Review of The Ark of the Covenant

Review Summary
Comped Playtest Review
Written Review

January 7, 2004


by: Shannon Appelcline


Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)

A new Carcassonne game. Similar to the original, but much more elegant, and with enough gameplay differences to warrant a look.

Shannon Appelcline has written 677 reviews (including 358 board/tactical game reviews), with average style of 4.03 and average substance of 3.85. The reviewer's previous review was of Age of Empires: Gold Edition.

This review has been read 12256 times.

 
Product Summary
Name: The Ark of the Covenant
Publisher: Inspiration Games, Uberplay
Line: Carcassonne
Author: Klaus-Jurgen Wrede
Category: Board/Tactical Game

Cost: $24.95
Year: 2003

ISBN: 0-9740913-3-2


Review of The Ark of the Covenant

The Ark of the Covenant is a tile-laying game set in the 12th century BC, centering around the settlement of Canaan. It's based on Klaus-Jurgen Wrede's original tile-laying game, Carcassonne.

Players: 2-5
Playing Time: 30-60 minutes
Difficulty: 2 (of 10)

This review is based upon my original review of Carcassonne; if you're familiar with the original game, you may wish to largely skim The Game Play section (though pay attention to the Prophets, the Ark, and the scoring).

The Components

The Ark of the Covenant comes with a small set of high quality components, including:

Land Tiles: The land tiles are printed in yellows and browns on heavy card board. They depict road, cities, fields, and temples--the four core locales of the game. Oases, sheeps, and wolves are also scattered about the tiles. The colors on the tiles, although appropriate for the background, are very plain. This, combined with the blockiness of the cities, takes away something from the beauty of the pieces; nonetheless they're very clear and easy to use.

Scoring Track: The scoring board is about 7"x10", printed in four-color on the same heavy cardboard as the tiles, in the same shades of yellow and brown. The numbers 0-49 are printed on the score board.

Wooden Pieces: The followers are made out of sturdy painted wood, fairly standard for a European game import. They come in red, green, yellow, blue, and black--all distinctive colors that are easy to distinguish. The prophets are just over-sized followers. They're large enough that it's fairly easy to differentiate between the two sizes.

4 wooden pieces to distinguish incomplete temples would have been nice, as discussed further below in The Game Design. A couple of coins will also do fine for this; personally I use 4 green scoring markers which come with the Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers game.

The Ark: The Ark is represented by a cardboard chit that's placed in a plastic stand. The Ark is attractively printed in gold and purple, though unfortunately the stand covers part of the artwork up. It works fine, though I think a wooden Ark piece would have fit the game even better.

Rules: The rules are printed four-color on a six-page foldout rulesheet. It's a bit flimsy, and will get dinged from usage. There are plenty of colorful examples, and overall the rules are quite easy to follow.

Box: The box is printed on the sturdy, textured cardboard that's common in German printings. If you're a fan of the Carcassonne games in general, you'll be pleased to know that this box matches the others exactly. There's a very simple cardstock tray in the box, with one slot for all the tiles and another for the various other pieces. I use some bags as well, to keep things separated, but the tray overall works well.

Missing from The Components is something like a bag to draw the tiles from. They can be flipped upside down, and drawn from stacks, but this seems somehow inelegant.

Overall, other than the faded pallette of the tiles, the Ark of the Covenant are enjoyable to play with and evocative. I was a bit hesitant on a rating because of the coloration issues, but finally decided it deserved a full "5" out of "5" for Style--excellent.

The Game Play

The goal in Ark of the Covenant is to gather as many points as possible, through the placement of followers to control large cities, roads, and fields, as well as temples. Moving the Ark of the Covenant to your followers also grants points.

Game play begins with the placement of a special starting tiles which includes a corner of a city, a straight road segment, and fields on either side of the road.

After that each player, in turn, takes the following actions:

  1. Draw and place a land tile.
  2. Choose whether to place a follower or a prophet on the new land tile; alternatively, move the Ark of the Covenant.
  3. Score any points earned for completing temples, road, or cities.

Following are additional explanation of each of these steps.

Draw and Place a Land Tile: The tiles are the heart of the game. Each one has some combination of cities, roads, and temples on them. Temples are singular buildings which sit in the middle of a tile, while roads and cities can connect to similar terrains off-tile. Running along the edges of all the roads, cities, and temples are fields. On-tile they can be divided up by cities and roads, while off-tile they'll connect to other fields too.

In order to place a tile, you must lay it down next to another tile with a matching edge. The edges are very simple; each one only has one of three elements: a full-length city; one road; or a field. Thus placement is very simple.

Because of this simplicity, there's almost always a legal placement for a tile. In all of the Carcassonne games that I've played I've only had a couple of tiles which could not be legally placed (in which case, according to the rules, it was set aside).

Choose Whether to Place a Follower: Each player has 8 followers. One of those is put on the scoring board to keep track of points, and thus each player has 7 more available to place on the board. After you place each tile you may choose to place a follower on that tile, if you wish.

In order to place a follower, you must select one of the terrain segments on a tile. You can place a follower in one of three places: in a city; on a road; or in a field. (Note: you can not place followers in temples; instead you need to place followers on other terrains on the temple tile or on terrains of the four orthagonally adjacent tiles in order to gain control of the temple.) With most tiles you'll have 2-4 options as to where to place your follower. For example, if you placed a tile with a road running down the middle, you could choose to place a follower on the road or on either of the two field segments.

When placing followers you also need to determine the value of the terrain. Some city tiles contain scrolls which increase their value; likewise some road tiles have oases. Finally, the value of fields is solely determined by the number of sheep in the field--and negatively impacted by wolves that it may also contain.

There's one limitation on follower placement: you can't place a follower within a terrain that already contains a follower. Thus if you placed a tile with a city segment so that it connected up to an existing city, you could only place a follower there if there was not already a follower in the city. There are ways to share a specific terrain; you simply must place a follower in a disconnected part of the terrain, and then connect it.

Placing Prophets. Each player also has one special follower: the extra-sized prophet. These may be placed instead of a regular follower and may only be placed on city tiles. When they're scored, they'll score double points if the city is completed, so you generally want to make sure that your prophet goes on a potentially big city (because unlike the rest of your followers, he only gets to be used once, as mentioned again below).

Moving the Ark of the Covenant. The first time a city is completed (as described in Scoring, below), the Ark of the Covenant is placed on the board on one of those city tiles. In future turns, if you don't place any followers, you may instead choose to move the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark may be moved up to 5 tiles, counted orthagonally. Whenever the Ark moves onto a tile that contains a follower, that follower's owner scores one point. (Clearly, you typically want to move the Ark to touch a couple of your followers, and none of your opponents--but sometimes you have to make compromises.)

Score Any Points: Cities, roads, and temples can all be "completed", allowing you to immediately score their points and retrieve your followers. Each of the terrains has a simple rule for how to complete it:

Fields cannot be completed during the game; even if a field is totally closed off during the game, the points are not scored and the follower is not retrieved.

Before a city, temple, or road can be scored, it must first be determined who owns it, because there can be multiple followers in a single completed location, due to careful placement of followers followed by connections of formerly discrete locations.

Cities and roads are easy: the player with the most followers in the terrain scores all the points; in case of a tie, each player scores all the points.

Temples are a bit more complex: first, you score any cities or roads which completed at the same instant the temple was completed, and you remove those followers. Then you look at the temple and the four orthagonal tiles. Whomever has the most followers on those five tiles scores the temple, with a tie meaning all players score the points.

Whenever you complete a feature containing a normal follower, that follower is returned to the owner. The prophet, however, can only be used once in the game; after his city is scored, he's set to the side.

It's important to complete cities and roads for two reasons: first, you get those followers back, which is vital because you have many less followers than turns in a game. Second, closed cities and temples earn more than open cities and temples (which are scored at the end of the game).

All the scores are listed below, in the End Game section.

End Game: The game ends when all the tiles have been placed. At this point all uncompleted roads, cities, and temples are scored. Cities and tempels score less if they're incomplete, while roads do not.

Afterward, fields are scored. Inevitably lots of fields have ended up with multiple followers as the game has expanded. The normal rules for majority are used to determine who's in control of the field. Each follower then scores points for all his sheep that haven't been eaten by wolves.

Here's a chart of all the point scoring:

Meeple Completed Incomplete
City Follower 2/tile + 2/scroll 1/tile + 1/scroll
City Prophet 4/tile + 4/scroll 1/tile + 1/scroll
Road Follower 1/tile +1/oasis 1/tile +1/oasis
Temple Follower 7 3
Field Follower N/A ~2/sheep - 2/wolf

Relationships to Other Games

The Ark of the Covenant is one of three Carcassonne-mechanic games, which all have largely similar game play but are built on different backgrounds. Tile distributions and scoring tend to vary from one game to the other. The other two Carcassonne-mechanic games are the original Carcassonne and Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers.

Of the three games, The Ark of the Covenant has the most mature game system and is the most elegant in its gameplay. For casual players and families The Ark of the Covenant is easily the first of the Carcassonne games I would suggest. (For more advanced players I'd instead suggest the original Carcassonne first, as it has a number of expansions which add considerably to the games strategic complexity.)

The Ark of the Covenant's gameplay is also different enough from the original that I have no qualms in recommending it as an additional game for those who own other Carcassonnes. If you really like Carcassonne you'll enjoy the variety of having a number of different games using the system.

(For the sake of completeness I'll note that there is also a fourth Carcassonne game available called Carcassonne: The Castle. It's a two-player game, and its gameplay varies quite considerably from the other three games, and so I haven't included it in my general Carcassonne-mechanic category.)

The Game Design

The Ark of the Covenant is a very well designed game--and a well-balanced one. It takes advantage of two previous years of playtesting and refining of the Carcassonne system through a number of different games and supplements.

It shares strengths with the original game and expands upon them:

Multiple Strategies: As with all the Carcassonne games, there are many strategies in The Ark of the Covenant. You can try and build small terrains or expansive ones. You can try and get into good sheep-filled fields. You can work cooperatively with other players or compete by adding wolves to fields or making terrains hard to close. You can try and arrange followers close together, then send them the Ark, or you can ignore the Ark entirely. (You can also put down tiles in ways to get you the Ark, such as by briding a gap that was keeping the Ark far from your own followers.) Use of the prophets, and response to other players' use of the same, is a strategic issue all its own.

Tiles Are Well-Balanced: Hand in hand with this is that all the terrain types, and thus the tiles, are well-balanced. Roads are less valuable, but easier to close and also can get bonus points from oases. Temples, on the other hand ,are an easy 7 points, but aren't guaranteed to be controlled by the person who placed them. Cities are clearly valued because of their higher total (2/tile), and fields have a lot of end-game potential, but not an overpowering amount.

Great Use of Background: The Biblical/historical background isn't too terribly strong in this game: it's mainly a veneer. However I think the use of the Ark of the Covenant is great and fits perfectly with the theme. Scoring points by moving it around to your follows perfectly mimics the idea of bringing the Law to the people in a very real, evocative way.

These are some of the repeat strengths from the main Carcassonne:

All Players Always Thinking: Every player can think and talk about the placement of each tile because they're all open.

Cooperation is Encouraged: Cooperative gameplay can earn multiple players points, and thus socialization in the game is increased.

Good with Many Player Numbers: Although it plays differently, Ark works for 2 and 5 players alike.

Randomness is Well Controlled: Because you have 7 followers, you can almost always use every random tile you get in some way. If nothing else, you can hurt an opponent.

I have two complaints, one purely aesthetic:

Temples Break Core Game Paradigm: The core paradigm in the Carcassonne games is that control of terrains is marked by followers, and when the terrain is scored, those followers are moved. This isn't the case with temples, where instead nearby followers score the temple (and only are removed when their own terrains complete). Besides the aesthetic issue, this means that you don't have any way to mark if a temple has been scored or not--and it is possible to lose track. As I already mentioned I use wooden tokens to mark when a temple is incomplete, then remove that when the temple is completed and scored.

Prophets Can Increase Randomness: The prophets are sufficiently powerful that you want to close an opponents' city containing one as fast as you can, before it grows to a mammoth size. This works great in a multiplayer game, but if you've just got two players who gets the better Prophet city becomes very random. In some games your opponent might be able to cap your own Prophet city in just a couple of tiles, while in other games they may never have an opportunity.

Overall, The Ark of the Covenant is an excellent game design that's fun, fast, strategic, and tactical all at once. It improves on the already good gameplay of Carcassonne and thus earns a "5" out of "5" for Substance.

Conclusion

First of all, don't be afraid of The Ark of the Covenant because of its religious theming. It's very light and won't affect your enjoyment of the gameplay no matter what your beliefs.

Beyond that, The Ark of the Covenant is an excellent casual and family game that's been well designed with that precise audience in mind. It's got real strategic value, but is easy to learn and easy to play. If you're considering a Carcassonne game for family or friends, this is the one to buy first.

If you're familiar with the Carcassonne games already, let me simply say: it's like the original Carcassonne game, without any supplements and with the scoring and tile distribution both improved.

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