Ark Nova Guide – Zoo Complex, Or Complex Zoo?

I’m pretty proud of this title. It sums Ark Nova up perfectly.

This Ark Nova guide will explain why it’s worth adding to your board game arsenal. If you’re anything like me, you’ll need to give it some time before you really grasp its brilliance. Once you get there, though, the clever mechanics and scoring system can be truly appreciated.

In Ark Nova, you’ll be building your own zoo. This involves placing structures, buying animals, conducting research, associating with other zoos and universities, working on conservation projects, and bringing in sponsors. And more.

Without further ado, here’s everything you need to know about Ark Nova!

Before You Begin, Be Ready

I’d like to make the intricacy and complexity of Ark Nova perfectly clear before we start. If this is your first time playing, this is a complex game. It has many possible twists and turns, with an awful lot happening before you.

As such, I definitely recommend a large table for playing. I’m talking about 6 square feet per person, plus a large area in the center for the game board.

The first time you pull out the instruction booklet, your eyes will bulge, and your jaw will drop. It’s significant in length, and I found it incredibly daunting. However, the underlying mechanics are actually relatively simple.

Your initial attempt at the game is going to be long. I can vouch for this. My friend and I played a two-player game as we tried to learn how to play. We took several ten-minute breaks but finally finished after 5 hours and 20 minutes. That’s a difficult stat to forget. You may be a much faster learner than we were, but bear in mind there were only two of us. A four-player game would take even longer.

Even these days, Ark Nova still takes me quite a while. Even when both players know how the game works, I would allow at least two hours. Three- or four-player games might take even longer, and I’ve found solo games varying massively time-wise.

My final recommendation before beginning: watch a YouTube playthrough. The rules are highly detailed, which feels overwhelming to a brand-new player. I suggest reading the booklet and then watching someone else play with it open in front of you. This is definitely the clearest way to get started, leading to far less head-banging. It’s something I wish I’d done!

What’s in the Box?

Ark Nova Box

In the Ark Nova box, you’ll find the following items:

  • 212 Zoo cards (128 Animal – orange; 64 Sponsor – blue; 20 Conservation – green)
  • 12 Base Conservation Project cards (green backs with shield)
  • 11 Final Scoring cards (red backs with egg timer)
  • 20 Action cards (double-sided) – five per player
  • 1 game board
  • 1 association board
  • 1 solo play tile (only for a single-player game)
  • 2 organizers
  • 8 zoo maps
  • 90 standard enclosures (1 to 5 spaces)
  • 34 kiosks and pavilions (1 space buildings)
  • 15 unique buildings
  • 12 special enclosures
  • 70 money tokens (many players use substitute money)
  • 20 partner zoo tokens
  • 12 university tokens
  • 9 bonus tiles (pentagonal with a green shield on the back)
  • 20 X-tokens
  • 8 of each of the Multiplier, Venom, and Constriction tokens
  • 25 player tokens (cubes) of each color (100 in total)
  • 4 association workers of each color (16 in total)
  • 3 points tokens of each color (12 in total)
  • 1 Break token
  • 1 glossary
  • 1 icon overview
  • rule book

Yes. There’s a lot. It’s worth counting these up before you begin, though! This in itself can take quite some time, especially if you’re learning what each item looks like. Refer to the glossary for everything you need to know.

How to Play Ark Nova

How To Play Ark Nova

I don’t want to regurgitate the rule book. It’s so long. Instead, I will do my best to write about everything briefly. I’ll give you an overview, but you’ll find all the details and specifics in the manual.

With a deep breath, let’s get started!

Setting Up Ark Nova

As mentioned above, you’ll need a lot of space when setting Ark Nova up. It’s best to find a way for the players to see the cards on the game board without having to read upside-down.

Setting Up the Center of the Table

The game board (the big one with a track around the edge and ‘folders’ in the middle) goes at the top of the table. Put the association board to its right.

The game board has three tracks. These are Appeal (tickets), Conservation (the green spaces on the inside of the tickets), and Reputation (the university hats on blue spaces in the center). Each player must have a token on each one.

For the green Conservation track, everyone’s token begins on the 0 space. On the Reputation track, everyone starts on 1. The Appeal track is ordered by player turn. The player who goes first sits on the 0 space; the second’s token goes on 1; the third’s on 2, and the fourth’s on 3.

Shuffle the nine Bonus tiles (these are pentagonal with a green shield on the back) and place four on the empty slots along the first few spaces of the Association track. You shouldn’t cover the first two.

Put the Break token on the Break track (yes, there’s another track!). Place it on the space corresponding to the number of players (two, three, or four).

Now, shuffle the (substantial) deck of Zoo cards and place them face-down on the end of the game board, next to the end of the Reputation track. This will be the draw pile. Place the top six cards in the folders along the center, face-down for now.

Now, the association board. Most people play with this perpendicular to the game board. There should be space underneath it for three green Conservation cards. Shuffle that deck and place three underneath it. Put one of each partner zoo and university token on the marked spaces.

The green Conservation and the shuffled red Final Scoring decks should be placed near the association board, but it doesn’t matter too much.

If you’re playing a two-player game, you should use an unused token color to block off the three left spaces in the Donation column. You must also cover the left space of the first card, the second’s middle space, and the third’s right space. These simply reduce the ‘power’ of Association cards, making the game a little fairer.

Individual Player Setup

Each player receives a zoo map (a ‘player mat’) and a 3-space enclosure. They also take a set of five action cards (Animal, Build, Association, Cards, and Sponsor). Ensure there’s a considerable amount of room around the edge of your board. You’ll end up with about 15 cards filling this space, and you’ll want to be able to see them all at once.

The zoo map should be Map A if it’s your first time playing (or even your fifth or sixth). As you get used to the game, move on to Map 0 and Maps 1 to 8. In these, it’s more challenging to get started. The five action cards occupy the spaces underneath your zoo map, numbered 1 to 5. The order doesn’t matter apart from Animals – this one must be in Spot 1. The 3-space enclosure should cover the bottom left corner (not the rock), with the empty side facing up.

Everyone needs 25 player tokens (little cubes) and four association workers. Seven of your tokens go on the spaces on the left of your zoo map. Put one association worker on the notepad and the other three lying down in their respective places underneath.

Finally, take 25 money (most players use alternative coins or counting methods) and place it on your notepad too.

You’re now ready to play. Draw two Final Scoring cards (the red deck) and keep them hidden for the game’s duration. Take eight Zoo cards from the draw deck on the game board. Choose four to keep and four to discard to the area at the opposite end of the game board.

And that’s the end of the setup! Once you’ve discarded, reveal the six cards in the center. It’s time to play.

Playing Ark Nova

Ark Nova

In short, I suggest learning how to play Ark Nova through a couple of practice games and YouTube walkthroughs. These will most likely take a long time. Have the manual out with you as you learn each step. Over time, it becomes more fluent, and everything starts to speed up.

In my Ark Nova guide, I’m going to walk you through your options in order of action cards. You’ll need to consult the manual for a more detailed explanation of exactly what does what and when.

When you take an action, you move the respective card to the number 1 space below your zoo map. The rest of the action cards get shifted up a place.

Throughout the game, you’ll have opportunities to upgrade your action cards. This involves flipping them over to their upgraded sides. These offer more benefits when you play them.

X-tokens count as a bonus to your level. For example, playing your Animals card at Level 4 could be made into a Level 5 effect using one X-token.

Action: Build

The Build card allows you to place buildings on your zoo map. The size of the structure corresponds to the level at which the card was when it was played. For example, if you played your Build card when it was in space 3, you could place a 3-token structure (or anything smaller).

You’ll encounter special buildings, such as the petting zoo. Only one of each can be placed on your Map, but they follow the same placement rules as regular enclosures.

Action: Animals

The Level 1 side of the Animals card allows you to play an animal from your hand. The action card must be in at least Space 2. If it’s in Space 5, you can put down two animals (if you like).

You must also meet the requirements for placing each animal. They all cost a certain amount of money, although this is reduced by 3 if you have the relevant partner zoo on the continent they’re from. A handshake icon means you can only play the animal if you have its partner zoo.

To play an animal, you must have an empty enclosure of the correct size (or larger). The size requirement is listed on the animal card.

After placing your animal card, turn the relevant enclosure token upside down. This means it’s full and can no longer be added to.

The Animal card also usually has an effect. Again, this is printed on the card. Carry it out immediately.

Action: Sponsors

Sponsor cards have a blue title. These bring effects that have an impact on your game. Sometimes, they’re a one-off, but usually, they affect the Breaks and the Final Scoring.

The Sponsor card has a requirement in the top left. Your Sponsors action card must be in at least that position before you can play it.

Action: Association

The Association action is probably the most powerful in Ark Nova. After playing this card, you’ll send one (or more, depending on whether you’ve upgraded it) ‘worker’ to complete a task on the association board. What they do depends on the level at which you play the card.

The Association card allows you to do any of the following:

  • Collect two Reputation points and move along the Reputation track.
  • Connect with a partner zoo – take the token from the association board.
  • Connect with a university – again, take the token from the association board.
  • Play a Conservation card.

Place your worker on the relevant part of the association board, leaving them there. You can only use a worker once per Break. Don’t replenish the association board until you reach this point.

Most of these items are pretty self-explanatory. Take the token and place it on your zoo board, receiving the indicated rewards as applicable and ensuring you meet the criteria.

Conservation cards are where the real points lie. This was the most challenging aspect of the game to pick up for me.

Your Association action card must be on Level 5 (or supplemented with X-tokens) to play a Conservation card. It’s essential to meet the criteria listed on the card, of course. You then take a token from your seven on the left of your zoo board, immediately receiving the reward you uncover and the one from the Conservation card.

You could also place a token on one of the Conservation cards already in play.

Make sense? The finer details are described in the manual.

Action: Cards

Playing Ark Nova

The Cards action is one of the most straightforward. This is the next best choice when you’re in a pickle with nothing left to do.

Taking this action means moving the Break token along two places. Depending on the action card’s level, you’ll take a select number of Zoo cards.

All the Zoo cards you take get added to your hand.

Action: X token

If there’s absolutely nothing you can do, or you need an additional X-token, this is the only other action you can take.

Sacrifice any action card, moving it to the #1 space. Take an X-token, adding it to your notepad. Remember that you can only have a maximum of five X-tokens at any one time.


When the Break token reaches the Break point, stop on that space (even if you were instructed to move it further). Finish your turn, and then go through the steps. These are listed in the manual and marked on the spaces after the track finishes.

  1. Discard cards until you reach the hand limit. This is usually three but might be five if you have the relevant university token in your zoo.
  2. Return all action card multipliers back to the supply. They’re now out of the game.
  3. Take all your association workers back and replenish the association board tokens.
  4. Move the two cards in folders 1 and 2 into the discard pile. Shift the rest of the display cards along two spaces, adding two more in folders 5 and 6 from the Zoo card deck.
  5. Collect your money. Receive the amount listed on the gray track next to your Appeal location. You also receive 1 coin for each unique structure touching a kiosk (apart from unoccupied standard enclosures). Finally, check for the purple, upside-down hand icon on your zoo map and face-up cards. You’ll also get a certain amount of income from all these every Break.
  6. Put the Break token back on the start position, according to the number of players.

The play then continues, with the next player taking their turn as usual.

When does Ark Nova Finish?

Playing Ark Nova

Ark Nova finishes when your Appeal token meets your Conservation token. They will land in the same area or go past each other. When this happens, it triggers the end of the game.

Every other player gets another turn. The person whose tokens met, causing the finish to commence, doesn’t get to go again. The only exception is if the end is triggered in a Break.

How to Score Ark Nova

You’ll then add on your Final Scoring points from your one remaining Final Scoring card, as well as all the cards in your zoo with an egg timer (Final Scoring) icon.

Your final score is your Appeal score subtract the lowest Appeal number in your Conservation scoring bracket.

Appeal – lowest Appeal in Conservation bracket = Final Score

Whoever has the highest score wins!

In the case of a tie, the person who played the most Conservation projects wins. If there’s still a tie, oh well – you can share the sweet taste of victory.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

The worst mistake you can make in Ark Nova is to play without a set strategy. I’ll explain more about the intricacies involved here in the next section.

It’s tempting to just play off whatever you happen to end up with in your hand. This doesn’t really work, though. You’ll receive all sorts of rewards in the Breaks and then at the end of the game. You want to focus on these, snapping cards from the middle more regularly as you approach the finish.

Another thing to watch out for that we experienced on our first few attempts is boredom. The more times you play Ark Nova, the more intriguing it gets. Please trust me on that if you’re fed up! In our first shot, we ended it as soon as possible. I was happy to accept defeat so I could get on with my day! But now that I understand what’s going on much better, it’s much more enjoyable.

Long-Term Goals to Consider – Ark Nova Strategies

  • I would say that the most significant thing to focus on in Ark Nova is Conservation points. Remember, one of these is worth three Appeal, so they’re intrinsically valuable. I always compare an animal’s immediate Appeal to its equivalent Conservation value – that gives you the best perspective, I find.
  • Pay attention to your Final Score objectives and the initial Conservation cards – these won’t change and mean you can plan your strategy right from the start. You’ll generally want to stick to one continent or animal type.
  • Group animals so you can keep track of what you have and where. This is particularly handy when it comes to playing sponsors and Conservation cards.
  • Generally, a relatively even mix of carefully selected sponsors and animals provides the best outcome. Try playing at least three or four tokens on Conservation projects, and more if possible.
  • Watch the Break track. Unless you’re incredibly unlucky, you’ll usually be able to calculate accurately when it’s going to finish. Sometimes, you could even use the Break token to sabotage another player (although don’t make this your focus).
  • Those rewards you receive every Break are arguably the most valuable. These are signified by a purple face-up hand.
  • Don’t waste a large enclosure on a small animal. Well, only if it’s right at the end and absolutely necessary. Once again, the best way to efficiently use your enclosures is to plan them out carefully.
  • Focus on yourself more than thinking about sabotaging your opponent(s). The venom and constriction tokens are annoying; we usually play without them. Fewer fallings out that way!
  • Finally, plan your moves carefully to ensure you don’t run out of steam. I’ve found myself in situations where I accidentally use all my money straight after a Break without an effective plan to make more. Once stuck in this position, catching up takes a lot of work and luck.

It’s possible to switch strategy halfway through, but challenging. If you’re lucky, the perfect card will come up (remember to snap it if possible!). Don’t rely on this, though. Starting out well sets the pace for the rest of the game.

Single-Player Ark Nova Version

Ark Nova

The solo version of Ark Nova is equally as engaging (and equally as intense!). The general rules remain the same; start with your chosen Map and the five action cards beneath it in the usual order. You’ll be playing Animal, Sponsor, and Conservation cards like the multiplayer approach.

Set up the cards, maps, game board, and association board as usual, but place your Appeal counter on the 20 space. The Conservation token goes on the 0 space, as normal. You can also ignore the Break token – you don’t need it for solo Ark Nova.

The main difference comes from how your turns work. Pull out the solo tile and place it in front of you on the table. Take any unused cube player tokens and cover each of the seven left squares. The right spaces should remain empty for the moment.

You’ll move the player token from left to right each time you use an Action card. For example, the first thing you do might be building. You’ll perform the action as usual (place the building, pay for it, and move the card to Space 1) and then move the top token on the solo tile from left to right.

The solo game is broken down into six rounds of ever-decreasing length. The first round has seven turns. Moving the seventh player token over to the right triggers a Break (as shown by the symbol). Perform all the usual steps of a Break, with the following exceptions:

  • Don’t take an X token
  • Remove the top player token on the solo tile and place it on the donations board
  • Ignore step 6 – there’s no Break token in the solo version of Ark Nova
  • Move all remaining player tokens on the solo tile back to the left

Ignore it when a card (including an Action card) tells you to move the Break token along.

Removing one player token per Break means the next round has one less turn (in other words, Round 2 has six turns instead of seven). Throughout the game, you’ll have a total of 27 turns (7 + 6 + 5 + 4 + 3 + 2). Each of these, except the last, has a Break at the end.

After finishing Round 6 (with two turns), don’t take a Break. Trigger the Final Scoring.

You win if you score 0 or higher after Final Scoring (that is, your Appeal and Conservation counters reach each other).

Here are a few ways you could increase the difficulty or make solo Ark Nova games even more exciting:

  • Play three games successively without shuffling the Zoo deck or reusing any cards. At the end of the third, add up your three totals. If the collective total is above 0, you win. (This is an official challenging recommendation from the Ark Nova booklet.)
  • Instead of starting your token on 20 Appeal, move it back to whatever number you feel is appropriate.
  • Record your high scores and try to beat them.
  • Switch the maps out and try the more challenging layouts.

Where to Get Ark Nova

Playing Ark Nova

You can buy Ark Nova from any of the usual places – Amazon or any board game website or business. I haven’t seen it everywhere, but this is a respected title in the board game community, and most serious gamers will have at least heard of it.

I’ll address the elephant in the room (no pun intended) – the price. Ark Nova has a hefty price tag, no matter where you purchase it. New boxes retail at around $75. Even well-loved, pre-owned versions are still fetching $50.

Due to the high price, I suggest putting this game on your Christmas wish list or wedding registry. Why not? However, I’ve found a much more sensible alternative in Steam’s Tabletop Simulator. You can pick up cheap codes for this on G2A or CDKeys. You’ll then subscribe to the Ark Nova game, and there you have it.

Tabletop Simulator games take longer than those you play on the actual board. That’s because you have to manually rearrange all your action cards. You’ll inevitably accidentally stack them. Little things like this mean finishing each turn takes a bit longer.

Of course, the downside is that all players must download and install Tabletop Simulator. If you often play with four people, this isn’t worth it. Gulp, press the ‘Checkout’ button online, and wait for your physical copy to arrive!

Ark Nova Alternatives

Ark Nova is a game for serious board game and animal enthusiasts. If you’re a more casual gamer like me, you perhaps don’t want to invest quite as much time in learning something so complicated.

I’ve put together a short list of games that embody the spirit of Ark Nova but are much easier to pick up and more straightforward to get out on impulse.

  • Zoo Tycoon
  • Cascadia
  • Carcassonne
  • Exploriana

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: How long does it take to play Ark Nova?

Answer: I suggest allowing two to three hours per game.
In Ark Nova, your cards aren’t significantly influenced by other players. The only exceptions are the Break being triggered and the occasional ‘venom’ token. As such, games with three or four players take longer than solo or two-player run-throughs.

Question: What’s the objective in Ark Nova?

Answer: In Ark Nova, it’s your goal to ‘build’ your own zoo. This can contain animals of your choice, bringing in certain sponsors. You could (and should) also support conservation projects.
The aim of the game is to finish with the most points. These are calculated by your Appeal total subtract the lowest Appeal number in your Conservation points bracket.

Question: Is Ark Nova too complicated?

Answer: Ark Nova is one of those games that’s complicated to learn but relatively easy once you’ve got to grips with it.
It could be a little simpler, but then again, it’s designed for intense gamers and animal fanatics. A certain level of complexity is the point.


For me, Ark Nova was a slow burn. The first couple of times I played, it was a real challenge, and I struggled to motivate myself to return to it. It was just a bit too complex for me.

Board gamers among you will be relieved to hear that my mind has changed since then. Ark Nova is brilliant – I just had to give it a little time. The potential strategies are virtually limitless. Once you get the hang of it, it’s quite a friendly game (especially if you just don’t play with the negative effect tokens).

I would 100% recommend getting yourself a copy of Ark Nova. If it all feels like a bit too much, try any of the above recommendations – Exploriana and Carcassonne are our personal favorites!

That’s about it! I hope this guide has explained everything you need to know about the fundamentals of Ark Nova. Refer to that big ol’ rulebook for the nitty gritty and enjoy!

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