When Two Bears Love Each Other Very Much…

COVID-19 made this the worst header ever featured on SB!

Even though I’ll joke about it, I don’t hate UNO. In fact, I’ll prove it by saying something positive about UNO right now. UNO is good because hhhhhnnnnnnngggggggrrrrrrr uuuuuuuuggggggghhhhhhh eeeeeehhhhhhhhhhggggggg winning by getting rid of all your cards is pretty smooth. Jeffrey Beck’s The Bears and the Bees takes that model and shapes it into something much better — UNO with hexes.

Yes, I’m being fantastically reductive with that description.

Fact. Dan doesn't have anything else to say right now.

Fact. Bears like honey.

I’ll confess, saying something positive about UNO was painful. So let me do one easier: UNO is nonsense because it’s all about the draw. Sure, the world is wide enough and strange enough that somewhere out there is a reigning UNO champion wearing his UNO championship belt stitched by his UNO-loving mother who’s known around the office as Mizzus Uno, ready to tell me I’m wholly incorrect about UNO in no uncertain terms, and also he shouts “Uno!” whenever anybody is holding the last card in a game other than UNO. But besides that guy, we all know UNO comes down to the cards you pull. Got a bunch of wilds? Draw 4s? Skips? You’re sitting pretty, baby.

If I had to single out only one improvement, it would be that The Bears and the Bees isn’t entirely about your starting hand. Oh, an examination of the card types makes it seem like it’s parroting the same lines. Drones are your wilds, three of their sides adorned with honey rather than color-coded petals. Because honey is wild, able to match any adjacent color, drones are easy to dump from your hand. Flowers are offensive powerhouses, but they’re tricky to place. Because they’re the same color on all sides — and because you need to match a card to two adjacent hexes in order to place it — it takes luck, preparation, or the foolishness of your opponents to find the right spot. But when you do, everybody else draws a new card. The lesser version is the worker bees, which sits somewhere in between the drone and the flower in terms of placement difficulty, but lets you hand out a card to whomever you like the least at the table.

When I talk about the foolishness of your opponents, that’s actually one of the things that makes The Bears and the Bees more interesting than similar color-matching family games. That first play, you’re trying to remember the rules. The artwork for drones indicates one bee, while workers are three. Yet their abdomens are so similarly shaped that even professional apiarists will find themselves squinting for the conical vertex of the workers’ ovipositors. Remind me, which one forces you to draw a card? And what’s this bear for? What happens if I can’t place anything into the hive? Do I really need to shout “Uno!” as enthusiastically as that one guy?

Fact. They're easiest to shuffle if you just swish them around on the table.

Fact. Hexagonal stacks are fun to touch.

But The Bears and the Bees isn’t about the first play. It’s about the second play. And the third. And the fourth. It’s about what happens once everybody knows its tricks. That’s true of many games. What isn’t necessarily true of many games is that it only takes a few minutes to reach that point. After a short while, half an hour if we’re being ungenerous, a surprising breadth of strategy begins to unfold. If you place this honeycomb here, then next turn you can play your flower — but you’re leaving an opening for somebody else to place a hex abutting three sides, which means they’ll be permitted another turn, so maybe that’s a bad idea. If you clutter up one side of the hive, you might force everyone to play new colors onto the other. If you leave honey hanging out in the open, somebody could play a bear, which blocks anything else from growing around it. Because it’s a bear. It eats honey and it’s scary. Obviously.

Furthermore, that bear is worth a whole lot of points. You’re playing for points, aren’t you? When someone dumps their entire hand, everybody else counts up what they’re still holding. Regular honeycombs don’t count for much. Workers and drones and flowers are worth more. Bears? Forget about it. Either way, you tally up your score and start a new round. Now you’ve got a metagame going. Not only are you trying to get rid of cards, you’re also piling cards into the hand of whoever’s ahead and whoever’s winning the meta-score.

Fact. Bees don't build their honeycombs in hexagons. Rather, they build circles that then collapse into hexagons. But here's the more cutting fact: they're still better architects than you.

Fact. Hexagons are mesmerizing.

This never becomes overly vicious, or even overly strategic. It’s still a family game. But it’s a family game without using the phrase as a pejorative. It’s slight enough in frame that my six-year-old understands how to play. Better yet, she’s beginning to glimpse the edges of its deeper geography, one where certain areas are dangerous to expand because they provide too many opportunities to Mom and Dad. At the same time, it’s also dense enough that our game night regulars don’t mind it as a cool-down, a digestif after the evening’s more filling meal. There are plenty of small games that fit such a bill, but not many that slide between roles so effortlessly.

The Bears and the Bees is UNO with hexes. But it’s also more than that. It’s a finely-tuned family game that only gets more interesting as the family grows more experienced with how to shape its geography for their own benefit.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on April 3, 2020, in Board Game and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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