|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [2.13]
|Player Count (recommended)
Much like the national parks system itself, Parks the game is an absolute treasure. And like the national parks system, you shouldn’t overlook it just because there are flashier forms of entertainment available. It’s a gorgeous production with a straightforward ruleset that promises little and then over-delivers in spades. Its gentle aesthetics are stunning, drawing as they do from the Fifty-Nine Parks print series, and yet subtly understated. It’s meditative, despite being tightly competitive. And it’s an ideal case study for reaching beyond the gamer demographic into the wider population beyond. I’d say ‘spoiler alert, I love it’ but you get to see that right in the review score so it’s not like I’m giving anything away.
But to really delve into why I like Parks so much we need to talk about Wingspan…
Parks and Wingspan are both entries into a family of games where the novelty of the theme itself is as much of the appeal as the game ‘proper’. These are the kind of games that makes the eyes of ‘normal people’ light up. It’s not about goblins, aliens, or weirdly detailed renaissance mercantilism. It’s about taking a nice walk in nice parks. It’s like someone captured the soothing escapism of Firewatch and stuffed it violently in a box. And for anyone that likes nature, hiking or explorative escapism it’s a tantalising prospect. I would say none of those things are really in the stereotypical wheelhouse of your cliched board-game. I mean, if I’m honest with myself – my idea of a hike in the beauty of nature is getting a snack from the fridge while the kitchen curtains are open.
The benefits of this kind of thematic approachability can be seen in just how the mainstream went cuckoo over Wingspan. It was talked about everywhere, from popular newspapers to television programs. Its scientific literacy was lauded in academic journals, its ornithology chops (beaks?) admired in twitcher circles everywhere. And, as I wrote in our review, it was the first game I’d ever seen a particular friend of mine actually excited to play.
Parks has that quality too but it also has something else… a mechanical approachability that I felt (and feel) was utterly lacking in Wingspan. It’s not that the game isn’t challenging, because it absolutely is. It’s surprisingly complex and unforgiving in terms of its game mechanisms. You absolutely need to play it a few times to get the hang of it, and that’s a criticism I had of Wingspan. The initial appeal of doing pleasant things with nice birds was utterly at odds with the intractability of the play experience for your average ‘non gamer’. The thing about Parks is that yeah, you need to play it a few times before it clicks… and you’ll get the chance for it click before even half of the game is over. It’s really, really nice.
Here’s the basic info you need to know to understand how Parks work. You get two hikers and a random shared trail that terminates a particular trek. Progress on the trail is only ever forwards, and you can move to any space you like that lies ahead of you. However, every space can be occupied by only a single hiker, unless someone wants to employ their limited use campfire which allows them to share with someone else. Spaces give tokens (sun, water, mountains and forests) which can be spent to visit national parks when you reach the end of the trail. When you visit a park, you claim it so no-one else can ever take a look and you receive its bounty of points. Along the way you’ll acquire gear that give you discounts, special powers, and so on. You’ll also have access to canteens that let you convert gathered water into other resources. Some spaces have other special powers, such as empowering you to take a photo for a point or let you visit a park mid-trek rather than at the end.
There’s more to it of course, but this is a review not a tutorial. Read up on the rest of it on your own time, I’m on a schedule here.
Here’s the beautiful twist that makes Parks so approachable. Once you’ve all reached the end of the trail, it gets gathered up, another location gets added to the stack, it gets shuffled, and it gets set up again. You make four treks every session of Parks and it gives the perfect opportunity for praxis. In the first trek you don’t know what you’re doing, or why. It gradually unfolds through the act of play as you watch other people engage with the systems and it starts to click. ‘Oooh!’, you think, ‘Some of the gear lets me add fungibility to my resources so I can spend mountains as forests. So I need to gather suns to buy gear so that I can really get the most out of the rarer mountains that come my way. Got it’. And then you’ll think, ‘Ooooh, that’s why I have two hikers – so that I get to control my progress with more precision while also denying movement to others. I wish I’d known that earlier’. And then you’ll think, ‘Ooooh so controlling the camera is important because it gives me an easy point subsidy that others won’t. I wish I’d taken a photo at the vista now’, and then ‘Wow, that piece of gear lets me take photos at the vista *and* the ocean? That means I need to gather a lot more suns’, and then you’re at the end of the trail and you’ve just packed an entire game’s session of insight into 25% of the experience.
Right from the second trek, you’re better at the game. You don’t make the same mistakes. You don’t get so confused about how the systems interact. And you learned all this during the portion of the game where the mistakes were least costly – when the trail was at its shortest and when everyone’s camping kit of gear and canteens is least developed. A complete novice still has a good chance of winning at this point and importantly have learned for themselves how to do it. It basically incorporates a ‘practice game’ into the regular cycle of play, and in the circumstances where it’s not required it just seamlessly converts into ‘just a regular part of the experience’.
None of this is unique to Parks. Its core mechanism is basically the apotheosis of the sauntering ‘commute ‘em up’ that was Tokaido. Its round-based structure is something you’ll see in games as varied as The Mind and 6 Nimmt to Telestrations and Sheriff of Nottingham. Its system of engine-building shares a lot of familiarities with Splendor and its canteens are basically the player powers you’d find in something like Castles of Burgundy. And of course we’re no strangers in this hobby to stunning artwork. In many ways Parks could be thought of as a derivative mishmash of well-known mechanisms borrowed from other clever games.
But the thing here is how perfectly Parks has mirrored its mechanical approachability to its thematic approachability. In many ways this makes Parks the game that should, rather than Wingspan, be getting mainstream adulation. I wouldn’t put Wingspan out in front of a newbie game player ever again. Its systems are too ‘gamery’ and its first impressions are borderline deceitful. Don’t get me wrong, Wingspan is a good game. It’s just not a good game for the use-case it seems most effectively pitched to fit. I honestly believe the extreme dichotomy between its framing and its function has likely done some harm to the hobby. Many people will have bought this game with no expectation of what it involves, and put it into a cupboard after the game told them ‘board games are too complicated for people like you’.
Parks though has everything that I like about Wingspan – its gently involving mechanisms, its lovely art, its beautiful components, and its whimsical theme. It provides all that in a package that actually works optimally for new gamers. And, importantly… in a way that hasn’t at all sacrificed its competence as a title for experienced gamers. It’s not a minimalistic game by any stretch of the imagination, and it doesn’t have to be. Its cyclic reinforcement of its game concepts means it can be ambitious in what it asks of its players without having to temper its expectations. And let me tell you – Parks would be a great game even if it wasn’t such a perfect ambassador for this hobby.
The decisions you make in Parks are simple, but they’re also heavily consequential. The trail stretches in front of you in randomly generated glory, and your hikers are points of pressure along it. Choosing to race ahead to get a resource you desperately need just gives everyone else a chance to saunter along in your wake. On the other hand, slowly edging your way to your goal leads to the risk someone else will get there before you, blocking you from it entirely. You’re often left with few options you want, and yet enough tools that managing that dearth of possibility is actually fun. The campfire beckons. Other paths through the trail become more or less appealing. And then you layer in the mischief of how you can employ your hikers to frustrate other people. It’s a dense possibility space that merits meaningful agony over every conflicted choice. While the closest frame of reference to this is Tokaido, I can’t emphasise enough how much having two hikers adds to the puzzle. And how the turn structure, rather than the ‘last person moves’, adds peril to your decision making. If you’re the last person to be standing on the trail, you teleport to the end. There’s no bringing up the rear as an itinerant lazy-bones. Camping is serious business – you need to haul ass before someone else despoils your scenery by enjoying it with their filthy, filthy eyes.
The distinction here then is in the divide between complication, which I think can fairly describe a lot of Wingspan’s mechanisms, and complexity. Parks takes simple rules and invests them with depth of meaning. It loads them with implication. It doesn’t have overwhelming synergies or bureaucratic legalese as to turn order and tempo. ‘Move where you like, take the action’. It’s so laid-back in that regard it’s like being tutored by the ‘cool’ temporary teacher that insists everyone calls him ‘Bill. Mr Door is my father’.
It even plays meaningfully well at all counts, which admittedly is kind of a basic expectation. The thing is, it plays differently well at all counts. At two players it’s a satisfying little duel over placement and parks. At five players it’s a no-holds barred Greco-Roman wrestling match where you can’t move a foot without kicking a shin. In-between gives an enjoyable balance between those extremes. In any scenario, it’s pleasing that a game about enjoying wide open spaces can feel so claustrophobic.
One of the things that goes along with running a site like this is that it becomes difficult to play for fun. The content mill is always running in the background, and it needs constantly fed. As such, it’s relatively rare that I go back to a game once I’ve played it enough to review. Not only have I done that with Parks, I’ve done it several times and I’m dying to give it another go right now. I love the art so much I even looked into buying some of the prints until I realised how expensive the shipping was. It’s nice every so often to unexpectedly discover something that is going to be one of your forever games.
Parks is wonderful. You owe it to yourself to play it.