The Cardboard Hoard: Review of Bärenpark
Bärenpark is a lightweight polyomino-placement game themed around building competing bear parks, that was first released at Origins 2017 by publishers Mayfair Games and Lookout Spiele. It was designed by Phil Walker-Harding, the designer of 2016 Spiel des Jahres nominee Imhotep, with artwork by Klemens Franz.
In Bärenpark, two to four players will compete to score the most points by building their own bear parks using a variety of colored polyominoes that represent different bear enclosures. There are a finite supply of bear enclosures, and the earlier they are claimed off the main board, the more points they are worth. The bear parks are built on park boards which have four-by-four grids featuring different symbols on some of the squares.
Most of the symbols feature wheelbarrows, cement mixers, and cranes, that, when covered, will allow players to take different polyominoes from the main board supply, but one symbol -- a group of construction workers -- will allow players to take an extension board to further expand their park. There is also an octagonal symbol that cannot be covered by polyominoes, but will be covered with a bear statue when all the other spaces on that park board are covered. The bear statues feature point values that descend as they are taken. The game ends when one of the players covers four park boards.
The scoring of the game makes it both a race and a point salad, which makes the game a puzzle in efficiency. The game is fairly low tension, as players are playing on their own boards and there is little competition over pieces -- although deciding when to take which pieces can greatly affect how much they are worth, and by the end of the game, the stacks can run out altogether.
The one major exception to the lack of competition, however, is with the twelve unique enclosures that are acquired through the crane icon. These are all larger oddly-shaped polyominoes that are worth high point values. They can be tricky to place, but are worth seven to nine points and take up five board squares -- giving them importance for both scoring and the race to finish building parks.
Bärenpark also comes with achievement tokens, which it says are for advanced play, but are a necessary addition for seasoned board gamers. These give players three randomized public goals to accomplish while building their parks. Three players can get each of the achievements, but just like with the enclosures and bear statues, the value of the achievement declines each time someone takes one, giving players yet another time sensitive goal to fulfill. Using these tiles helps to create variety between games, as different achievements will be in play.
Pros: The game is easy to teach and learn, with a good fast-paced flow to it, and bright artwork and a family-friendly theme. Even teaching new players, or playing at the full four-player count, it plays in less than an hour, and never outstays its welcome. The achievement tiles allow an easy way to make the game a bit more complex, and add replayability in how they push players to different strategies.
Cons: The game is a bit of a pain to set-up, as it takes a different number of some tiles for each player count, and the tiles need to be stacked in increasing order. There is an error on 1st edition board that suggests an incorrect set-up, although this has been fixed in later printings. The insert is absolute rubbish, as it creates three triangular spots to fit mostly square and rectangular pieces. Also, a personal gripe -- koalas are not bears, and hence, should have been replaced with grizzly bears or kodiak bears.
Comparisons: Patchwork is the most popular of the recent spate of polyomino games, but it does not have a lot of similarities with Bärenpark. Patchwork only plays two players, features the dual economies of the time track and the buttons, and has the rondel determining which tiles are available on any given turn, all in all making for a much tighter game.
Cottage Garden, on the other hand, also plays up to four players, has multiple player boards the players are filling, has symbols on some of its tile squares (although in Cottage Garden players are trying to avoid covering them), uses a more open selection of tiles from its main board, and doesn’t feature an economy. But where I find Cottage Garden’s game play to be a bit clunky and its scoring to be a bit wonky, I find Bärenpark to be streamlined and intuitive.
Final Thoughts: At its heart, Bärenpark is an extremely enjoyable tile-laying puzzle game that serves as both a great gateway into the hobby and a fun family night game that can be played with children of all ages (although younger kids may need some assistance). The best part is that it is fun for people that are new to the hobby and more experienced board gamers that occasionally enjoy lighter fare.