Tikal finally has a successor.
Min and Elwen’s Lost Ruins of Arnak, published by Czech Games Editions, has a Kennerspiel nomination – if not a top honor – written all over it. The game is a lovely medium-weight Euro that, like a lot of currently popular games in this space, plays it largely safe with a “greatest hits” package of mechanisms and play concepts from the post-Dominion era of design. There’s a little worker placement, a little deckbuilding, a little tableau building, some resource management, lots of passive conflict, and plenty of low stakes risk-reward decisions to be made throughout. It’s not Changing the Way We Play Games and it’s not reaching for profundity or novelty. It’s content to just be a really good game.
All of that may not sound very exciting and for some, that menu of services may even sound repulsive. But this is the kind of game that goes down easy with a broadly appealing Indiana Jones-style treasure hunting and exploration motif and a comfortable familiarity enhanced by a knockout production. This is a beautifully illustrated and appointed game with some wonderful little arrowheads, tablets, and gems as highlights. It’s an exciting game to get to the table, and newcomers are likely to be delighted by its appearance and the promise of some light treasure hunting – and monster-fighting.
Starting with a base camp that includes a small seed deck and a couple of workers, players take turns sending out explorers to uncover those titular lost ruins provided they have the necessary transportation cards and compasses to pay for the expedition. Of course, journeying deeper into the Arnak wilds is a costlier proposition so along the way you’ve got to spend gold to buy upgraded equipment cards from a display which also includes an increasing number of powerful Arnakian (?) artifacts as the game progresses. You use those cool little plastic tablets to power those and every asset you acquire gives your actions a little more heft or a little more bang for the buck. There’s also a progression element, whereby you pay resources to move up a research track which also unlocks Assistant tiles (with an admirable degree of diversity) that you can install in camp. These provide resources or other benefits and can also be upgraded themselves to enhance their abilities
But Arnak isn’t just an abandoned playground for armchair archaeologists to pillage and I’m especially thankful that this is a fictional space since we are going to be doing some tomb raiding so there is no implication of real-world transgression. There are also Guardians, pulpy megafauna monsters that are drawn for each new site explored, and they require players to spend resources or discard cards to defeat. If your explorer uncovers a Guardian and you can’t defeat it by the end of the round and they remain haplessly helpless in the face of a giant frog or scorpion, you are required to add a Fear card to your deck. These are the “junk” cards common in a lot of deckbuilders.
Of course there are ways to prune the deck of those Fear cards as well as the increasingly useless starter cards but what may be a bit awkward for some players used to a higher rate of deck cycling, you won’t play through your deck too much in this game. It’s something of a pacing or development shortcoming, I think, that it never quite feels like you get maximum value out of most cards, especially when you wind up using them only once or twice in the game. The actual deckbuilding part of the game seems to pull up a little short. I would also make the same comment about Dune Imperium and other recent hybrid designs where the focus is elsewhere alongside the action-driving deck. Granted, every acquired card also gives you points so that’s part of the equation as well, therefore acquisition of assets remains integral and essential to the design.
Actually, just about anything you do in the game gives you points or pushes you forward in some way, virtually every action gives you something in return. It can fall into a routine decision matrix of do A for X points or B for X+1 points or C for resource D. I’d hesitate to call it “point salad” but a key part of this game is determining what the slightly more profitable action is at any given moment based on availability, affordability, and the action economy. It’s also a very un-punitive game and players will face few setbacks barring a bum draw of a handful of Fear cards, but even then misfortune or misadventure is only lightly punished if at all.
The low stakes do make the game feel somewhat more ephemeral than it probably ought to given that it is squarely a medium weight design. In a sense, it’s a medium game that plays and feels light, but I’m finding that I enjoy that aspect of it. There’s a transparent relationship between decision, cause, and effect throughout the game that keeps short and long term goals central and that aids in making this game feel extremely accessible despite the rules weight and preponderance of rebus-like directives.
As for the setting and its execution, don’t come into this game expecting tons of dime novel flavor text and empty board game “narrative”. There’s not really anything specific outside of some storyline in the rulebook and some implied elements in the cards. You will not “feel” like you are an explorer at any point. But board games are poorly suited for that kind of immersion anyway, so what you do get here is a great sense of contextual atmosphere and meaning. It’s fun to buy the Grappling Hook, spend a couple of plane cards to get out to the more remote reaches of the island, and “write down” your findings in the little book marker that you push up the research track. Of course you need an arrowhead to fight that Guardian, and it makes sense that another player beat you to the rare gem you needed for an advancement. The board is doubled-sided, with a B-side that offers a slightly different storyline and some rules changes. I’m more than satisfied with the degree of setting expressed, even if the typical signifiers that a game is “drooping with theme” aren’t present.
This is also a game, like a lot of recent Euros, that plays exceptionally well solo and in fact most of my games have been at a table for one. I have enjoyed the three player games I’ve played with family, but I’ve gotten the most out of solo excursions. This is, in fact, a soft indictment of the “multiplayer solitaire” design idiom as it renders human players potentially irrelevant. However, without burdening the game (or myself) with the need to entertain multiple players it becomes a better experience. The single player game offers opposition by way of an AI deck, which blocks spaces and snatches up spots while also scoring points along the way. The difficulty is customizable, and although I’ve completely rolled over the easier levels, the upper ones can prove to be challenging and the designers have already posted an expanded set of solo options you find that you are just an ace Lost Ruins of Arnak player.
I do wonder about its long-term appeal, barring expansion content, because like many games in its class it doesn’t feel like it takes long to see and do everything it has to offer. But I think the more common criticism is going to be that beyond the surprisingly uncommon setting this game simply isn’t fresh, forward-thinking, or progressive in any way. But let’s be frank, this is a crowd-pleaser first and foremost, this is not a Cole Wehrle or Amabel Holland design. Rather than break the mold, Min and Elwen have cast a very fine example of the modern Eurogame out of it.
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