Category: Worker-placement / Hand Management
Designer: Mín & Elwen
Publisher: Czech Games Edition
Year Published: 2020
Playing Time: 30-120 minutes
To Play or Not To Play: Play
Do you remember your first time playing a board game with a lot of resources? Was it Agricola, the classic worker-placement game of subsistence farming? Or maybe it was Terra Mystica, the game where fantasy races aggressively transform the environment to suit their preferences? Or perhaps it was Lords of Waterdeep, where you recruit D&D adventurers to embark on quests to fulfill your hidden agenda. You know what all of these games have in common? Wooden cubes. For decades, board games have been dominated by wooden cubes representing everything from gold to bricks to clerics. But with the advent of Kickstarter, board games have begun moving away from wooden cubes in favor of something more . . . evocative. Allow me to introduce you to one of the latest advances in board game production values: Lost Ruins of Arnak.
I just love the feel and look of these components! They are visually and tactilely distinct, and the care in the production values makes you think they must be important. And the great news is that yes! They are important! These are the key resources you'll be using throughout the game. You could replace those components with white, blue, and red cubes without changing the mechanics of the game. But I maintain that these sculpts add to the overall experience and help draw players in.
I'm getting ahead of myself, let's talk about how this game actually works. Lost Ruins of Arnak is a Euro game that blends worker-placement, hand-management, and deck-building mechanics into a cohesive whole. Each player has two explorers (workers) and a small deck of cards to aid them in exploring this mysterious land. Each round, players will take turns taking an action to visit a location on the island with an explorer, research the temple, or purchase new cards for their deck. That's right, it's a worker-placement game, but you can still take actions AFTER both your "workers" have been placed. But that's just the first mechanical twist that Arnak has in store.
Each player begins the game with a six card starter deck containing two exploration cards, two funding cards, and two fear cards. Players start the game with 5 cards in hand, so you'll have access to nearly everything in your deck from the beginning of the game. And you'll draw back up to five cards at the end of each round, so you'll cycle through your deck rapidly over the course of the game. Let's look at these starting cards in greater detail:
Let's start with the Funding cards. In the center of the card is a lightning bolt next to a gold coin. These icons both have meaning: the lightning bolt indicates that playing the card does NOT use up your action for the turn. So you can freely play cards with lightning bolts at any time during your turn. The coin means you take a coin token from the supply and add it to your personal resource pool. Compare that to Dominion, the famous progenitor of the deckbuilding game genre. In Dominion, coins are an imaginary currency that you have to spend that turn. Arnak lets you save coins from turn to turn and round to round, which gives you more flexibility in how you use your cards. That's massive! If you've played other deckbuilding games, this will immediately make Arnak feel like a completely different game.
The Exploration cards work similarly. They do not use up your action, and they let you take a compass token from the supply and add it to your pool. Compasses are a secondary resource that you'll need to explore the island or temple. I find that they're slightly more valuable than coins, but honestly you'll need both to accomplish your goals.
The Fear cards are similar to Curses in Dominion. They are worth -1 victory point each at the end of the game, so you want to remove them from your deck as much as possible. But Fear cards also have a secondary purpose. If you look at the top left corner of all of the starting cards, you'll see a small icon depicting a board, a car, or a boot. You'll need these icons to explore the island, as they represent the mode of transportation you'll use to get to your destination. You can discard cards from your hand that have the matching transportation icon to pay the transportation cost to move to a location (more on this later). So, locations close to your camp can be accessed with a boot, making your Fear cards not completely useless in the early game. Further locations will require cars or boats, but you can also use your cars or boats to visit boot locations in a pinch.
Okay, lets talk about how a turn actually works. In general, it's pretty simple: you can take any number of free actions (playing cards with lightning bolt icons to generate resources, for example), and 1 standard action. One of those actions is sending an explorer (your worker) to explore location on Arnak.
Just look at this board! It's so gorgeous with the sun reflecting off the riverways on the right side . . . it's perfect. Sorry, I got distracted. The board is divided into three sections. Near bottom are the "campsite" locations, which are marked with a ^ symbol. These are accessible from the beginning of the game, and only require a boot to visit. Every player will have at least one Fear card in hand at the beginning of the game, so everyone can visit one of these freely. In a 3 or 4 player game, some or all of these locations will have a second space available, but those cost 2 boots to visit. This should feel familiar to those of you who have played other worker-placement games. These basic spaces grant resources: two coins, two compasses, two tablets, 1 arrowhead, or the option to discard a card from your hand to get a jewel. Simple enough.
The middle of board contains locations to be explored. These require either a boat or a car to visit. There is also a one-time cost of 3 compasses that you must pay the first time an explorer goes to that location, representing the time and energy to find the place. The first player to explore a location gains the idol token on that space, which immediately grants the player the resource depicted on token, and is worth 3 victory points at the end of the game. After taking the token, the player draws a level 1 tile from the stack and places it face-up. This tile is now a permanent location on the board that players can send an explorer to in future rounds by paying the transportation cost. These locations grant better resource rewards than the campsite locations. Also, the first player to get to the location gets to immediately use that location as well, so exploring is very lucrative! But it's not quite that simple. Each location also has a guardian, which is represented by a second tile that is placed over the first one:
Exploring a location is an action, so after collecting the rewards, that ends a player's turn. On a future turn, they'll need to spend the resources depicted on the Guardian tile to defeat it. Defeating a guardian is worth 5 victory points, and it also gives you the resource depicted at the top-right corner of the tile to use on any future turn. In the picture above, the serpent needs a compass, a coin, and an arrowhead to defeat, but it grants a free boat to use for future transportation needs without having to discard a card from your hand. Defeating guardians is important, as if you do not defeat the guardian before the end of the round, you will have to add a Fear card to your deck when you return your explorer to your pool. That also leaves the location open for another player to visit and defeat the guardian on a future turn, and that means 5 extra VP for them!
The third region of the board are distant level 2 locations that require more boats/cars to visit and six compasses to explore. But the additional costs lead to greater rewards, and the guardians come from the same stack as the level 1 locations, so the expense is generally worth it.
Okay, so, on your turn you can explore, or you can defeat a guardian that is located on a location your explorer is currently visiting. But there's also so much more you can do. Another key part of the game is the research track:
The research track represents the progress of your researchers as they investigate the temple ruins. Each player has two two tokens, one with a magnifying glass and the other with a book. You can move either piece up the track by paying the cost depicted between your piece's current space and the next one up the track. There's one catch: you cannot move your book piece further than your magnifying glass. So you'll generally move the magnifying glass up faster, and pull up the book when possible. Why do you want to move up the research track? Lots of reasons. First, there are rewards depicted on the right-side of the research track, which you'll get as soon as you move the matching piece to that tier. The magnifying glass generally earns coins or compasses, while the book earns much more lucrative prizes, like research assistants, artifacts, or even the option to instantly defeat a guardian.
Scattered on the track are bonus tiles. The first player to reach a space with a bonus tile gets to claim it, which could grant anything from a coin to a tablet to the option to remove a card from your deck forever (a great way to get rid of Fear cards!). When a player reaches the top of the track, they place their magnifying glass token in the leftmost available space, and claim one of the facedown bonus tokens. But that's not all! Now that they're at the top, they can still take research actions to purchase bronze, silver, and gold bonus tiles which are worth victory points. Speaking of victory points, at the end of the, players will gain the victory points based on how far each research token is on the track.
But wait, there's more! This game would be pretty repetitive if there were only six cards in your deck the entire time. There are actually two separate markets of extra cards you purchase: gear and artifacts. As an action, you can choose to purchase a card rather than exploring or researching.
Gear are the brown-bordered cards on the right side of the staff, and the artifacts are on the left. Gear cards follow a similar structure to starter cards. They have transportation symbols on the top-left corner, a cost in coins at the bottom-left, and the bottom-right corner shows how many victory points the card is worth if it is still in your deck at the end of the game. The card's primary effect is in the text below the image. Some cards have a lightning bolt icon, which indicates that they do not use your action for the turn to play them, but for most cards playing them for their text effect is a standard action. When you purchase a gear card, it is immediately placed on the bottom of your deck, so you are guaranteed to draw it in your hand for the next round, and probably most rounds in the future too.
Artifacts (the cards with blue borders to the left of the staff) feature more powerful effects. Like gear cards, they provide transportation symbols, but these feature airplanes which can be used instead of cars, boats, or boots. They cost compasses instead of coins, which fits thematically since they must be discovered rather than purchased. But unlike gear cards, you get to take the action on the card immediately. Then the card is discarded. On future turns, it may turn up again, and you can use it again by paying a tablet, or you can simply use it for transportation. All artifacts are worth several victory points as well.
In the picture above, you can see that there are five numbers in a line above the card market. This is actually the round tracker. Once every player has taken all of the actions they want to take, the staff moves to the right. This causes the left-most gear card to be discarded, and the right-most artifact shifts down to follow the staff. A new artifact card is revealed to fill the new gaps at the left end of the Artifact market. Thus, as the game goes on, the less-powerful gear cards are replaced by more powerful artifacts. Frankly, this is an incredibly elegant solution to making sure players have access to more powerful effects later in the game, and it contributes to Arnak's excellent sense of escalating power and tension.
As you've noticed, the track ends at V. Five rounds. That's all the time you have to accomplish everything you're trying to do. Five rounds to explore the land, defeat guardians, and race up the research track. Good luck!
At its core, this is a game about resource management. You have five primary resources, and you need to spend them to open up ways to get more resources, so you can spend them to research the temple. Can you solve the puzzle and use your resources more effectively than your opponents? And . . . that sort of game might not seem terribly interesting to you. Ten years ago, this game would use wooden cubes and simulate some kind of currency exchange or agrarian bartering economy.
What makes Arnak soar is its theme. You feel like Indiana Jones or Rick O'Connell delving into an unknown land and overcoming mysterious obstacles and traps. You need ancient tablets to avoid traps, translate ruins, and utilize artifacts. You need arrowheads to fight off vicious beasts. And you need jewels because . . . they're jewels, OF COURSE you need them!
At the same time, Lost Ruins of Arnak deftly dodges the issues connected to colonialism and real-world archaeology. The artwork clearly depicts that this takes place in a fictional, fantasy world. Arnak itself is uninhabited: there are no native peoples or locals. This game is focused on pure exploration and archaeology, and lets players immerse themselves in the puzzle. It works great, and makes the game even more enjoyable.
Should you play Lost Ruins of Arnak? That's an easy yes. Like many worker-placement games, Arnak can feel overwhelming at first. There are so many possible actions, and it's tough to know how and when to use them. But after one or two games, you'll start to see the patterns. I remember my first game, I had no idea how you were supposed to actually get to the top of the research track in just five turns, let alone have any resources available for bonus tiles. By game 3, I had figured out how to get to the top by the end of the game. Then by game 5, I was reliably reaching the top and claiming bonus tiles.
It really doesn't take long to understand the rhythm of this game, and limiting it to just five turns makes it surprisingly snappy. I wrote above that the game can last 30-120 minutes. This actually just comes down to the player count. This game reliably lasts 30 minutes per player. A four player game can drag on a bit, so I would recommend learning it with a slightly lower player count, but after that, it really doesn't matter how many people you play it with. That said, I haven't tried it solitaire, so I can't comment on how that holds up.
And that's that, really. This game has a fun puzzle at its core, and a vibrant, evocative theme to carry you through the experience. It's beautiful to look at, pleasing to tough, and challenging (but not impossible!) to master. But even with the fancy components, Arnak doesn't break the bank. This large game retails for just $60, which is a steal compared to the $100+ deluxe games coming out of Kickstarter and Gamefound.
But you may feel that this game lacks replay value. Sure, the tiles may shift a bit each game, but after enough games you will have seen all the guardians, bonus tiles, and research assistants that the game has to offer. Don't worry, Arnak has one last twist for you: the board is double-sided!
That's right, you can flip the board over to reveal a new part of the land to explore. This section has a "snake temple," instead of the default board's "eagle temple." The land on this side is more difficult to explore, with some locations only accessible by air! The snake temple is also more perilous to research. In fact, some of the research assistants are trapped in the temple, and you'll have to rescue them if you want to enlist their services. If you find your games getting a bit stale on the base board, just flip things over to quickly spice things up again!
Lost Ruins of Arnak is an excellent Euro game, and you should definitely play it!
Thanks for your patience during this hiatus, everyone! It turns out that finding time to write blog posts while also doing grad school is difficult. Who could have guessed? I do have some more reviews and retrospectives planned for the future, so hopefully I can get those out soon. In the meantime, thanks for