In 2019, the board game landscape has never been better. New games are getting high value production with great components, engaging themes, and beautiful art. PARKS from Keymaster Games ticks all of those boxes, with one of the most beautiful games to come around in a long time. However, does PARKS play as great as it looks?
PARKS is a 1-5 player game from Keymaster Games, and designed by Henry Audubon. In PARKS, “players take on the role of two hikers who will trek trails to see sites, observe wildlife, take photos, and visit national parks over the course of the game.” The game is played in four rounds, each of which represents one season of the year. As the year goes on, the trail of tiles will get progressively longer, adding more crucial decisions and special actions. To set up a each new season, you will flip over a season card, which gives everyone a shared advantage for the round, and seeds the trail with a weather pattern, represented by sunshine and water tokens. These provide an added benefit for the first hiker to reach each tile. Also, at the start of the game, every player gets a secret objective that they are trying to complete, which will give you either 2 or 3 points if you are able to attain part, or all of the goal.
On your turn, you will move one of your two hikers any number of spaces down the trail towards the Trail End tile. You will need to choose your movements wisely, as you aren’t allowed to double-back on the trail, losing out on any tiles you may have skipped. Each tile that makes up the trail provides a different action you must take. Some tiles will allow you to collect a number of tokens necessary for almost every other action in the game. These tokens are represented as water, mountains, forest, and sunshine. Other tiles on the trail will allow you to perform actions using said tokens, such as taking photos, collecting canteens, trading for different tokens, visiting/reserving parks, copying actions, or collecting wildlife. When one of your two hikers reaches the end of the trail, you may spend the tokens you have collected to visit parks, each of which require a certain combination of tokens to earn that park’s victory points (see the image below). Parks values range from 2-5 points each. You may also reserve a park that you are working toward, or buy gear with sunshine tokens, providing extra benefits for the remainder of the game
While those are the basics of the game, there are a lot of added actions and bits which add to the strategy of the PARKS. As you may only progress forward down the trail, you also may not go to a space where another player is located unless you use your campfire token. When you choose to share a tile with another hiker (even your own) your campfire is extinguished, and is only relit when one of your hikers reaches trail end. When you reach the “Vista” tile, you may either take a canteen, or take a picture. A canteen can be filled with water anytime you gain a water token, which will give you an added benefit, like extra tokens or a special action. By “Taking a Picture” you can spend any two tokens to take a photo, which is worth one point a the end of the game. When you take a picture, you also gain the camera, giving you a discount for the next time you snap a shot (unless someone else takes a pic and steals the camera). Use all of these abilities to help earn the most victory points on your travels, and the player with the most points from parks visited, photos taken, and personal bonus goal at the end of the game is the winner.
First thing first, this game is GORGEOUS. Already known for beautiful games (Caper, Campy Creatures, Space Park) Keymaster Games has collaborated with the Fifty-Nine Parks Print Series, which has a series of posters celebrating the 59 National Parks in the USA. 48 of the 59 parks are featured in the game (yes, Mammoth Cave is in) as the remaining 11 parks have/had not been released at the time the game art was finalized. Five percent of Fifty Nine Parks sales of posters annually, as well as a percentage of sales revenue from PARKS will be donated to Tee National Parks Service . I encourage you to head over there after this review and check out ALL of the beautiful art their artists have put together of these amazing locations around the US. But, the beauty of the game is not just related to the art of the Parks cards. Every inch of this game is an incredible thing to look at. The individual tokens are perfect. The wildlife tokens, which represent wild resources *of course* are each a DIFFERENT wildlife animal. The first player token is enamel, there’s metallic ink on the cards, and the tray that holds all game components in the box are perfectly crafted (resource trays are made to look like stumps of wood). I seriously could go on forever about how good this game looks.
But, what’s most important is that the gameplay is SOLID. While the game seems like a very serene trip down a trail to visit national parks, there is a lot of strategy and gamesmanship to every turn. Your decisions are meaningful as you only have one trip down the trail with each of your hikers each season. You have to decide which tokens are most important to you, and if you’re willing to pass up other actions or tokens to get to them. If someone is on the spot you want, you have to make the choice to use your campfire. But, if you use it too early, you’re jammed up until you can get one of your hikers to the end of the trail. The ability to reserve parks not only lets you plan ahead, but you might take a park away from someone else who is working towards that park.
Also crucial for the replayability of the game, is the order in which special trail tiles come out. There are four of these tiles in the game, which provide special actions, and a new one is added to the trail each season. The first game I played with my wife, the tile to buy/reserve a park didn’t come out until the final round, so jockeying for the camera and bonus points became a high priority. But, in our second game, that tile was available from the very first season, meaning there were at least four opportunities to buy or reserve a park every season, so token collection was now of the utmost importance. While those games felt strategically different, the scores remained tight with no more than three points separating us each game. In games with 4-5 players, the trail fills up more quickly, meaning your campfires could make/break your success. Also parks are being snatched up faster which will alter your planning multiple times per season. With so much variability styles of play in both player count, as well as special tiles, there’s a lot to love in PARKS.
It was hard for me to find anything I didn’t like about the game. The game is a great weight for both families and experienced gamers. I do, however, think that all of the game concepts that are being combined in the game might be confusing for first time gamers with short attention spans. When going through set-up with someone new to the game, you need to explain canteens, seasons, secret endgame goals, weather, campfires, gear, taking pictures, and park actions. In explaining to someone new to gaming, you find yourself going “and also, and also, and also,” which might be a lot for someone new to more hobby style games. Once the game gets going, everything flows really, really well. But, if someone can’t stay focused during rules explanations, this might not be for them (or you might just have to take longer on rules explanation).
I highly recommend PARKS as a game you should add to your collection. The art alone is worth the purchase of the game, but it’s combined with a solid game that will attract both gamers and families alike. Since the last time I played, I keep thinking about the next time I can play PARKS and who I can share it with. It’s a great game to introduce to non-gamers with a pretty attractive theme, but implements the VERY beginnings of concepts you would see in heavier strategy games. This one is going to stay in the collection for a long, long time.
PARKS is available at Gen Con this week, and should see a retail release later this month. Check out the Keymaster Games website here.
** Just a couple of notes. 1) PARKS was provided as a review copy by Keymaster Games. However, I did purchase a copy in the Kickstarter campaign for the game, so the review comes a few weeks earlier than it normally would. 2) In the pictures of this review, the game is being played on an optional neoprene playmat. It does not come with the PARKS, but is available for additional purchase. The board that comes with the game will hold the cards for Parks, Gear, Canteens, and Seasons, while you will just put the trail tiles and token trays to the bottom and side of the board, respectively. The playmat is 100% not necessary to play the PARKS, it’s just a nice cosmetic touch.**