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Review: Barenpark

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Barenpark - Box

Face it, bears are adorable. (Unless you come face to face with a grizzly in the wilderness. Then, not so much.) You want to take advantage of their tourist draw and build yourself a bear park! To do this, you’ll need enclosures, animal houses, food stands, toilets, and playgrounds to keep the kiddies occupied. And you want to get your park built before everyone else so you can corner the market on bears. Barenpark: The next big thing in theme parks.

How It Plays

Barenpark is a tile laying game that has you building your own personal bear park using tiles you take from a communal supply. Note that the first available tiles in any area are worth the most points and values dwindle as tiles are claimed and placed.

Each player begins the game with one park area board (where you will be placing tiles) and one tile, the type of which is assigned based on the number of players in the game. Turns are easy-peasy and consist of three steps:

  1. Place a tile. Place one tile from your supply into your park, following the placement rules. If you cannot make a legal placement, you must pass. If you pass, you can choose a toilet, river, playground, or food street from the supply board and add it to your supply. Your turn ends immediately after, however. Note that you may not pass if you have a legal placement. Like it or not, you have to place a tile if you can.
  2. Evaluate icons. When you place a tile into your park, that tile will cover up some icons on your park board. Any icons that you covered with your tile placement are now resolved in any order. Most icons give you more tiles, be they toilets, food stands, playgrounds, animal houses or enclosures. (There’s no limit to the number of tiles you can have in hand.) The construction crew icon allows you to place a new park board adjacent to an existing park board in your play area. You’re only allowed a maximum of four boards.
  3. Place a bear statue. If you completed a park board (i.e., covering all spaces except “the pit” with tiles), take the bear statue with the highest value remaining and place it on the pit space of your completed board.
Barenpark - Board Loaded
The board with tiles on.

When a player completes all four of their park boards, everyone else gets one more turn. After that, the game ends and everyone scores their parks. Scoring is super simple: Simply add up all the points showing on the tiles in your park. The player with the most points wins.

There is an advanced variant involving achievements which is recommended for advanced players. Achievements give you extra points at game’s end if their requirements are met. For example, having three polar bear tiles in your park, having a three-tile long food street in your park, having a cluster of six green areas in your park, etc. Achievement points are added to your final total during scoring and it’s still the person with the most points who is the winner.

A Beary Nice Game, or Simply Unbearable?

Okay, so it’s no secret that tile-laying games are my favorites. To my mind, you can never have enough! Still, though, because space and money are finite (if that’s not so for you, then congrats, go buy this right now), most of us have to make decisions about whether a game is unique or fun enough to merit a place in our collections. So, does Barenpark make the cut?

For me, yes. This is a game I’ll be keeping. First of all, it fits into our current gaming life. By that I mean that we have limited time to play these days. I want games that are quick and easy to learn, yet which offer interesting and meaningful decisions. That’s not an easy combo to find. Yet Barenpark manages to pull it off.

Barenpark is super simple to learn. All you do on your turn is place one tile and then add more tiles to your hand, if applicable. Even the advanced variant doesn’t add much to learn. (But it does add a lot more to the game. More on that in a minute.) This is a game that non-gamers can easily get into. And the approachable theme makes it very easy to get them to play.

Barenpark - Achievements
Achievement tiles

More than the simplicity, though, is the hidden depth that goes into this game. Unlike a lot of tile laying games (or gateway games in general), all of the information in Barenpark is open. There is no randomness, no luck. All of the tiles are on the board, their values clearly displayed as you progress through the stacks. You always know exactly what’s available and how much it’s worth. There are no random draws, no tiles taken face down so that no one knows how many points you earned. You know everything and can act accordingly.

Even in the advanced variant, the achievements in play are not hidden. Everyone is playing for the same thing and it is known. The first person to achieve it gets the tile with the most points, the second gets second-most, and so on. The only randomness (that can be) involved is in the choosing of which achievements to play for. You can choose by agreement or random draw.

If you desire a simple game with perfect control, this one is for you. The only thing that will get in your way is if another player takes a tile you had your eye on before your turn comes around. In most games (especially in the family setting), this sort of interaction will happen accidentally.

Barenpark - Gobi Bears
Gobi bears and some of the park boards.

However, among experienced players it is entirely possible to gauge what your opponent might be going for and snatch it out from under them. Again, everyone’s boards are open to scrutiny, so you may be able to see that they have a t-shaped hole remaining and, oh look, there’s one t-shaped tile left in the supply. Hmmm. If you can engineer your turn so that you can cover up the correct icons to take it, well, then, you’ve just earned a nasty look from your opponent.

I especially love the way the tiles decrease in value as the game goes on. This reminds me a bit of Lanterns. You want to hurry to get the tiles with the most points, but at the same time if you’re unable to place them in your park, they’re worthless. (Unless you’re trying to simply play keep away with an opponent, which can be a viable strategy at times.) And, while you may be able to place a high value tile in your park, if it blocks your future progress, you haven’t really gained anything. You want to balance gaining high value individual tiles with building a complete park which scores highly. It’s a tough line to walk.

Barenpark - Panda
Pandas and bear statues.

Barenpark is a puzzle in several forms. There’s the spatial puzzle of figuring out how to place your tiles to complete your boards. But there’s another puzzle underneath that. Not only do your tiles have to fit on the board, how you place them and when matters. Since the icons you cover with your tile this turn will give you pieces to work with in future turns, you have to solve the puzzle of what you need and when. And that ties into the puzzle of figuring out when you can/should pursue the higher value tiles versus settling for lower values which may be more useful. If you’re a puzzle lover, this is for you.

You’d think that all of this puzzling might lead to analysis paralysis, making the game last longer than it should. It’s true that at a table of gamers, there can be some slowdown as they think through the future repercussions of a turn. However, it’s never too bad because the limit of placing one tile per turn cuts down on the amount of thinking to be done. Some people might make it painful, but I find that these are the people who can make any game painful. Generally, Barenpark plays pretty quickly with most players making the best choice and moving on.

The game scales well at all player counts. I found playing with two, three, or four to be similar experiences. The only difference being at the higher counts you’re more likely to lose out on a tile you want, simply because more people may be gunning for it. What’s available changes more between turns, leaving you more at the mercy of, “what’s best” rather than being able to work a tighter strategy as you can with fewer players.

Barenpark - Polar Bears & Koalas
Polar bears and koalas.

I found Barenpark to be highly re-playable. Many tile layers are, simply due to the nature of the beast and the fact that what’s available or how it can be positioned changes game to game. Well, in Barenpark what’s available never changes. (Unless you’re playing with achievements, in which case, those will change.) Neither does the order or its availability. However, each park board is structured a bit differently, with the icons in different places. You can’t count on one board playing exactly like another. Add in the achievements, and you have a game that’s never quite the same each time.

Finally, I really love the scoring of this game, especially when teaching non-gamers. It’s as obvious as counting the numbers on your completed park boards. There are no hidden points, no bonuses, no multipliers. It’s very simple to calculate, and to see how your opponents are doing as the game progresses.

My only major gripe about the game has little to do with the game. Rather, the setup can be a bit fiddly. The tiles all have to be laid out/stacked correctly on the board every game. This isn’t difficult, but it could have been made so much easier by a decent box insert. Instead, you get some pieces of cardboard that I think are supposed to create some sort of dividers and storage compartments. However, I apparently flunked geometry because there is no way that these pieces can be assembled to create a functional insert. So either everything just gets tossed into the box willy-nilly, you invest in baggies, or you get crafty and make your own insert.

Barenpark - Green spaces
Some of the green areas – food, toilets, etc.

And one final problem: The first printing has an error on the supply board. The wrong number of tiles is indicated for the food stands and playgrounds. It’s easily fixed with a marker, or by simply following the rulebook for setup because it is correct in the book. There’s also a printable fix for those looking for something neater on Mayfair’s website. Or, you can wait for the second printing where, supposedly, this will be fixed for good.

Other than those small gripes, Barenpark really shines for me. It’s a simple game with perfect information and control. There’s more strategy involved than appears at first glance. It’s something I can play with non-gamer friends and family and have a great, relaxing time. It’s also something I can play with my gamer friends in a more strategic manner, using the achievements and the open information to best advantage. If you’re looking for a versatile tile laying game, Barenpark is for you.

iSlaytheDragon.com thanks Mayfair Games for giving us a copy of Barenpark for review.

  • Rating 9.0
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Summary

Pros

Simple to play and learn, but with meaningful decisions.
Approachable theme.
Variants for advanced players increase (already solid) replayability.
A luck-free gateway game.
Puzzle lovers will adore this.

Cons

Fiddly set up, hindered by poor storage solution in the box.
First edition has an error on the supply board (rulebook is correct).
Very little interaction; mostly accidental rather than deliberate.

9.0 Excellent

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I'm also one of "those people" who likes dice and revels in randomness.

Discussion2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Review Roundup | Tabletop Gaming News

  2. Joseph E. Pilkus III

    Great review! I had a chance to play Barenpark several times at Origins earlier this year and found it adorable. I’m never going to be the guy who plays Castles of Mad King Ludwig, Patchwork, or other similar tile-laying games…the themes just don’t do anything for me. But…building a bear park…fantastic! I’m also more and more interested in finding games that I can teach my young nieces (5 and 8) and as they get older, introduce them to more advanced mechanics and concepts. Anyway, this one will make it into my collection.

    Cheers,
    Joe

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