America is justly proud of its remaining areas of untamed wilderness, much of which is preserved through its national parks system. It’s been an inspiration to both artists and board game designers down the years, the latter giving us titles as diverse as hobby fare Cascadia to the much more mainstream National Parks-Opoly. But 2019's PARKS aims to give you the best of both worlds with some accessible tactical play married to art from the 59 Parks print series.
What’s in the Box
The stylized waterfall art of the PARKS box cover is a lovely piece of work, but it doesn’t prepare you for the treasures inside. Beneath the rules booklet, there are two custom trays of wooden components, suns and droplets, mountains and trees, all dyed in appealing pastel tones. There are also a number of brown wildlife tokens, each and every one cut to resemble a different animal.
Underneath that there’s a plain tri-fold board and then at the bottom, there are several decks of cards, some large, some small. The largest cards are those for the national parks themselves. There’s no need for them to be so big except to showcase the glorious artwork from the 59 Parks print series that adorns each one. The smaller cards don’t have such impressive imagery but make up for it with little details like the fine layout and a lot of subtle gold shimmer to give them a luxurious feel.
You can see the same touches on the enamelled first player token, the wooden hiker pieces and all the counters you need to punch out, including board segments and a wonderful series of nature “photographs,” stylized in the same way as the park cards. Everything packs away neatly and securely in the sculpted tray that lines the bottom of the box. That tray showcases how much thought has gone into the physical design of PARKS and the results are delightful.
Rules and how it Plays
Your goal in PARKS is to steer a tag-team pair of hikers through as many of the biggest and most spectacular national parks as you can across four “seasons.” You do this by purchasing park cards from a face-up selection using the game’s four resources: the relatively common sun and water and the rarer forests and mountains. You can also get wildlife tokens which work as wild cards and can be spent in place of any resource.
A new board is constructed at random for each season out of the various board segments, making sure you have to vary your strategy a little every time. A season has an associated special effect, like gaining a bonus sun each time you get a forest, and a weather pattern which puts bonus resource markers on some of the segments. The first player to land on that segment gets the bonus alongside the special effects it provides to every visitor. These inbuilt effects mostly allow you to gain or swap resources.
So far, so ordinary. The tricksy thing about PARKS is that you’re allowed to move your hiker as far along the trail as you wish, but you can only go forward. So if there’s a space you particularly want, you’re caught in a conundrum between grabbing it now and skipping all the other useful spaces in between, or risking another player pipping you to the post. Of course, they’re all struggling with the same dilemma, too. You block a space you occupy although players can spend their campfire token to snuggle up to you if they want.
Campfire tokens are refreshed when your first hiker reaches the end of the trail, and this is your second problem. When you get there you can either use your resources to buy a park, spend sun tokens to buy gear which gives you future bonuses or discounts, or reserve a park card for your own future purchase and get the shiny first player token for the next round.
If you buy a card, which is the most common action, a new one gets added to the display. And this is both angsty and annoying at once. There’s a certain satisfaction in snatching a valuable card someone else has clearly been saving up for, and it adds to the strategies involved in pacing your hikers along the trail. But the fast turnover of cards and the random replacement tend to torpedo attempts at long-term strategy. PARKS is much more of a tactical affair.
You do get a choice of secret goal cards to work towards at the end of the game, like buying at least seven sun’s worth of gear, but these are so hard to achieve and give such paltry rewards that they rarely figure. Rather, strategy in this game is more about making sure you’ve got opportunities to get what you need. Mostly, these come from canteen cards. You start with one of the former and can gain more on certain spaces: they’re cards that cost one water to activate and get you either extra resources or the chance to exchange resources for other kinds.
Good play in PARKS is thus very much about knowing when to speed up and slow down on the trail to snaffle opportunities when they come your way. You’ll need to balance the time it takes to make use of your canteens and resource-swapping opportunities, with the flexibility it offers for the ever-changing makeup of cards on offer. You can also grab bonus points by taking photos in some spaces which cost two resources but then give you the camera. While you hold it, photos only cost one and you can take an extra snap at the end of each season. Knowing the right moment to steal the camera is yet another timing-based tactical decision you’ll need to add to your growing arsenal.
Despite the gorgeous presentation and the occasional thematic flourish, like the way the season card determines the weather, PARKS is an odd bird in terms of conveying its subject. There’s really nothing to link your open choice of destination or the constant turnover of park cards with the actual act of hiking. It’s really very abstract. Yet the game has such a wonderful visual evocation of the great outdoors that this actually feels vaguely confusing, as though there ought to be additional rules and game elements that simply aren’t there.
Where to Buy
PARKS can be recommended almost entirely on its lovely looks alone. No matter what you think of the gameplay, you’ll be bowled over by the art and production quality whenever you play. Chances are, though, that you’ll enjoy its tactical challenges as much as the visuals. Its timing-based tests are a comfortable, intuitive way to approach thinking ahead that gives the game wide appeal, although seasoned strategy fans may find it too lightweight. And if you do, in time, find its appeal waning due to a sense of repetition then, like a real hike, you’ll still have some great memories and a physical souvenir to show for it.