Alfie Dix, 18, reviews board games that he plays with the family and subsequently with groups of friends. Here’s his review of Bärenpark.
My dear Dr Sattler, Welcome to Jur- wait that’s not quite right. Oh of course… Welcome to Bärenpark, a zoo-builder that contains all manner of bears. There are polar bears, pandas, koalas and gobis, and you are tasked with fitting these four species in your park. Nothing has been built yet, so it is your job to tactically place the enclosures in order to secure points. It’s a race to open your bear tribute before your opponents have the chance.
At the start of the game, each player receives a starting tile – containing some sort of park feature – based on turn order, with the tiles getting progressively more valuable the later your turn is. The player boards contain a 4×4 grid. Construction symbols are displayed within some of the squares within the grid. These symbols, when covered, allow you to gain new animal enclosure tiles to place or extend your park by adding an extra board. Whenever a 4×4 board is completely covered, you take a points bonus. The earlier you finish a board, the better as the points decrease during the game. However, this is not the only way to score points. The bear enclosures score points and there are also three objectives, which when met, will also add to your score. The game ends when one player has finished all four of their player boards.
The first thing that impresses me about this game is the replayability. The 10 different achievements, multiple player boards and orientations and the fact that many tiles are unique leads to continued diverse gameplay. While there is no real interaction between players, the unique tiles can be claimed by any player and the points value of the more common tiles will decrease in value after a player takes one. This leads to a good deal of indirect interaction that you must respond to.
The bears however smell something a bit off… the turn order function of the game. Like many games it fails to address the first player advantage in a suitable manner and while it gives the players who aren’t first more powerful starting tiles, I still think there is an inherent advantage here. Achievements, unique tiles and regular enclosures all have point advantages for the player who reaches them first and even if your first turn is worse, you will still reach turns 3 and 4 in a much better position than those around you – as it is less likely a relevant unique tile or high scoring enclosure will be taken from you. This is ignoring the fact that the second player has the exact same disadvantage as the third player which makes their position strictly worse! The good news on the other hand is that this is my only issue with the game and can be easily fixed with some house rules that give later players a small point bonus to offset the advantage.
Games of spatial awareness like these become even more interesting when the rule of forced adjacency is added like in Bärenpark. This rule states that you must always build a structure next to one already placed, and normally it would simply allow players who feel overwhelmed with the growing board to merely focus on one area and relax. However, in Bärenpark there is an extra feature… As previously stated when you place a tile over an icon (more specifically a construction equipment icon) you will receive another piece to place next turn. This is a great mechanism as it forces you to try and place a tile over at least one of these every single turn, making pre-planning very exciting. There are many tiles and countless orientations – meaning there are hundreds of ways to fill a single board… and the puzzle is to find the best option from among them. This gives the game a great depth of thought that is highly valuable.
This game is a great find and is one of my top spatial awareness games even with the first player issue. It is also super easy to explain to younger children and those who don’t play games regularly, making it perfect for family meet-ups and other such occasions. So build fast lest the bears smell the fear that lurks in your every move… or is that dinosaurs…