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SPIEL ’23 Preview: Add Sea Animals to Your Zoo and Relive a Famous Chess Match

by Candice Harris

• I had the opportunity to play the highly anticipated Marine Worlds expansion for Ark Nova from designer Mathias Wigge, on a review copy provided by Capstone Games. As someone who enjoys Ark Nova, but is not necessarily gaga for it, I was really curious to see how it felt to play with the Marine Worlds expansion and if it would push me closer to being gaga for Ark Nova. If you’re not already familiar with Ark Nova, you can check out Eric’s first impressions post and video from April 2022 to get a feel for this popular zoo-building game that debuted in October 2021 from publisher Feuerland Spiele.

Ark Nova: Marine Worlds adds sea animals and new aquarium special enclosures for you to add sea animals to your zoo. There are new zoo cards for the new sea animals, as well as new sponsors, and new conservation projects. The new cards are great for adding more variety to Ark Nova, especially considering how much of the gameplay is centered around the cards.

All sea animals have a wave icon on them, which has no effect when playing the card, but whenever you replenish the card display and add a card with the wave icon on it, you’ll discard the bottom card of the display and replenish again. I really love this addition because Ark Nova has so many cards and you’re often looking for a particular type of animal, so it’s nice to have a way to cycle through the cards in the display more frequently.

A few sea animals & aquariums

About half of the sea animals in this expansion have a coral icon on them indicating they are reef dwellers, which introduces a fun, new mechanism to the game when you have reef dweller sea animals in your zoo. Whenever you play a reef dweller card, you trigger the effects of all reef dwellers in your zoo, including the one you just played. These are nice special abilities you can build up in your tableau. However, if you’re not planning to collect multiple reef dwellers, you’ll miss out on the satisfying feeling of triggering a bunch of them.

Aside from introducing sea animals and aquariums, the Marine Worlds expansion adds 4 alternate versions of each action card. To incorporate the new alternate action cards, each player gets 3 of the new cards at random, which are then drafted – keep 1 and pass 1, etc. From your 3 drafted action cards, you’ll choose 2 different types of action cards to keep, swapping out the corresponding original version of each. Each of the alternate action cards have small bonuses, which gives each player a slightly asymmetrical set of action cards to play with. I found this to be a very nice change, and I love the variety of having 4 alternate versions of each of the 5 action card types.

All of the alternate Animals & Build action cards

Player board with Alternate Animals & Build action cards

Marine Worlds also comes with a new association board to accommodate new universities. When you perform an Association action to gain a partner university, there’s a new generic university tile that allows you to gain one of the new animal-specific universities (associated with a particular type of animal), if you don’t already have one. This adds a research icon and an animal icon to your zoo, and allows you to immediately gain a card from the deck that matches the corresponding university’s animal type. I found this to be very helpful because it’s another way to get more animal icons you need in your zoo.

New universities

There are new bonus tiles, new final scoring cards, and new base conservation project cards that add even more variety to Ark Nova. In addition, there are 38 replacement cards; some cards needed updated iconography to incorporate sea animals, and some card effects were changed as well. I didn’t notice any major impacts from these changes, but I definitely appreciate the variety.

Another bonus in the Marine Worlds expansion is the cute, upgraded components for the 3 main tracks and animal-shaped player tokens to use on the left edge of your zoo map instead of cubes.

It’s the little things…

Marine Worlds adds cool, new elements to Ark Nova that I found enjoyable. It’s one of those expansions that feels smooth to integrate with the base game, since the new elements are interesting and add more variety without adding a lot of bloat. While it’s not something you must have to enjoy the game, I don’t think I would ever play Ark Nova without it, and I certainly don’t think it adds much complexity-wise where new players couldn’t jump right in with the expansion. If you are already a fan of Ark Nova, this expansion is a no-brainer. If you’re not an Ark Nova fan, don’t expect this expansion to sway you much, but maybe the few new twists are just what you’re looking for. Either way, the additions are great, and the game still plays similar to the base game, just with a tad more variety and nice component upgrades.

• The past few years, Capstone Games has been knocking it out of the park, bringing awesome, small-box, two-player games to the U.S. from European publishers such as Frosted Games (Watergate), 1 More Time Games (Riftforce), and Deep Print Games (Beer & Bread). If you enjoyed any or all of the aforementioned games, you should definitely check out Match of the Century from Paolo Mori, which is a SPIEL ’23 release from Deep Print Games and Capstone Games.

Paolo Mori (Ethnos, Libertalia, Dogs of War) needs no introduction, and clearly knows his way around designing excellent, tense, two-player games, which I discovered by playing, loving, and sweating through Blitzkrieg!: World War Two in 20 Minutes and Caesar!: Seize Rome in 20 Minutes!, from PSC Games. Thus, I was very excited to get my hands on an advance copy of Match of the Century, which Clay Ross let me borrow to play with Eric during Gen Con, and then kindly sent me a copy ahead of SPIEL ’23.

Match of the Century is a two-player, unique card-driven game where one player assumes the role of Bobby Fischer and the other player plays as Boris Spassky, recreating the final match of the 1972 World Chess Championship in Reykjavik. Each player has their own asymmetrical decks, and you alternate playing cards to simulate multiple short and tense chess games until one player reaches 6 points, winning the title and becoming a chess legend.

Eric & I playing our first game at Gen Con

In Match of the Century, as in a real chess match, you play a series of games. To avoid confusion, I’ll refer to the chess “games” as “rounds” within a game of Match of the Century. Each round comprises up to four exchanges, where you and your opponent play exactly one card each. As a result of an exchange, you usually gain or lose advantage relative to your opponent, and this is tracked on the left side of the game board as you resolve each exchange. If the advantage marker is on your side at the end of the round, you score a point. Otherwise, if it’s on your opponent’s side, they score a point. If it’s on the neutral space indicating a draw, you both score a point.

Each player has their own unique deck of 16 cards, and each card represents 2 of 32 chess pieces. The cards are separated into two parts: one part shows a white chess piece and the other part shows a black chess piece. Each side of each card has a strength and an effect. When you’re playing Match of the Century, you take turns playing as white and as black. In the first round, Spassky plays with the white pieces so that player will have the white queen as a reminder, and Fischer plays with the black pieces. It’s helpful to flip your cards in your hand so they’re all showing the color pieces you’ll be playing for the current round.

Card examples from each deck

Players sit on the side of the table such that the Fischer player is facing the blue side of the game board, and the Spassky player is on the red side. Each player has a mental endurance track on their side of the board to represent changes in their focus and fatigue throughout the match. Throughout the game, when you gain or lose mental endurance, you’ll adjust your mental endurance track accordingly. Your mental endurance level is mostly important because it indicates your hand limit. The more cards you can hold, the more flexibility you have when it comes to exchanges. Depending on your mental endurance level, you also may gain some pawns to strengthen the cards you play for exchanges, and it also may affect where the advantage marker starts at the beginning of a round. In any case, it’s important to keep your mental endurance in a good position relative to your opponent’s as you play Match of the Century. It’s also beneficial to avoid some of the punishing disadvantages of low mental endurance. This is a great thematic mechanism in a game about a major chess competition.

Each round, you play up to a max of four exchanges. Starting with the player who has the initiative, each player plays one card onto to any open exchange space, with a piece of their current chess color pointing to the center. In addition to playing a card, you may immediately strengthen its piece by adding up to 2 pawns from your personal reserve to the 2 pawn spaces above the card. You gain these pawns from either the mental endurance track, or from card effects. After the player with the initiative plays a card, their opponent must play a card on their side of the same exchange section, and they may also optionally add up to 2 pawns from their personal supply to strengthen their piece.

Advantage & Mental Endurance tokens pictured are substitutes

since I misplaced the original discsOnce both cards have been played, compare the strengths of the two pieces on the cards, noting each pawn adds +1 to the strength of its piece. The player with the lower strength may then trigger their piece’s effect. There are a variety of different effects associated with different chess pieces on the cards, such as drawing additional cards, gaining/losing mental endurance, gaining pawns, shifting the advantage, and more. After the player with the lower strength resolves their card effect, the player with the higher strength gains the advantage that’s shown in the middle of the exchange section between the cards, which means you’ll move the advantage marker a number of spaces towards you, depending on the exchange section. Whenever you win the exchange showing “IIII”, you move the advantage marker 4 spaces towards you, but you also lose 1 mental endurance.

The exchanges are the meat and potatoes of the game. There are so many rich decisions that come from the hand management in Match of the Century. You have so many things to consider when you’re playing a card into an exchange whether you’re playing a card first or second. If you have the initiative and you’re playing a card first, you have to not only decide which card you want to play, but also which exchange section you want to play into. You are also factoring in how your opponent may respond, and when it makes sense to add pawns to strengthen your card. Plus, you also need to consider what’s on the opposite part of the card because it may be a card you want to save for next round when you’re playing the other color. When you win an exchange, you’re going to start the next one and sometimes that can put you in a vulnerable position.

As the player playing the second card, you have so many decisions as well. Is it important for you to win this particular exchange? Do you want to play a stronger piece, or perhaps a weaker piece then add some pawns to win this exchange? Does it make sense to tie and make it a draw? Or do you want to intentionally lose so you can trigger a powerful ability on your card? Again, lots of awesome decisions to consider and lends itself to tense, thinky gameplay…just like chess!

Player aids…yay!After each exchange is resolved, you check to see if the current round is finished. If all four exchanges were resolved, the round ends. The round may end sooner from certain card effects, or if the sum of the advantages of the unresolved exchange sections (with no cards) is lower than the advantage that either player has already gained on the advantage track. Also, if it is a player’s turn to play a card but they cannot or do not want to, they must resign, and the other player would score a point for that round. Otherwise, you start another round by resetting the advantage marker to the neutral space, discarding the cards and pawns on the board. Players may also optionally discard any number of cards from their hand at the end of the round before drawing back to your hand limit for the next round, but beware. Whenever your draw deck is empty and you need to draw a card, you’ll reshuffle your deck to draw cards, and immediately lose 1 mental endurance. The flow of the game is also broken down on the player aids included, so you’ll barely need to consult the rulebook after you play it once.

Again, if whoever wins a round scores a point, and if players tie, they both score a point. As soon as a player’s king (score tracker) reaches the center space on the match track (6 points), that player wins the entire match and the game ends.

Intimidating my friend Jason with my masterful “chess” skills

If you are a fan of games with simple rules, tough choices, and tense gameplay, Match of the Century might be right up your alley. I really dig it for those reasons, but also because it’s thematic and unique. The component quality is great and it can be played in less than an hour, which is great. It’s also super cool that Match of the Century includes a 23-page historical context booklet, which is awesome to have for a game based on a real historical event.

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