|Lost Ruins of Arnak (2020)
|Meeple Like Us
|Elwen and Mín
- 25/12/20 – So, it turns out we played this completely incorrectly because we missed some of the wording in the manual. Until I have time to replay and re-evaluate, it’s probably best to consider this a review of ‘The Meeple Like Us Homebrew Variant’ of Lost Ruins of Arnak. Doh. Anyway, our variant version is very good – it just doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual game. I will add another note and revise the review when I’ve had time to try it out properly and reflect. Sorry!
- 31/12/20 – I’ve had a chance to reflect, re-examine and reappriase this now, so the text of the review reflects my actual views. They haven’t changed much – what was lost in playing it correctly is made up for by what you get for doing it right.
A review copy of Lost Ruins of Arnak was provided by Czech Games Edition in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Merry Christmas everyone! I bet you weren’t expecting the surprise gift of a Meeple Like Us review, but that’s only because you haven’t kept an eye on the Advent celebrational calendar. Friday is always Review Day, except when we’re on hiatus. And the times in the past when it wasn’t. A review was inevitable. As such if we’re honest about it you’ve just made a bit of a fool of yourself by assuming there wouldn’t be one. It’s okay, I won’t hold it against you. Boy, you’ve got egg(nog) on your face though.
Seriously, wipe it off. That’s disgusting.
I have made a special effort to be Christmassy with the review timetable here, which is why we’re talking about the Lost Ruins of Arnak from Czech Games Edition. I mean, Indiana Jones is usually on the television somewhere on Christmas Day, right?
Just don’t think too much about it.
I’ve got to say, I’ve started to see new CGE big box games as a ‘treat in waiting’. I don’t know if there’s been a change of game design philosophy, or perhaps a shift in staff or staff skillsets, but they have gone from often being ‘genuinely interesting, but weirdly complicated’ to ‘genuinely interesting, and smooth as butter’. As an example we relatively recently reviewed Sanctum and it was surprisingly straightforward for a game I thought would be a trial by fire when I opened the box. And now here’s Lost Ruins of Arnak which tells a similar story. You go from ‘Oh god there are so many tokens in here’ to ‘Huh, and they all fit together seamlessly’. It’s genuinely a lovely thing now to find yourself buried deep in one of these cardboard coffins.
The framing of the game is this – you’re in charge of a research team in a world of fantasy monsters and hidden ruins. Traveling to a dig site will reward you with raw resources – amulets, fragmented weapons, stone tablets and such. You can spend those to defeat tomb guardians and progress yourself up the research track. Along the way you’ll gather money, local intelligence representing a kind of fungible resource of ‘exploration’, and equipment that can be used to empower your expeditions.
That equipment is going to be represented as cards in your hand, and at the start of every round you deal yourself out five of these. Some of them have effects that trigger when they are played (such as, ‘give me a couple of amulets’), but all cards can be played as ‘travel’, which is what lets you activate ancient sites to raid their treasure hoards. Turns rotate around the players at the table, with everyone taking theirs until all options are exhausted and they pass until the nextround. That means that the cards in your hand are opportunities for resources. They are also, in many ways, ‘the number of turns you have available to plunder the bejesus out of this ancient land’.
Advancing up the research track gets you access to one-off bonuses, but also lots of points and assistants that give you ‘once per round’ powers that can genuinely shift the momentum of a game. Those powers, which can be upgraded, range from ‘get a discount when buying an item’ to ‘draw a new card’, and using them in the right way at the right time can turn a pending disaster into a surprise last-minute triumph. Correctly leveraging your cards, your currencies, and your co-workers is the formula you’re looking to optimise with every move you make. Most points at the end wins, in the usual fashion.
There’s actually a lot going on here, but one of the things I like the most about the Lost Ruins of Arnak (simply Arnak from this point onwards) is how understated it is about its cleverness. Its economy, for example, is made up of tokens that have fixed utility in terms of how they can be spent in the game but also a fluid value that is anchored to availability. The ruins of Arnak are dealt out randomly and so you never know just how easy, or not, a particular resource may be to gather over the course of the game. Similarly too the guardians that protect each of the sites – to defeat them and claim their bounty of points requires spending ancient artefacts and there’s no guarantee that demand will match supply. That’s instantly interesting to me because economic decision making, whether it’s backed by money or time, is always a fascinating place to put gameplay tensions.
(Ed: Okay, full disclosure here – most of the times I played Arnak I did so with incorrect rules as indicated in the comments below. I had spoken a bit originally about how the interesting way in which you reused spaces for your archaelogists created a tension where you might be blocking yourself and future opportunities. It turns out though that you can’t move archaelologists from the spaces where you send them and I had just missed that part of the rule. Whoops! The text here has been revised accordingly on the basis of a re-evaluation.)
It wouldn’t work though if each of the dig sites were generally available, and so it’s good they’re not. They require the spending of travel cards but they also need the site to be empty of other archaelogists. That’s standard worker placement fare, made more tense because of just how tight the game is with resources. You can’t mess around here. You can’t dawdle. You need to have a clear plan of how to gain the resources you need – you can’t simply assume they’re going to ‘turn up with the rations’. You need to approach every placement opportunity like a puzzle, and leverage your cards accordingly and occasionally make sacrifices as a result. Sure, that car card might get you a great ruin but it may be worth more to you for its face value. So much of the game is bound up in the scarcity of resources, and its model of worker placement just dials that up to eleven. What turns it up to twelve are the occasional artefact cards that give you a rare opportunity to relocate an archaelogist during the course of the round – a powerful boon you can wield life a knife.
It’s always one of my favourite features in a game where there is an opaque relationship between currency and value and I think Arnak handles this particularly well.
Except it’s not quite that simple…
Arnak also has a light deck building aspect to its design, in that you purchase cards and deal them out to yourself at the start of a round. This doesn’t have the frantic intensity of most similar games (Dominion, Star Realms, Quest for El Dorado, etc). It’s more measured than that. Buying cards indiscriminately isn’t a great idea because all it does is dillute your deck – you draw five cards and that’s your lot until the next round rolls your way. Drawing those five cards from a six card deck is better than drawing it from a ten card deck because it lends predictability and the ability to leverage tactical opportunity to the draw.
So it’s great that there are cards, ruins and assistants in the game that can allow you to ‘draw a card then discard a card’, or – even better – straight up draw a card with no penalty. If you wield those cards correctly what you’ll find is that you can inject a noticeable amount of quantative easement into the very concept of time as it is reflected within the game. You may not get a card you want, but what you will get is an action. And those actions… well, let’s just say that there’s an arms race built into the core of Arnak and its missiles are made up of opportunity.
Imagine you have seven cards in your round to an opponent’s five. That simple numeric deficit exerts such a powerful pressure on behaviour that it’s like holding a loaded gun to their head. They become more hesitant about leaving the best ruins unclaimed because they know you might get two interupted turns to take advantage of that when they have exhausted all their options. They become more invested in closing the gap for the future, putting greater pressure on funding and on the marketplace. Advanage in Arnak is made up of treacherous waters that must be carefully navigated.
But even here there’s a bit of a nuance – if you buy standard equipment, it goes to the bottom of your deck – potential activities for the future. If you buy one of the mystical artefacts, it gets activated instantly. So the ‘buy a card’ action might really be two actions if the stars align. Except that artefact cards also require being fed with stone tablets to function, so it’s a more costly action. Add on to this that there are some cards that take an action to play and others that can be played with no time cost and you might get a mental flavour of just how elastic Arnak’s relationship is with time and money. It’s genuinely whip smart, which is appropriate for a game that so consistently evokes the sense, if not the specific aesthetics, of Indiana Jones.
Speaking of aesthetics, I think that’s another thing that Arnak does very well. I love the feel in my head of cashing in rare artefacts for advancement along the research track because it feels exactly like the academic process should work. You find a new thing, you think about it a bit, and then you write down those thoughts for publication. In the process that grants you access to fame and prestige (modeled in points and assistants) as well as occasionally more material rewards. It just feels right, like a mirror of how it always felt wrong that Indiana Jones never had an instalment called ‘Indiana Jones and the Dickhead Second Reviewer’.
I also especially like the ‘other side’ of the board where the further you progress up the research chart the more ‘fear’ cards you unlock. That’s so evocative of a different, darker, take on your archealogical activities. ‘You dug too deeply and too greedily today, kid. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it’. Arnak is one of the few games I’ve ever played that actually nails the way most of us wish research would feel, as opposed to how research is. It’s evocative in a way that only a handful of board games have ever really accomplished before in such a slim set of mechanisms.
My only criticism really is that for all this clever interrelationship of economy, theme and time there is a dominant strategy and it’s the one that infects almost every game with deck-building features. It’s that ‘drawing more cards is always better’. Here it’s even more intensely problematic because of the ‘action arms race’ represented by any card that says ‘Draw an extra card’ as part of its powers. The difference between ‘an action when someone else has an action left’ and ‘an action I can take after everyone else’ is considerable. It creates an effect that can lead to one player dominanting simply because they had the opportunity first to buy a card that effectively give then more turns in the game. Combine that with access to the actions that permit a player to trash their bad cards and there emerges a et of circumstance where it’s entirely possible for someone to have their whole deck of cards available in a single round at a time when nobody else managed more than their standard five.
There’s a hard-brake built into that though in that you don’t shuffle your played cards into a new deck until the start of the next round as opposed to when you have no cards left to draw. You don’t have an infinite deck, reconstructed exactly at the point you run out of unplayed cards. When your deck runs out, that’s you for that round. However, as limiting as that sounds it’s less of an issue than you might think. if you have enough free rein over the board you can add a whole marketplace worth of trinkets to your draw deck in the course of a round. If you have control over a ruin with a ‘draw a card’ mechanism, you can see how that might create the circumstances for unfettered advantage. Spend a card to go to a ruin that gives you money, spend it to buy an item, then draw a card by moving to the other ruin. It’s a leaky bucket of actions, but if you play your cards right (teehee) it can have dramatic impact especially in the last couple of rounds of the game.
I’m still waiting for a game with deckbuilding elements that doesn’t have this problem of ‘drawing a card is always good’ to a greater or lesser degree though. It’s just more pronounced here because of the importance those cards have in controlling the board. In a game where everyone is equally clued into this quirk of the mechanics it should be a self-correcting problem. In other games though one, or more, players may find themselves facing a much tougher environment simply because they didn’t realise the far-flung implications of immediate deck management.
That aside, Arnak is a lovely game that I enjoyed a lot, and it has made me enthused to see what CGE might have up their sleeves for 2021. I’ve been somewhat burned out on board games for a while, mainly because of how few upcoming games have gave me even the faintest shiver of excitement. While the Lost Ruins of Arnak may not bring anything genuinely new to the table, its synthesis of elements felt like opening a forboding tomb and getting a lungful of freshness rather than the musty dead air you’d steeled yourself to expect.
A review copy of Lost Ruins of Arnak was provided by Czech Games Edition in exchange for a fair and honest review.