It seems like such a simple task: get from this camp to the other camp downriver. Simple.
Were it not for the bears.
Yes, you are in the aptly named Bear Valley, and while there aren’t many bears, they can show up at the most inopportune times. Can you pick your path carefully up the river without getting lost–or eaten?
How It Works
Bear Valley is a push-your-luck exploration game for two to six players. Players are trying to reach the destination camp. The first player there wins.
To begin, lay out the river cards in your chosen configuration. Each player chooses a color and places their pawn on the starting camp.
On a turn, players will explore the woods, trying to find a path to the destination camp. Players don’t actually move until the end of their turn–there are many ways to get lost in the woods, which sends them back to where they are. So they point at the map until they choose to stop. Players start where they are and point at exits from their cards. Each point is the next number on the clock, starting with 1:00. Good things happen when you explore at 1:00 or 2:00, but as you count along from there, the odds of getting lost in the woods increase. Wherever you point, you have to add a new card showing paths, and the cards fit together in a rectangular hex grid. The card must connect to the path you pointed to or you get lost in the woods. Further, if you draw a card at 3:00, for example, that has exactly three exits, you are lost and don’t move at all. If you draw a card with a bear on it after 1:00, you don’t move. And if you draw a bear card after 6:00…well, you get eaten.
Players may also move onto cards that have already been explored without any ill effects, but two players cannot occupy the same path on a card.
Play continues until either one player reaches the destination camp (that player wins) or the draw deck runs out. If the player who drew the last card cannot legally make it back to the start camp in that turn, the bears win (Rahr!).
Note: There are also several advanced variants in the game that add items, asymmetrical player powers, and “enchantments.”
Stuck in the Valley with You?
Bear Valley, with its small box, card-based play, and short estimated play time, might lead you to believe that it is a simple filler game, the trailer before the main attraction. Yet with its 40-page rulebook and Chudykian complexity, that appearance is certainly not the reality. Bear Valley isn’t the filler game it looks like, but it also is more given over to luck than you might want a main event game to be. Is that the end of it–stuck in a middle zone with no way out?
This is Carl Chudyk we’re talking about. Of course not.
While Bear Valley does have limited utility in filling a niche in your collection, it does occupy a unique space–one you might not have known you wanted filled: a push-your-luck exploration game.
In some ways, push-your-luck exploration has been done before. You “explore” temple ruins in Incan Gold, and you push your luck while you do it. But in Bear Valley, the emphasis is much heavier on the exploration than the luck pushing as players create an interesting map with twists and turns and dead-end paths.
Players are trying to explore their way from base camp to the destination camp, but while they choose the exit they take, they have no control over what they find on the next card. This often results in hilariously awry backtracks and discursive paths through the woods. This will frustrate some players, because there’s no way to really control which cards come up when. An ill-timed bear can stop you in your tracks, or you might get the one card that doesn’t connect to your path, or the bridge might force you to go a way you don’t want to go, or the number of exits might match your time of day, sending you back to where you began your turn. All of this can be upsetting if you don’t take it in the spirit of the game.
Bear Valley only works when you take all of this in the spirit of the game. But this is where it might come off the rails for some. This is a Carl Chudyk game, and thus the rules multiply and multiply and multiply. No, this isn’t Glory to Rome or Innovation, but it also isn’t Can’t Stop. One player said they liked the game because I was forced to sound like I was making the whole thing up as I went along, and that is so true. There are so many rules here–the rulebook is, no joke, forty pages–that if you want players to start playing before their eyes glass over, you naturally leave some of the “finer points” out. But you have no choice about when those details come up, so if you give a barebones, “shut up and play!” explanation, it does seem like you’re back-pedaling the whole game to catch up. There is also the weird “these are rectangular cards that are really hexes” concept a la Chudyk’s Impulse, which always trips new players up. I hate explaining the rules to Carl Chudyk games, and Bear Valley is no exception.
But the rules complexity is particularly odd here, because the game is so simple. You explore cards; the cards have to fit for you to move on; there’s a very mechanical way to determine whether you go bust. Easy peasy. But then mountain cards impede your movement, as do cards with water. Then there’s the forest cards I dread explaining every time they come up. While most players I’ve introduced Glory to Rome to agree that the learning curve is worth the effort, there was not universal agreement that Bear Valley offered a good ROI for the time spent learning it. These and other rules niggles take the simple concept at the core of Bear Valley and make the game laughably obtuse.
Yet here again, this laughably obtuse nature is what makes Bear Valley such a joy as players abandon themselves to the vicissitudes of the wild river. Bear Valley is more about the journey than the destination, and what a journey it is. The best-laid trails of mice and men gang aft a-gley, and in Bear Valley, you get to witness this in real-time, and you have the map as a souvenir as the game progresses. That pathway seemed like a slam dunk until the bear showed up, or until it shot off in an unexpected direction. No matter how large your table is or where you start the river, your playing surface isn’t big enough. The cards keep going, and players, eager not to waste their turn entirely, keep pushing their luck, thinking, It has to turn back sometime. And when it doesn’t, it’s hilarious.
What creates these ridiculous situations is the laughably obtuse rules. Players are being forced to slow down or are going bust all over the place–for time of day, for non-matching cards–which forces them to make up more ground, to take even bigger risks the next turn. It’s funny when these risks fail spectacularly, and it might be even funnier when they succeed. Regardless of what happens or who wins, there are memorable moments, and it’s difficult to play the game and not thoroughly enjoy what’s happening. At least if, as I said before, you enter the game with the right spirit.
Bear Valley comes with lots of opportunity for customization. The map can be tailored to a short or a long game. There are item tokens that can be used, gold, special “enchanted” cards showing butterflies, foxes, and mushrooms, and asymmetric player abilities. (Every player can have a phobia and a bonus.) These add even more complexity to the game, so I wouldn’t add them in right away (and these weren’t included in many of my games for that reason), but they might make the game even more fun, especially by requiring players to avoid certain terrain types. The lure of a gold victory is also attractive, although difficult to pull off. One player said he doesn’t want to play the game without the special stuff anymore; I’m fine with either mode, although if I’m explaining it to someone for the first time, the basic game is what we’re playing.
The box advertises play for two to six players. I’ve played with every count but two, and I’ve enjoyed them all. Since Bear Valley is more about what happens than who wins, I tend toward a the-more-the-merrier mentality, but more players can also make the game more chaotic as more paths get blocked off. That’s fine with me; I’m not here for heavy strategy. The component quality of Bear Valley is excellent, although I’m not a fan of the art. Some of the players I’ve played with, though, were interested in the game because of the art, so take what I say here with a grain of salt. It does give the game a specific look, kind of like a cult classic film.
And that’s what I think of Bear Valley: it’s too complex and quirky to become a classic game, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it became a cult classic. There’s just something about it that I can’t put my finger on, something here that makes me want to keep playing it, even though I’m tired of explaining it and feel the need to apologize for its faults. (And the faults are real: the rules complexity alone will be enough to send some fleeing to the hills.) But similar to a Reuben sandwich–that odd mix of corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and rye bread that somehow works–Bear Valley, in spite of its brazen obtuseness and its reckless embrace of both complexity and luck, nevertheless delivers the goods in entertainment value. Again, not with everyone, and not in all circumstances. But for certain players, this will be the bear-laden romp through the woods they’ve been looking for.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Stronghold Games for providing us with a review copy of Bear Valley.
A Bear to Learn
Unique push-your-luck exploration gameplay
Creates hilarious moments as players explore and get lost in the woods
Fun to watch, even if you aren't playing
Components are top quality
HUGE learning curve for such a simple game
Very luck dependent
Too complex for a filler but not satisfying enough for a main course
This review comes across like an apologia.
That isn’t far off, probably. 🙂 Early reviews weren’t very kind to it. I certainly understand the criticisms, but there’s something here despite its faults that has merit.