Welcome to the first Design Critique of the Apocalypse...The Lost Ruins of Arnak, published by Czech Games Edition, designed by Mín & Elwen. If you are new to Design Critiques check out the About page for more details.
Thematic Ties and Immersion: Everyone who plays this game will be comparing all of its elements to every tomb raiding adventure movie or book they have ever seen or read. With that in mind, I step into this immersion...
One of the first game elements that broke the immersion for me was the fear cards. Being a fan of Indiana Jones and knowing his fear of snakes, I can see where the designers were coming from, however, fear cards are way to generic and feel like they belong in a Cthulhu game instead of a game about archeology. The designers missed out on some good thematic design opportunities here.
So, instead of Fear cards, players could be required to take Obstacle cards, which could be traps, villains, and, yes, snakes. Most Obstacles would be the generic type and overcome just by "exiling" them, but some Obstacles could be rarer than others and need to be overcome before the player could do such things as research or return to a base camp. These would be displayed for all to see and could give a reward once overcome based on the requirements.
Players would then decide what they are afraid of, "Ahhh, spiders, I hate spiders!" This could lead into some unique role playing and add to the immersion.
Also, in a similar vein, every dig site having a Guardian gets quite repetitive. In the movies there are “guardians” of course, but there are also traps to escape, puzzles to solve, villainous plans to thwart, and other encounters to overcome. It would have been more immersive if the Guardian tiles would have been Encounter tiles that gave players more thematic options than just some beastie to pacify.
What fan of Indiana Jones doesn't think of this scene when they see the Revolver card--one shot, one Guardian down.
So give us more instances of these encounters that we remember from the stories, then when we flip over the tile and discover what encounter awaits, our memories will be filled with images we recall from the movies and books or we'll create new memories.
Fear the beast that we shall not name! I have to wonder why the designers did not name the ruins, guardians, or the assistants. Perhaps they intended for the players to give their own names to these game elements? Regardless, having no identifiers other than images didn't do well for my immersion and adds a slight complexity when playing the game and when talking about the game later on.
For example; “Remember when that one girl, who is probably a driver of some sort, escorted me to those old tombs (it had a skull), saving me my Army Knife, which I used later on to defeat that one guardian, that looks like a red-faced monkey who's hording jewels?”
Now compare to; “Remember when Belva drove me out to the Forgotten Tomb, saving me my Army Knife, which I used on my last turn to defeat the Monkey King, giving me just the points I needed for my narrow victory?”
I put together this mock up of how the names on these cards could look. Not bad, if I do say so myself :)
In all future games you'll remember Belva and talk about her like she's real. Can you see how having names allows players to better tell their stories?
Better Than Points (BTP): To quote Alex Radcliffe from his video review of this game, “Points are really, ultimately, how you win games, but they tend to be less fun way of winning games.” This is my thoughts as well. Gaining points just isn't a cool thing to do, especially before end game. Alex used the Guardians as an example of this, but at least the Guardians do offer you a single one-time-use boon (bonus).
That said, I feel the designers were heading in the right direction with the overall design of this game, as it does a better job with the BTP than most games.
For instance, every purchased card in the game gives points in addition to its effect. Then, while moving up the research track and gaining points, even if you missed the research bonus tile, you still get the bonus listed on that research row. Because of the game's subtle progression (more on that later), these rewards can be game changing powerful. Also, each dig site has an Idol token that gives you 3 points and a onetime bonus and you can even use each Idol to purchase resources at the cost of losing points. I really liked this mechanism as you have to think through whether an action will give you more points or not.
But, speaking of the Idols, when exploring the level II sites, the player receives a face down Idol and a face up Idol. They do not get the benefit under the face down Idol, just the 3 points, but why not give the bonus as well?
Perhaps, because of the mentioned subtle progression, the designers decided that having two bonuses would be to great of an advantage for players who managed to pull off a level II exploration, however, keeping it a secret would decrease that benefit by quite a lot. Players would not be able to choose which site to dig based on both bonuses and would, many times, reveal the token to show a bonus they could not use; thus, it adds a risk vs rewards aspect that can be quite intriguing. Or, as another option, the player could have been given a choice to either keep the 3 points or discard it to gain the bonus.
So, what do I mean by subtle progression (which I rather enjoy by the way)? Simply put, the game rewards you in small amounts but these small amounts can allow you to do an avalanche of actions, especially towards end game.
For example, say you explore a level II site and gain one red jewel and one arrowhead. You use the jewel to do research, which allows you to draw a card. You use the card to help you discover a new dig site, which gives you two explore tokens and another red jewel. The two explore tokens let you purchase a relic that gives you two tablets. You use one of the tablets and the red jewel to advance up the research track one more space giving you those much-needed victory points (plus one more explore token that can help you do further actions, but you get the point by now).
Under Suspect—Level II Dig Sites: You have to spend six Explore tokens to reach a Level II site plus two travel icons, which means you are missing out on those cards and resources. So, unless you have the hand and the luck of the draw to make exploring level II sites easier and more beneficial on the last couple rounds, then its a toss up as how helpful taking that action will be. Also, if it's not the last round then you're just opening up a dig site your opponent can use against you.
The Guardian you face is no different than level I guardians in points and rewards, so there is no incentive there. You do gain one extra idol, but will that be worth all the extra resources and cards? A safer bet may just be exploring a level I site and buying a relic with the left over explore tokens.
So basically, either you're extremely lucky or exploring level II sites just isn't a viable option at end game. At end game, you want players to have a variety of viable options, not less.
In many of my playthroughs, the winner never discovered any level II dig sites, but surely took advantage of them once they were opened up. That said, I'll be paying close attention to level II dig sites and their usefulness.
Wouldn't it be cool...
If there was an official variant where the Idols and Research Bonus Tiles are kept secret, giving players a greater sense of discovery. There could also be effects/powers that reveal such tiles and/or allow a single player to see what the reward is.
If there were Challenges laid out for each round (similar to the solo campaigns Rival Objectives) such as have 3 Arrow Heads or have 8 points in research when you pass. Then, completing these Challenges gives you rewards.
If some dig sites opened up new spaces for archeologist so that more than one could be placed there.
If level two dig sites offered greater initial rewards, perhaps with greater or extra obstacles to have to over come.
If the designers gave stickers you could put on the dig sites and guardian tiles and the first player to discover the tile was able to name it. Similar to a legacy game...hmm, sounds like a cool edition for a file upload.
If each player could choose a character that had a unique power and/or a specific fear (this was announced in the expansion, yay!).
If, besides Guardians, players also encountered Traps and other Obstacles. Then items had bonuses that could be used to better succeed at these Encounters.
If Guardians had more powerful boons that had on going or end game effects (thanks to Alex from boardgameco.com for this excellent idea).
Replay Value: I believe the designers thought about replay value from the start. When setting up the board there is a variety of different outcomes as you place random tokens on the dig sites as well as the research track. Then, while playing the game, there are multiple paths to victory. You can focus on building your deck, exploring the ruins, advancing up the research track, or a combination of all three. They also printed a double-sided game board with a more advanced Snake Temple side.
I just finished up playing through Czech’s new solo campaign that you can find online at their site. I enjoyed it quite well. I hope that it inspires other designers to do something similar. You can print the new components or just use their online app. So, this solo campaign itself adds quite a bit of replay value.
It would have been nice if the campaign allowed for multiple players. Perhaps with some tweaking it can be adapted. I may do this myself, as such additions is what this site is all about. If I do, I’ll make a post about it. So be sure to register your account and turn on notifications.
All that said, I have to say they did a good job considering replays, as all good designers should.
Strategy and Tips: I would advise working towards getting your two available assistance early on, as they can help you immensely. For first time players, the separation of the research track can be confusing to some players, even veterans of board gaming. So a walk-through would have been very helpful. Wingspan does this for new players and it is an excellent idea.
Comparisons: The first game that comes to mind while playing is Lords of Waterdeep.
In LoW players can spend gold to purchase new buildings and place them on the board which creates new actions spaces. In similar fashion, Arnak lets you spend compasses and use explore icons to place new dig sites, but in LoW the purchasing player gets a reward when another player visits their placed building.
The abilities of the cards are quite similar, gather resources, enhance your worker placement, and the like, but there are a few ways the card play in Arnak is set apart from LoW.
Each card in Arnak has two uses, you can use the card to travel or for its ability. To use your workers you will need to use your cards to travel, while in LoW you can freely place your worker on any available space.
In LoW you are required to use a worker to play a card, which is the exact opposite in Arnak, where you have to play a card in order to use your worker. Also in Arnak, you can freely play one card as an action on your turn. Relics require you to spend a tablet to play on their second use, would be the only caveat.
Fear cards in Arnak are similar to Mandatory Quests in LoW, but Fear cards are handed out by the game while Mandatory Quest are given to you by other players. Both are meant to slow down your progression, just in different means. In both games these two card types do offer some benefit.
One of the main difference in the two games is the card play. While in LoW, once you run out of workers you are done for the round, in Arnak you can continue to play cards. This sets up the ability for chained combos, which is one aspect of the game that really shines and sets it apart.
Another aspect that sets apart Arnak is the Guardians you have to face when exploring new sites. In the first few games, these Guardians add a sense of dread that can be quite amusing. They are similar to LoW's Mandatory Quests, but you must overcome said quest/guardian each time you explore a new site. In both games there are ways to avoid said mandatory quests or guardians.
The Research Track in Arnak is unique when compared to LoW. It opens up more strategic options, but can also lead to analysis paralysis. However, I would compare the Research Track to the Harbor space in LoW, which is used to play Intrigue cards. The Harbor space also allows you to use your worker for another action, once all other players have placed their workers. So, during normal play, you have to decide if you want to use the Harbor to play a card and use your worker on spaces that are left open. Both options could have lessened benefits due to poor card and space choices.
The effects of Plot Quests in LoW and the Assistants in Arnak are very similar, except in Arnak you acquire only two Assistants and you may use them once per turn, unless you are able to reset them.
Because of the card combos, I'm currently liking Lost Ruins of Arnak a bit more than LoW. Is there room for both games in your collection? Yes, LoW is still viable for a couple reasons. I would introduce new players to worker placement with LoW and then their similarities will help with advancing to the more complex play in Arnak. Also, LoW allows for 5 players (6 with expansion), which can come in handy when that extra player(s) shows up.
After this writing, Czech Games announced an expansion, where they are adding in expedition leaders, more cards, and a new research track, all good stuff. In the "cool if" section, I mentioned adding leaders with abilities so I'm excited to see how this additions plays out.
Considering all the other "cool if" suggestions, I'd say Arnak has plenty of expand-ability. It all comes down to what the players want, so by all means, get the expansion and tell the designers you want more!
If you appreciated this design critique or have any critiques to share of your own then lets us know in the comments. And the next time you see Belva and her awesome flying machine you tell her I said...hello!