Context of Document
This is not a review of this game. You will find the review linked in the introduction.
Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.
Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then please stop reading now. This will not be the blog for you, and we have no interest in debating with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.
Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.
Barenpark is a perfectly good game about stacking big dogs in a zoo with all the casual indifference you’d reserve for putting the chairs away after a school disco. I guess they don’t have a lot of chairs at a disco. I don’t know, I was twenty eight years old before I saw a dance floor and the subsequent experiments were best described as ‘alarming for everyone involved’. We gave Barenpark three and a half stars in our review and as a kind of network effect it also caused us to nudge Patchwork up a half star. That’s something of a dick move, of course – rating another game higher because of problems in the one you’re looking at. I have never hidden the fact I’m an awful person though, so let’s just come to terms with my crimes and move on.
Patchwork might be a better game than Barenpark, but the greatest game that can’t be played isn’t as good as the most mediocre game that can. Or is that can’t? That’s a train-wreck of a sentence. God, you know what I meant. Let’s find out whether Barenpark is up for a mauling in our accessibility teardown.
No worries here at all. There are no score markers or the like – the only thing you’re working with are icons on a board, and physical tiles to be manipulated and placed. Each of the icons is notably different:
And while some tiles show a degree of palette overlap the graphical design is meaningfully distinct. You can see polar bears and ice on the blue tiles, and bamboo huts for the koalas. The Gobi bears and panda bears likewise have their own graphical design for their animal houses and enclosures.
We strongly recommend Barenpark in this category.
The Patchwork comparisons aren’t going to stop just because we left the review. We discussed in the Patchwork teardown how the tactility of the tiles means even the totally blind could likely find a way to participate. Barenpark follows that path but the additional game elements it layers into play degrade some of its suitability. You can investigate, by touch, the number of each tile available in the general supply but some of those stacks are quite tall and they’re easy to knock over. The decaying value of tiles is indicated only with numbers although there’s no real harm that comes from querying what the value of the top-most tile would be. That’s all possible, even when the visual impairment is as severe as it possibly can be.
The problem comes in when dealing with tile placement. Here, Barenpark has good and bad elements. The first element is that you deal with your park in 4×4 chunks, which makes positioning within a park much simpler than it otherwise would be for a corresponding player in Patchwork. Your park does grow with time, but often you don’t need to focus much on the park sections that came before. That’s unless you explicitly choose to grow it rapidly for the extra positional flexibility provided by an abundance of real estate. Constraining positionality of tiles to that immediate area has a powerfully positive impact on the accessibility of the game.
The problem though is that the actions that follow placement are indicated only by graphical icons on the board. These are easy enough to identify with an assistive aid because they are individually distinct. If that’s not possible then a visually impaired player would need exhaustive support from the table as they built up a mental map of where each icon was and the implications of placement. This isn’t impossible but I suspect it’d make the game extremely awkward to play. Certainly awkward in comparison to Patchwork which only requires the table to tell players about the button, cost and time implications of the three pieces they’ll be considering.
All of that said, the game is likely to be playable with all degrees of visual impairment because in the end it’s primarily about the tactility of tile placement and the rest of the game information is of relatively lesser importance. You might choose one tile over another because of its relative value but that’s likely to be a case of prioritisation rather than fundamental positionality. As we noted in the review, you don’t have to make compromises in placement within Barenpark – the worst you’ll do is miss out on optimal placement. Point values too mostly follow an easily memorised formula, which helps offset some of the difficulties at a cost of some additional cognitive complexity.
We’ll offer a tentative recommendation here on the basis that it’s probably playable with support if you’re willing to make the effort. The visual game state presented in Barenpark though manages to detract from the otherwise admirable accessibility of the physical tiles you end up placing.
The interaction model in Barenpark presents an interesting set of considerations. On one level, the additional scoring systems and the impact of placement add a cognitive burden that stresses strategic decision making – the order in which you take tiles is going to have an impact on the end of game scoring. On the other level, almost everything else is a breeze. Actions are simple, scoring is transparent (although requires a degree of end-game numeracy) and decisions are largely straightforward when viewed individually. Don’t build on the pit, try to fill your squares. The issue of the forgiving nature of placement I didn’t like in the game itself adds a considerable cushion to the difficulty. The achievements available in the box can be used to scaffold the challenge – either through being removed, or through picking some of the simplest ones. Some of the achievements (for example, three enclosures in a cluster) require considerably more engineering than others (three tiles with a particular kind of bear) but you can pick the ones that are most appropriate for your group and play with those.
Compare this to the way Patchwork handles button economy – one that is simultaneously defined by an elasticity of momentum and the fungibility of the two units of currency. There’s a real challenge that goes into assessing what a tile does in Patchwork, although the cognitive cost associated is constrained by the limit of choices you have available. In each case though you’re weighing up decisions that might well cause you problems later on down the line. Barenpark simply doesn’t have that and it makes things easier to consider and sets the cognitive barrier for literate play quite low. Even the subdivision of boards into independent grids ensures that the challenge of placement is as easy to process as possible. You just pick some tiles you like and place them within whatever park constraints you have. That leaves you room to do some clever things with cross-board pins, or you can just focus on filling out one before moving to the other.
There is an issue for those for whom memory considerations are key – the act of placing a tile involves covering up the icons that you’re activating and it’s very easy (especially with more complex shapes) to forget what you actually need to do. You might be doing three green wheelbarrows and an excavator, or one concrete mixer and a construction crew that doesn’t activate because you’ve reached your park limit. It doesn’t sound like much, but there’s some thought that goes into performing any individual action. Say you choose the concrete mixer, which gives you an animal house or an amenity. You weigh up the implications of each available tile versus achievements and the supply you have and the actions you want to activate. You might consider taking one of the alternate, lower value tiles as a result of immediate need or future considerations. And then you look back at your board and think ‘Uh, did I have two mixer actions or just one? Or damn, was it a wheelbarrow rather than a mixer?’. There’s a degree of constantly reminding yourself what options you have that comes along with this kind of context shift. The issue isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. That are compensatory strategies available, such as indicating with some kind of token how many of each action remain to be taken. However, sometimes these decisions might be inter-related and involve making one choice on the basis of another choice made earlier or that will be made in the future.
For players where the numeracy associated with scoring may be a problem, it’s easy to house-rule a less arithmetic variation where the light competition of the game is replaced with flat scoring – each animal house is worth X points, each statue Y, and so on. This would create a game where everyone tends to end up with the same rough score, but as long as nobody is expecting a game that permits meaningful competition this would retain much of the satisfaction that goes along with play in Barenpark.
We’re going to strongly recommend Barenpark in the fluid intelligence category, and tentatively recommend it in the memory category.
Barenpark suffers considerably in this section because of the placement that goes along with tiles. First of all, you have a fixed menu from which you’re selecting your pieces and it’s very easy to upset this. Expect, independent of accessibility issues, for some of these stacks to fall over during play. Anything from a nudged table to a stiff breeze can make that happen.
This then feeds into what you do when you collect the pieces, which is position them on a tile based board. On the one hand, they fit together more easily than the pieces in Patchwork. On the other, they’re also far more likely to be dislodged during play. They slide very easily around the board and require adjacency of placement. A sudden nudge or jerk of the hand at the wrong time can send many things out of alignment. The usual issue in these kind of games is present here – sometimes you’ll be trying to slot pieces into an awkward alignment in an awkward position on the board. The ease with which that can be done will depend on how neatly everything else has been placed.
There is little scope for avoiding the boards too because the location pieces go has an impact on what happens next. Using graph paper and the like is a possibility, but there’s quite a lot of information that would need to be stored and accurately modeled.
Verbalisation is possible, but not explicitly supported. Each board comes with a grid, and the orientation of the grids is fixed. They always have the icon facing towards the player, which at least means there is no ambiguity as to what direction is up and which is down (and likewise, left and right). Since each individual grid is 4×4, co-ordinate references are easy to use and there are only four rotations associated with each piece. When the park grows larger, some degree of differentiation between boards will also be required but workarounds are possible. You could give each grid a name, for example. ‘The Dark Lands’, ‘the Shadow Realms’, ‘The Bear Neccessity’, ‘Big Balloo’s House of Fun and Knives’. You’d need some way to remind people which region was which, but it’s certainly doable. As with Patchwork though, you’d still lose out on the experience of physically manipulating tiles and that’s not a trivial loss for a game of this type.
We don’t recommend Barenpark in this category but it’s playable with support for those especially keen to make the effort.
Competition in Barenpark is so indirect that it almost doesn’t even exist. There are times when someone might permanently lose out on a tile or achievement, but the impact of this is rarely more than inconvenience. Even when someone is buying up tiles for an achievement, the supply is sufficient that if you didn’t get what you needed, or if you failed to prevent someone else from doing the same, it was usually an oversight or intentional. You’re almost never in a position where you have been directly outplayed.
Even when you’re beaten to a tile by someone else, the impact is minimal. In a two player game, the difference between the first and second tile is usually two points. In a four player game, it’s one point. Points are not difficult to get, and everyone gets the same number of tiles in the end. All that changes is the order and number of them available in individual turns.
Barenpark really does shine here if you want a semi-competitive analog game of Tetris. It doesn’t suffer from early stage frustration as manifests in Patchwork, and it doesn’t have any of the Patchwork penalties associated with poor or suboptimal tile placement. Even those for whom a sense of completion and closure are important are well served. It is very unlikely someone will be denied the opportunity to cover the majority, if not the entirety, of their park. Score disparities, because of the small gradient in the point distribution, tend to be quite small. In our last game, Mrs Meeple and I ended 85-78 (her winning, because of course she did). Our second to last game was 89-89. The provision of achievements can alter the score balance considerably, but their use is optional. If the right combinations are chosen it’s entirely possible for players to happily work away at the requirements without engaging in much competition with anyone else.
We strongly recommend Barenpark in this category.
I’m very pleased at the cover of Barenpark, which in defiance of tradition shows a woman prominently in the art. I don’t know if she’s supposed to be a park ranger – I’m no expert on how a bear park is run. I do know though that picnic baskets are a kind of prison currency. If she is though, she’s one of a mere 37% of women in the National Park Service and as such it’s great to see the art here playing against type. That statistic is obviously very US-centric, but the figures across the various represented countries of the parks in their local equivalent is generally similar or worse.
Obviously I would have liked to have seen some more diverse ethnicity represented here, but with only one prominent character on the front there’s a limit to how much can be done. An ensemble cast of varied faces would have been wonderful, but I don’t want to complain too much about what is a noble effort. To be fair, there are also some tiny characters in the background that show clearly these bear parks attract a wide audience, but on the back of the box you can see another white face – one of the men working the construction crew. It’s good, but there’s room for it being even better. God, listen to me. I’m never happy, am I?
What I am happy about is that when taking an entrance to your park it comes with its own ‘localised’ version with a flag and a name. As such, you can be in charge of the titular Barenpark or the UK/American/Australian ‘Bear Park’. You can also run a park based in Japan, or a whole range of others. It’s nice to see that not only does the game not default to Eurocentrism or Amerocentrism, it doesn’t even particularly default at all.
The manual continues this trend of inclusion, using the first person perspective and avoiding the default assumption of masculinity of its players. The in-game art tends to focus on bears for some reason, but aside from the male construction crew on every board there’s also a little girl at the ticket office. I don’t know why – the place is under construction and as such it might not be safe to visit. Nonetheless, while these are only tiny flourishes I still liked seeing them.
Barenpark comfortably plays two to four players, and scales well to all those player counts. However, it has an RRP of £43 and for that price you could buy two or three copies of Patchwork and bang them all together into one massive house-ruled version. Or have people playing simultaneous games. That makes it difficult to recommend too liberally in this category – as I mentioned in the review, you certainly get more game but I don’t think you get more fun. It’s not as if it’s hard to see where your money is going though – the box is stuffed to bursting with bits and components. It’s just that for every additional component there is one more thing you need to setup in order to play. You’ll get a longer playing time out of any individual session of Barenpark though which might be the thing to tip it over into your shopping basket. It’s a more obvious option than Patchwork for a ‘serious’ game day.
Overall we’ll recommend Barenpark in this category.
There’s no reading level associated with play, and while it helps to make a little ‘grr’ sound when you place a bear statue it’s not actually required in the rules.
We’ll strongly recommend Barenpark in this category.
If using the standard scoring model, a combination of cognitive and visual impairment is going to make memorisation of score stacks something of a chore – they have a fixed progression, but layering on that additional cost might push the game out of accessibility for both groups. Similarly, if communicative impairment is coupled to a physical impairment the additional complexity of verbalisation will have an impact on play – enough perhaps to move it from ‘you could play this if you really want’ to ‘best avoid it’.
While Barenpark is nominally a multi-player game, the only thing that other players do is add a certain volatility to the scoring track. As such, if a player must drop out due to discomfort or distress it’s possible to house rule a variant that would compensate. For example, roll a dice when you go to take a tile. If it’s a six, remove the top-most one. You could even play it solo with something similar in place. However, Barenpark clocks in at about 45 minutes at the high end (discounting the additional time requirements of accessibility support) and as such it’s not long enough to specifically trigger these problems. The highly muted competition model in the game too ensures that time spent playing the game is never particularly intense. This both reduces the risk to players and incentivises others around the table to offer whatever accessibility support is required.
Barenpark isn’t Patchwork – I know that’s obvious because it has a different name and is about bears rather than quilting. However, I’ve made the comparison often enough in both the teardown and the review that you could be forgiven for thinking I wasn’t sure. What we see here though is evidence that Barenpark is very much its own entity with its own accessibility profile to match.
There’s room for improvement, as there almost always is, but this is a reasonably solid performance with only a few stumbles. Really though its biggest problem here is exactly the same as it is in the review – Patchwork, in almost every way, is the better choice if you want a bit of board-game tetris. That turns out to be true in terms of accessibility too, even if it’s simultaneously a close thing and not unambigiously the case in individual categories.
At three and a half stars, we believe that Barenpark is a good game. They’re good bears, Bront. However, in a world that contains Patchwork it has to be more than good to stand out. It’s more game, more systems, more meat. However, it’s not more fun and it’s not meaningfully more accessible. Still, if you really feel a hankering to take bears and stack them around other bears Barenpark offers an experience that is well worth your time and your enthusiasm.
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