Is Barenpark BEAR-able?

Barenpark cover shows zoo keeper and a bear. The bear does not look impressed.

Dave:  I’m proud to announce that this is Roll to Review’s 10th review! Time to celebrate with some special guests. We have Paul, Quinns, and the other guy from Shut Up and Sit Down, and we’ll be talking about Barenpark. Say hello fellas.



Matt: Did you just call me the other-

Dave: OK so they’re not here, but how good would that have been? Alright, while I go wallow in my own insignificance, here’s my review of Barenpark.

Barenpark is a 2-4 player competitive tetromino tile laying game from Phil Walker-Harding, who might be Australia’s only board game claim to fame. In this game, players take the role of Mad King Ludwig who now wants to open a bear zoo. However, in typical mad king fashion this bear zoo will only have three types of bears, and a marsupial. The best zoo goes to the player with the most points after anyone erects four bear statues – gross.

All components of the game unpacked on the table.
Here’s everything that you get in the box.

How to Play

To begin the game each player starts with a barren park, and a green zone tile. This tile may be a toilet, a playland, or a food street. Then players take turns placing one tile on their park, noting that the tile placed must be orthogonally adjacent to a previously placed tile. If a player cannot legally place a tile, then they must pass and pick up a consolation green tile.

When a tile gets placed, if it covers any of the three icons from the supply board the player may choose a tile from that category or below. The green wheelbarrow allows you to take the green tiles we already talked about, the white cement truck turns you into the IRS and allows you to reclaim any animal houses for your park, gaining some points in the process. Lastly, the orange excavator allows you to build the biggest and pointiest tiles of all – animal enclosures.

There are two other special icons on your park areas. The first being three construction workers standing around doing nothing. This is an unfair description, it’s really one guy working, and two others managing him. By covering these fellas, a player must add another park area to their zoo.

The last icon is the pit, it has migrated from Pawnee and multiplied to every park area that the players buy. Players cannot fill in the pit unless they cover it with a bear statue. Due to section 37, paragraph 5, rule 286 of the International Bear Park Regulations, a player is only allowed to build a bear statue once every other square on a park area is filled.

There are also side objectives, called achievements, that award points once completed. Some examples are: first to three polar bear tiles, first to have a cluster of six green tiles, and first to have three consecutive river tiles. For each achievement there is a first, second, and third. The faster you are to complete an achievement, the more points you get.

Once a player has four bear statues, then all other players get one last turn. Everyone then adds up the points they scored, and the Best Bear Park is awarded to the player with the most points.

A completed park at the end of the game.
Not a square to spare!

The Good

The game boils down to many different races: a race to the best animal enclosures, a race to fill up your park areas and earn bear statues, a race to winning the achievements, and a race for animal houses. This creates the strategy of the game, which is to evaluate and reevaluate which race to win. The amount of stress put on these races is determined by how many players are playing. For every added player the difficulty to win, and the punishment for losing each race is increased exponentially.

Players are also trying to grow their boards in the best way possible. Not only for the next turn, but the turn after that, and the turn after that. Making sure that the holes they’re creating can be filled by the smallest number of tiles. While strategic, it also brings a creative element that is rewarded when done correctly with bear statues. Placing one of these in the final slot, is like placing the last piece in a puzzle. It’s an incredibly rewarding experience that panders to the part of the brain that needs to see things neat and tidy.

The quick pace of the game allows players to feel active, even when they’re not. They’ve learnt from the follies of Carcassonne, allowing players pick up their tile after their turn instead of right before their move gives players time to think when others are performing their moves. The big benefit here is that the pace rarely stagnates, allowing the speed of the game to flow consistently.

By the end of Barenpark, players feel like artists when they look back at the beautiful bear park they’ve created. Usually, it’s horrendous. There’s not enough pathing for anyone to walk around, and the only bathroom is an hour long walk from the entrance. That’s not the point though, the point is that every player creates something unique, and there’s a sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with that.

The artwork on the tiles has that typical European flavour, whereby it’s not dull, but also doesn’t hit you over the head with a large novelty bear claw. Each tile has a different picture, and it’s fun to look through and see what the bears get up to. The supply board has a style of its own. It looks like a sketch book with charming little bear doodles – not what you’re thinking – sprinkled across the pages. This adds nicely to the family fun aesthetic that they’re going for.

Overall, what’s best about the game is its approachability. Making houses for bears, where the porridge isn’t too hot or cold, is something we can all get behind. The rules are few, easy to understand, and lend themselves to a scoring system that is brilliantly simple. Everything is encapsulated by fun playful artwork, creating a family friendly package that can be enjoyed by anyone.

The market board shows what large bear tiles are left to claim.
The market board

The Bad

This was going to be a two-thousand-word essay on why koalas aren’t bears. Thankfully this is addressed in the rulebook. However, as a fellow Australian I’m surprised that Phil included koalas instead of drop bears which are Australia’s only non-make-believe native bears.

Depending on player count the setup can be convoluted. There’s a lot of tokens and tiles, and when playing without a full complement you must sift through and take out specific tiles, adding significant time to setup. This is only an issue because the game doesn’t provide enough play time, to counter the amount of setup time. It’s akin to being on a roller coaster, where you spend a lot of the time clicking and clacking up a hill instead of doing loop de loops and vomiting on your friends.

Part of the reason for this is that the graphic design doesn’t account for it. A solution used in other games is to differentiate between the player counts by adding markings to cards and tokens, there is none of that here. Instead they opted to put the setup requirements on the supply board, which would be fine if not for bear statues. To figure out what and how many bear statues are needed, the rulebook needs to be consulted.

Another issue, again with the graphic design, is an error in their first printing of these setup notations. While the effect of this error isn’t huge, it’s something that would have been picked up, had someone sat down and played the game one time before printing. It is an indicator that – combined with the bear statue issue – their head of quality control was Pooh. Seriously, out of all the fictional bears they could have hired, he’s probably the most clumsy and careless.

Talking gameplay, one of the downsides is that it is possible your first tile placement can ruin your entire game. The distance between a couple of icons on the first park area, are unreachable with the tiles received from that first icon. This means on your second turn, you would have to pass. You may think people aren’t dumb enough to start in these areas, but years of watching YouTube has taught me to never underestimate anyone.

Since there is no scoreboard in this game, you never know how well you’re doing, or how well others are doing. This unknowingness hides your best move throughout the game, and reduces what limited player interaction there is. It’s only when you count and compare the scores at the end you realise if you’re winning, or not.

The game slows down significantly towards the end. You end up with all the tiles you require to finish your park, but since you can only place one tile per turn, you’re left waiting and counting down the seconds until completion. During this time, all the excitement and fun of picking up tiles, and strategizing where to grow next dissipates.

Finally, after everyone is finished, you sit back and admire your masterpiece. This moment is as fantastic as it is fleeting, as you now must count how many points you scored. The best way to do this is to take your park apart and pile your tiles into easier to count denominations. This means that you’ve destroyed your pic-a-nic basket, before knowing what sandwiches it contains.

Despite Barenparks’ limited player interaction it is quite mean. The bear type achievements are designed so that at least one player misses out. Alternatively, you might set your park up for a certain shaped tile, only to have it taken away. This rough punishment is in juxtaposition with the cute theme, and is a departure from the ‘everybody is a winner’ movement we’re seeing from modern game design.

Components of Barenpark half set up, half thrown across the table.
I’m not even sure what this photo is of.

The Verdict

First, I want to say this is a good game. Using tetrominoes to build a bear park is inspired and the execution is well done. This game, like my foot fungus, has grown on me with every passing play. However, when I put it back on the shelf, I’m not sure when it’ll be back out.  It feels like it’s missing something, whether it’s the setup to playtime ratio, the muted artwork, the lack of player interaction, the impossibility of picking the optimal move, or some combination of the above. Whatever’s missing, it’s enough for me to deny this game a bear statue, but still recommend it. If it sounds like a game you’ll enjoy, you will.

Thanks for reading my review, I’m currently ranking all my board games in one furry list. You can see Barenpark’s initial ranking below.

Initial Rank: 13

I’ve not enjoyed a polynomial tile game yet, but I’ve heard great things about them. What do you think makes a good tile polynomial laying game?

David Norris

Lover of dogs, books, comics, movies, anime, television, video games and most importantly board games. My site is all about the latter, and my journey through the glorious hobby.

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