Park Yourself Down
My favorite moment in Parks is when I decided to collect only the parks I’ve actually visited. Turns out, I’ve been to a lot of national parks. My family was like that: big SUV, too-small travel trailer, a desire to “rough it” without nailing down a single tent peg. So I quit picking the easiest of Parks’ parks and started grabbing only those I recognized from personal experience. My home state alone permitted a wide array — Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion. Farther afield I grabbed Mesa Verde, Yellowstone, Badlands, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Haleakalā. Not enough that it was easy. Just enough to provide a challenge.
If it sounds like I’m damning Parks with faint praise, you’re darn tootin’.
Before we dig into it, let me offer another item of praise that’s far less flippant: Parks is gorgeous. With artwork licensed from the Fifty-Nine Parks Print Series, it ought to be. But while the park cards are an obvious highlight, nearly everything about the production screams, “Check this out, Wingspan.” The cards have that textured linen finish that makes for smooth shuffles. The first player marker is a metal triangle that could serve as a merit badge and a flint striker for starting campfires. The resources are wooden mountains and trees and — get this — unique animals for the wild tokens. A quarter acre of woodland in every copy. No wonder a percentage of sales is being donated to the National Park Service. Really, that’s lovely.
Here’s the thing. If I were a board game production critic, Parks would be game of the year, easy. Its colors are vibrant but natural, its components are beautiful without being gaudy, there isn’t a single plastic miniature in sight, and the first player marker made for a useful survival tool when I was trapped in the wilderness. After that debacle, I owe my life to Parks. Surely I can toss it a few extra points?
The gameplay, however, is merely okay. Not bad. It’s fine. So fine that there’s barely anything worth talking about.
Here’s how it works. Every season you create a track of destinations. The trailhead is on the left, the trail end is on the right, and in between you’ll find a jumble of other spots. Most, like the mountain, valley, and forest, are there to bestow resources. Other offerings make up the remainder, like the vista for taking a “photograph” for bonus points, the lodge letting you swap two resources for two others, or a wildlife sighting that forks over a wild token. Get it? Wildlife gets you a wild. Come on, that’s cute.
From there, everyone gets two hikers. You’ll march them from left to right, in an orderly fashion, until everyone has reached the end of the trail. The trick is that you can move them as far as you like, hopefully forging ahead of your competitors in order to secure bonus resources before anybody else snaps them up, but not so quickly that your hikers are finished while everybody else is free to keep hiking. You can’t occupy a spot with a rival hiker unless you burn out your campfire; keep in mind, however, that reaching the end rekindles your campfire. Which means if you time your hikes properly, you’ll be able to land on two occupied destinations during a single season.
There are subtleties at play. Actually, that’s the wrong word, like saying “huh” when Old Faithful launches a bison into the air. That isn’t a huh and these aren’t subtleties. You’ll immediately suss out when to linger and when to press forward, how to stagger your hikers, when to trade resources for a photo moment or hoard them for a park. Some decisions ring a little false. The vista, for example, lets you either take a photo or draw a random canteen, a bonus card that activates when you fill it with water. (Again, cute. Parks is very good at cute.) The answer, naturally, is whether you’re in an early season or a late one. How many seasons are there? Buddy, you’ve known the number of seasons since you were five years old.
There are a few ways to earn points, but the majority come from the parks you’ve collected. Is collecting parks so that nobody else can visit them inimical to the entire concept of national parks? Maybe. One friend remarked that we were technically privatizing the nation’s parks. That gave me a little shiver. Still, a game needs a win condition, and a thick stack of parks serves just fine, never mind the implications.
Basically, reaching the trail end with one of your hikers lets you pick from three options. You can reserve a park, which sets it aside for later, buy some gear for discounts or other bonuses, or visit a park. That last one is where the points are made, exchanging three to seven designated resources for a park card. There are a few other considerations, like photographs and the first player marker awarding a point apiece — which isn’t bad if you amass enough of the things — and an end-game bonus that’s worth piddly-squat compared to the effort that goes into achieving it. For the most part, though, the game proceeds in that fashion: visit locations to gather resources, exchange them for parks. Easier than attaching a travel trailer to a mounting hitch.
Like I said, this is all fine. The whole thing has a drowsy air, the right activity after an afternoon of exploring an actual national park. Seated in your travel trailer, crammed around that pop-out dinner table that’s also a bench bed that’s also the cover for the gray water tank, nudging hikers and being careful not to drop the resource tokens, it’s nearly perfect. No brains are burned, no strategies are formulated, no hackles are raised when somebody wins by the slender margin that’s all but guaranteed by the game’s established ratio of resources to points. In that moment, sun-burnt and leg-sore, sick from binging on M&Ms carefully separated from the rest of the trail mix, dreading another powdered dinner, I would have killed for a game like Parks. Better than yet another round of Uno, yet another attempt at that knob-controlled ball-in-the-labyrinth game.
Which is my weird way of saying I have a certain fondness for Parks. Not enough that I was ever fully absorbed by it. Not enough that it didn’t frustrate me. Because if you’re going to invest in this amazing artwork, this amazing production, why not also invest in a great game to go along with it? Wingspan managed both. Beautiful production, family friendly, still enough meat on its bones that there was purpose to its engine-building. I know it isn’t a fair comparison; Wingspan won the Kennerspiel des Jahres, and making games isn’t easy. But Parks almost feels like design on autopilot. Gain resource, spend resource. Have decision. Make point.
Still, formulas sometimes work, or work well enough. In Parks the formula works well enough that the outcome is bland rather than bad, bolstered by its artwork rather than supplementing it. Yellowstone, it isn’t. Death Valley bears closer resemblance.
A complimentary copy was provided.