OK, I admit it; when I came into the process of reviewing Barenpark, I’d never played it before. With a game like this comes baggage — the weight of expectation. Everyone has an opinion on it, whether that be because they think it’s too simple, or that they say it’s just sublime. For me, it’s the latter; let me tell you why.
Barenpark takes the simplest of concepts and makes it into a challenging, competitive experience that drives the players continuously to race for points. Everyone is competing to build their own bear park (or Barenpark, of course) by placing polyominoes onto their own private park boards.
When any player completes their fourth and final board, the end game is triggered. Points are scored for each habitat tile placed into the park, for each completed board and for each of the three randomised objectives that you complete. There’s a twist though, because the later you achieve any of these things, the less points it will be worth based on each other player to have reached the same point earlier.
During setup, each player receives their first park board and one tile that covers from one to three spaces in a straight line depending on player order. The first player receives the one space tile and will place it onto their board, ideally covering one of the icons printed. Covering a green wheelbarrow allows them to take a new basic park tile, whilst covering a white cement mixer will mean a basic habitat can be drawn.
Whilst these two symbols occur regularly and on every board including the starting boards, you’ll soon need to expand your park. To do so, you must cover one of the construction site spaces on an existing board, at which point you immediately draw one new board and place it upright next to your existing park — it simply needs to align to another board edge completely.
The final symbol is an orange digger, and these only occur on the expansion boards (and not at all on the starting boards) and allow the player to draw a special habitat board when drawn. Whilst all basic park and habitat tiles exist in numbers decided by the player count, these special habitat boards are all unique shapes and there is only one of each, but it’s worth striving for them because of the high points that each one will score.
As I mentioned earlier, there’s a racing aspect to several parts of Barenpark, the first of which is the basic habitats. Each stack of these basic habitat tiles begins with the most valuable on top, and as tiles are taken, the tiles below are worth one less point each time. Similarly, as players fill up their boards, a final space (which cannot be covered by normal tiles) can then be completed with a bear statue — also worth points that decline with each one taken.
Finally, as though the players were not already likely to be scrabbling to determine the most efficient way forwards, the three public objectives are each also worth a declining number of points. This means that the first to complete one will often score two or three points more than the second, and perhaps six or seven more than the player who reaches the same goal third. Obviously, if there is a fourth player, they won’t be able to score that goal at all.
And as these parks come together onto their boards, Barenpark just looks fantastic. The polyomino tiles don’t link in any way via paths or visible cues (and thank God, because that would have been complicated) but they do look like an entirely convincing whole. Younger players in particular will marvel at the tiny koalas climbing trees and the pandas chomping in their play tunnels. I’d defy anyone to look at Barenpark and think anything less than “that’s pretty cute”.
So what you have here is the complete package. It’s a game that costs about twenty quid, takes up very little space and looks fantastic. What’s more, it’s a very smart game that delivers a hugely competitive experience that requires constant thought and readjustment, but which can be taught in perhaps five minutes or less.
In short, then, I really enjoyed Barenpark and whilst I admit that it’s theme is what kept me away, I now feel a bit daft for not diving into it earlier. It’s a really cute package that already has an expansion available (should you enjoy the base game) and you could spend a lot more money on a much worse game. For me, Barenpark is a straight-up must buy.
You can find Barenpark on Amazon.