If you want to be King of the Bears, there are tests to pass. You must travel the land and gather the most knowledge of religion, military, education and commerce. And you’d better erect some sacred bear statues so that everyone in the land knows how important you are. If you want the throne, you have to do all of this faster than the other hopefuls. The Way of the Bear casts you as a prince of the land embarking on a quest to become the next king. Will you succeed, or are you destined to be the court jester?
How It Plays
The Way of the Bear is a set collection and path-building game with a racing element built in. The goal is to be the first player to complete your personal player board. This means gathering two tokens of each knowledge type (or three, in a two-player game). Do this and you’ll be the new king of the bears.
Turns are simple in The Way of the Bear (hereafter TWOB). You can choose to either get new bears (they’re called steles in the game, but I’m just going to call them bears for simplicity’s sake), or acquire a knowledge token.
If you choose to get new bears, you can take two from the temple tracks on the board, or draw three randomly from the bag. If you have more than ten bears in your reserve at the end of your turn, you must discard down to ten and return the excess to the bag.
Getting a new knowledge token is trickier. The board is randomly seeded with tokens at the beginning of the game. Four random bears are also placed on the board and these mark where the quest for tokens begins. To gain a knowledge token, you must place a bear on a space with a token. The token is then yours to be placed in an empty spot on your player board. Note that you can never take a token of a type for which you do not have an empty slot. Some tokens have seals on them and these can be extra-valuable at the end of the game. Others are just regular tokens. When you complete a column on your board, you will take a seal card, which I’ll explain in a minute.
Ah, but it’s not so simple as just plonking a bear anywhere you want. Nope, there are rules. Rule number one is that you may not place your bear adjacent to another one of the same color. The board spaces are connected by paths and if you want to place an orange bear, for example, you can’t place it where another orange bear connects to that space. Rule number two is that the bear you place must be adjacent to another bear (just not one of the same color). So you can’t just go off into the wilderness and place a bear on any empty spot.
It’s also not free to place a bear. The price of placement is determined by the adjacent bears. You must pay the same number and color of bears from your supply to the respective temples. If you place an orange bear adjacent to a blue bear and a white, you would have to pay one blue and one white bear to the temples in order to take the token on that space.
If you wind up placing a bear on the last space of a temple track, a ritual occurs. First, all of the bears on that track are returned to the bag. Then the player may take a bear from any other temple track and add it to their supply.
The flies in the ointment of TWOB are the seal cards. Remember, these are earned by completing a column on your board. They allow you to break a few rules in the game (altering the price for building, letting you break the bear placement rules, rearranging already placed bears, trading out unwanted bears, etc). You may have up to four cards and you can play or combine several during a turn. You may not play a card on the same turn in which you acquire it, however. Used cards go into the game box and cannot be used or earned again.
Play continues around the table until a player fills in the last space on their player board. The current round is played out so that everyone has an equal number of turns. If you are the only player to complete your board, congrats! You win outright. However, if multiple players complete their boards, the winner is the person who has the most seals. (Remember, seals were gained from tokens, the backs of unused seal cards, and/or from the seal card that provides dragon seals at game’s end.)
A Path Worth Following, or a Dead End?
Rio Grande has been on a winning streak with me lately. Queenz and Butterfly were very good games and, spoiler alert, Monster Baby Rescue is also looking good. (That review will be coming soon.) So to say I had high hopes for The Way of the Bear would be putting it mildly. Alas, TWOB failed to live up to those hopes. Not that it’s a bad game, it’s just… Uninspiring. At least to me. Still, there are some good things about it that may make it a winner for you, so let me unpack my opinion a bit.
First, the good (and there is a fair amount of good). The puzzle the game presents is interesting. You need to place your bears on the board to get tokens, but your placement will be limited by both color and cost. You have to find a spot where your bear can go and not be adjacent to another bear of the same color, but you also have to be able to afford to place that bear by having the requisite number/color of bears. This can be an interesting decision on two fronts. You will probably find yourself “playing the board” on some turns and simply reacting to what others place. Solve the puzzle, place a bear. But if you’re astute, you may find that you can try to control the board a bit for future turns by making wise placements. “If I place this bear here, I can block Joe from getting to that token he needs and possibly preserve it for myself.”
All the while, you want to be looking toward the future. TWOB is about efficiency. Ideally, you’ll find the shortest path to collect all the tokens you need. But circumstances will likely force you to take detours, so you’ll have to reroute. The puzzle tightens as the game goes on and the board fills up. There will be fewer tokens of each type available and they may be in inconvenient or expensive locations.
You also have to balance your “bear economy.” There will be many turns where you simply take bears, either from the bag or the temple tracks, in order to give yourself options. The more bears you have, the more options you’ll likely have when your turn comes around. But if you spend too much time hoarding bears, you’re going to fall behind in the overall race and bear placement is going to get more expensive as other players fill up the board. So you have to balance spending and gaining bears. And when you do spend, you want to place bears as cheaply as possible to preserve your bear hoard.
Along with the interesting puzzle, the game scales well. The board is in three parts and with two or three players, a piece remans unused to tighten the map. I usually dislike anything with an area influence mechanism at two players because it feels pointless. But the tighter map makes it “bear”able here. I still think it plays better with more, but it’s not terrible with two.
There also some reasonable variability game to game, although I hesitate to call it “highly re-playable” for reasons I’ll outline below. The tokens are randomly placed out each game, so no two games ever offer the exact same paths. The locations of the starting bears are also randomly selected, as are the bears you receive to begin the game. This means that no two games play out exactly the same and no one can count on one path as always leading to victory.
Lastly, the components are great. The bear statures are chunky plastic that are fun to play with when it’s not your turn. (Strangely, they remind me of Teddy Grahams cookies. I think it’s the belly button.) The artwork is vibrant and bright. Everything is easy to see. The cardboard is thick and even the inside of the box is nicely decorated. It’s quite the package. But… It’s that beauty that leads me into the cons.
Honestly, the biggest problem TWOB has to my mind is the price tag. It carries the price (and box size) of a “big” game, yet at 30 minutes or less of playtime, it’s basically a filler. Yes, the bears are nice, but a game this simple and short shouldn’t have a retail price of $50. (Sure, you can get it for $35-40 at an online store, but that’s still pricey for a game of this type.) I get it. The cost is likely tied to the plastic bear meeples, but I would have been happier with a smaller price point and less bling. Save the bling for a bigger, longer game.
Other than that, my cons mostly fall into the category of “Just not what I’m seeking in a game, but you might love it,” sorts of things. First, the game is very luck dependent. That’s not terrible in a family game, but it can feel unfair. Drawing bears from the bag = luck. Drawing seal cards = luck. You can mitigate the former sometimes by taking bears from the temple tracks, but if there are none available in the color you want, you’ll have to draw and you might not get anything useful. You can go a couple of turns without getting the bears you need and if that happens, you may fall too far behind in the race to catch up. (Well, unless your opponents have a run of bad luck, too. Which they might, but the fact that you can’t count on that can make some games feel unfair.)
And as far as the seal cards go, some are more useful than others. Not to the point where the game feels unbalanced, necessarily, but just to the point where you find yourself hoping for some over others. Draws are blind so you don’t know what you’ll get. You may get cards that just don’t help you. In a way, that’s not the worst thing to happen since you don’t have to spend them and unspent cards may help you win in the end.
Which brings me to the next point. I’m not a big fan of the winning conditions of the game. I don’t mind that the first person to complete their board wins outright. That’s normal. But if two or more players complete their boards on the same turn (which seems to happen more often than you might think), you resort to the seals to decide the winner. And that winning condition isn’t easy for you to control during the game. Seals can be found on tokens, unspent cards, or the card that gives you three seals. Getting seals off the tokens isn’t a sure thing. Depending on which way the path winds and where you need to place bears, you may or may not get a token with a seal. It doesn’t seem terrible at the time… After all, you’re making progress on filling your board. But at the end of the game, you may get hosed out of the victory by someone whose path took them through more tokens with seals.
Same with the seal cards. Yes, it’s a strategic decision whether or not to hoard them for the end game. “If I keep this instead of using it, I’ll have seals. But what are the odds I’ll need those seals versus what are the odds that I can finish my board first if I use the card to make a better move?” In that sense, it’s great. But it’s very difficult to figure out the odds of this strategy, especially since most players seem to progress at nearly the same rate. (Unless that bad luck intervenes and someone gets left way behind.) So you end up either using cards and regretting it when someone beats you on seals, or hoarding them and regretting it when you lose the race. And if someone gets the card that’s worth seals at the end of the game, that’s a bonus that’s very difficult for others to overcome.
None of this — the luck or the winning weirdness — is awful. The game is light and short enough that no one ends up in a total rage over it. It’s just that at times it feels really unfair to have worked to win the race only to have it snatched from you by things you couldn’t control.
I touched on some of the decisions you’ll make in the game above. The game isn’t brainless. I do enjoy the puzzle it presents, at least for a while. The problem is that the decisions start to feel obvious and simple the more times you play. That might not be a problem for families or non-gamers. But for me, I’d prefer if there were more things in the game to change it up. Yes, the setup is random for each game, but the basic strategy and decisions will always be the same. You want to build bears as cheaply as possible. If you can do that and get a token with a seal, choose that over building where there’s no seal. If you have a chance to block someone from getting a certain token and it won’t harm you to do so, you should do it. If you can place a bear and trigger a ritual that wipes a temple track clean of bears for the next player, forcing them to draw from the bag, do it. If you can complete a column and get a card, you should probably do that. It’s all pretty straightforward stuff.
Yes, the order in which you make these decisions may be situationally dependent and change game to game, but besides reordering them from game to game, there’s really nothing new to try. There aren’t several different ways to score points, or an engine to build in different ways. It’s a race, pure and simple, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, I’d prefer if there were more ways to get to the finish line.
The Way of the Bear isn’t a bad game by any stretch. There is some entertainment value here, particularly for new and non-gamers who haven’t played many race or path-making games. The puzzle is interesting for a few games. It’s just that it sits in an odd space in the gaming universe. With a high price tag, you expect “more” game, not a filler. If it were priced $10 less, I think I’d feel better about recommending it. I’d also feel better about recommending it if it offered a bit more strategy and variety of decisions. Then again, if it offered those, it might be worth the higher price tag. You can see the circle in which I find myself.
I don’t usually get hung up on the cost of a game because value is in the eye of the beholder. But in this case, I feel like the cost is directly tied to my cons about the game, so it’s hard to get past that. If you’re looking for a light, lovely-looking game that presents an interesting puzzle for a few nights of entertainment, then TWOB might be for you. I’d just suggest waiting for a sale.