|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [1.65]
There is an element of wish fulfilment that goes into playing games. As a species, we like to invest our emotional energies into exploits that the real world either makes prohibitively difficult or equally prohibitively dangerous. A few activities fall into both of these camps and I’d suggest ‘Bear Tetris’ is a pure expression of that intersection. Bears are expensive – they’re basically luxury-brand dogs. They’re also dangerously violent when riled up – like the slumbering mass of the suburban proletariat. Lucky then that we’ve got Barenpark for those that might want to experience those thrills with none of the spills. You could also think of this as Ursine Patchwork, but I’d suggest you equally want to avoid approaching a bear with a sewing needle and a speculative look in your eyes. Never bring a knife to a bear fight, because they’re all packing guns. You send one of theirs to the bear park, and they’ll send eight of your to the morgue.
But never fear! This box won’t hurt you. The bear on the cover won’t maul you. It won’t drag your mangled corpse back to the den to feed it to its hungry cubs. Barenpark lets you get so close to the action you can practically taste the hot fur, but never so close that you can feel the claws. Unfortunately, the action here isn’t so much arranging bears as it is a no-holds-barred simulation of civic engineering. Get your nicest ‘going to church’ retractable pencil, and the fanciest of your collapsible rulers. Look out the Sunday-best eraser and prepare to GO WILD. This park isn’t going to build itself. That’s where you come in!
At its core, Barenpark plays very much like an upgraded version of Patchwork. It’s more unabashedly ‘gamey’ than Patchwork, incorporating special actions and expanding modular boards. It has achievements, and tiered scoring. It’s got a logistical framework that forces players to balance the flexibility of expanded real-estate against the immediate necessity of action. It lets players engage more meaningfully, and more deeply, with the underlying act of geometric organisation to be found in a game of Tetris. I remain unconvinced that for all of that it’s a better game. It’s certainly a good game, but… well, we’ll get to the but. We’ll get to the butt because this is BARE TETRIS. I once got thrown off a bus for playing that on my phone.
Each player starts out with a quarter of what will be their eventual bear park. It consists of a four by four grid marked with a series of symbols. One of those symbols is a pit marked off with a safety barrier. We can’t build there. Something… dark happened there, one might assume. I mean, there are wheelbarrows and cement mixers liberally strewn around without any supervision but the pit has all the welcoming charm of a Brooklyn crime scene. It’s entirely possible we’re building this park for the Mob. Or perhaps the reason we’re not allowed to build there too freely is that it’s the site of an excavated ancient burial ground. Do you want a park full of angry polterbears? Because that’s how you get a park full of angry polterbears.
We’re going to expand this park as we go along by collecting and placing components from the central board. Some of these have no value – they’re used purely to bulk out the area with the basic amenities of life. Others count towards scoring and their value goes down as tiles are claimed. In a four player game, they’ll disappear pretty rapidly. If you don’t claim them early you’ll find yourself with difficulties in marketing your knock-off petting zoo. Originality of vision is important here. You don’t want to be presiding over Leftover Dinosaur Land when everyone is heading off to Jurassic Park. Or maybe you do – I hear the latter of those didn’t do all that well if you look at the big picture.
There’s fair diversity of tiles available to you over the course of the game although some of these have an intensely limited supply. As in, there’s only one of them and it’s not particularly easy to get the exact piece you need for maximum benefit when you need it. There is an abundance of toilets, playgrounds, food streets and rivers but they don’t give you any points. There’s a generous allocation of animal houses, but each is worth less than the previous. The rest of the more interesting shapes are a strictly ‘first come only served’ proposition. Depending on the number of players, you’ll be using different totals and different numeric composition of each of these tiles. It is, as I’m sure you can imagine, an absolute ache in the bear-hole to set this game up each time, and only slightly less so to tear it down at the end.
Also arranged around the main play area are a series of bear statues – when we cover all the valid empty squares in a section, we take the most valuable of these tokens left and place it in the pit. This completes that region and simultaneously covers up whatever terrible crime for which we were responsible. Sorry officers, we can’t dig those back up. That’s the plug for this part of the park – if we removed it, all the bears would flood out and kill everyone. Have you ever tried to get twenty bears out of a drain, pal? You can see the bind we’re in. Health and safety, guv, health and safety. More than our job’s worth, mate. Bigger fish to fry, pal, bigger fish to fry.
So, we’ve got a park (or a bit of one) and a board of enticing pieces. You can see I’m sure how these are going to fit together – you takes the pieces and you puts them on the boards making sure that each piece (aside from the first) is adjacent to another. The tiles that you cover with your current piece determine what happens next. One, or more, or none of these things might happen:
- If you cover a green wheelbarrow you get to claim one of the no-score park amenities and ferret it away in your supply for later placement.
- If you cover the white cement mixer, you can claim an animal house or a park amenity.
- If you cover a red digger, you can claim one of the unique enclosures, or an animal park, or an amenity.
- If you cover a construction crew, you can claim another quarter of your park.
Everyone starts off with an amenity of some kind – a 1×1 toilet for the first player, a 2×1 playground for the second and third, and a 3×1 food street for the fourth. You place your tile and then action its effect. If you don’t have a piece in your supply when you must place it, you pick an amenity of your choice and pass the rest of your turn. You begin with few options, but before too much time has passed you’re covering up whole chunks of the board at a time with massive enclosures that trigger a veritable avalanche of landscape tiles to head your way. You’re basically hurling whole subcontinents of increasingly alarmed bears down into your park. All the while terrified passers-by watch an endless parade of accumulating danger right in the middle of their previously comfortable middle-class suburban lives. RUN! RUN! LIFE FINDS A WAY, LITTLE MORTALS.
As an ‘advanced’ variant of the game you can also seed some achievement tiles into play – I’d recommend doing this right from the start since they don’t do much to seriously increase the complexity (although of course we’ll come back to that for our accessibility teardown). You might pick up one of these tiles for placing three polar bear tiles, or a full set of animal houses, or a cluster of amenities, and so on. Like the animal houses, there are multiple tiles available and they become progressively less valuable as they’re claimed. The result is an occasional moment of frustrated angst as some absolute bastard grabs the last easy polar bear tile and leaves you four or five moves away from being able to claim the achievement you wanted. You’ll show them though. They wouldn’t be the first prime steak your bears have eaten for a special treat. Those bones, officer? Purely decorative. That wrist-watch? I don’t know, the bear had that when he arrived.
Play progresses in this perfectly satisfying way until the first player places their final bear statue, and then the game winds down and scores are totted up. As is reasonably often the case, the player with the most points wins and is permitted, legally, to eat everyone else at the table. Nay, not permitted – required. Git gud or git masticated. The only prize for second place in Barenpark is a guided tour of the inside of the winner’s digestive tract.
Barenpark is good. No question it’s good. It’s an absolutely solid implementation of furry feng-shui and the experience is deeply satisfying. Picking up a bear statue and slotting it nicely into a pit is strangely soothing. It’s like someone giving your mind a cheerful massage. Finishing your park with no missing parts too – that’s the happy ending that terminates the experience. It’s a nice, comfortable and welcoming game that keeps everyone engaged to the end and happy with what they’ve done. It’s nice. It’s good.
But there’s a problem, because of course there is. This is a more welcoming game than Patchwork – a less passively aggressive experience in competitive completionism. There’s real strategy here that comes with organising your tiles and finding the optimal way to slot them together. In that sense it captures what I like about Tetris – being able to lose myself in the act of creating patterns that satisfyingly complete and disappear to open up new spaces on the screen. When you complete a park section by covering a construction yard, you get instantly presented with an untouched board ready for your next placements. You get to place a bear statue and earn its points. It is absolutely the perfect board-game equivalent of completing four rows in Tetris only to have them disappear and temporarily solve your immediate crisis of placement. There’s a catharsis in that – a sense of a difficult job done well.
The problem is that the satisfaction that comes from a game of Tetris is only partially in the act of fulfillment. It’s also in controlling the increasingly challenging volatility of the tetrominoes that come hurtling your way. Each time a new piece starts to plummet in Tetris there’s an instant mental triage that comes with evaluating the shape and finding somewhere in some rotation where it won’t do too much damage. The actual placement of the shape is the administrative red-tape around the experience. It’s the signature on the form – important, but hardly the thing that carries the most weight in its completion.
When you make a mistake in Tetris, you suddenly propel yourself into an intense battle against your past self and the future vindictive spite of fate. You’re trying, on the fly, to rectify your error while still keeping the situation under control. This creates a failure cascade where each past mistake means future mistakes are more likely. The cascade is inexorable, but it isn’t inevitable. You can fix the mistake, but you need to shift up a gear and enter a different mode of play. When you have built a rickety tower of compromise to the near top of the screen and manage, after a solid minute of inventive placement, to whittle it all the way down to the bottom – that experience is joyful.
Barenpark suffers in that it doesn’t have an equivalent of that. It doesn’t have anything that even approximates that. In Barenpark, you get to pick what’s in your supply and you get to pick which tile in your supply you’re going to place. The most awkwardly shaped tiles are limited in their number, but there are a wealth of options in the small, fiddly pieces that award no score but fill up spaces. Imagine if in Tetris you could pick a 1×1 block pretty much any time you liked, and could stockpile them away for when they’re useful. That’s Barenpark, and it makes this issue worse by having an equally generous supply of 1×2 and 1×3 tiles, as well as a corner. You don’t get points for those, yes – but often you’re picking them up as an afterthought for other, more lucrative placements. There is never a situation in Barenpark when you can’t complete a park – the only question is how quickly you are going to be able to do it. Not only that, even within the criminally constrained geography of a 4×4 grid you will almost never have a situation where you can’t cover every single square. There’s just no tension to the placement, and that robs it of the satisfaction that comes from overcoming that tension. You never have to compromise, and that has the effect of robbing you of the catharsis that comes from resolving your compromises.
I understand that Barenpark is not Tetris. I understand that the Bear Tetris angle is one that I projected onto it. It’s impossible not to though, and we can’t pretend otherwise. Barenpark is also entering a game landscape that already contains Patchwork, and is doing it with a gaming architecture that implicitly promises a reward for its pernickety setup. I expect a game that takes four times as long to set up as Patchwork would be meaningfully better and I honestly don’t think that’s an expectation that’s met. It’s still the case if I want a Tetris shaped game experience I’m going to reach for Patchwork before I pick up Barenpark. That’s a real shame, because Barenpark does have a lot to recommend it.
For one thing, Barenpark supports four players whereas Patchwork tops out at two. The distribution of actions across the different park bolt-ins is a really nice element and one that adds a new consideration to tile placement. The fact that you can expand your park orthogonally with no fixed layout is inspired, and being able to place tiles across park regions offers an interesting flexibility to the spatial puzzle. Those are all very nice elements, but they are essentially undermined by the ease with which parks can be constructed.
Patchwork puts two players at each other’s throats, needles drawn. When I take a piece in Patchwork it’s to your cost – you can’t just grab a slightly less valuable version of the same tile. Patchwork provides an occasional 1×1 leather patch to help you recover from poor placement, but it forces you to use it right away. You can’t accumulate them and use them when it’s convenient, and as such they are as often a problem as they are a cure. Patchwork makes it difficult to construct a perfect (or even good) board, and then penalises you for every failure. In all the hundred or so games I’ve played of Patchwork, physical and digital, I’ve managed only two perfect boards. Both times the accomplishment left me elated and judgemental of every imperfect board I put together in their wake. Patchwork forces you to confront your own failure each and every tile you place, and layers on to that an ever increasing sense of pressure as your time and money ebbs away. It nails both the satisfaction of placement and the catharsis of overcome compromise.
A four player count doesn’t really change Barenpark – the provision of tiles scales up with players, and as such the game doesn’t become a less solitary experience. Ironically, despite its smaller player-count Patchwork is by far the more interactive game. If you played Patchwork with four players you’d be knifing each other to death in a car park within minutes. In Barenpark there’s rarely a serious need to look up from your own park to look at anyone else’s. Sure, the rare enclosures become more precious and the competition more pointed – but you’re still never at a loss for something productive you can select. Barenpark simultaneously makes it easier to fully complete a park and removes any penalty (other than in not placing a bear statue) for not doing it. What would be an unconscionable super-power in Patchwork (a 1×1 tile you could spend whenever you liked) is available in abundance in Barenpark. There is no game of Barenpark yet where I haven’t completed three of my four parks, and only one where I didn’t complete four of them. A perfect board in Barenpark is the baseline expectation and as such I don’t actually take much joy in it. It’s satisfying, but not elating.
I think the most significant thing that Barenpark has done is make me more appreciative of Patchwork’s cleaner design. Patchwork is a game that is simpler and more elegant, and in our review I said the following:
I suspect you will find many opportunities to play Patchwork if you buy it, and I’m sure you will enjoy it each time. I doubt though that in many cases you’ll play it because you really want to make a Tetris quilt. I suspect most of those plays will be driven by its comfortable length rather than its inherent ability to satisfy.
I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but I do think that the sharpness of the design is perhaps worth more than the somewhat miserly three and a half stars we gave it. Barenpark in the end is the reason that Patchwork just got an upgrade to four stars in an editorial adjustment. It’s true what Dickens said – You come at the king, you best not miss. If someone asks me ‘Should I get Barenpark?’, I’m going to say ‘It’s good but honestly, I just can’t recommend Patchwork enough‘.