact that it triggers more and more often also feels different from how we play the multi-player game. Toward the end we are usually triggering the break less often because we don’t need more cards (which moves the break token) and are trying to play our sponsor cards instead of taking cash (another way to move the break token). So by the end of the solo game I usually had as much cash as I wanted, but not enough actions to spend it.

Player area at the end of a game of Ark Nova. The zoo board has several tiles on it, some with cubes. There is a line of cards on the right side showing different animals. The solo board is to the left, and it has just two red cubes left on it.

I do like that none of the conservation project spots are blocked, so you can do any of them at any level you can — I was often doing them at the lowest level just to get my conservation track moving.

The solo game changes my strategy from how I play against other players. I’ve found that I need to try to build up much faster and hammer in on the conservation projects. But this came at the cost of building my reputation and upgrading my actions. I suspect I haven’t figured out the solo strategy yet, since I’ve lost more than I’ve won. But, of course, there is also the problem of the luck of the shuffle, which can be worse in the solo game, since the cards aren’t getting moved by other players.

But I enjoy the solo game. It gives me a chance to explore more about the game and try to hone my strategy. Plus it gives me a dose of Ark Nova when I can’t find someone else to play, or just want to get in a quick game.

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