• Joshua Williams

Parks: Collecting Sunlight and Stealing Cameras

My mom has always enjoyed hiking. She'd leave early in the morning and drive a ridiculous distance so that she could experience nature, wildlife, and fresh air in the National Parks of the United States and Canada. Us children would beg for Disney vacations, water parks, or the biggest rubber band ball in the world. Still, my mom's love for the outdoors would frequently win the arguments in her favour, and we'd have no choice but to follow her on those long and tedious trails. After years of joining my mom, I began to enjoy hiking and all the benefits that came with it. To the chagrin of my wife, who loathes anything without purpose or central AC, it continued into my adulthood.

It's easy to see why I love hiking. On the one trail that leads to all the National Park of North America, I enjoy blocking the path for the other hikers behind me. It's common courtesy not to approach a hiker who is collecting trees, rocks, sunlight, or drops of water. Though, I am impatient when I'm the one waiting for a hiker who remains idle for hours in a forest I want to visit while his partner makes progress further up the trail. The entry fee for a Park is a bit outrageous, though. It's not a straight forward process handing over caught sunlight and a wild puma for access to Grand Teton Park. Still, it is nice to know I'll be the only one allowed in from that point on. And if I didn't collect enough rocks or twigs needed for the fee, yelling "dibs" is all it takes to make sure no one will get to Yosemite Park while I search the base of the nearby mountain. Most importantly, for the trek having a memory of the excursion is vital. Taking my camera on the hike is necessary, but in my rush, I frequently forget it at home. Thankfully, throwing twigs at another hiker is all that's needed to take their camera as my own, leaving them with nothing but a few pictures.

Unfortunately, my busy work life and living in a city covered by snow eight months of the year have limited my available time to hike. Often I mope while I watch the Outdoor Network, fondly remembering the pocket campfire I extinguished whenever I needed to be in the same area as another hiker. That's all changed, though. With the successful Kickstarter and recent retail release of the game Parks, I have been able to enjoy hiking again, from the comfort of my dinner table.

The first thing you're going to notice when you open the box is the wonderfully thought out inserts created by Game Trays. Everything has a place. The game is expertly organized, providing a sense of joy and astonishment even Marie Condo would be proud of. The inserts are split into three levels. The base-level has dedicated spaces moulded for the cards, player meeples and tokens, first player coin, camera, and board tiles. Next comes the board that's nestled within a shallow recess provided by the moulded base. And lastly, two organizers fit together like puzzle pieces, each holding the same tokens and resources. No longer do you need to reach across the table for your mountain resources. Each side of the table has its own organizer with everything necessary to cover a park's entry fee. This insert is up there for the best design in the industry.

Once you're finished ogling the insert, you'll finally notice the game components. For such a small, inexpensive, and friendly game, it has some of the best components, art, and production value in the business. It did start its life on Kickstarter, a platform rife with over the top production and lacklustre gameplay, so I'd be shocked if the contents weren't beautiful. Still, as you'll find out, Parks broke this rule. The smaller cards and every inch of the board and tiles are illustrated with gorgeous and vivid vector art that beautifully compliments the real crowning jewel of this game's table presence. On each of the 48 tarot sized cards are unique art prints from the Fifty-Nine Parks print series, an art production dedicated to the beauty found in the public parks of North America and the art of printmaking. The cardboard tokens representing photos also include the unique artwork on each tiny canvas. And the cherry on top? The wooden tokens in the shape of trees, mountains, water droplets, sunlight, and dozens of animal silhouettes look to be stained, showing off the wood grain of each piece. You're less likely to play this game than charge admission for people to come and stare while contemplating its meaning.

Putting aside its gorgeous table presence, you'll find a well thought out game, with enjoyable gameplay, mechanics, and a decent amount of strategy and player interaction. The game is made up of individual tiles, growing by one tile each round. Every round, you move one of your two hikers forward to an empty tile and perform the action or take the resources indicated. Usually, you take one or two of the resources pictured on the game tile. But you may also receive a photo and get ownership of the camera, visit a park or buy gear, trade resources for other resources or a wild token, or copy the action of another hiker. If you're stuck, you can use the same spot as another hiker, but you must extinguish your personal bonfire. You won't want to move too far ahead, though. Visiting as many of the locations as possible is paramount to collect enough resources. And once you reach the end of the trail, you can trade in those resources to visit a park, taking one of three face-up park cards, which will score you points at the end of the game. Don't have enough resources? You have options. You can buy gear, giving you various discounts or abilities from that point on, or you can reserve a park, allowing you to visit it at a later time.

If any of this is beginning to sound familiar, you've likely played the similarly gorgeous, but immensely dull game of Tokaido. Both feature a single path, limited space at game locations, relaxing gameplay, and high scores determining the winner. There are very notable differences, though. In Tokaido, you move one character, instead of the two in Parks, changing Parks into a more strategic game. One hiker can jump to a distant location that promises a lucrative reward, as the second hiker moves at a slower pace, picking up as many of the resources as possible. Tokaido also feels repetitive after the first play, because the board locations are static, never changing. Parks shuffles the trail layout and adds an additional tile in every round, forcing you to change your strategy throughout the game. And the multiple scoring paths of Tokaido, are substituted with a more streamlined method to score points. Scoring points at the end of the game for visited parks, completing your personal goal, and photos taken will feel refreshing, in comparison to Tokaido.

But hidden in this box are two different games. A 2 or 3 player game is relaxing and gentle, while you move across the board, rarely encountering the other players. You're concerned about what order you'll move your hikers in to efficiently get the resources you need to visit 2 or more parks in a game round. It's similar to a mall during a blizzard; you're unlikely to encounter another person, and if you do, you exchange hellos and move on. On the other hand, a 4 or 5 player game is similar to shopping on Black Friday and trying to get to all the stores you want to. It's not going to happen. The board almost immediately fills up, and it's not relaxing anymore. You're throwing elbows and swearing while also begging a player to move from the space you need. You'll need perfect strategy and creative use of your bonfire, or you'll only see 3 or 4 tiles before you're forced to the end of the trail, with not enough twigs and rocks in hand to visit the park you wanted to.

This is the main reason why I much prefer Parks over Tokaido. Tokaido always felt shallow. It felt like you were alone on your journey, even though 3 other people were at the table with you. I like player interaction, puzzles, and strategy, and I get that in a 4 player game of Parks. But I also have the option to play a more relaxing game or make it more accessible for newer or younger players by only playing with 1 or 2 other players.

That being said, Parks will still be too light and generic for some groups looking for a game that brings something exciting and unique to the table. The game does little to separate itself from other games. It relies on its design, art, and production to sell itself, offering nothing new or groundbreaking in its gameplay or mechanics. And with a minimum play time nearing an hour, its unlikely to find a place as a filler game to be played if someone is running late. Fortunately, my group switches between heavier and lighter games. So, Parks has become our favourite game to play when we are not interested in learning a new board game or playing something we have to think deeply about.

As you can see, I love Parks with its recognizable and easy to teach gameplay and mechanics. It's perfect for introducing to a friend that wants an introduction to the hobby. It's a Sunday afternoon game to be played while waiting for dinner to cook. It's smooth jazz meant to be enjoyed, instead of an orchestral piece meant to be studied.

Unfortunately, there are a couple things that bother me. First, the manual is not as clear as I would like it to be, with some rules and explanations challenging to find. I am notoriously bad at understanding manuals, though, so your mileage may vary, but it was also a disappointment to another person I played with as well. That being said, it is still well-written and makes learning and teaching the game a breeze. I just struggled to find some more obscure rules. It took me far longer than it should have to figure out if a player's two hikers could use the same space without extinguishing a bonfire. I'll save you from searching for the answer, no, they can't.

Lastly, the cost of the game is all over the place, but this is a product of the game's popularity and not the fault of Keymaster Games. The game was a massive success on Kickstarter, and it did well this Christmas season at retail. Because of its success, it seems the game is sold out, and Keymaster Games is preparing a reprint. Unfortunately, retail stores have begun to inflate the price of their remaining stock. They are hoping people will pay a ridiculous amount if they really wanted it and know they are unlikely to find it somewhere else. I was lucky to find a local store that didn't follow that trend, but the only other copy I know of near me is being sold at nearly double the price it should be. It makes sense that the game has been compared to art, as the value of both seems to be set by demand and nothing else. It sounds like the second printing will be arriving shortly, though, so this issue will hopefully be remedied soon.

Do you find Vital Lacerda games too simple? Have a collection of Avalon Hill war games? Love discovering new mechanics? Parks won't be the game for you. But, if you enjoy easy to teach games with refined mechanics, it's a no-brainer. I very much recommend this game to you.

For nearly two weeks, the temperature in Alberta has been similar to that of the South Pole. One morning I saw the windchill dip to -60F. I'm cold and other than heating the car and going to work, I have remained on my couch, wrapped in a blanket, rethinking my definition of global warming. The weather is expected to warm up, but the snow will still remain until May, so except for the occasional trek to the fridge, I won't be enjoying a hike any time soon. Thankfully, Parks has found a permanent spot in my collection. On the chilliest of days, it lets me relive some of my past trips through the American Park System. At the same time, I look at the collection of cameras I've taken from less prepared hikers and look forward to my next outing.

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