Full disclosure: A review copy of Lost Ruins of Arnak was provided by Czech Games Edition.
Hey, look at that; back with another heavier game. Why? No reason. I just play them sometimes, and I figured, why not write about it? Is that kind of the motivation behind board game reviewing more broadly? Yes. You’re getting it. That’s the whole thing. But yes, Lost Ruins of Arnak has been on my radar for a while, and I’ve been excited to crack into it with y’all. So let’s get right to it!
In Lost Ruins of Arnak, you’ve discovered an uninhabited island in uncharted waters. Convenient. But it’s what’s on that island that excites you. A legendary (and since-gone) civilization has ruins that span the entire island. You can explore them and discover what lies beneath, but unfortunately, you’re not alone. Guardians emerge to protect these ruins, and despite the very-clear “Do Not Enter. Ever.” vibes that gives off, you and your team are charging ahead. Arnak itself is a combination of a few different things: resource management, deckbuilding, and worker placement. You’ll start with some Fear Cards, Funding Cards, and Exploration Cards, and use them to place your archaeologists on sites to gain new resources that you can exchange for improved tools, powerful artifacts, or additional research to help gain Assistants with their own abilities (or more resources; it’s that kind of game). Your opponent has their eyes on the same thing as you, so there may be some tension as sites can only support one archaeologist at a time, and discovering a new one pits you against a Guardian! Thankfully, there’s a lot to explore, a lot to collect, and a lot to learn. Will you be able to uncover the mysteries of the Lost Ruins of Arnak?
Player Count Differences
I actually like Arnak a lot as a two-player game, but that’s a personal preference. I’ve talked to some folks who wish that it were five-player, and I get that, since every player would then get a chance to be the start player for a round evenly (rather than the kind-of-uneven dispensation that currently exists). That said, I’m not really a high-chaos player, so having games with less chaos generally suits me. As a result, I tend to prefer this with fewer players. On one hand, you’re more likely to get blocked (there are no alternate places for you to go, on the board; each site can only accommodate one player), but on the other, you don’t have to wait for more than one other person to finish the round when you pass. There’s trade-offs, but they generally trend towards me preferring a lower player count for this one. I’ve played Arnak at three and enjoyed it, but given my low-chaos preferences, I like having fewer places mess with the markets so I can focus.
As I’ll mention elsewhere, I’m much more of a deckbuilder than a worker placement person, so my strategy is usually focused on building the best possible deck, rather than how to most effectively place your workers. Just a fun fact.
- I mean, the earlier you get Assistants, the more frequently you can use them. You get at least one use out of an Assistant each round, so, ideally, you’d get your first Assistant in the second round so that you get four rounds of utility from them (assuming you don’t upgrade them, which you absolutely should try to). They’re essentially free resources with no consequences, and, in all fairness, advancing on the Research Track is pretty explicitly a good idea anyways, so you should be doing that even if you weren’t getting fringe benefits.
- Try to clear Fear out of your deck. It’s somewhat useful for, say, the early Explorations, but it’s worth negative points and it’s just junk, otherwise. There are certain cards that are useful if you’re Exiling Fear (trashing it from your deck / removing it from the game), so keep an eye on those, but more generally, you don’t want to have a lot of Fear in there. It’s not a great card. As you start getting increasingly useful cards in your deck, you should focus on how to make sure you’re playing those as often as possible, not having to deal with a round where you drew both of your Fear cards and now can’t make any progress.
- Try to develop a consistent way to explore locations, be it through your immense wealth, your useful Assistants, or your helpful cards. Sites in Arnak require a certain number of travel icons to be spent, and those can be found on a variety of places. You can basically go anywhere with four coins, and two coins are a Plane (effectively a wild travel icon), so there are many ways to get places. Having cards you can easily discard is nice, but ultimately, you want to rely on Assistants or coins to travel so that you can keep useful cards in your hand to be played later. This is one of the main ways you get additional actions during a round; think more about using all the cards in your hand your their abilities, rather than for their travel icons.
- I find the Pack Donkey to almost always be a useful card, since it’s a free draw. There’s a reason Yu-Gi-Oh has banned Pot of Greed; Pack Donkey functions similarly. When you think about cards in deckbuilding, generally, cards that give you additional cards are sifters, or cards that let you draw X cards but make you discard a number of cards (usually X or close to X). This allows you to sift through your deck, drawing cards and then getting rid of the less useful ones. If your entire deck is useful, however, this is a bummer. Pack Donkey lets you just draw two cards for free, meaning that it is, effectively, a free extra card in your hand at all times (though it costs an action to use, so keep an eye on the opportunity cost of spending a turn playing it). That’s very good, so, I tend to try to get it in my deck whenever I can. Naturally, Pack Donkey, like most Tools, progressively loses utility as the game goes on, but an early-game Pack Donkey can be really useful.
- Late-game, I tend to buy more Artifacts. The game recognizes the utility of this and makes increasingly more Artifacts available as the game goes on, since you won’t have to pay for subsequent uses of them if you’re not going to use them again. The last round is mostly me buying Artifacts and just seeing what happens. A miraculous time.
- If someone’s gone through all the trouble of clearing out a Guardian, you might as well go take the site if it’s available on your turn. Is this rude? Yes. Is it absolutely a good idea? Usually, depending on the site. Check your own strategy; what do you want, and does going to that site help you get it? Bonus: does it make it harder for your opponent(s) to get what they want? Then go for it!
- Exiling cards can make it much easier to get to the cards you actually want to play, so keep an eye out for when you can do that. Most deckbuilding games have at least one strategy that relies on keeping a small deck of only exactly the cards that you want. If you do that, you can very quickly make sure they all get played during a round and just keep executing the same round pattern over and over. If you can do that in Arnak, I’d be impressed, but even without going the full distance, you can exile a number of cards to make yourself more likely to draw your high-value cards the start of a round.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- All the archaeologists have little Indiana Jones hats. They’re definitely called fedoras, but men on the Internet have ruined that for me, so they’re just Indiana Jones hats until someone gives me a better term that doesn’t remind me of a trilby. Anyways, it’s extremely endearing. I do love when the little meeps have hats. Big fan of silly hats.
- The board is beautiful; just really striking on the table. It’s just a really nicely-detailed board. Lots to look at, the art style is very pleasant, and the whole thing is very engaging. A worse game than this would have just made the entire board super brown, and I’m glad they elected for something as richly-detailed as the board they went with. I particularly am partial to the blues towards the bottom of the board, but I’m a sucker for a good blue; it’s known. The art team really did a fantastic job on this one.
- The components are also really nice! I particularly like the tablets, the arrowheads and the rubies, but the cardboard components aren’t bad, either. I’m sure an upgrade kit exists for them, because an upgrade kit exists for almost every game, at this point, but I’m very pleased with the resources. The site and guardian tiles are also a nice weight, as well.
- It’s not as complex as it looks, but the game still takes some time to learn. I’d still pretty firmly place this game in the “complex” category, but I wouldn’t say it’s a game that you’re going to be stumped playing, even on your first playthrough (provided you get all the rules down). My friends at Before You Play, for instance, did a runthrough of the game that I think will help folks get up and running pretty quickly. I wouldn’t call this game “easy to learn”, but I think that the various throughlines of the game make sense and are reasonably intuitive despite their complexity, if that makes sense. There’s just a lot to learn from those throughlines.
- I like the unpredictability of site discovery, and having to defeat guardians really makes the game hard to suss out on any particular playthrough. The sites can be different every game (with different costs, which might change up which cards you prioritize going after), and even if you play the same sites in the same order every game, you still have to deal with the Guardians, which will either dole out negative points or cost you a wide collection of different resources, which is cool. I like the variability of the whole site landscape.
- I really enjoy the sense of player progression through the game. At the start of the game, there’s very little you can do, but by the end of the game, you can do a ton. I really like when games let you feel like you built something, and even though I still think the deckbuilding aspect of this game isn’t its strongest feature, I appreciate that you, the player, end up with cards and Assistants and resources that allow you to do a lot more than just spend two cards to get two coins by Round 5. It’s a satisfying arc for the player.
- The Tool and Artifact distinction is interesting, as well; I like that you play Artifacts immediately after purchasing. I appreciate that they’re different things and that their situational utility changes over the course of the game. I also appreciate that the market shifts to accommodate that as the game progresses, moving towards the right so that there are fewer Tools and more Artifacts in play. I do wish the Tools still cycled a bit more, but that’s just another thing I get snooty about with randomized markets in games.
- There are a lot of very satisfying combo opportunities during the game, if combos are your thing. You can’t quite do any infinite combos (as far as I know), but you can do some pretty impressive feats with resource generation and Assistants. For instance, you can use both of your Assistants to get resources that will allow you to upgrade them both, flipping them back over so that they can be used again. You can then use those resources to buy an Artifact that allows you to swap an Assistant out for one in the Assistant Pool on the board, letting you use the new Assistant again, and then you can buy another Artifact that allows you to use the silver side of your recently-swapped-out Assistant, meaning you technically activated six Assistant powers in one round (including one Assistant three times, if you end up activating them again). That’s a very satisfying combo to witness, if you can get the right cards for it, and it feels great from a player’s standpoint.
- The Snake Temple side of the board is pretty challenging, and can throw some players for a loop in fun ways. It’s definitely an advanced variant of the game, if you’re looking to make Arnak harder. Me personally, I think the Bird Temple is the right difficulty for me, so I’m inclined to stay on that side for a while, yet, but I always appreciate when games allow for players to do more challenging variants, especially given how popular Arnak has become.
- An insert would be really nice, here. It’s just a big empty box! I’m aware secondary market inserts exist, but, I do wish that more games came with something so I wasn’t just throwing bags of tokens into a big box. Alas. Hopefully there’s room in here for the expansion content, at least.
- There are a lot of currencies! So many different resources that one can spend for other things. It can be a lot to keep track of, since you have coins and compasses, and then the tablets -> arrowheads -> rubies upgradable pathway, not to mention the plane / car / boat / boot transportation resources. There are just a lot of things operating in a lot of the game’s various zones, which can make learning the game a bit more of a headache.
- You’re going to run into some games where players are just cooling their heels because they passed and other players still have a bunch of actions to do. This particular thing also hurts new players a lot more frequently. Once a player passes in Arnak, they’re out of the round, but there may still be other actions for their opponent(s). This doesn’t become a problem until the mid- to late-game, where players may have entirely different actions that they can take depending on their Assistants, Idols, and cards. This can be frustrating for players to just have to sit and watch one player keep building up gigantic combos without much of a way to otherwise engage.
- I like playing this a lot more on BGA since I don’t have to set the game up or tear it down. There’s not a lot of setup in an overwhelming way, but boy howdy, not having to deal with ANY of it makes Board Game Arena a lot easier to use. It’s honestly one of the reasons I got more into BGA; I wanted to play Arnak and it’s a tough sell for most of my current gaming friends. Now I don’t need to worry! I will say that Arnak doesn’t benefit from taking a long time between turns, but, that’s asynchronous games, for you. Now I just need to get back into The Castles of Burgundy…
- I’m more of a deckbuilding guy than a worker placement guy, so I wish there were a bit more deckbuilding. I just really want to play heavier deckbuilding games. I did really enjoy the Imperium series, but oof, that’s a hard one to review. Enjoy this two-sentence review of it, I guess. I do appreciate that Arnak’s deckbuilding isn’t an afterthought, but it’s definitely not the core mechanic of the game that everything else revolves around. I see deckbuilding in Arnak as a convenient means to an end, where that end is worker placement. And that’s fine! It’s a good hybrid. I just think that someone who prefers deckbuilding to worker placement, I would have preferred a game that tilted more towards my preferred balance.
- I think the thing I dislike about worker placement games the most is the blocking element of many (most) of them, so, naturally, I wish Arnak weren’t as block-heavy on the worker placement element, though I know that makes the game fundamentally extremely different. I was really enjoying Creature Comforts (and Wreck Raiders, among others) because the blocking elements of the worker placement were absent, so I didn’t have to worry about another player just messing up my whole strategy for a round. I get that blocking worker placement (you can’t place on a space with another worker) is a very different form of strategy, but I feel like it’s a fundamentally more aggressive form of strategy as well, which I don’t necessarily jive with.
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Overall, I think Lost Ruins of Arnak is pretty great! I’m very pleased that it’s not too complex for me; it actually hits at just about the sweet spot. I’m interested in pretty much every different system the game has, from the deckbuilding of the Artifacts and Tools to the Research Track to the worker placement and site exploration to the resource management that connects the three major elements of the game together. I think it works together quite nicely. I haven’t spent as much time with the Snake Temple side of the board, but it’s another good way to change things up for players so that the game doesn’t get stale or anything. As someone who’s been playing a lot of board games for a while, I think my tastes are trending a little bit increasingly complex, and I think this game is a lot more complex than I would have gone for, say, five years ago. Watching that trajectory is fascinating, but it comes with its own challenges. The biggest thing holding this game back, for me, though, is that I’m just more into the deckbuilding side of the game than the worker placement side, and like Moonrakers, deckbuilding isn’t really what this game is totally about. It has deckbuilding, but Arnak’s deckbuilding is really a means to its true end, which is worker placement. The challenge and strategy of when to unlock new sites, when to defeat Guardians, and when to place on a site someone else unlocked and keep it from them drives a lot of the late-game interactions far more than some of the Tool Cards you can put in your deck, and while that’s fine, I would love a game that’s more heavily-focused on deckbuilding. I suppose the closest thematic analogue is The Quest for El Dorado, but that’s pretty significantly lighter, so I’ll have to think more about that. If the thrill of exploration is what you crave, you love worker placement, or you just really like resource management, however, you should check out Lost Ruins of Arnak! It’s a lot, your first game, but I really enjoy playing it.
If you enjoyed this review and would like to support What’s Eric Playing? in the future, please check out my Patreon. Thanks for reading!