20 November 2019
Take a photo, it’ll last longer
Has a board game even truly been breathtaking before? If not, Parks has a pretty good shot at being the first.
This is a game that oozes beauty from every last cardboard pore, from the picturesque landscapes showcased on its main tarot-sized cards to the metal first player token worthy of a high-altitude gift shop and the wooden tokens that make up its resources including a dozen miniature animals, all of which are unique and stored in treeshaped trays. And rightfully so, given that the game was primarily created to show off the art of the Fifty-Nine Parks Print Series, an effort to get artists to illustrate all of America’s national parks in truly spectacular style. Their work is understandably the highlight here, but the rest of Parks does the artwork ample justice. It is, in a word, stunning.
Of course, that beauty isn’t much good if the game itself turns awe into snores. Fortunately, Parks’ chilled-out gameplay and lightly competitive race to visit the most parks (and, looking at them, why wouldn’t you want to?) makes for an enjoyable time.
You’re hikers, making your way along a trail made up of randomised action tiles each round. Most grant resources, while others present other abilities: swap tokens for others, draw canteen cards for reusable effects, and so on. Resources buy park cards worth points, and each player also has a secret objective that can bump their score a little more after the four seasonal rounds finish.
The gameplay is competitive and strategic, but gently so. Two hikers can’t occupy the same location unless the moving player extinguishes their campfire token, which is re lit once one of their two walkers hits the final space; otherwise, there’s no real restriction to how far you move to the right, inviting a Tokaido-like balance between moving slowly enough to amass valuable resources and fast enough to grab the cards and tokens you need ahead of your rivals and potentially block their path. It’s all wonderfully tranquil: you pause to take photos for points (the miniscule polaroids are all different, of course), fill your water canteen to activate abilities that reset each round and spend sun tokens to purchase hiking gear that enables ongoing effects. The layers are stacked up lightly, but there’s more than enough to keep you digging once you start peeling them away.
Each season brings a new roundspecific effect and weather pattern – a charming way of adding bonus resources to the tiles – as well as adding another tile to the reshuffled trail, extending it a little and adding more strategic options. The pace feels comfortable; you have more resources, reserved parks and general ability to do what you want to in later rounds, so it’s not a case of dragging things out as players hop towards the last few cards they need.
The gameplay won’t blow you away with originality or intensity, but that’s not really the point. Like wandering the awe-inspiring peaks, valleys and woods of America’s vistas, Parks is a game that you can just sink into for a while, enjoying its comfortable level of strategy enough to stay with it for the reasonable time it asks without having to toast your grey matter over the campfire. Speaking of which, the separate singleplayer mode is nicely considered, with dedicated event cards and a neat way of simulating a rival player with rangers as you aim for a high score – not enough to make Parks a solitaire standout, but a sweet added extra.
The reality is that with a lesser presentation, Parks’ unassuming gameplay – though enjoyable and clearly made with passion and care – probably wouldn’t be strong enough alone to make it particularly memorable versus other games. That’s missing the screen-printed forest for the highly detailed trees. Combined with some of the best artwork the tabletop’s ever seen, this beautiful little package feels perfectly formed: a gentle, gorgeous stroll in the fresh air that’s content to just breathe it in. Open the box and let your breath be taken away.
PLAY IT? YES
Designer: Henry Audubon
Artist: Fifty-Nine Parks Print Series
This review originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.