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Who bears wins – Bärenpark Review

Bärenpark was one of the hot games of this year’s UK Games Expo, the latest design from Spiel des Jahres nominee Phil Walker-Harding whose Imhotep was so warmly receieved a couple of years ago.  With Sushi Go Party and Cacao also to his name, Walker-Harding has a decent strike rate of quality games, so expectations are high for his most recent addition to the canon.

Bärenpark offers its two to four players the chance to design the bear park of their dreams, while those of us who do not lie awake into the early hours wondering how many koalas will be needed to keep hypothetical visitors occupied will instead be promised something under an hour of gently taxing gameplay.

Is it a Patchwork from other Gardens?  A little…

Barenpark Board Game

Isn’t she just a little too close to that thing?

The components are impressive, and the artwork is inviting and fun, more cartoony than realistic, and providing a view of the bears more as cuddly little scamps than flesh-tearing monsters.  Punching out the many pieces from the boards makes it clear that what greets players is another build-it-yourself Tetris-style puzzler, along the lines of Patchwork or Cottage Garden, placing Bärenpark firmly in the genetic ballpark of those games, although a long way short of the widescreen approach of a beast like A Feast For Odin.  There are tiles, more tiles, and yet more tiles, all in the kinds of shapes one would expect for something clearly taking its inspiration from Tetris, although they are all illustrated with the kinds of things one might hope to find in a park, from toilets (of course!) to kiosks to the the bears themselves.

There is also a central board, onto which these various tiles are placed at the beginning of the game.  This board has useful reminders of how the number of tiles varies with each player count, and is dotted with doodles of bears, reminding us how cuddly those little furries are until you get close to them.  The tiles themselves fall into three colour-coded categories, and the more useful ones come with points marked on them.  The most valuable tiles are stacked on top of the cheaper ones, and that is the set up pretty much done.

The animals come in four by four!  Hurrah!

Each player takes one of the starting park boards before a game of Bärenpark begins and the remaining 4×4 boards are shuffled into two piles for use during the game.  Each of these park boards shows a different combination of icons that allows their players to take tiles or another park board when they are covered.  Be clever enough to cover two or three icons at once and you get to take your pick of a whole bunch of tiles, but find yourself backed into an awkward corner and you lose a chance to grab something.  Each park board also has a men-at-work symbol on it that cannot be covered by a tile – instead when all the other spaces are covered the player picks the highest value bear statue token and uses it to fill this spot.

Players all receive a starting tile, the starting player having their advantage mitigated by receiving only a single-space toilet (yes indeed), and the game proceeds via the placement of tiles and, if icons are covered, the selection of new tiles and new park boards.  A new board may be selected from either pile but must be placed right way up, and a park may only have four tiles at maximum.  Once any player covers every single space on their board all the other players take one final turn and the game is scored.  Points are gained for some of the tiles and the bear statues, and that’s it…at least in the basic game.

Barenpark Board Game

Rules are clear and concise.

Basic or advanced?  Really no choice!

Truth be told, the basic game is pretty much as dull as it sounds – place a tile and pick a tile – but thankfully Bärenpark comes equipped with achievements that can be thrown into the game for a more interesting experience, and they are pretty much essential to prevent the game becoming a snoozefest after only a few plays.  The achievements award points in the same manner as the tiles, the first player to claim one getting the greatest benefit for such things as having six green tiles in a group, or three polar bear enclosures, or one of each shape of white tile.  There are ten types of achievements and only three are used in each game, so there is a decent amount of variability to be had, and they haul the game into decent territory, so much so that even newbie gamers would probably be well advised just to dive straight into the full game.  It feels a little like Fresco whose starter version also feels flaccid compared to the full experience, the small changes enhancing the game considerably.

Barenpark Board Game

Achievement tiles are a must.

Bärenpark sits on the light to medium-light end of the gaming spectrum, and has similar qualities to enduring classics in that it enables non-gamers to experience what a “proper” game can be like with a minimum of coaching.  After all, so many people have played Tetris that the concept is simple to grasp, and the scoring in Bärenpark is indicated clearly on the various tiles – none of this “gain 1VP for each unfermented apple in your non-upgraded courtyard” nonsense.  Instead you add up the numbers you can see on your board and achievement tiles and that is it.

Player count?  It scales fur-ly well!

Bärenpark also scales well from two to four players.  The rules are identical and all that changes is that the number of tiles is different at each player count.  There are no dummy players and no exceptions – everything is commendably streamlined and straightforward, pretty much what one would expect from this designer.  Even so, the most fun is had with a full table and all the tiles in play, and even at the highest player count the decisions are taken easily enough that time passes quickly.

Barenpark Board Game

The set up for different player counts is clearly marked.

In terms of negatives it is a shame that all four of the starting boards have identical icons on both sides, the only difference being the name of the park itself.  This means that instead of having the possibility of eight different starting setups there are only four.  Perhaps this is a conscious design choice, perhaps not, but either way it appears to be an opportunity missed, and it might not make too much difference to the way a game plays out, but still…

Barenpark Board Game

Eight starting zoos…that are the same on both sides. So only four, really.

How to store it?  Insert joke here!

Talking of design choices, the insert for Bärenpark, such as it is, is one of the most bizarre contraptions I have ever seen.  You will need to slot together three seemingly leftover bits of punched card, and that is assuming that you managed to spot the tiny diagram detailing how to put them together before you stuck the leftover punchboards into the recycling, for this diagram is not to be found in the instructions but instead on the bits of the game you throw away.  Even once assembled the puzzle continues, because there is no clue as to what is meant to be stored in each of the three triangular (yes, that’s right!) compartments, and whatever solution you come up involves some kind of jumbled-up compromise.  I can only assume that this is some kind of metagame in-joke, an entry test for those who would play Bärenpark – solve this and we’ll let you attempt to put a bear park together!  Players are probably better off binning the dividers and storing tiles in plastic baggies instead.

Barenpark Board Game

What the..?

Insert aside (which is where it should be thrown), Bärenpark has all the qualities that might well even see it considered for something like the Spiel des Jahres.  While heavy hitting players have a good old moan every year about the nominations for this award, the SdJ is designed to recognise entry-level games, and it is the Kennerspiel award instead that shines a light on what one might term gamers’ games.  SdJ winners and nominees tend to take simple concepts and use them in a fresh way, but still retain that kind of simplicity and cleanliness of design that allows new gamers in after only ten minutes or so.  Bärenpark certainly ticks most of those boxes, but that also means that seasoned gamers may well be done with it after only a few plays and retreat to the sweeping vistas of A Feast For Odin and all the varied challenges that offers.

Barenpark Board Game

Do I win something?

In fact Bärenpark is positively comforting and gentle as far as games go, a little bit like putting together a patchwork quilt or a cottage garden, I would imagine.  The only “take that” moments come when a player says “I think I’ll take that tile”, and there are usually enough alternatives to choose from to avoid players being backed into corners.  It seems ideally placed to appeal to couples and to newer arrivals to the hobby, but those who hanker after a little more flesh on their gaming bones will probably find it just too wafty and easy-going.  Like looking at bears in a park, it is never quite as engrossing as one might like to imagine.

Barenpark Board Game

My preferred solution.

Koala cuddly?  Or a grizzly mess?

Bärenpark is a pleasant and solid piece of design, easy to pick up and play and a decent meeting place for seasoned gamers and newbies.  However, even with the achievement tiles randomly selected from game to game there is just not enough going on to keep Bärenpark from becoming stale quickly unless players are prepared to take a decent break between plays.  In its fusion of placement and scoring it treads similar ground to Patchwork and even Kingdomino in a way, and has fetching and beguiling graphic design on its side, but it is pitching itself at an already crowded market and I strongly suspect that it will be one of those games that burns brightly for a while but then fades from view, unless, of course, it happens to end up with a shiny SdJ logo on its box next year.

Barenpark Board Game

Fill the board and win a statue!

There is nothing really wrong with Bärenpark at all, and it takes one of the gaming world’s most fashionable mechanisms and transfers it to a cuddly and warm theme with gently inviting art, although you could in theory be putting pretty much anything together with those tiles.  It has the admirable qualities of being quick to teach and understand, and easy to play, although you may have guessed that I do have my doubts about its longevity and how many repeated plays it might be able to sustain over a short period of time.

Barenpark Board Game

Bears eating people – so cuddly and friendly!

A bear necessity?  Or barely necessary?

Walker-Harding has come up with another clean and economical design that will undoubtedly help to further his reputation, and his name on the box will certainly take this game onto tables it might otherwise not visit, but Bärenpark is a light and frothy play rather than something gritty and involving.  If that sounds as if it might be what you are looking for, for example if you enjoy Patchwork and are looking for something in a similar vein that accommodates more players, then you should not be disappointed in the playing of this game, but do not expect the pushing of boundaries.  It is hard in good conscience to give Bärenpark anything more than 7 out of 10, as it is solid rather than spectacular, but it is a pleasant way to spend some time.  Just make sure that you put that insert straight into the bin.

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Nick O'Neill

I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.