Another month is done, and it is time for me, Saggyhead, to enter the Board Gaming Ring with the dangermouse that is Favouritefoe. This month, safe-hands Saggyhead will be the Ace introducing the Favouritefoe Apprentice crew to the polyominal tile laying game, Bärenpark. 

Year: 2017

Publisher: Lookout Games

Designer: Phil Walker-Harding

Artist: Klemenz Franz

Player Count: 2 -4(5)

Publisher Recommended Age: 8+ (5+)

Heavyweight: Saggyhead aka “the Grizzly”

Light flyweight: Favouritefoe aka “the Pooh”

Saggyhead: Bärenpark is a bear-zoo building game designed by Phil Walker-Harding that is suitable for all the family. Not only is the theming excellent for kids, there is also an “easy” mode in the box that is suitable for kids as young as five or six without much guidance at all. 

It is a case of placing the tiles and then selecting a new tile based on which icons you are able to cover over. Each turn you will place a tile from your personal supply (things you previously picked up), and take new tiles based on which icons you managed to cover up on your zoo board. You make up an arrangement of four bear park tiles as the game progresses, so you can zero in on your own personal puzzle or you can keep your head up and puzzle over what everyone else is doing. So, it suits all different player types, the solitaire players and interaction seeking players too. 

For the more experienced zoo-builders amongst you, there are additional challenges which can be brought in which are different ways to score additional points based on the way in which you fill your zoo tiles up. Striving for these goals may alter the way in which your Tetris brain would ordinarily place your carefully chosen pieces. There is also an expansion which adds difficulty, but I am determined to exhaust the mileage of the base game before thinking about that, and I think that will take a while!

There is a metric ton of replayability in this game. Alongside the usual randomness of tile drawing, there is also the player interaction of building up to take one excellent piece only to see that Fred took it right before your turn. Don’t be like Fred. 

So in the usual style, why did I pick this game to teach my pal this month? 

Well, Favouritefoe and Shadow Meeple are awesome company, but there is also Mini-meeple to consider. Coolest kid around, but most kid-suitable games are not video-call suitable, so we don’t usually get to play together as a 5. As such, I wanted a game that he could join in with, and that we could play over video call. Bärenpark fits the bill. With with a little bit of effort, as long as each player communicates which piece they take on their turn, you can discard those out of the game and play a group game in different locations. We also discovered that with two sets, playing 5 players was totally fine.

Shadow Meeple is an absolute boss at spatial puzzles, and the other two aren’t far behind him, so Bärenpark seems to tick a lot of boxes. We enjoy the game for the ease of play, it has thick cardboard components, and the process of playing feels exciting as you are all racing to get the best pieces into your supply. Phil Walker-Harding does make some fabulous games at around this weight. I like the theming of Bärenpark over Gingerbread House, and so this seemed like a good choice for us. 

There is another thing that sang for me. You know what tile you have ready to place for the whole time you are waiting for others to take their turn. This means that even the AP sufferers can fire off quick turns as they have planning time. I love that aspect of it, you might even end up with a couple of pieces in reserve that you can plan ahead further as well. This means that turns move quickly even at higher player counts, and you never feel like there is down time.

Bonus SaggyShort

Bärenpark doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t, and I applaud it for that. It is a simple Tetris type game that anyone can learn, and it is exciting to be the first to get those high point value bear idols. The theme is great. I enjoy the fact that there are never enough toilet blocks in the game, which mirrors my experience of queuing at zoos. Koala bears are not bears, however, they are marsupials. I know this because for a week my little sister’s favourite word was marsupial and she wrote it ON EVERYTHING. I will not hold that against the game however; they are called koala bears, so they can be in my bear zoo. 

My only real bug-bear (ooh pun!) is that it takes me a while to set this game up. There is a lot of stuff in that box and the “insert” is rubbish and doesn’t really aid with set up. There are a lot of components in Bärenpark, and our organisation consists of eleventy billion baggies which slows us down a tad when getting it to the table. Every time that we have though, it has been very much worth it. 

My score for Bärenpark was a rock solid 8/10 prior to shoehorning it into a zoom-able game. Now I give this excellent game the honour of rolling with the 8.5/10 crew. This game has enough levels for me to allow me to choose it as an easy game for when my brain needs a break, and harder options for me to grow into as well. If you enjoy puzzle tile placement games which come with a dose of cute then perhaps this modern classic might be just the ticket.

Favouritefoe: First off, Saggyhead is being way too modest. Not only did she ace me this month (well she basically does that every dang day so nothing new there!) with a cracking A v A game choice, but she got me rocking her amazeballs #anothergameofftheshelf Instagram challenge…..twice! 

If you didn’t already know, Saggyhead basically broke Instagram in March getting board gamers from all over cracking the shrink on their not-yet-playeds. Needless to say, Bärenpark got laid “bear” over here. Then she did it again in April with us all pledging to play something we had once loved but then left long-forgotten on our shelves. 

And now, in May, we are following the boss once again in her quest to get everyone to pick something they have only tried once (or a few times if you’re brave enough to get a little more creative with interpretation!). 

Not going to lie; I jumped into it on the first day. Not only because the challenge is a brilliant way to give a game a second chance – first plays are always rough riding in our house – but also because it chips away at the cult-of-the-new bear trap in which we often find ourselves. (Come on now, 2 paragraphs in, and there had to be a couple of bears lurking somewhere!). Plus, with only one or two outings for Bärenpark in our patch, it was a great excuse to bring it back, bear style! 

So, with troops locked and loaded, snacks bowled, drinks topped up, and Zoom password punched in, we began. 5 players rocking a 4 player game, one 3 years younger than the recommended age, using two sets of components, sitting 400+miles apart. Probably not what Phil Walker-Harding had in mind when he designed Bärenpark

But, as Saggyhead said above, it worked. And it not only worked. It elevated the game to a new level in terms of versatility and accessibility. Granted, you each need a copy of the game to play this way (come on Bärenpark; the roll and write version!). But, with Lockdown restrictions still in place for some, and the memories ingrained in all of us, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to consider how many other ways there are to play the games we have and like to play with our game groups. 

Logistics aside, this game also worked for us as a family. No denying it – Saggyhead knows us and she bossed it. Polyominoes and pugnacious placement for Shadow Meeple and me; puzzles and pandas for Mini-meeple. 

We are a tile laying, tessellation obsessed family. And even though my husband and I go all in for games that let us take-that and hate draft each other to the death, more subtle portions of strategic stinging check our boxes when playing with our next-gen gamer. 

And this is basically what Bärenpark is all about – a fun, colourful, abstract tile placement puzzle which you can play in a way to suit your gaming group. Tempted by a two-player brawl in the bear pit? Take the Toilets! Fancy a more family friendly fun time establishing enclosures? Then just look for the “bear” necessities and forget about your worries and your strife!

If you can “bear” with the less-than-speedy set-up, the game is definitely worth it. I hate to say it but the attraction of the game is knocked a little by the burden of getting all the bits out and, even worse, putting them away again. Unfair I admit as it has no “bearing on the game play, and I know there are inserts to assist with this which we will look into. Quite frankly the cardboard divider that came in the box was “bearly” worth the effort and resources taken to produce it. 

I love the cute styling though – almost to the point where I don’t want to cover up the sweet wheelbarrows and cement mixers necessary to bring in the bears. But, if I did that, I am guaranteed to lose, and my park would more closely resemble Digger World than Camp Koala (which technically aren’t bears I know but they’re cute so they’re staying!). 

The puzzle itself is also an enjoyable one, and when tiles interlock, it is super satisfying. Like placing the top tin on a pyramid of bean cans, completing one of my square boards provides me with a disproportionate sense of achievement. 

Part of my DIY conditioned brain does worry about the complete freedom Bärenpark gives me in terms of design. I mean, what if I end up with 10 toilets, 4 fast food stands, and a bunch of shy Pandas? Nobody would come to that! Well, they might for decent dog and fries, but again that would be a restaurant, and not really the bear park we are tasked with building. The draw of those golden bear idols is probably enough for me to put a pin in the reality that is tourist attraction construction.

The fact that the gameplay is adjusted for two players to help reduce the openness of the field and maintain some tension is also welcome when we play after Mini-meeple retires for the evening. Likewise, the additional objectives (like having the longest continuous river for example), add in more spatial elements for us to consider when planning our parks……..and throwing a spanner in each other’s pen planning! 

I will admit that this game is never going to top-out on our brain-burn list. Although things get fiercer as the spaces on your boards fill up, and the tile stacks diminish, it isn’t a grade A cranium crunching Kodiak bear. But it isn’t meant to be. It is what it sets out to be; a great, accessible, lighter-end tile laying game for players of all skill levels and ages. 

With a beariffic 8/10 from me, we have great fun playing Bärenpark with Mini-meeple and our pals from the Northlands, and I will happily play it anytime (so long as somebody sets it up and tears it down again, that is). 

Another different score, another half point – Grzzly and Pooh are now neck a neck as we go into Round #5.

Stay tuned for June’s Ace v Apprentice where the Juggernaut and the Three-Wheeler take on Railroad Ink!