Parks (2019) – Accessibility Teardown

Game Details
NamePARKS (2019)
ReviewMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium Light [2.18]
BGG Rank278 [7.90]
Player Count1-5
Designer(s)Henry Audubon
Artist(s)Fifty-Nine Parks Print Series

Version Reviewed

English first edition

Introduction

It seems mean to say it, but I sort of wish that Parks, rather than Wingspan, was getting all the mainstream attention. It’s not just a better game, it’s a better game for the specific niche that Wingspan seems to have dominated – something endearing enough to bring non-gamers organically into the fold. Wingspan though just requires more game literacy than I think it’s fair to expect of a genuine novice, whereas Parks is a lot more nurturing in the way it teaches its gameplay loop. We gave Parks four and a half stars in our review, and hope that it genuinely does grow to get the appreciation it deserves as the first-rate ambassador for the hobby.

But…

The thing that we know Wingspan definitely has is a relatively strong accessibility profile for something of its design and complexity. Parks may be, in our view, a stronger game… but is it something that we could recommend for people with disabilities?

Let’s find out.

Colour Blindness

Palette choice for the pieces is not ideal, and the problematic clashes that can be observed are especially an issue because each player has two hikers. It’s not just a case of telling my piece from yours, but my two pieces from your two pieces. The nature of how Parks works too exacerbates one of the issues we occasionally discuss here. Sometimes it’s easy to tell pieces apart when they’re right by each other, but harder to tell which is which at a distance. Given that Parks is designed around hikers not doubling up on spaces (to a degree), it’s something of an issue. It is though something you can query without too much impact on the game, and replacement tokens are also an option.

Parks, Colour Blindness, Hikers

That though is the only problem for colour blind players. Each of the parks has its own unique art, and each of the currency symbols in the game (suns, water, mountain and forest) have their own form factor that is easy to see against the letterboxing of the card. While the colour palettes may overlap, you won’t easily mistake one token for the other.

Colour blindness and parks

Similarly when it comes to the pieces themselves.

Colour blindness and pieces

And for the trail:

Colour blindness and the trail in Parks

It’s unfortunate then that the hikers were not given some form of unique way to identify them, because it would have solved that problem while also raising the already high standard set by the rest of the attention to detail in the presentation. We can recommend (just) Parks in this category.

Visual Accessibility

Much of how Parks works leans well into verbalisation. There’s no secret information in the game except for the private goals that are dealt to each player at the beginning, and the impact that has on the game is marginal. You get two or three points in most cases for accomplishing a particular private in-game goal and if you didn’t have those points it wouldn’t really make much of a difference to how the scoring actually functions. They’re a nice to have rather than a must have.

Secret goal to collect park that require water tokens

Everything else is open information, and there are relatively few things that need to be memorised to have a good understanding of play. The trail grows during every season, but the amount of it you need to consider keeps getting smaller as hikers make their way down the path. There’s no way to go back to an earlier part of the trail. As such, a player can be presented with a reasonably compact summary of options. ‘The only free spaces ahead of either of your hikers are the mountains, which is two spaces away from your furthermost hiker, and the vista which is four spaces away’. Some clarifications and analysis might be required as to the impact of that information, but not so much that the game would be impossible to play for even someone that is totally blind.

Supporting this is that each of the tokens that a player will pick up has a different form factor. Suns are different from water which is in turn different from mountains and forest. Wild animals (joker tokens, in effect) all have distinctive and varied profiles of their own which, while great from a presentation perspective, does increase the possibility space of ‘just what on earth am I feeling here’. It’s an easy enough issue to deal with though – just use replacement pieces, or rely on ‘If it’s not something I already know, it’s a wild point’. Canteens and gear cards don’t have any way of offering information without sight, but if there’s an abled player at the table their effects are easy to summarise and they are not hidden in any case.

The trail has a maximum of twelve spaces, and while these randomise every season they have sufficiently simple effects that it’s easy to memorise what they do. The forest gives a forest token. The vista lets you take a canteen or a picture. The ocean gives you two water tokens. It’s all strongly conceptually linked too, with the exception being the tokens that are laid on trail locations as part of the seasonal weather patterns. That though can be investigated by touch.

Parks

Parks too are easily verbalised, since the moving parts of a card are its cost and its point value. If playing with secret goals, then the composition of that cost also matters. If you decide to leave them out then all a player need know is if they can afford it, and at what point a card is bought from the marketplace.

For players with some degree of vision, the form factors of some of the icons may be a little close for comfort. A forest versus a mountain for example is mostly differentiable by colour than by its actual shape. That said, provided a player’s vision includes a clear view of the colour then it won’t be a problem.

It’s a complex mix of upsides and downsides then, but overall we can recommend Parks in this category. Just.

Cognitive Accessibility

The game rules of Parks are reasonably intuitive and straightforward, but there are some quirks of the mechanisms that mean they may be a problem for even moderate cognitive impairments. For example, you fill a canteen using water (makes sense), but you can only do it with water that you gathered in that turn (no using old water you’ve got lying around). Some trail actions are definitely more complex than others. Most are ‘pick up a few tokens’, but one as an example is ‘Spend a water to copy a power on a square that another hiker is occupying’. Not excessively complex but certainly more so than the otherwise simple set collection would imply. There are conditions on some special powers too, such as ‘Swap any two tokens for any other two tokens… except that it doesn’t work for wild tokens’. In a recent game I played of this too, one of the other players pointed out some of the subtleties that these effects enable. You can only use water that you gained in a turn to fill a canteen, but you can trade two old waters for two new waters and use those. It’s a nice trick, but also one that shows that the intersection of these systems can have unexpectedly complicated outcomes.

But even if the rules are tractable, the strategy in Parks is complex and the decisions you make are surprisingly difficult. There are often pivot points in the game where an especially good decision will have ramifications for the rest of the game, or an especially bad decision will screw you long term. And then, on top of this, there’s the tempo of play. If you fall out of step with what other people are collecting and visiting, you’ll find it hard to compensate. If you’re collecting suns, and you fall behind the other player that is collecting suns… well, their simple presence on the trail spaces you want to occupy will cause issues. You either need to accept using spaces that don’t give you what you want, or leap ahead and give up on visiting potentially many spaces that would have yielded a greater overall number of resources.

A lot of what you’re doing here is creating efficiency. You’re never in the position of not being able to turn tokens you don’t want into tokens you do – there are lots of tools on the board and in the marketplace to make that happen. What’s more likely is that you’re not in the position of being able to do it quickly enough. Sure, you can turn your two water tokens into two sun tokens, but that’s half as efficient as picking up two sun tokens to begin with. Those little inefficiencies add up over the course of the game’s four seasons and preventing the growth of inefficiency is your main gameplay challenge. And it’s more cognitively demanding than you might think.

As far as memory impairments go, the only area of concern is the goals that players get dealt out. They’re secret information. You can check them any time you like, but trying to remember what you suspect other players are going for is going to be an issue. My advice would be to play without them – they don’t really add all that much to play. If you get meet the higher grade-challenge on the goal it’s basically like visiting an extra park – that’s a minor differentiator at best.

The decks too add a little bit of a memory issue, because knowing the presence of each park and the tokens they ask for has a strategic impact. If you know a lot of suns have come out, then it changes the value of the trail somewhat. If you suspect someone is trying to hit a mountain-heavy secret goal, that likewise changes the economy of the tokens. There’s a similar issue with gear cards – if you know what’s in the deck you can plan ahead. To an extent. The size of all the decks is something of a balancing factor against this, but it’s not an issue you can completely discount – especially if playing with groups of mixed-ability and familiarity.

We don’t recommend Parks in our fluid intelligence category, but we can recommend it, just, for those with memory impairments alone.

Emotional Accessibility

Parks is a game where passive aggression is somewhat rewarded, and if a player is so inclined they can certainly create a system that enables them to block others to little negative impact on their own chances. The game also permits players to gang up if they want to deny access to resources and opportunities, but it doesn’t incentivise this. There’s no real player versus player interaction, but player versus trail interaction is a contact sport. As such, players can intentionally block others. They can linger on valuable squares (with the help of some special gear). They can trick and bluff players into missing opportunities. And then, if they play smartly enough, they can have two hikers on the path and since neither is the only one still active they can gobble up all the rewards like greedy little Pacmen. For a game that never lets you touch another player’s accomplishments, it sure feels like a fist-fight. And it gets a lot more cramped at higher player counts.

But this interaction is where the game play actually comes from, and while it’s possible for these things to happen it’s a lot harder to actually make them happen. You can plot and plan as much as you like but the waltz of your hikers is difficult to manage when it has to interleave through other players. And even if a group of players manages to bully someone into a weak game position, there are enough tools in the game that it’s rarely a game ender. Players can strike at your efficiency, but they can never stop you being effective. It might be enough to lose you the game, but in the process it might be enough for them to lose it themselves.

And, while the game doesn’t ever let you steal points from someone else, there is a camera token that you get for being the last person to take a photograph. It halves the cost of taking photos, and gives you a chance to take another photo at the end of the trail. Each photo is a point, so possession of this can be as good as visiting a number of parks. That, and the first player token, are the only things that anyone can ever lift out of your inventory and you’re always able to get them back if you like.

Points differentials can be quite high, but they tend to cluster because the hand limit of tokens is quite strict and eventually you have to buy cards just to collect more tokens. That mitigates a lot of what might otherwise be a viciously cruel point spread.

We’ll recommend Parks in this category, provided everyone involved is aware that this is a game where, by design, you’ll spend a lot of time getting in the way of everyone else.

Physical Accessibility

There are few complaints here. Every action a player may wish to take is fully verbalizable, although some convention between the two hikers will be necessary. It’ll be sufficient to say ‘nearest hiker’ or ‘farthest hiker’ though. ‘Move my nearest hiker to the vista’, ‘move my farthest hiker to the mountain, using my campfire’. The only private information a player has is their secret year goal, and everything else is played open.

In any case, for the most part the trail spaces are generous enough to hold all of the hikers at one time, with a bit of a squeeze, and there’s no real need for precision in placement. You don’t even need the trail to be neat as long as it has an unambiguous progression. The other physical interactions with the game are claiming cards (which are nice and big for parks, and annoyingly small for canteens and gear); collecting tokens (from the provided trays); picking up photos (very small and fiddly); and cashing in tokens.

The plastic trays you get for the components are simultaneously great (you put one at each end of the trail so everyone has convenient access, so awesome!) and annoying (the pieces have a tendency to slide up the sides of the tray much like we discussed in our Century: Spice Road teardown). You don’t have to use them though, but I really like that the makers of the game thought to make ‘ease of access’ a feature of their tokens.

We strongly recommend Parks in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

Our review on Parks is partially an essay on the topic of the approachability of its theme. I think Parks opens up this hobby to people that wouldn’t otherwise be interested, and it does it in a way that retains its value as a top-rate gaming experience. The hikers are gender neutral, as best I can tell, and most of the art is drawn from the beautifully evocative Fifty-Nine Parks series from the National Park system. There are few, if any, humans represented in the game but lots of lovely scenery.

Parks box

And the box is also pleasantly presented, with a bear and his or her cub by a waterfall. The parks very much take centre stage in the production. Oh, and the manual doesn’t default to masculinity.

Parks has an RRP of approximately £36, although stocks are very low it seems. When it is available though it supports between one and five players, and while I haven’t tried the solo mode myself I’m told that it works very well. Every other player count is one at which at which the game is at least good, and the design of the game makes it a perfect way to spend time with non-gamers. The first season is easily treated like a canonical practice round and it’s long enough for players to learn a good 90% of what the game involves.

We strongly recommend Parks in this category.

Communication

The gear cards in the game require a certain amount of literacy to properly interpret, but not much and there aren’t enough different effects that it need be a massive problem. A small crib sheet will be sufficient. There is otherwise no formal need for communication but I recommend making an old-timey ‘camera click’ sound every time you take a photo. Just for fun.

We’ll recommend Parks in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

There are a few issues here. The first is if a player has both a visual impairment and colour blindness then the similarity of some of the currency tokens will become awkward to deal with. It doesn’t make the game any less playable with verbalisation, it just makes a channel of information considerably more ambiguous. If a player has a visual impairment and they also have a memory impairment then we’d rescind our recommendation in both categories – so much of play in that circumstance is dependant on a good memory that we suspect the game becomes largely unplayable.

Parks claims to play in about 30-60 minutes but don’t believe a word of that. Maybe when everyone is completely optimised and knows exactly what they’re doing and why. 60-90 minutes, in my experience, is much more likely. Add another 30 minutes for a five player game. It’s easily long enough to exacerbate issues of discomfort or distress, but it’s also something that easily scales to a changing player count. A player just needs to make it to the end of the season and then the next season can continue on without them. The seasons also build in natural breaks to the session. A rest after each trek seems only fair.

Conclusion

Well, look at that – aside from the fluid intelligence category we give Parks recommendations across the board. On a purely algorithmic scale it ends up being more accessible than Wingspan, although its profile for fluid intelligence makes it a little problematic with regards to making broad pronouncements on that score. Still, it’s wonderful to see that the game I’ll be championing as the thing to get newbies into board games is one that I can recommend in a lot of different circumstances.

Parks, Meeple Like Us, [CC-BY 4.0]
CategoryGrade
Colour BlindnessB-
Visual AccessibilityB-
Fluid IntelligenceD
MemoryB-
Physical AccessibilityA-
Emotional AccessibilityB
Socioeconomic AccessibilityA
CommunicationB

And should there be a second edition of this, I could see further improvements. Double coding the hikers for example would bring that B- up to a B. Making the token profiles a little more obviously differentiable for low-vision users would bring the visual impairment section up. Maybe to a B+. And also nudge the improved colour blindness grade higher still. Some indicators on the cards to help people with deck composition issues would help too. There’s room for improvement, even though it’s a generally strong performance.

And I love to see this in a game I like so much. Usually the narrative here is ‘Here’s a great game… that you can’t play’. Or, ‘Here’s a game I didn’t like all that much… but you can probably play it’. With Parks I have my favourite conclusion. ‘Here’s a great game – that I believe many of you will be able to enjoy just as I have’. We gave Parks four and a half stars in our review, and you should absolutely check it out if you get the opportunity.


A Disclaimer About Teardowns

Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.

Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.

Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.

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