Publisher: Lookout Games
Designer: Phil Walker-Harding
Duration: 30-45 mins.
You’ve been chosen… you are one of the finalists to design a new park… and not just any park… a bear park! Or as the Germans call it… a Bärenpark. But you’re not alone… others have been chosen as well to submit their designs. There’s going to be Panda bears, Gobi bears, Polar bears and even Koala bears… we know they’re not really bears, but everyone loves them so why not? Will you be able to finish your design before the others and submit it, and be the best design?
Bärenpark is a tile laying game, very similar to Patchwork but plays up to 4 players, and a totally different mechanic on how you get your tiles. You will be working to design and build the best park, and be the first one to complete it and then score for the most points. With so many puzzle games like this around, will it have enough different going to make it stand out, or is just another clone waiting to be forgotten in obscurity?
What’s in the box?
Inside the box, there are 4 starting park areas, 12 regular park areas, 52 green areas (including toilets, playgrounds, food vendors and rivers), 28 animal houses (7 of each panda, gobi, polar and koala bears), 12 unique enclosures, 16 bear statues (numbered 1-16), 30 achievement tiles and a supply board for the green, animal and enclosure tiles.
The tiles are nice and thick, and it’s published by Lookout Games, who also did Isle of Skye and both games are comparable in cardboard. There’s no wooden pieces at all, which I’m not used to in a game but this game really doesn’t need them for anything. The art is cute, bright and colourful. The only thing is, the gamed comes with an “insert” thats completely useless. But at least there’s bags to hold everything, which isn’t the best way but it works. Overall, the components are good and service the game very well.
So how do you play?
To set up the game, put out the supply board and place all the toilets and playgrounds out, then food vendors and rivers based on the number of players. Do the same for all 4 of the animal houses, making sure they are placed descending order (lowest on the bottom, highest on top) for each of the 4 types of houses. Then place all of the closures in each of their spots, regardless of player count. Put out as many bear statues as required by player count, and place the 12 park areas (without an entrance) into 2 piles of 6. Then each player gets a random park tile with an entrance, and then choose a start player: that player gets a green toilet tile, the 2nd player gets a play ground, the 3rd player gets a playground (if applicable) and the 4th gets a food vendor (if applicable). Now let’s get building!
The gameplay is very simple: each turn, you will place one and only one tile (regardless of how many are in your possession). If you notice on your board, there are a few symbols: wheelbarrows, cement trucks, excavators, construction crews and pits. The pits may never ever be covered with a tile, but placing your tile over one or more symbols will give you something:
- Wheelbarrows will give you a choice of any of the 4 green tiles
- Cement trucks will give you animal houses, or you may take a green tile if you choose
- Excavators give you any of the available enclosures, or you may take an animal house or green tile if you choose
- Construction crews give you a new park area choose one of the 2 available tiles and place it next to your start tile or another tile (but never below your entrance. The orientation must be towards you, and it must line up exactly with another tile. Once you build your 4th tile, you may not build more when you cover up the last contstruction crew
After your first tile, each tile must be placed next to another tile, and must never hang off the board or overlap another tile. If you don’t have a tile to place, you must pass and choose a free green tile, and then place it the next turn (it’s never a good idea to leave yourself without a tile). Once you have fully covered one of your park areas (minus the pit), take the highest number bear statue and place it on your pit spot.
Once a player covers all 4 of their park areas, each other player gets one more turn, and then the game is over… but wait, who wins? You’ve probably noticed that animal houses, enclosures, and bear statues have numbers on them: those are points. Count up all your points and whoever has the most points has designed the greatest Bear Park, and therefore wins the game!
The game also includes a variant called achievements: at the beginning of the game, draw 3 achievements and place them out: there are 3 tiles for each achievement, and you place the highest value on top (in a 2player game, use only the top 2 tiles for each achievement). They’re all different: some require you to get a certain amount of animal houses/enclosures, some require you to connect rivers, etc. On your turn when you have met an achievement take the topmost tile of that achievement (and don’t forget, you may only have one of each achievements in a game) and you will score those points at the end.
Is it any good?
In a sea of tile laying games with very little player interaction (yes, I see you looking at me Karuba), it becomes hard to stand out. You have to offer something new, or really have solid mechanics that make the game really accessible and fun. With so many games coming out each and every week, and so many of them being good but not great, where does a game like Bärenpark fit in?
Bärenpark doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but what it does is polish it down to simple mechanics and extremely engaging gameplay. It is so easy to learn and even easier to play. It takes the concept of Patchwork, but while in that game players can take their time, theres a sense of urgency to Bärenpark that I really enjoy. You feel like you need to race to get the animal houses before they lose value, or to get the unique enclosures before they’re gone, or to be the first to finish a park area and get the higher value bear statue, or be the first to get that objective, or even be the first to finish and end that game. It’s a mechanic that really works well, and even though finishing first doesn’t guarantee you the win, it sure helps!
I really like the mechanic of playing just one tile, and no bonuses or anything to let you play extras. It really makes everyone on a very similar playing field and that also means it scales well between all player counts. You add more tiles for more players and you always run out of a few stacks by the end no matter the player count. Theres also enough bear statues to go around, so everyone can finish all their park tiles (if you can!)
As for the “optional” achievements… I don’t think they’re an option. I really don’t see why you should play without them. They add a layer to the game without any extra difficulty, and just give you ways to score points. They also add a lot of variability and replay value, and just give you more strategy options. Maybe if you’re playing with young kids it might be a little too much, but I recommend playing your first game with it and you’ll be glad you did.
I touched on the components and they’re good. Nothing stands out, but the art is colourful and the bears are cool. Even though Koalas are not bears, I’m happy they included them. It’s still weird to have no wooden components to the game… perhaps even some bear statues would have been cool to put on top of your cardboard ones, but it doesn’t affect gameplay.
As I touched on before… the only real complaint is lack of any player interaction. Yes, you take tiles before your opponent to get more points, but it’s really your puzzle and no one else can affect it. Even in Patchwork the tiles you buy affect what your opponent can get, or spacing yourself between your opponent can make you more money (buttons?), but it’s really just you in Bärenpark. It’s not the end of the world, but a little interaction would have been nice.
All in all, Bärenpark is great. It takes a well used formula that could have felt stale, yet makes it so accessible and addictive you just can’t help but fall in love. The puzzle gameplay is the best outside of Karuba for me, and the race element is just fantastic. This game was out of print here but it just came back, and after playing it numerous times before I finally got my own copy, and have played it lots of times since. If you love tile laying games or puzzles, or need a quick game that offers lots of strategy, Bärenpark is definitely a game you need to check out.
- Really quick to learn and to play, and even easier to teach.
- Engaging Tetris-like gameplay.
- Scales well between players counts.
- The achievements are great and theres no need to play without them. Seriously… play with them on your first play!
- No player interaction, which unfortunately seems typical in this type of game. Why can’t I steal bears from other parks? Wait… I take that back… maybe…