There are a few game terms you’ll encounter when talking to board gamers about the type of games to play on a given evening: filler, entry, heavy, euro, ameritrash, abstract strategy, card-based, etc. Those are the fairly common genres, but of them, filler and entry games tend to be maligned; after all, if you’re a seasoned group of board gamers you wouldn’t be caught dead playing anything but Vital Lacerda’s newest ultra heavy game that takes 8 hours to learn and 16 to teach, right? Oh, what’s that? Someone’s brought their partner or kid, and they want to play a game? Or your parents are interested in “those games you play”? This is where the Filler and Entryway game come into play: simple to teach, easy to play, light and breezy. That shouldn’t be a bad thing; you aren’t always going to find much interest in historical comsims or brain burning euros—but you know what everyone likes?
Barenpark is a 2-4 player game in which each player competes to construct the best possible “bear park” using various sized tiles and polyominos. Essentially a tile laying game, Barenpark is simple to teach. In fact, the out of the box game mode is so simple that playing with the “advanced” achievements is now considered the default way to play the game. On their turn, a player places a tile from their “hand” and, depending on the iconography covered by their newest park expansion, may then take a tile from the “bank” of tiles or an expansion to their overall player board area. Simplicity begins here, as your “hand” is rarely more than 3 tiles, and your park area can only cover 4 boards in the base game. The game continues until one player has completely filled all of the spaces on their board, leading to scoring phase in which players count up the numbers on placed tiles and collect any bonus points from the random achievements for their game.
If that sounds almost childishly simply, well, it is. Barenpark is perhaps the fastest game I have ever taught, and a perennial favorite board game. If a player can count and has basic command of shapes and spatial awareness, they can play Barenpark. They don’t even really need to know how to count–someone else can do it for them!–but, generally, the game focuses on setting about winning some of the various achievements on hand for that game, and then building your park accordingly. There’s no player interaction other than racing for tiles and points, and so there’s also little reason to expect conflict other than taking that one piece someone else wanted to grab. In this sense, the achievements can help ameliorate this, as they come in various scoring patterns (with a highest, middle, and lowest score value), and the variety of achievements mean players can pursue different strategies without needing to fear kingmaking or sabotaging others directly.
The beauty of Barenpark is the simplicity: the game requires no bartering, squabbling, grand strategy, or anything else. Just place a tile, pick a tile, go to the next player, and repeat. It is the rare game that still moves incredibly quickly at max player count and rarely ever suffers from Analysis Paralysis, which is a truly blessed thing that many players may overlook in their game selection.
It also features lots of bears, which, again, everyone loves.
There are a few negatives to this simplicity: players who normally expect to play highly complex games are going to likely feel bored with Barenpark (if they hate fun). But the biggest knock on the game is that there really isn’t a lot of variety to get out of your play sessions. I usually find two games of Barenpark to be far more than enough to keep me content with the game until the next time it comes to the table, but I’ve never quite felt like playing it 3 or more times in a single session.
Also, the “advanced” achievements are mandatory, frankly, because without them the game has very little else going on. The fact that the base game considers them optional is odd, because they’re the only thing that allows players to pursue different paths to victory other than “claim highest scoring piece possible” on every turn; in some cases, you may not care about points per piece instead of collecting the most Pandas, but without achievements it really just becomes “get the biggest number legally available to me right now”.
The overall quality of the game is nice, but the box insert that the game gives you to assemble is… ok. This may seem like a nitpick, but my experience is this was good in theory but not in practice; my game pieces still tend to slide around, and storing the box vertically makes the storage a suggestion over a reality. The art, also, is not super engrossing, and the bears are fairly small on each piece, which is a little ironic for a game about bears–they make up maybe 10% of the art of most tiles! The pieces themselves are quite heavy duty, and stand up well to constant handling and use. The expansion features no box divider at all, so if you procure it, you’ll want some baggies for sure.
Fattening Up for the Winter
Barenpark has a single expansion: Barenpark, the Bad News Bears, which adds in a few modular expansions that help spice things up quite a bit. My general rule of thumb with games is that an expansion shouldn’t be needed to recommend a game, and I certainly don’t think that is the case here: Barenpark is a great little game that you can play easily by itself. That said, if, like me, you love these stupid little bears and their polyominos, then Bad News Bears is totally worth it. The best part is that these modules are, well, modular, meaning you can use all, some, or none of them to play your game. The best single addition is the new achievements, which right away spice up your game by adding in new possibilities for scoring and park planning.
The Grizzly expansion adds in huge, oddly shaped Polyominos. These are a little situational, as they require a very large, sometimes multiple board spanning amount of space to place down. These are cool, but I’ve found them better in 2 player games, as they increase strategic choices quite a bit. To accommodate the larger tiles, players get an extra board (now totaling 5), more animal house tiles are added, and players must exchange a green and a white tile to take a Grizzly. At 4 players, the Grizzly tiles are a little odd; the fact that you are taking animal houses to discard them screws with people’s plans more often than not, but they also just aren’t always as attractive as just playing the game normally and using the extra board for higher scoring. Still, at 2, they add some great fun and their weird shapes are certainly refreshing. My least favorite expansion, the monorails, adds an odd 3D element to the game in which you can place monorails, scoring only if you complete a monorail system between two pylon tiles. These look cool on the table, but I found them to be kind of take it or leave it; if anything, though, it gives you a lot of ways to alter the game, which is good, and are an optional way to score some additional points.
The best part is that none of these options make the game objectively worse or damage the Barenpark experience. One of the fears of expansions is that they generally alter the gameplay experience, in both good or bad ways—the amount of times I’ve tried expansions only to regret them is fairly higher than I’d like—but Barenparks simply give you more Barenpark options. A game with EVERY optional component (achievements, Grizzlys, and monorails) makes for an interesting game, but I find that the simplicity of Barenpark is what makes it sing; if you end up getting the game, and play it a lot, certainly look in to Bad News Bears, but know that you do not need the expansion out of the gate.
Get your Paws on these Bears
The art and style of Barenpark is fairly simple, with lots of colorful tiles and garish, large numbers to help denote score. But the fun comes from realizing that your park has a shortage of bathrooms (or, on the other hand, far too many), or from seeing the weird bear amalgam you’ve created that people supposedly want to come visit. Each player gets a starter tile representing a different country, with the idea being that you are all constructing your nation’s best possible Bear Park, and then hoping it wins out against every other country in the world for World’s Best Bear Park. The theme is light and silly, but somehow feels far more flavorful than many worker placement farming sims and other games that have abstract, “complex” themes; the idea that you are building a theme park is an easy one, and makes the concept of the game an easy sell.
I mentioned earlier the idea of various “genres” of games, with Entry and Filler often being maligned. Barenpark is exactly both of those games: a full 4 player game will likely not take longer than 45 minutes, especially if every player has played the game before. Even bringing in a new player doesn’t slow things down, and there’s very little to worry about in regards to new players being absolutely demolished by older veterans. As someone who recently downsized a great deal of their board game collection, I realized that Barenpark, a game that takes up very little shelf or table real-estate, has lasted in my collection longer than massive kickstarters and beautifully produced “heavy” games for a simple reason:
No one wants to play them.
This isn’t a knock on heavy games, but instead an attempt to make the idea of “filler” or “entry” games less derogatory. A game that’s fun is really what matters, and if I can get Barenpark to the table 9/10 times I bring it up, rather than On Mars to the table literally never, then in the end that’s what really matters. If you’re looking to build your collection of games, Barenpark is an excellent and affordable addition to your library that can really go the distance for quick game sessions, family gatherings, holidays, rainy afternoons, or literally any day you’ve got a half an hour to kill and some people to play a game with. Barenpark won’t be the most complex game with the best table talk stories, but it will be a game you can take out any time, anywhere, with any one, and have a great time.