Parks was released in 2021, just as the world was starting to peek back out of quarantine. Keymaster Games’ homage to the National Parks of America is, at its core, a Euro-style game; players acquire points over a long game of strategic moves and resource management. Unlike Catan, Petrichor, or other Euro-style games, Parks immerses the player in a uniquely beautiful setting with cards depicting the fifty-nine national parks. This game is as much about art as adventure.
What first drew this Goblin to Parks was the cover. The asymmetrical, blocky depiction of a mother bear and her cub standing before majestic forest waterfalls caught my eye. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Parks has a solo player mode. Upon flipping the box over, I discovered the game was made in conjunction with Fifty-Nine Parks, an organization that sells National Parks art and merchandise, with a portion of each purchase donated to the National Park Service. The photos of the game on the back of the box were just as beautiful as the front. I was hooked, and I hadn’t even opened it.
And when I did open it, it was clear that this game wasn’t just made – it was engineered. The box has been cleverly labeled and designed to hold all of the pieces, down to the layout map printed on the side of the box. There are five colors of player meeples, called hikers, with two hikers per player. The layout of Parks consists of two layers; the resources board and the trail. The resources board holds gear cards, the season effect cards, canteen cards, and the Parks cards. The trail is made of different “campsites,” which are almost arrow shaped to point from the Trail Head to Trail’s End and are marked on the bottom with a mountain, sun, water, or forest icon. The hikers, naturally, begin their epic journey at the Trail Head. The challenge is to gather the different natural resources from campsites by moving only forward, in order to trade them in to visit Parks.
At first, the complexity of the rules made me nervous. However, the manual is well thought out, and each player also gets a quick-reference card. This is one of my top favorite things to see in a strategic game; the respect to the player from the designers, saying, “We made this complicated to give you a good experience, sorry about that.” The FAQ section answers a surprising amount of “what ifs,” and the language of the rules is carefully constructed to answer many questions before they’re asked.
This brings me to my full opinion of Parks. It’s a multi-layered strategy game masquerading as a pretty hiking simulator. It hooks you with its gorgeous art and generous donations, its engineered layout and dynamic play area. But as soon as our hikers were placed at the Trail Head, the tokens were laid, and the first three available Parks revealed, we knew the real game was strategy. Even our cat, Winston, was caught up in our scheming, trying to get up on the table to bat our hikers into the Grand Canyon like a terrifying elder god.
Play goes, as simply as I can describe, like this: we laid out our trail campsites, the cards of which give you one (or two) resources pictured at the bottom. The season card, off to the side on the board, determines the extra resources that you place on the campsites at the start of the season. Only the first hiker to stop at that campsite can pick up that resource. These resources (water, sun, mountains, and forests) are gathered by the players according to what Park they want to visit. The Park cards have the amount of each of these needed on the bottom of the card, and Visiting a Park is what makes up the majority of your points. If you make it Trail’s End or you are visiting a campsite with the right icon, you may “reserve” a park – that is, take it off the board, and place it in front of you sideways. This means you will claim it when you have the resources, or you are simply being a pain and blocking someone else (maybe your partner of NINE YEARS who cooked you BREAKFAST-) from getting those points. If all four seasons are played and there are Parks still reserved, they do not count as points for anyone. Points also come from taking pictures, having the First Player Token, and meeting your Year Goal.
My partner and I played our first game in about two hours: 45 minutes of learning, and about 75 minutes of gameplay. When we finished the game, we were exactly tied. I was sweating, counting up my total and glancing worriedly at all the pictures he’d taken (each worth 1 point). Tragically (for him), I had the First Player Token – worth one point at the end of the game. With Badlands, Acadia, Big Bend, Capitol Reef, and Denali National Parks, three pictures, and the First Player token, I won my first game of Parks by one point. We looked across the table at each other, Lord Winston the Stinky snoring on my lap, and grinned.
Since then, we’ve taught two people, played six games, and haven’t lost any pieces. Parks is a wonder of a game, with thoughtful design and hidden complexity. The process of learning all the rules was a little difficult, and it helped to take it slowly and refer to the instructions and quick-reference cards often. We also learned how differently my partner and I need to learn a game to get a good experience, and we carried that forward into our next new game – but you will have to read the next Goblin Game Review for that. See you on the trail, humans!