Reviewed by Herb Levy
PARKS (Keymaster Games, 1 to 5 players, ages 10 and up, 30-60 minutes; $60)
One of our national treasures is also our natural treasures: the national parks of the United States of America. Exploring these wonderful beauties of nature is the premise of this new design by Henry Audubon of the aptly titled PARKS.
Each player takes control of two hikers (in their chosen color) to explore an ever growing trail. In addition to hikers, everyone gets a “campfire” (a two-sided piece matching each player’s color) and is dealt a Canteen card along with 2 Year cards. (Year cards give goals to be met – and scored – by the end of the game. All players choose one and discard the other.) All hikers start at the beginning of the trail (the Trailhead). There are five basic trail tiles (Forest, Mountain, Valley, Ocean and Vista) with one randomly chosen “advanced” site added to them. These are shuffled and laid out, one by one, to form the trail. The Trail End tile is placed at the end completing the trail for that season. Along the way, resources are gathered and, by visiting parks, taking photos and fulfilling end of the year bonuses, Victory Points collected. The player with the most VPs at the end of the fourth and final season will be the winner,
Two large token trays hold the resources of the game: water (blue drops), sunshine (yellow stars), forest (green trees), mountain (red mountains) and wildlife. (Wildlife tokens are “wild” and may be used as ANY resource. The wildlife is carved into all sorts of animal shapes but, as far as game play is concerned, they are all the same.) There is also room for “photos”.
The Parks deck is shuffled and three Parks revealed. Each card depicts a beautiful scene as well as a cost in resources to visit that park and its Victory Point value. The Gear card deck is shuffled and three are those revealed. Finally, the Season deck is shuffled and the first of the four “Seasons” of the game is turned over. Not only will this season provide a special benefit for this round but will also seed the trail with additional water and sunshine based on the pattern on the card. The player who last took a hike (or is randomly chosen) goes first. He/she takes the triangular first player marker. The player who goes last gets the “camera” piece.
On a turn, the active player may move either of his/her two hikers ahead on the trail and performs the action there. If a resource is on the site, it is collected as well. Actions include getting more resources and, as the game continues and more advanced tiles appear, trading 1 of a resource for 1 wildlife (wild), exchanging any 2 resources for any other 2, getting an additional canteen, taking a photo (by handing in 2 resources for a photo token worth 1 VP and then claiming the camera from whoever has it), visiting or reserving a park (card), buy gear and even copying the action of a site already occupied! As the trail gets filled with hikers, things start getting difficult – and that’s where gear, canteens and your campfire come into play.
Gear costs anywhere from 1 to 3 sunshine and provides advantages to players in gathering resources, offering discounts on visiting parks and more. Canteens can give resource bonuses but are one shot options that only work when “filled”. To “fill” a canteen, you must allocate a water gotten THAT TURN and place it on the canteen card to trigger it! (No “saving” water for later. It’s either now or wait until another water is acquired.) You may, of course, have multiple canteens but each one requires water for activation. Only one hiker can occupy a site at a time so what to do if you find yourself wanting to benefit from an occupied space? Playing your campfire (flipping it from its “lit” side to its “extinguished” side) allows your hiker to join another hiker (or more) at a particular site. This is a potentially powerful move but may only be done once per season!
As hikers advance on the trail (no backward movement allowed), they will eventually come to the Trail End. At Trail End, each hiker is faced with a choice: Visit (i.e. purchase) a Park by handing in the appropriate resources, Purchase a Gear (early visitors who choose this option will get a discount on a gear purchase) OR Rest And Reserve a Park (for later “visiting”) and, if you are the first “resting”, claiming the first player marker for the next round. If only one hiker is left on the trail, that hiker MUST advance to the Trail End. Finally, the player with the camera may exchange 1 resource for a photo.
Once all hikers have finished their trek, all sites get reshuffled (with a new advanced tile tossed in) and laid out for a new trail. All canteens are emptied and another Season card (with a new benefit and seed pattern) revealed. At the end of the fourth time doing this, the game is over and we score!
All visited parks have a VP number. To that total is added any photos players have (1 VP each) and any bonuses from the Year End cards. The player with the first player marker gets 1 VP as well. Highest total wins! Tie? Then the person visiting the most parks claims victory!
The physical production of the game – 2 trays WITH covers to neatly hold the components, hefty wooden components, a solid board (a play mat which doubles the size of the board is also available) – is only rivaled by the superb artwork by the Fifty-Nine Parks Print Series.
The “seasons” of the game are not your typical Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall. Rather, they are more poetic descriptions which makes the game flow smoothly. (After all, it would be a bit jarring to have a year with 2 Winters or 3 Summers etc.) Although the time of the season is not a factor, timing of your moves is. When and which hiker to move is extremely important. Because occupation of a tile is restricted, when and where to use your Campfire can be a make-or-break decision too. This constant jockeying for position makes for a very crowded board with the full grouping of five; three or four players might be the sweet sport here. (For those among us who like to commune with nature by themselves, a solo mode of play is also provided.) Water and sunshine are the most easily obtainable resources; being able to convert them via a Site or purchase of Gear should be a strong consideration in your strategy as the right gear can help create an engine of conversion and purchase. And speaking of gear…
Gear is most valuable in the first round and generally becomes less important as the rounds continue. As the game comes to its conclusion, you may find yourself finishing your final hike with no real action to take: not enough resources to visit (buy) a park, perhaps enough to buy some gear but, as the game is ending, no time to use it and no reason to rest as the “first player” marker (worth 1 VP) may have already been claimed. To add a little more to this final surge, we suggest giving a boost to the value of gear. Gear is, of course, very useful in park visitation but if we give all gear a half-point value when scoring, that final hike (along with previous gear purchases) can give real meaning to your final moves at a time when you may find yourself unable to score with a park.
PARKS takes the wonder of nature and creates a charming game of strategy, marked by choice and decision. With its first rate production values to enhance the experience, PARKS offers a trail that you will definitely want to blaze! – – – – – – Herb Levy
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