If you go down to the woods today you are in for a big surprise, because that part of the park was specifically zoned for Panda bears and now they are looking at you as if you are a particularly luscious piece of bamboo. Is that not how the song goes? Welcome to Barenpark, a gentle tile layer of bears and the keepers who love them. And toilets. Lots of toilets.
Over the last few years there has been an explosion in polyomino laying games, probably because it is just so damn satisfying clicking bits of your quilt, park, fiesta, garden together. My first encounter with the mechanic was through Patchwork, a game that is still a firm favourite, but we have seen it used repeatedly in a variety of themes. Bärenpark from Lookout Games, designed by Phil Walker-Harding with art by Klemans Franz, has attracted a lot of attention since it came out, and I thought it was about time I got around to reviewing my copy.
Starting with a barren 4x4, a toilet, and a pocketful of bears you survey your land. You place your first tile, and in doing so cover one of the numerous icons on the board, snagging yourself another tile from the central reserve. Maybe it will just be some filler, a green tile with food stands or a river but no points. Most of the time though it will be one of the numerous bear enclosures that actually count towards victory. As your park grows, from placing a tile over construction workers, you will get to take some of the truly outrageous tiles, slotting them into your grand design whilst humming the Tetris theme tune.
Each of the piles of regular polyominoes has points in descending order, meaning that the quicker you get to them, the more they are worth. Of course you have probably twigged by now that everytime you cover something in your park you get more tiles to place, but what if you manage to cover multiple things at once. You’ve got it, multiple tiles, more options, and the opportunity to just take things because other people might want them. You monster.
Here is the rub with Bärenpark. It seems like a sedate game of tile laying but hid underneath the furry surface is the beating heart of a race to the finish. The game ends when one player has filled out 4 boards, including their starting one, giving you an opportunity to go for big tiles to try and rush your way to the end. Everytime you fill out a 4x4 you get a bear statue to cover the one space you can’t fill and these statues become worth less and less over the course of the game. In order to maximise your points from the polyominoes you have to adapt a lot to what other people are doing, racing to snatch the most point/space efficient tiles. Finally there are the goals.
After your first couple of games you are going to want to break out the goal cards. These are little extra objectives that give you points as soon as you achieve them, and yes you do get more if you get there first. Not so gentle as it first appears.
Sometimes you can dive deep in a review, but this is not the case here. Bärenpark is not a particularly deep game, but it is a very enjoyable one. It’s a beautiful mix of gentle tile laying and cutthroat race that I enjoy every time I play and has that emergent story element I love in so many games where you can chat about the kind of park you are building and why. I once built a park with no toilets at all. It would be awful. This is a game that is supremely easy to teach, won’t break the bank, and has a good amount of replayability. The expansion even has Monorails in it. What more could you want.