As a fairly regular Ark Nova player (combining both physical and BoardGameArena plays I’m at around 100 games played), I believe I have a pretty rough hold on the general strategy and the overall meta of the game. (I’m talking about the base game – I haven’t played Marine Worlds that many times yet.)
Therefore I was quite surprised when I browsed BGG forums and stumbled upon a guy advocating to always upgrade the Sponsor card first. Not that it’s wrong to upgrade that card, but I believe there are so many better alternatives.
This article lists my preferences (in the order of importance), which I found work quite well. I’m sure some will disagree and I’d be interested to hear why in the comments.
As you are probably aware, there are only four opportunities to upgrade an action card, so you’ll never be able to upgrade all of them. One of the upgrade spots is the bonus when you reach Conservation 2: you have a chance of getting an extra worker or upgrading a card.
Although I once believed you should never go for the worker here, I now think the choice is not so black and white. Yes, you should still normally take a card upgrade here. But an early second worker is just such a powerful tool that you should aim to get it as soon as possible. I prefer an early conservation project (a release or a partnership), but if all else fails, you can consider taking a worker here.
If it’s one action card that you absolutely should upgrade every single time, it’s the Cards action card. It’s pretty much mandatory (I can’t remember one game I haven’t upgraded it) since it allows you to draw cards from the reputation range and draw more cards.
And there’s no need to overstate the importance of having the choice of more cards in Ark Nova. It means a higher probability of getting the cards you need and it’s crucial for winning.
Let’s not forget that you also need the upgrade to advance beyond reputation 9, which is also something you want to do every game since the rewards on the reputation track are just so good.
But that doesn’t mean you should upgrade Cards as your first action card. It’s not that potent when your reputation is still low (fewer cards to choose from). But as you move up on the reputation track beyond the second and third card, then it’s time to go for it.
This one is usually the first one to upgrade, although I won’t upgrade it 100% of the time. One of the keys to success in Ark Nova is to have a healthy income system, allowing you to build the necessary pens and host the animals.
Although the appeal track brings in cash by itself, against more experienced players, it’s usually not enough to do everything you want. Therefore, having several kiosk clusters (a cluster is a kiosk with as many structures around it – ideally 6) is a highly lucrative source of income.
The degraded version of the card limits you since you can only build one structure at a time. Also, money is scarcer at the beginning of the game. Therefore I prefer to start with my first kiosk cluster as early as possible. This is also the reason I upgraded the Build card first, so I can still build pens alongside the kiosks and pavilions.
In certain maps (i.e. Icecream parlor map, Restaurant map, or Silver Lake map) you won’t need that many kiosks, therefore you can wait with the upgrade a bit or in rare cases even skip it altogether.
On the other hand, there are maps with obvious chokepoints that need the upgraded Build card if you want to expand without limitations (Observation tower comes to mind), which pretty much forces you to upgrade it.
Also, let’s not forget that you can only fill the entire map only if your Build action card is upgraded. And this can give you a nice boost as you try to make that final points leap. Some end goals (Architectural map, for example) also demand that you spread aggressively.
On to the next one. This one is a bit more situational but mostly still worth it.
The ability to perform multiple Association actions is a nice bonus, but it’s nowhere near enough to justify upgrading since you’ll rarely have enough power. Besides, there are usually enough Association actions per game anyway.
On the other hand, donations (particularly the cheap early ones) are very lucrative. Providing you have enough income (our kiosk clusters come in handy again), this can be a serious early-game boost if you snatch them up first.
The upgraded Association card is also needed if you want to take the 3rd and 4th partner zoo. This depends on whether you need the icons for the conservation projects or the zoo slots have a useful unlock (depends on the map you play).
As a rule of thumb, I will consider skipping the Association upgrade if I know I won’t need the 3rd and 4th zoo, the cheap donations have already been taken, and I have better alternatives (desired sponsors or animals that demand an upgraded card).
This upgrade is particularly useful as a late-game action when you can afford to place more animals at once and can also afford to take directly from the reputation (you have money and a high enough reputation – remember our Build and Card upgrades).
Therefore it’s usually the last to get upgraded. One thing not to be overlooked is that you also get 1 reputation at 5 power. This might not seem much, but it will add up and help you climb on the reputation ladder. Remember, those higher-up rewards on the rep track are especially attractive.
For me to consider skipping this upgrade, several pieces would have to fall into place. Namely, I would have to be very lucky with the game progress so far, that I basically wouldn’t need many more animals in my zoo. Lucky with my animal card draw (having all my conservation project icons where I want them) and lucky with sponsor cards (i.e. WAZA special assignment for small animals, Breeding cooperation, and similar).
This leaves only the Sponsors action card. Its upgrade is very situational and I’d have to have some really good tier 2 sponsor cards to consider it.
I’m not saying it’s not useful: the extra income potential and easier playing of sponsors’ cards all come in handy. But the issue is that the other action cards are consistently more useful (as explained above). So to justify the upgrade I also need a strong argument against upgrading any of the other 4 actions, not only good sponsor cards.
Let’s take a look at some statistics about the frequency of action card upgrades from Board Game Arena:
Just looking at these numbers (I know they don’t tell the whole story of importance, priority, and timing of upgrades) it seems like my strategy is quite aligned with the overall meta of the game. There are some discrepancies, particularly on the Sponsors card.
While it’s true this is the least desirable action card to upgrade, I’m still a bit behind the averages, so trying to spot those games where the Sponsor upgrade is optimal is a good way to improve further for me.
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