Bärenpark (Game Review by Chris Wray)

  • Designer: Phil Walker-Harding
  • Publisher: Lookout, Mayfair
  • Players: 2 – 4
  • Ages: 8 and Up
  • Time: 30-45 Minutes
  • Times Played: > 5

Barenpark.jpg

In Bärenpark, you enter the business of building a zoological park of bears.  The game is centered around polyominoes — those tetris-like pieces that have been popular in recent games — and involves “skillfully fitting together enclosures, animal houses, and green areas.”  

The game is a fun and remarkably simple twist on the polyomino genre, and we’ve really enjoyed our plays.  

The Gameplay

Each player takes a starting “park area” that shows a 4×4 grid.  On it, there are a number of different spaces that will need to be filled in with bear-themed construction and amusement park amenities.  In the middle of the table there’s a “supply” board showing bear houses, bear enclosures, food streets, playgrounds, rivers, and even toilets that will be used to fill the bear park.  (Depending on the number of players, some of the available tiles may be removed from the game.)

Barenpark TheSupplyArea.jpeg

The Supply Area.  The “greenery tiles” are on the left, then the bear houses, then the bear enclosures.  The shapes in the middle of certain tiles showing numbers represent the points if that piece is placed in your bear park.  

Each player will be building their own park.  Each player starts with a tile (exactly which tile depends on their player order) and then, on their turn, places it in their park area.  Pieces may be rotated and flipped freely, but the piece must fit within the park, and it cannot go over a pit (more on that below).

If the piece crosses a space with a feature, the player then takes another tile.  Which type of tile you take depends on the feature you cross.  

  • Green wheelbarrow (the most common space).  You get a small tile of your choice from the corresponding section of the supply board.  These are toilets (a 1×1 tile), playgrounds (a 2×1 tile), food streets (a 3×1 tile), and rivers (an “L” shaped tile with three spaces).  These are not worth points, but they help you fill in your park.
  • White cement truck.  You get a bear house.  These are larger tiles and, importantly, are worth points.  There are several shapes, and as you go down in the stack, they are worth less and less points.
  • Orange excavator.  You get a bear enclosure.  These are the largest tiles, are unique, and are worth the most points.  
  • Construction crew.  You get a new park area.  You’ll ultimately build the orthogonally adjacent to each other until you have four of them.  If you’ve already taken four, you don’t get another one.  When you take one, you get a choice of the top area on two face-up stacks.  

You can take more than one tile on a turn if you cross more than one feature, but on future turns, you’ll only be able to place one at a time.  Essentially, you’ll be building a supply if you’re playing right, but if you ever don’t have a tile at the start of your turn, you can take a tile from the green wheelbarrow area.

Finally, if one of your park areas (i.e. a 4×4 grid) is complete, you can take a bear statue and place it over the pit.  The first one is worth 16 points, but they get progressively worse as more and more are claimed.  Essentially, they are an incentive to fill the park areas as fast as possible.

Barenpark Completed Park Area

A completed park area, including with a Bear Statue placed over the pit.  

The game ends when a player completes all four of their park areas, and then each player gets one more turn.  For final scoring, players add up all of the points showing in their park (i.e. the points on the bear houses, bear enclosures, and bear statutes) and the player with the highest score wins.  

The Expert Variant

The game also comes with an “expert variant.”  The game comes with 10 different achievements, and three of them are selected at random or by agreement for each game.  There are three copies of each achievement tile with different point values.  If a player earns the achievement, they can, as a fourth step on their turn, claim it.  These get added to total score at the end of the game.  

For example, the “polar bears” achievement gives you points if you have three tiles with polar bears in your park.  The “green areas” achievement gives you points for a cluster of six “green areas” (toilets, playgrounds, food streets, and rivers) in your park.  

My thoughts on the game…

Barenpark is a cute game with a cute (and truly original) theme, and if you’re fan of polyominoes in games, I suspect you’ll greatly enjoy Phil Walker-Harding’s latest creation.

This game is all about balancing the puzzle of polyominoes and getting access to the pieces worth the most points.  Because the bear houses and bear statutes are worth progressively less points, you need to strategize about when — and where — to place pieces to get access to the highest-scoring tiles.  

The closest game to Barenpark I’ve found is Cottage Garden.  Both are almost purely about polyominoes.  But I think Barenpark represents the genre better: this game is remarkably simple and fast-paced.  I once wrote that Cottage Garden is brilliant in its simplicity, but I think Barenpark streamlines polyominoes even further, so Phil Walker-Harding deserves props here.

The game game can be learned by about anybody, and games typically takes us 30 minutes or less.  The box says 30-45 minutes, and I suppose you could puzzle this out for 45 minutes, but our plays have been fast paced.  

I recommend adding in the achievements variant on your first play.  It doesn’t add much complexity at all — you’ll only have three in the game, and the graphic design makes the goal of each intuitive — but they add another strategic element in a game that would otherwise feel repetitive.  And my biggest criticism of Barenpark is that, even with the expert variant, this starts to feel dull after a few plays (although I admit that happens faster to me than to other gamers).  

The first edition has a slight misprint on the board — it tells you to put out an incorrect number of green areas — but, setting that small error aside, the production value is solid.  The theme is clever, and it works well, even if I’m still slightly puzzled at the idea of a zoo consisting entirely of bears.  The artwork is attractive, and the rulebook is well designed.

In sum, if you like polyominoes and games like Cottage Garden, I recommend Barenpark.  If you dislike polyomino puzzles, this probably isn’t for you. I’ve enjoyed the game, and though I don’t expect it to be a permanent part of my collection, I think fans of polyominoes (or bears) would consider this a solid game.  

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Patrick Korner: I played Barenpark twice, and quite enjoyed both plays. There are a few things going on that need to be balanced – do you race to finish boards and score points at the potential expense of awkward ‘leaves’, or do you try and maximise efficiency but give up a few points along the way? Well worth a few games to explore. My only real complaint is that the game setup is a bit aggravating – but then, any game that involves sequential stacking of polyominoes will have that…

Eric Edens:  I can’t say I was as enamored as the board game media and buzz suggested I should be when I played this a few times. It is a tight puzzle game that I think requires the “expert” variant. But overall after the cuteness, quaintness, and simple play I think it will leave my collection relatively quickly. I had some fun playing but I didn’t think about my play afterward or want to attempt a different strategy next play. That doesn’t mean the game is bad it just means I didn’t see a need to keep it. I liked it once or twice but a third play may be my limit.

Larry (1 play):  This was a very pleasant surprise for me.  It’s a game that can be played by players of all kinds (there’s only about 2 rules), but there’s some genuine decision-making to be made and it plays very fast.  It’s not the next Puerto Rico, but if I’m looking for something short to play with a mixed crowd, this might be one of my first picks.  It shows Walker-Harding’s continuing growth as a designer and reinforces my faith in Lookout as a top-flight publisher.  I don’t know if it was seriously considered for an SdJ nomination, but I think it should have been; it’s good enough (and of the proper weight) to have had a shot at the top three.

Greg S:  I was pleasantly surprised by this and found it delightful to play.  No, it isn’t terribly deep, but it is a fine game between meatier fare, or better yet, as a game to play with folks who are not hardcore gamers.  I enjoyed the puzzle-aspect of fitting the tiles into my frames, as well as the decisions to be made as to where to place the tiles and when to trigger the various icons.  

Melissa: I like this a lot! We took it to a convention recently & it saw a lot of table time. Everyone raised the Koala Question & was relieved that it was addressed in the rules. For gamers, I agree that it needs the expert version – but the game works well for non/new gamers as well. We were confused by the extra pieces in the box (which are to segment the box itself) but once they are in, the pieces fit nicely. It does take a little sorting, but a good investment in ziploc baggies will take care of that. A great addition to our collection, and I will be looking for copies for the PAX Australia library as well, as it’s a good weight and the right playing time.

Fraser: Fun game to play and quick and easy.  After one game we decided to add the “expert variant” in for new players straight away, it is not the difference between the family game of Agricola and the non-family game, it is just some extra things to focus on and gain points.  Don’t play without it.  In my five plays I have never “completed” my entire park, so my spatial awareness is clearly not quite as good as the people I have been playing with!  Since we were playing it in Australia everybody liked the bit in the rules about “koalas are not really bears” :-)

Definitely on the light end of the scale, but short and sweet.  Easy to play and teach.

P.S. There really should be a picture of what do with those extra bits.  Phil was at the convention we were at, so I got him to show me!

Dale Y: I like this one.  The puzzle aspect of filling in the grids really appeals to me.  We’ve played maybe 5 or 6 times now, and it still feels fresh.  The different bonus cards in the advanced version cause you to take a slightly different approach with each game.  The one thing that I’ve found is that this is best in our group as the first game of the night.  It honestly can take 10+ minutes to set it up, and I prefer to do this before everyone arrives so that we’re ready to go.  The insert doesn’t really seem to work well with the components as it doesn’t really allow you to put away the pieces in a way to allow you to set it up quickly enough.  However, once it is set up, the game plays nice and fast.  I definitely prefer to spend a few early to mid green actions to pick up the one and two square small pieces as they become invaluable in the endgame to finish off your final board.  And, even if I don’t use them, my opponents can’t use them to finish off their boards if I’ve been hoarding them!

Dan Blum: I liked the basic game well enough but I would definitely play the expert version were I to play it again, as the basic game simply isn’t going to vary enough to hold interest. The expert game may not either, but I’d definitely play it at least a few times. I agree that it’s better than Cottage Garden, which I felt offered very few meaningful decisions; this game is still very light but definitely has a bit more to it.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Chris Wray, Patrick Korner, Larry, Nathan Beeler, Greg S., Eric M., Melissa, Fraser, Dan Blum, Dale Y
  • Neutral. Eric E.
  • Not for me…
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2 Responses to Bärenpark (Game Review by Chris Wray)

  1. ianthecool says:

    This looks intriguing…

  2. madhobbit says:

    “even if I’m still slightly puzzled at the idea of a zoo consisting entirely of bears”
    I have to admit they have a few other animals than just bears, but most of the animals in the park in Orsa in Sweden are bears. You can find them at http://www.orsarovdjurspark.se/en/orsa-rovdjurspark__125. We’ve visited the park two years ago and it’s really nice. The animals have really spacious pens, which sometimes results in them hiding out of sight. :-)

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