ARKA: Ark of Animals Published by the Polish games company: Fabryka Gier Historycznych (Historical Games Factory). Designed by Adam Kwapinski. Game lasts 20-30 minutes and is for 2-4 players aged 6+
Okay so let's clear up a couple of things before getting into the actual review of the game. The first thing that people will almost certainly think of when they first encounter Arka:Ark of Animals is "Noah's Ark" and the first thing that you should do when first encountering Arka:Ark of Animals is to forget "Noah's Ark". On Noah's Ark the animals went on two by two and were sorted into pairs of males and females, so that breeding could continue after the floods went down and the world was allowed to continue. In ARKA there are not any male or female animals and each animal species is only allowed one animal on the ark. This ponders the questions, how are the animals supposed to procreate? and why are they entering an ark in the first place? Neither of these questions is answered in the rule booklet, in fact there is no preamble as to why you are doing what you are doing, so the answers are simple: "It's a game and the ark is just a theme that has been hung on what is actually a fine mechanic". Therefore if you are looking for anything deep, meaningful or even remotely religious (most mentions of the word "ark" are to do with religion it seems) then this isn't what you are looking for. ARKA has an easy to learn game mechanic and just as easy to understand rules, but NO! it is not one of those games that takes minutes to learn and years to perfect.
Each player is given their own Ark; in the case of a younger player being involved there is an especially larger Ark with scoring reminders printed on the scoring spaces. The animals are printed onto circular cardboard tiles in the colours Green, Red, Yellow and Blue. The Green tiles are the basic animals whereas there are sets of Blue, Yellow and Red that can score additional points; plus each of the animals is either a meat eater (carnivore) or a grass eater (herbivore). Carnivores have 1, 2 or 3 meat icons (the traditional bone protruding from a limb-shaped meat lump) and Herbivores have 1, 2 or 3 Grain icons.
NOTE: I have been reminded that the Large ARK doesn't come with the game and in fact was a promo given out at Essen 2014. Personally I think it should have been included in the game as our younger players have found it most helpful and balances the game for them against us bigger folk.
The tiles are all mixed up - it's hard to shuffle small round tiles - face down on the table within easy reach of all players. Once this has been done and the players have their Arks the game is ready to begin. It is played over three rounds, one without using the special Grain tokens and the other two using 1 and then 2 more of them. Grain tokens are placed on the Ark in spaces marked with the Grain symbol and serve as a reminder to the round being played.
In the advanced game the players have to lay their animals face down on their Arks, We tried this for a while and then one time we forgot, as the game is so fast, and placed them face up. We found it to be just as difficult to keep the balance and not place the same animals - we play the rule that once placed the animal cannot be moved - as it was placing them face down. It is a frenetic frantic whirlwind of a game and that last 60 seconds is the fastest minute you'll ever discover when playing a game. As soon as someone turns the sand timer over my mind goes into over-mush, which is sort of speeded up chaotic thinking and I'm lucky if I lay one tile in the allotted time.
Although the game is played in rounds it is not played in turns, all players play at the same time, whereby at the count of three everyone uses just one hand to pick up one tile at a time, either placing it back on the table but now face-up, or face-up on their Ark, always starting from the left hand side. Much of the gameplay is reminiscent of Pegasus Spiele's MONDO but this is not quite the same game, mainly due to the scoring and the fact that you have to play left to right. The game is played fast as once one player has filled their Ark the one-minute timer is flipped over and the other players have this time to complete their own Arks. You cannot play tiles onto other player's Arks only your own, so basically you are playing against the clock and not really against each other.
At the end of the first round the players have to regard their Arks and then do some house-keeping. The first thing is to check animals against animals. Any carnivore tile that is next to a herbivore tile and has equal or greater food symbols eats the herbivore. eg. If a Wolf with 2 Meat symbols is next to a Zebra with 2 Grain symbols and (because of the spaces being hexagonal) also next to a Sheep with two Grain symbols the Wolf will eat both the Sheep and the Zebra - remove the tiles from your Ark. Once all carnivores have been fed you have to see if the Ark is balanced. Count and add up the symbols on the animals on the far left column and double the total. Then add the food symbols of the animals in the second column and add the total to the value of the first column. Then do the same for the far right column and the inner second column on the right. Subtract the lower value from the higher value and score that many points as a minus. This sounds a lot more complicated than it actually is. Now you have to check to see if you have any of the same animal (not animal type) more than once. Finally you get bonuses for having the most Green tiles, any sets of tiles and being the first player to fill their Ark. None of these bonuses are high but then the overall scoring is fairly low. The second round adds one Grain marker to the board and the third round adds the other Grain markers. Herbivores next to Grain markers lose 2 points for eating extra food.
There are lots of little rules and scorings which you really do not have much time to remember when you are trying to fill your Ark as quickly as you can. One of the ways we have found of beating the mechanic (or at least trying to beat it) is to fill your Ark with only carnivores as they do not eat each other, nor do they eat the Grain tokens. Of course there aren't enough carnivore tiles for everyone to be able to do this, so in most games each player ends up with some of each animal type; it's up to all players to try to prevent one person gaining this advantage. The game I have described is the full rules game. There are a few variations on playing, from very easy through to the game we play, in fact we have played since we started playing. It was decided amongst us, including the grandkids, that we have played enough games to be able to go straight to the full game in this case.
We have played ARKA a lot and really enjoy it. Yes, games are generally over quite quickly - they're supposed to be - and yes, each game is similar to the last and the one before that, which is why we play this maybe twice in a row with younger players and then put it away for a while before bringing it out again for a time filler or simply because the grandchildren are visiting again. If I am being honest (and I am) ARKA isn't the type of game I would have expected to find in the Historical Games Factory range. It is far, far closer to a children's / family game than a strategy game, plus it isn't in the least historical. It's a game I think you should own if you play games with younger players and like family games. When you read the rules for the first time you may think it's a game for gamers but in truth the speed and chaotic random haste of play takes precedence over any possibility of thoughtful play. If you take the time to study each animal tile and deducing where you wish to place it on your Ark - remembering you must play from left to right - then your opponents will have completed their Arks and you will be struggling to score any points. It is a good game to introduce younger players into tile laying games and from there into the full blown board gaming hobby.
NOTE 2: It has been brought to my attention that the game does have both Historical and Religious aspects. Again, as this review is my personal opinion, I disagree with this. I am not going to get into a religious arguement because that's one that nobody can ever win, but I will say again (reiterating from my review) from my memory of the Bible story of Noah, the animals went in two by two. If you believe the Bible story then to have the Religious aspect and with that the Historical aspect goes hand in hand. But this game doesn't follow the Bible story, it isn't called Noah's Ark, it doesn't mention Noah, and the animals do not go in two by two, therefore there is no Religious aspect and thus no Historical aspect. I can think of a couple of explanations: One is someone is building a small floating Zoo to study animal behaviour when in unfamiliar surroundings, and the other is that the Ark is in fact an alien spacecraft and aliens are abducting animals for whatever purposes aliens abduct anything for.
Basically: ARKA is a superb abstract tile laying game that is a lot of fun and that has given our players in particular a lot of enjoyment, and still does. It could be used as a filler game for core gamers but it isn't one I personally would recommend for them. I find strategy and core gamers often have difficulty with the sheer fun element of games like Mondo and Arka.