Successfully funded on Kickstarter in 2014, designer Charlie Bink brings us Trekking the National Parks. Bink has also worked on an expansion for Age of Steam, and is currently designing Pups.
The design for Trekking the National Parks developed from Bink’s parents’ nationwide journey to visit all 59 national parks. Bink, a hiker himself, wanted to combine his design experience with the wonders of nature, giving families a reason to turn off their televisions and dig deep into a great tabletop game.
As a game about hiking goes, there isn’t any suggestive content to be worried about.
Walking through the dealer’s hall at Origins this past year, I stumbled upon a booth with Charlie Bink showing off his game: Trekking the National Parks. Looking across at the photography from various parks around the U.S., I was suddenly taken back to a younger time in my life… No, I wasn’t hiking, let’s be honest, but I was at a state park where my sister’s wedding was being held.
I remembered walking by the camp store where I saw some bogus reskin of Monopoly, probably called “Wildlife-o-poly,” or “Camp-o-poly,” or something else that will make you roll your eyes. Anyway, both that camp store and Charlie’s game flashed into my mind at the same time, and that’s when I made the realization how brilliant an idea this board game was.
Oh, how wonderful the opportunity to expand the demographic of modern gaming by using camp stores all around the nation! That hikers and campers could experience an exciting, well-designed board game, and throw off the chains of bondage that are old school roll-and-move mechanics.
Trekking the National Parks puts players in control of hikers who compete to visit parks around the country, collecting sets of cards, colored stones—and in an advanced variant, postcards from various parks.
Players have two actions on their turn where they may either move, draft a card from the trek deck, or turn in a park card for points.
The trek deck is set up, Ticket to Ride style, with a draft of five cards revealed on the table. Players can draw from this selection or blind draw from the top of the deck. In similar fashion, the park cards are laid out for players to visit, pay up, and take for points. In addition, the map is divided up into lots of positions littered with glass stones.
There are two ways to receive points in the game: Turning in park cards and end-game stone bonuses (and most park cards bonus).
By collecting the appropriate trek cards, players can travel to the location of their desired park card and turn in the correct sets of trek cards, therefore giving them the card belonging to their location. In order to move, players must use the number values on trek cards, adding them up to move from point to point. Anywhere a player ends their move, they may pick up whatever stone they finished on. These are tallied at the end of the game, and points are given out for players who collected the most of that individual color.
The game continues until either all stones have been collected or the park deck has been depleted. Players get one final turn and then tally points for park cards and stones, finally crowning a winner.
Yes, this game is beautifully simple, and it would be foolhardy to be more complicated. In fact, I usually have to set time aside to read and learn the rules to a game a few days before playing. I picked this up at GenCon and was able to learn it, set up, and start playing that night within just 30 minutes total. Wonderful.
The game does bear some tactics in movement decisions, mostly whether or not to pursue stones as your primary goal, or instead focus solely on park cards. I’ve tried a game where I only chased madly after those glass gems, yet I was stomped out by my wife. Then another game where I balanced the two, which I found more fulfilling… Yet, my wife beat me then as well.
As mentioned before, Trekking provides for strategy in movement, and this is because no two players may occupy the same space (except for airport spaces, which provide free movement to any other airport space). You might notice yourself, and the player next in line, are hoping to turn in for Yellowstone. You might choose to spend an action moving onto that space to stop them, giving you plenty of time to draft the cards you still need to pick it up for yourself.
Spending cards for travel and picking up park cards is a precious balance. In my games, I always felt like I needed to spend yet another turn picking up more trek cards because I blew them on traveling to the park card I wanted. At other times, I decided to pick up the trek cards I needed because they had finally shown up in the drafting pool. To my misfortune, some other player took the park card I was going for because I waited too long.
Now, from a thematic view, I’m not sure the trek cards make complete sense on how I move from point A to point B. I guess the turns I take gathering cards represent the time I’m spending gathering knowledge to travel to different areas on the map? Eh, it’s a stretch. It works fine, but you need exact numbers to travel to the destinations of your choice. Even with five cards out to draft, it can be a pain waiting for the right cards to show up. Despite this, the gameplay is balanced by being able to travel multiple points at once by using the appropriate numbers of trek cards. This sort of mechanic isn’t really new, or particularly innovative, but it gets the job done.
My favorite aspect of this game, besides simplicity, is the artwork and components. The gigantic, backpacking meeples are fine, but I really love the smattering of colored gems, the leather bag to hold the gems, the compensating and smooshed map of the U.S. (to accentuate the heavier presence of parks in the western United States), the minimalist trek card artwork, and the beautiful integration of photography into the park and postcards.
Seriously, most games struggle to incorporate realistic photography into their games, but Trekking does this natural ease. The cards are slick and show off the locales. This might even prod players to open up the included park guide book, which details every printed national park with more photography and nice descriptions of each area. For myself, I’ve considered visiting some of the closer parks to my home, but mostly because I wasn’t even aware they existed.
This sparked interest might be one goal of Charlie and his family, and I’d say it hits home with tremendous success. If anything, I can hold my own in conversation with an experienced hiker, rattling off various names to national parks and their geography. My ruse will work until they ask which ones I’ve actually visited.
While I do like expansions, and advanced play variants, I’m not sure the included postcards do it for me. Postcards can be picked up for an action and pay out big points once you collect the required trek cards. The problem is that they don’t add much in terms of gameplay. In fact, if they are included, you are absolutely foolish to not draw as many as you can at the start of the game. It’s a mad dash from every player to pick these up, and then immediately collect the appropriate trek cards to pay it off.
Much like over-collecting routes you can’t complete in Ticket to Ride, these postcards will lop points off your final score if you don’t turn them in by the end of the game. Of course, who wouldn’t turn these in as soon as they can? There is no reason not to. Furthermore, the cards are somewhat random, with some netting 3 points, and others more. I like an additional mechanism to play the game with, but it just doesn’t work well here.
Altogether, however, Trekking the National Parks is a hit. I can’t not recommend this game to you. For myself, meeting Charlie’s parents at GenCon was a pleasure. How cool it is to be able to put faces to names, and even mechanics, artwork, and inspiration as well.
Me? I’m not a hiker, and most of my time is spent indoors editing videos at a computer. Otherwise, I’m getting friends together to a table to play any variety of great tabletop games. So, with that background on myself, I give this game an enthusiastic “YES”.
Chris enjoys the simple things in life, like teaching his wife the newest review game, looking up Ketogenic recipes, and playing 10 hour long indie games on Steam. If he's not thinking about the oil drum components from Manhattan Project: Energy Empire, playing Player Unknown: Battlegrounds with his college buddies, or dwelling on the release of Daredevil Season Three, he's probably shooting or editing video, because that's what he does for a living.
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