I’ll level with y’all. This has been a game I’ve been excited about for literal ages. A game themed around national parks, with art from the gorgeous Fifty-Nine Parks Project? AND with a camping and hiking theme? When Keymaster Games said they’d let me review the game, I sat outside my door every day waiting for the box to come in. That is only a slight exaggeration. And let me tell you, it was worth it. It’s gotten a lot of good response already, but after numerous playthroughs, and to celebrate its big release yesterday, here’s my review of PARKS.
What’s In The Box?
I honestly might have to do a post-facto episode of Let’s Unpack This for PARKS because I really can’t capture just how beautiful this game is in words…but that’s never stopped be before. Just as a start, the game is centered around artwork from Fifty-Nine Parks, a celebration of the National Parks that works with extremely talented artists to create posters and other art themed around the parks. And it isn’t all the sort of lush naturalism you’d expect in art of national parks, there’s all sorts of styles that range from the minimalist to downright trippy. Half the fun of the game is seeing how each park is captured. Each card also includes the year the park was founded, who the artist is, and a fact about the park. Even park aficionados might learn a thing or two playing this.
Beyond the cards that make up the bulk of the game, the rest of the components are as high quality as we’ve come to expect from Keymaster. The base game comes with a really neat board that holds the games cards which looks like the surface of an old log. Keymaster, however, has an upgrade available in the form of a big playmat that’s expanded to hold every part of the game, including the containers with the game’s tokens inside.
Speaking of tokens, let me just say it’s like they know me: wood, glorious wood. The different tokens (sunlight, mountain, water, trees) are all stained vibrantly but not brightly, instead having a slight tone to them that makes them seem more natural. There’s also animal tokens that count as any of the others (they’re wild, get it?), and each depict a unique animal from all over the parks, including sea turtles and mountain goats. The containers they come in (which will either flank the game board or rest on your mat) were produced by GameTrayz (who did the containers for Euphoria) and remain totally on brand, as they’re shaped like logs and nestle alongside the wood textures of the box and board quite nicely.
The rest of the components are high quality printed cardboard, with foil parts here and there to draw the eye to important info. These also use art from Fifty-Nine Parks, cropped down and fitted, or they use art from artists that contributed to that series. A special token that just shows how dedicated Keymaster is to the polish of their game is the first player token, which is an enamelled metal token that looks just like a trail marker from one of the parks. It all fits very neatly into the box, with instructions on the side and markings inside the liner to tell you where everything goes. They even thought of how to dispose of the leftover cardboard from punching out the components: you just stick it under the liner tray to elevate it a bit and create a neat effect with the box.
How’s It Play?
If you’ve played Wingspan (full review coming soon), then you’re probably familiar with the kind of “engine building” that this game plays like. But it’s not nearly as complex as that game, nor as competitive. The game plays across four seasons, and players move their hiker meeples from one end of the trail to the other as they collect resources, take pictures, and buy hiking gear to make their camping easier. Your goal is to “visit” one of three parks on offer, each of which has its own cost and victory points value. Each stop on the trail gives you a different resource depending on the local biome i.e. the forest gives you trees, the desert gives you sunlight, etc. The game has a really organic way of moving the game along, in that your hikers (you get two, buddy system after all) can’t move backward, can’t easily share a site with another player, and can’t be left alone on the trail. Your campfire, the only thing that lets you double up with someone, is one use only until one of your hikers gets to the end of the trail. So no matter how slow you are, no matter how methodical your are, you will move.
PARKS isn’t trying to be something hyper-competitive. It doesn’t necessarily reward experience with the game or experience with strategy, and once anyone has played a game or two they’re about on the level with anybody. But you’re still trying to win, and there’s a few factors that affect your success. Obviously, parks are the key, whether you visit many cheap ones or a few high-value ones, but you can make it easier or increase your score in a few ways. Canteens, essential for any hike, are filled whenever you get water and can get you other resources or even a wild token. Photographs, the only thing you should take at a national park, get you a victory point per photo and the camera, which makes future photos cheaper and is itself worth a point at the end. Gear is bought at the trail’s end, and does everything from making parks cheaper to giving you extra resources to letting you get wild tokens in certain areas. It’s incredibly powerful, especially since the effects can stack, so when good gear shows up there’s always a race for it. The whole thing is modified by each player’s special “Year,” which is a goal (like “spend X amount of water on parks”) that shape your long term strategy in order to gain the benefits.
The ability to reserve parks, I think, deserves special mention. Visiting parks is “buying,” but reserving parks is where the most strategy comes into play. When a player reserves a park, they take one of the available three and put it in front of them. This makes it unavailable for the other players and saves it as an option later. You have the chance to plan ahead, swipe something from someone else, or even just screw them over. Most of the time when you do this, however, you give up an often equally powerful benefit. Nobody should be an asshole in the wilderness.
It’s honestly rare to have a game with this much care and attention put into its production that is 100% accessible for casual players. I’ve played this game with friends and family of various ages and experience levels, and they all got a real kick out of it. Centring the game around hiking and outdoors actually helped people get into a little easier, as it makes sense that binoculars help you see animals (thus earning you an animal token) or that you always need a buddy. Even solo play has lots of good flavor that flesh the game out, like the way the rangers (your “opponents”) act or how the Events resolve. There’s a small learning curve, but once someone sees all the pieces layed out its a pretty quick learn.
I don’t know if I can recommend this game more enthusiastically. This is unequivocally a must-play for anyone who likes board games. It’s beautiful, it’s fun, it’s has a surprising amount of depth. I’ve never played a game that so cleanly integrates gameplay and theme in such a seamless and elegant way. Not to mention the fact that it’s in the running for most aesthetically pleasing game of 2019, and maybe of any games I’ve seen. It accomplishes all of this without going crazy with exotic materials or insane mechanics, being at its core a game for anybody. Yeah, if you want something that’s gonna take three hours and end with one player flipping the table, this might not be the game for you. But I can say who it is for.
It’s a game for nature lovers. It’s a game for people who want to celebrate the forests, and the mountains, and the crashing of waves against rocks. For bird-watchers and bear-spotters, for mountaineers and day hikers. For hunters and fisherman , climbers and divers.
Or, hell, if you just want a pretty game to play a chill game with your friends.
Give PARKS a visit. I don’t think you’ll regret it.
You can pick up PARKS, as well as the playmat and PARKS playing cards featuring the same art as the game, from Amazon, where it’ll run you $49.99. An exclusive edition of the game is also available at Barnes & Noble, for the same price, that has a slightly larger box and different art depicting Sequoia National Park. No matter where you get it from, a percentage of profits from PARKS will be donated annually by Keymaster to the National Parks Service.
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All images via Keymaster games