Welcome to Bärenpark! Would you care to use our valet service?
The latest innovation in family entertainment is springing up across the world: the Bärenpark. Because it’s easier to just print one cover for a game in all localisations! To be fair, I wouldn’t be surprised if most games in Europe just have an English language cover. What is a nice gesture to localisation is that each of the starting park tiles features the park’s name, in the language of the nation it is associated with, so the English park is called Bear Park, the French park is Parc d’Ours, the Japanese park is called… Er…
So you can all represent your favourite nation’s bear conservationists. Most of you anyway. But you won’t be conserving anything just yet as all you may have to hand is a small plot of land and a portaloo tile. Not the most auspicious of starts! But don’t worry, you didn’t just spend 10 minutes seeding the central board with tiles for no reason, and before long you’ll be airlifting in bears from wherever bears get made and slotting them gently in to your growing park with the care and consideration a half-ton blob of meat, fur and teeth deserves. But first, the portaloo.
It turns out, building a Bärenpark is one of the simpler tasks you might face in life. Take whatever tile you have to hand (like our hand-me-down portaloo) and place it on your park board. If you cover up one of the symbols printed on it, then you immediately get something, either a new tile from the corresponding area of the main board or, if you dropped your tile on to the giant gaggle of people spot, a new board section on which to place new tiles.
The little green wheel barrow adds some scenic elements like rivers, play parks, burger joints and (even more!) portaloos. The cement mixer gets you access to a basic bear tile, because God knows you need strong concrete walls to withstand the monstrous strength of a bear. The orange digger, available only on your second and later board sections, let’s you build the large, most extravagantly shaped bear enclosures that are, coincidentally, worth the most points.
There are only a few limitations you have to worry about. One is that you have to place next to a tile you’ve already placed, encouraging some forward planning. A second is that tiles cannot hang off the edges of the board. Some of the largest tiles won’t fit on a single board, and so expanding that player board is an essential task. But how and when to do it is a mix of opportunity and necessity. It would be simpler to give yourself the maximum amount building space as early as possible, and so the game turns to you with a cunning grin and offers you bear statues.
These golden monuments to bear-hood are a reward for completely filling all the space on one of your player board sections. It slots satisfyingly into that giant hole someone dug on your player board. The first statue is worth the most points too, so you are racing to fill sub boards while managing your expansion on to new ones and obtaining the best tiles from the central board, because of course that’s a race too.
The 4 types of cement mixer tiles, featuring the 4 different types of bear (grizzly, polar, panda and koala) in their preferred enclosure shapes are stacked in a pile of decreasing value. Obviously the first bear park to have some bears will earn more points than the sixth panda enclosure, I mean jeez, they fall over a lot, we get it. Likewise the big, show-stopping, digger-unlocked tiles are all uniquely shaped. If you want one in particular you better make sure to grab it quickly… But that might mean letting others install the shiniest statues.
That’s more or less all there is in the basic game, grab the high scoring tiles and fill your boards as quickly as possible, finish your 4th board section and end the game. Don’t bother just playing the basic game: you should also add in the achievement tiles which will request you build certain features in your park, maybe having 3 koala bear enclosures so you can push the definition of bear to the limit (they’re marsupials, damnit!), or one of each of the cement mixer tiles, or a continuous length of river running through your park. These simple objectives give you something else to race for and just lift the game into the category of thoroughly interesting. I would never play without them.
Sadly, aside from racing to the various targets the game sets out for you, there’s no opportunity to interact with your fellow players at all. You each just focus on building your own park. It certainly captures the feeling of building a park in a different country to anyone else. Just that passive disappointment on missing out in the international bear park awards… Again. On the bright side you generally won’t know who is doing best until you go through the somewhat arduous scoring process, arduous because you have to do it all in your head and I’m clearly getting lazy when it comes to mental arithmetic. But at least that typically keeps things tense until the end of the game. It still might not be enough for you, but it bears consideration.
(Did you… Like what I did there? Bears, yeah?)
Bärenpark is not the deep, mysterious stare of a wandering black bear, nor is it the endlessly hilarious antics of a troop of pandas (probably the collective noun). In fact, its bear credentials are really limited to some small artistic touches and the big ‘un on the box cover, which at least makes for something more interesting to see than the vaguely androgynous park ranger who doesn’t look nearly worried enough about their picnic basket.
What Bärenpark is, is a supremely easy to play, quick, fun, family game. Bärenpark speaks to me, because I love fitting Tetris-like cardboard tiles into spaces… with the exception of Bärenpark’s ridiculous insert. Whether it’s this, Cottage Garden or the pinnacle of polyomino pleasure: Patchwork, I just love that kind of puzzle. Patchwork is still the best, but it’s only for two players! Bärenpark offers just enough puzzle with the achievements and matches it to a fantastically quick turn structure that I can’t help but enjoy it. But it’s not perfect.
That puzzle doesn’t offer a massive amount of variability. While different board pieces do have their features in different places, it all still feels the same to play each game. Only the achievement tiles present any true variation and that is still relatively limited. There’s not much difference between racing for polar bears or koala bears after all, but those focused more on combining certain sets of tiles, like the rivers or burger street achievement, are more challenging, especially in combination with others. I’ve already mentioned that you will be playing on your own, and the god awful insert. Set up, requiring the organisation of so many tiles into specific, ordered piles, really is a bear! Especially for such a quick game. Some of these are minor cosmetic issues that the gameplay more than makes up for. Others will depend on you.
Do you also enjoy filling spaces with cardboard tiles? Because this is an excellent framework in which to do so. It has stripped away any consideration other than how to fit your things in amongst the other things and ensures you have just enough time to focus on that. But if that kind of space filling puzzle isn’t enough for you, then Bärenpark won’t be enough for you either. Appropriately for such a simple game, it really comes down to that simple question.
Rating: Park yourself here