Gorgeous production values have begun to feel like a double-edged sword lately, we’re almost expecting them to cover up an otherwise bland set of gameplay mechanics. There are many tales of overproduced miniature board games that induce buyer’s remorse or shouts of “but it’s pretty!” as the only defense of a mediocre game. When I saw the Kickstarter for the board game Parks I thought to myself “There is no way there’s a good game in there”. The voice of Occam’s Razor echoed through my mind as I concluded it was far more likely that a pretty board game about hiking through national parks would be mediocre rather than mechanically interesting. That an artistic direction was decided upon first and then a game was shoehorned in around it was a far simpler explanation to accept. It turns out I was wrong, there’s also a good game in there.
Parks is a game about resource management. You get the resources, some rarer than others, and you spend those resources on things that will either get you victory points or other resources. The accumulations and trading of those resources reminds me a lot of Century, as your ultimate goal is to match your resource types to the large tarot card style victory McGuffin. Do this more efficiently than your opponents and a winner is you!
The way these resources are acquired is to move one of your two hikers (Almost typed Worker…..) along a path that gets longer in each of the games four rounds. The interesting twist is that you can move your hiker any number of spaces but you must always move forward. Land on a spot with another hiker and you need to exhaust your campfire token to make that play. If there is only one hiker on the path, the next action of that hiker MUST be to go to the end, preventing a scenario where the last hiker can just pick up every resource along the way.
The lack of limitation poses interesting problems. You could go slowly down the path, but if other hikers are blocking the way you might not have your campfire ready to share a spot and be forced to move well past it. Conversely, if a desirable resource spot is later in the trail rushing to it will guarantee you get it but gives you less room for other actions. It’s a great mechanic that gives actual choice, not just the illusion of choice like I find so many other games do. These choices get even tighter the more players there are in the game.
What turns a competently executed set of mechanics into a great game is the theme and presentation. Unlike so many other games where this is just painted on to gloss over mediocrity, Parks’ production quality is aided by the strong foundation it’s build upon. The theme of hiking through pars is realized in a shockingly imaginative way. Resource tokens are thematic with wild resources being unique animals. The game didn’t need to give over a dozen unique wooden meeples but it does add to the fun. You can buy equipment that gives certain advantages, take pictures, purchase park cards with gorgeous art that matches national parks. It’s not uncommon to see people want to push for their favorite parks.
While the mechanics and decisions made are interesting, they won’t be considered particularly heavy. As with any game of this nature (pun intended), not all actions are equal. Some of the equipment cards don’t offer much value and the end game action space feels like you should almost always be buying parks whenever you can otherwise you’ll lose a potential action to buy a park that will never be recovered. It’s hard to imagine a way to fix some of these minor wrinkles while still keeping the games simplicity and 30 to 40 minute playtime.
But taken for what it is, Parks is a fantastic time to play casually in under an hour. It will grab the attention of anyone walking by, it will keep a group satisfied during it’s quick playing, and most importantly it will put a smile on the faces of the people playing it.