Reviewed by Herb Levy
BÄRENPARK (Mayfair Games/Lookout Spiele, 2 to 4 players, ages 8 and up, 30-45 minutes; $42)
Who doesn’t love a zoo? I, for one, do and one of my favorite animals is the bear and it looks like I’n not the only one. In this new game by Phil Walker- Harding, players will find themselves commissioned to create a new and wonderful home for those creatures. Sounds easy? Not exactly as space is limited! Making everything fit and work – and work well – is the challenge in this aptly titled game: Bärenpark.
As builders in Bärenpark (Bear Park), each player is given a park tile with an entrance. These tiles (and the subsequent park tiles that will later be used) are 4 x 4 grids. On these grids, in varying positions, will be found icons. (More on them later.). These empty tiles must be filled with green areas (2 space Playgrounds, 3 space Food Streets and Rivers and, of course, 1 space Toilets, to accommodate the floods of visitors that will be attending the park when it is finished). But let’s not forget the animals.
Animal houses (with point values from 1 to 7) for polar, gobi, koalas and panda bears are stacked on the large central supply board with the high values on top and the rest placed in decreasing number order as are enclosures for them (with point values of from 6 to 8) With less than 4 players, some tiles are removed. (The supply board has mistakenly listed the wrong amounts for removal. Fortunately, the rules have it right and the supply board is just a “holding area” for the tiles anyway making this a non-issue.) “Bear Statues” (chits) with values from 1 to 16 are placed alongside and additional park tiles are shuffled and set up in two stacks.
The player who last visited an animal park (or randomly, if preferred) becomes the first player and receives 1 Toilet tile with the next two players receiving a Playground and the final, fourth, player (if there is one) receiving a Food Street. On a turn, the active player may place ONE tile; it is WHERE the tile is placed that makes things happen.
The first tile may be placed anywhere on a player’s board. From that point on, subsequent tiles must be orthogonally touching (no diagonal placement allowed) and must not hang over the board’s edge or cover another tile. The key consideration, though, is which icons on the board are covered.
Five icons appear in the game. When covered, the green wheelbarrow allows the player to take any one of the four green tiles remaining available on the supply board. The white cement truck expands the options, allowing a player to choose one green tile OR one of the animal houses in supply. The orange excavator grants the privilege of choosing ANY available tile in supply. The construction crew icon is how your park expands by letting a player choose one new park tile to add to his expanding bear park. (New park tiles must also be placed orthogonally with all icons correctly facing the player.) Finally, there is the pit.
One space on each board shows a pit. This spot must remain open; no tile placement covering it is allowed. However, once all other spaces on the board ARE covered, the highest available value of a “bear statue” is placed there.
Play continues until someone has completed four boards to his park. At that point, each other player gets one more turn and then we score. All scoring tiles have a number on them. These tiles are added along with those bear statues. The player with the highest combined total wins.
One of the challenges of Bärenpark is to maximize placement of those geometric shapes so that you always have a tile to place. If you find yourself with no tile on hand, you are forced to pass, reduced to choosing one green tile only which may only be placed on the following turn. This game is essentially a race to complete your boards before your opponents so losing a turn like that due to poor planning can exact a punishing price.
As the locations of icons differ on all boards, there is some variety here. Players wanting more, though, can add “Achievements”. Achievements are goals (represented by tiles) chosen at the start of the game that, if met, will award players more points to add to their totals. These include having three polar bears in your park or six green tiles touching or having an uninterrupted river of at least three tiles etc. These goals may be met by more than one player but, as with those animal houses, values decrease as they are chosen.
Phil Walker-Harding has been building an impressive resume of late (his designs include Sushi-Go Party, Imhotep and this issue’s Port Royal among others). All of these explore different facets of game design; Bärenpark explores yet another.
In the ever expanding world of games and puzzles, Bärenpark straddles the line between game and puzzle falling, most definitely, on the side of puzzle. Although there is some competition in choosing tiles to not only meet the needs of your boards but to stymie the plans of your competition (and in fulfilling the demands of those Achievements), interaction is limited. The focus (and fun) of the game is in the planning and in getting those tiles to fit just right (although. admittedly, requiring you to “suspend disbelief” as rivers can run in crazy directions) which makes it just right for family play. The colorful construction of your park makes it pleasing to the eye as well. Just like Phil Walker-Harding designs in general and this game in particular, Bärenpark is something that “bears” watching and playing. – – – – – – Herb Levy
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