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[Review] The Ark of the Covenant

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Joined: 03/23/2011

Two questions come to mind immediately when most gamers hear about the Ark of the Covenant (Inspiration Games {Uberplay}, 2003 - Klaus-Jurgen Wrede). The first is - Do we really need yet another variation/expansion of Carcassonne? There is currently the basic game, four official expansions, dozens of unofficial expansions, and a spin-off game, Hunters & Gatherers. The second question: Is it possible for a Christian-themed game to be any good? Most games made for the religious bookstores frankly are fairly sorry, with very few exceptions - Settlers of Canaan one of them. Ark of the Covenant follows the same formula as Settlers - copy an extremely successful “German” game with minor changes to fit the theme.

The answer to the second question is a resounding yes, as the game plays almost identical to the original Carcassonne with only a few changes. The changes are really nice, making the game easier to play, but giving it a distinct flavor that differs from its Carcassonne siblings. The graphics are crisp and clear, and game plays extremely smooth. If you only want one Carcassonne game, this is the one to get. The Biblical theme is barely there, but the game play makes up for it; and it’s nice to have a quality game that at least pretends to be Christian. Carcassonne addicts will want the game, but those who already have Carcassonne may not be interested; even though I believe it’s the superior incarnation of the genre. If you never played Carcassonne before, then this is a great way to introduce yourself to a superior, fun game.

(The following rules summary assumes a person hasn’t played Carcassonne before. For a summary of rule changes, see my comments at the end.)

A starting tile is placed in the middle of the table, with all seventy-one other tiles shuffled and placed face down in piles next to the board. Players receive seven followers (commonly referred to as “meeples”), one large meeple called the “prophet”, and place one leftover meeple on the first space on the scoring track board. An ark of the covenant token is placed near the board, and the game is ready to begin. The player who last read part of the Bible (starting an argument on spirituality) goes first, with play proceeding clockwise around the table.

On a turn, a player draws a tile from any stack, and places it on the board. The tile must be placed next to one side of one existing tile on the board, and all its sides that touch an adjacent tile must match. Tiles can have roads running through them, and/or parts of cities and fields. After placing a tile, the player may place a meeple on the board (either a follower or a Prophet); this meeple must be placed on the tile just played. The player can place a follower on a road, city, or field. The follower cannot be placed on anything that already has a meeple of any color on it; but tiles can be joined together later in the game, causing one or more meeples to be in the same city. Prophet meeples may only be placed in a city - once per game. After the optional placement of the meeple, and completed roads, cities, or temples are scored. A road, which is completed when the ends of the road meet a crossing, city, or temple, scores one point for each tile that makes up the road, with one additional point for each oasis located on the road. A city, which is completed when the city is completely surrounded by city walls, scores two points for each tile in that city, with tiles holding a small scroll symbol scoring an additional two points. Prophets double the amount of points scored by a city and are then removed from the game. The player who has the most meeples on the road or city moves their scoring marker accordingly (ties give the total points to all involved players) and removes their meeple(s) from the road/city. When a temple tile has tiles on all four orthogonical sides, forming a cross, it scores seven points for the player who has the most meeples on those five tiles. These meeples are not removed, and ties in majority give the seven points to all players.

After the first city is completed, the Ark of the Covenant is placed on the board by the player who completed the city onto any tile of said city. From this point on, a player may move the ark of the covenant 1-5 tile spaces on their turn, instead of placing an optional meeple. Each follower the ark crosses scores the owner of that meeple one point. Play continues in this way until the final tile is placed.

Final scoring then occurs for each meeple still on the board. Incomplete cities and roads score one point for each tile composing them, with oases and scrolls scoring one bonus point each. Incomplete temples score three points for the player with the majority of meeples surrounding them. Fields are scored for the first and only time in the game. Each field is worth two points for each sheep icon in that field; however, one sheep icon is canceled by one wolf icon in the field. The scoring track is then consulted, and the player who has scored the most points is the winner!

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: Hooray for a “Christian” game with top quality components! The tiles are thick with the fields being a yellow desert with little sheep on them; and the cities look very sharp. I appreciated how each tile looked unique, even when it was basically identical to another tile on the board. The meeples are colored little wooden people, with the prophets being a little larger (this could cause some confusion at a quick glance, but because of the different role of the prophet in this game - it’s not that big of a deal.) The scoring board looks similar to the tiles, with easy to read numbers on it. Everything fits quite well in a cardboard insert in the very sturdy box (which happens to be the same size as all other Carcassonne games.)

2.) Rules: The rules are printed on six full-color pages with many illustrations and examples. The formatting is excellent, and I had no problem understanding the rules. I did have to read them carefully, however, because I was already familiar with the Carcassonne system, so I had to search for differences. It would have been nice to have a section that outlined the differences between the versions. The game was extremely easy to teach, especially to people who never played Carcassonne, and I found that most people picked up the strategies quickly.

3.) Differences from Carcassonne: Besides the differences in artwork, here is a quick rundown of the major differences between Ark of the Covenant and Carcassonne.
- Prophets are new - doubling the point value of cities they are placed in - instead of just being a “Big” meeple.
- Fields are scored almost identical to those in Hunters and Gatherers, with sheep scoring two points each (with one wolf canceling one sheep), instead of the more confusing fields from Carcassonne.
- The Ark of the Covenant piece allows a player more options; and although I doubt a game has been made or broken by this token, it can give someone those few points to push them over the top.
- Temples only need five tiles, instead of the nine needed for the monasteries in Carcassonne. They also have no meeple placed in them, but rather score for the majority of meeples that surround them.
- Small cities (only two tiles) score four points rather than two like in Carcassonne.

4.) Which?: I believe that if you only want one Carcassonne and have more than two players (for two players, Carcassonne: the Castle is best), this is the best version to buy. It’s the third version of the game, and many of the small kinks that people complained about in previous versions are gone, such as incomplete cities, confusing scoring of fields, boring graphics, etc. It’s the nicest looking game, in my opinion, and has some unique options. I do not like it as much as Carcassonne + all expansions, but compared to vanilla Carcassonne, I’d much rather play this game. If you hate Carcassonne, this game isn’t going to change your mind, however.

5.) Theme: It’s actually kind of enthralling for me to play a “Christian” game that is actually good. But really, the game has almost no redeeming religious value at all - the theme could really be ignored by any of player. The best feature of the theme is that I have been able to introduce the game to players who might never have played a German game such as this before. We didn’t have a church service immediately following after, but it’s nice for Christians to have a game themed to things they understand rather than the umpteenth fantasy-themed game. (Not that I dislike fantasy games, but it’s a nice change of pace.)

6.) Strategy and Fun Factor: One of the biggest complaints against Carcassonne, and therefore this game, is the lack of strategy - one just has to play the tile they draw. I’ve never found this a problem, but I could see how it could be disconcerting to many people. A variation allowing players to have a hand of three tiles helps reduce the luck in the game, but I found it increases analysis paralysis. I love to see how the sprawling map grows and expands, and it’s fun to put the tiles together to score a massive city. The game is a light game, with a lot of tactical decisions - one that fits well with most crowds.

I really enjoyed the Ark of the Covenant. I would encourage all Carcassonne fanatics to buy the game, but I’m sure they have before I’m done typing this review. For those who merely enjoy Carcassonne, this is an excellent variation, but not one necessary if you already own the basic game. For those who think Carcassonne is the most overrated game ever; this isn’t going to change your mind. But for those who crave a short, light game, and have vaguely or never heard the word “Carcassonne” before; this is the perfect opportunity to play Wrede’s masterpiece. Players can interact to a degree in this game, and all players can discuss where each tile should go. I found that it doesn’t work as well in groups that prefer heavy strategy games, but it’s one of the best introductory games I have. I’ve brought it to many events, especially church events, as a game to “hook” new gamers, and I have yet to have it fail me. How can I not have a game like this in my collection?

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

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