Games of the Year 2021: Meehan on the adventurous and incredible Lost Ruins of Arnak
A hidden treasure.
Despite being released at the tail-end of 2020, this year Lost Ruins of Arnak has swung over crevices, dodged poison traps and cracked ancient puzzles to triumphantly claim the crown of the deckbuilding genre.
Deckbuilding may have begun with the likes of Dominion and the Legendary series, but it has since grown significantly. The majority of modern deckbuilding games have merged the genre with various other gameplay mechanics, such as Clank!’s push-your-luck aspects or Tyrants of the Underdark’s area control elements. Dominion’s bread-and-butter approach to the genre was excellent for the time, and it’s still a great entry point for beginners, but it feels so rudimentary compared to something like Lost Ruins of Arnak.
At its core, Arnak is a board game about discovery. Not just thematically speaking - the game is set on a mysterious island filled with ancient temples, treasure and monsters - but mechanically speaking as well. When you first approach the game its massive size is on par with the kind of magnificent structures pictured in its artwork, but every subsequent playthrough allows players more and more opportunities to get over the initial intimidation and understand its inner workings.
In the game, players take on the role of archaeologists who seek to uncover the secrets of the island of Arnak. However, they only have so much time to do it and so many resources to spare. There are several different ways of scoring victory points in Arnak - from unearthing idols at its dig sites to acquiring rare artefacts or deciphering the mysteries of a hidden civilisation - and deciding which to pursue is the game’s true challenge. Arnak teaches you that a buffet isn’t necessarily about trying to grab as much as you can; it’s more about taking the extra time to pick out the best bits.
In your first time around Arnak it’s inevitable that you’ll spread yourself too thin in trying to do something of everything, but that only ever leads to low point scoring and disappointment. (Believe me, I should know.) The next time you face Arnak, you’re better prepared to dedicate yourself to fewer paths, giving you the opportunity to gain some bigger rewards and score better. After learning this lesson, the next big step in Arnak is understanding efficiency. Players might have small decks in Arnak, as acquiring new cards is expensive and not always the best option, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do a lot with them.
Each turn allows for one main action - such as travelling to a dig site, performing an action on a card or fighting a guardian - plus any amount of free actions players have to hand. This means that whilst the first one or two rounds of Arnak might feel uneventful, once players have resources and other cards to hand then they have the potential to squeeze every single morsel out of every round thereafter. Setting yourself up for more fruitful turns is the key to playing Arnak well and the desire to master this is what makes players want to come back for more. There is nothing more satisfying in Arnak than being able to collect a load of points because of the careful actions performed in turns past.
Combine this quest for efficiency with the random elements featured in the game - such as what cards are available to buy, what digsite rewards appear and which guardians spawn - and the unexpected actions of your opponents, and you’ve got one heck of a challenge on your hands. Beyond its size and theme, this is what makes Arnak truly a game about exploration because it’s one you’ll be playing over and over to discover its hidden pathways. Now, with the release of its first expansion, Expedition Leaders - with its excellent playable characters, new rules and alternative boards - there are even more secrets to add into the game.
Lost Ruins of Arnak stands head and shoulders above all other deckbuilding board games as a shining example of how far the genre has come and, hopefully, a peek into the future of where it could go next. That’s why it’s my game of the year.