There have been a couple occasions where I’ve mentioned my love of visiting America’s National Parks. We try to visit at least one every year, planning our trips to hit multiple if we can. Zion NP in Utah comes with our glowing recommendation, for what it’s worth.
So when I heard that Keymaster Games had a Kickstarter for a board game using the art of the Fifty-Nine Parks series, I was all-in. I did my due-diligence by reading up on the campaign and seeing what the game was all about, but it was going to take something substantial to dissuade me from backing.
Designed by Henry Audubon, PARKS takes players on a year’s worth of treks along some of the most iconic trails in the country. Pack up a water bottle and some granola and let’s hit the trail!
PARKS: Hike at Your Leisure
In the PARKS board game, players gradually advance down a randomly-determined trail in four different seasons. At each location on the trail, players acquire the tokens associated with that spot, as well as any tokens generated by the current weather pattern. These tokens are used to visit parks, buy gear, and fill canteens along the way.
In the movement process, players get to move one of their two hikers down the trail onto a place where there isn’t another hiker. Since every player shares the same trail, it can get crowded at higher player-counts. The good news is that players can extinguish their campfire once per season to share a location with another hiker. Timing is everything!
The big actions come at the end of the trail each season. That’s where players can reserve parks that they want to visit in the future, buy gear to aid them on the trail, and actually visit parks. Once everybody is at the end of the trail, a couple things are gonna happen:
- The season changes, establishing a new weather pattern and a new persistent effect.
- Trail tiles get shuffled in with an extra tile and reset in a random sequence after the trailhead.
- Canteens are emptied and can refilled in the next season.
- The player with the camera can spend a resource to take a photo.
Points get tallied after four seasons and whoever has the most points is the winner! You earn points primarily by the parks that you visit, but there are a couple other ways to top the leaderboard:
- Each player has their own personal objective for the year, which always has two sets of criteria that you can fulfill. The second is slightly more difficult and grants extra points.
- The Vista trail location allows players to spend resources to take photos, which are worth a point apiece. The kicker is that the last player to take a photo gets the camera, making subsequent photos half the cost.
There’s an interesting dynamic where players are weighing their option of moving down the trail quickly while trying to go slowly enough to gather the resources they need. It’s a mechanic similar to what you would find in a game like Tokaido, but having two hikers per player really opens up the space.
Staking Our C.L.A.I.M on PARKS
When discussing the components in PARKS, I don’t want to get distracted by the beauty of the artwork. There’s a dedicated section for me to gush about that! Instead, there are a couple areas that I really want to highlight, because Keymaster did nearly everything right with this one; a primary focus of the Kickstarter campaign was to upgrade components to improve presentation and durability.
You’re getting a nice mix of cardboard tokens that are sturdy and thick. This includes the photos, trail components, and camera cutout. These are your industry-standard stock, and you couldn’t do much better with these.
All of the cards are a nice linen finish, meaning they’ll be able to endure a little more abuse that your standard plastic-coated variety of cards. Print quality is also excellent and professional; I haven’t found any inconsistencies or errors within my copy.
The game also comes with a pair of inserts to hold the wooden resource components. For a game about nature, Keymaster’s decision to go with wood tokens instead of cardboard was a smart choice. Each of these is lightly-stained with an appropriate color, so you can still make out the grain underneath.
Speaking of inserts, PARKS might have the best set of inserts that I’ve seen. Everything in the box has a dedicated spot. Whether it’s the camera which has an indent underneath the Parks cards, or having TWO component inserts to place at both ends of the table, it’s intuitive and makes setup a breeze.
My main complaint with the insert is that it’s TOO good with its space utilization. There’s no unused space, which means that there isn’t any room to sleeve the cards and keep them in the insert. This is one of my top game candidates for sleeving because of the exceptional art, but the inserts are too wonderful to pitch. It’s a minor gripe and something that was brought up for consideration during the campaign but never made it to the final version.
There isn’t much luck in this game, despite there being a bunch of cards. Sure, the parks, gear, and canteens being overturned are going to have a significant impact on the game. These are, however, something I would call ‘shared’ resources, so everybody gets affected equally.
Players are forced to maximize their decision-making to create their own victory, and they’re giving the necessary agency to do so. In the games I’ve played, luck really comes into play when choosing to reserve a park from the deck instead of from the face-up selections. If none of the available options were acceptable though, having the opportunity to try for a different Park card gives players an option to make a meaningful choice. As a result, they still have a card that they could potentially work towards in a future season.
Luck really only plays an important part in the solo game. With the Event cards and the revealed Gear cards, there is wider range of unpredictability with each play. It actually creates more replayability for the game, so I’m in favor of these mechanical choices. It also changes the game in a way so that the solo player sees more Gear than they might in a normal game.
Finally I can talk about the art in PARKS! As I mentioned above, the artwork is what really peaked my interest from the beginning, and this game showcases it incredibly well. What may have started as someone wanting to use the art to make a game definitely turned into a game that is made better by the art.
There are so many fantastic artists featured in the game, and having the similar style gives PARKS cohesion. But even with so many cards and components, the color pallet and design choices make complete sense. Even the inserts are shaped like tree limbs – how cool is that?!
In my playthroughs, we’ve always stopped for a moment to appreciate the art as we reveal a new Parks card. Not only does it help with immersing players in the theme, but it also gets them sharing their experiences in visiting these places. When you go for a hike, you enjoy the world around you.
When you play PARKS, you get that same feeling.
PARKS is relatively lightweight. Since I used a Tokaido comparison before, this game is slightly more complex than that, given the addition of an extra hiker meeple. Players searching for heavier games will have to look elsewhere.
If you’re a fan of worker placement games or games with set collection elements, this might be your cup of tea. I wouldn’t categorize it as true worker placement, but it is still a game centered around point-to-point movement. Essentially, that’s just worker placement with a diminishing set of options as the round goes on, in my opinion.
This is also a really great introductory board game because of how quick it is to teach and setup. Additionally, new players will undoubtedly be drawn in by the art, which is a great way to convince people to join your table at a game night.
I touched on it before, but this is a laid-back game to enjoy with good company. Sure, you can race through it or spend lots of time analyzing your turns; one of the strengths of PARKS is that there are many aspects of the game that people can enjoy and appreciate.
For people that prefer playing games where they can optimize their turns to generate the most value, there’s definitely something for you. For other people who want to share conversation while playing a board game, PARKS lends itself well to that as well. That’s one aspect of hiking that really plays well into the game; everybody hikes at a different pace or for different reasons.
We found ourselves getting really invested into the cards by learning a neat fact about a National Park and recounting some of our stories if we’d been there before. And even so, we’ve had some really close games that came down to the wire! Competition can go hand-in-hand with casual, and this game is just one example of that.
PARKS: See the Sights!
Even though it’s based on my singular vote, PARKS is unanimously awarded the Nerds on Earth Seal of Approval! Accredited by a popular website, it truly is a fantastic honor.
I know that this game will have a prominent place on my shelf and table for years to come. In fact, I’m already outlining future family gatherings where I can break this out to have people ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at this mobile art installation with gameplay elements.
Who knows? Maybe PARKS will give you an itch to research National Parks in your area and take a trip! There’s a lot of natural beauty in the world to see – some of it’s bound to be right in your backyard.
Just be sure to pack a copy of PARKS for the journey!