Back in January I bemoaned the meh-ness I felt about Cottage Garden, which attempted to take the core mechanics of Patchwork and expand on them for more than two players. Well, now a game has come along that tries to remedy that situation: Bärenpark, by designer Phil Walker-Harding.
Walker-Harding has been on the scene for about ten years. I enjoyed his first published game, Archaeology (recently given a spiffy update by Z-Man) and I really enjoyed Dungeon Raiders, a simple-yet-fun card-crawler that came out in 2011. Recently he’s scored big with more Euro-y designs like Cacao and last year’s Imhotep. Clearly, this guy’s on a roll.
So, Bärenpark. Themewise it mines a small but well-loved seam in tabletop-gaming: building your own zoo/theme-park/Centreville, which has the advantage of being family-friendly with a lot of potential for inviting eye-candy (e.g., Zooloretto, Steam Park, and recent release Unfair).
One look at Bärenpark’s box art tells you that you’d better like bears if you’re going to enjoy this game. There are pandas, brown bears, polar bears, all drawn very cuddly. Obviously, then victory in Bärenpark does not depend on the variety of animals you choose to include (unless you play the Advanced variant with Achievements–which you should). Instead, Bärenpark is about how quickly and efficiently you can fill your park.
You start with one empty Park Area (each one called “Bear Park” in a different language #itsasmallworldafterall), split into a grid of 16 squares, some of which have icons on them. You also start with one unplaced Green Area tile in your Supply. Gameplay is very straightforward: on your turn you must place a tile from your Supply. If your tile doesn’t cover any icons, that’s it–turn over. Usually, though, you want to cover at least one icon, because doing so allows you to either take another tile from the main Supply or to add another Park Area to your bear-empire. If you have completely covered a Park Area you get to take a VP-licious Bear Statue. If you satisfy an Achievement, more VP for you.
The endgame is triggered when one player finishes covering up their fourth and final Park Area; everyone gets one more turn and then VP’s are totalled. Points come from tiles in your Park plus Statues plus achievements. Et voilà.
The game definitely rewards efficiency: the VP value of Statues, Achievements, and certain tiles decreases with each one claimed, and the largest tiles (Enclosures) are very limited in number, so it’s first-come-first-served. Finally, the smallest Green tiles are almost always essential for filling those pesky weird left-over spaces on your boards–but they, too, are in limited supply, and it is totally a legally-awesome-jerk move to snap up the last one in a pile in the endgame just so Sara can’t finish her board–not that that stopped her from finishing two Areas on her last turn, snagging 13-points-worth of Statues AND a 10-point Achievement. (Damn you Sara!!!)
Bärenpark is listed as 8+ and that’s definitely true, and you could probably stretch that down a year or two depending on the child; the tiles are essentially language-independent and the rules are simple enough for pre-tweens. However, the spatial reasoning involved will be hard on anyone (regardless of age) who is challenged in that area.
But is Bärenpark really the game Cottage Garden was supposed to be? As Blackadder would say, “Yes…and no.” Although obviously Tetris-based gameplay is at the core of both games, lacks Bärenpark lacks Cottage Garden’s tiles-in-a-circle drafting mechanic. Frankly, I see that as a plus not a minus.
It’s like saying Bärenpark is what A Feast For Odin should have been, without the “superfluous” crafting and exploring mechanics. Just because two games both have polyminos doesn’t mean they are comparable. (And polymino is a word, Sara.)
The simple and straightforward ruleset means Bärenpark is easy and quick to teach and play–but the number of options on your turn can be paralyzing to some. Playing with Achievements is definitely required to ensure replayability, since there are ten provided but you only use three. Combined with the theme and oh-so-cute graphic design, Bärenpark joins the ever-growing “gateway” games list. Just keep your fingers out of the enclosures!