At its heart, PARKS is a game about hiking, although it took me a while to realize that. Like any good hike, designing PARKS was a journey that took me far from where I started. There were rainstorms and wrong turns, but also warm winds and discoveries, and a destination that made it all worthwhile.
How it Started
The story of PARKS started in early 2018. I had been working with Keymaster Games for just over a year. Every Friday afternoon I met with Mattox Schuler, the creative director for Keymaster Games, to discuss Space Park, my first published board game.
During one of our weekly meetings, Mattox let me know that Keymaster Games and Fifty-Nine Parks Print Series (59 Parks) were going to collaborate on a new game that would celebrate the national parks using art from 59 Parks’ excellent catalogue of prints and posters. Mattox offered me an opportunity to design the game and there began the long and winding journey of designing PARKS.
The original plan was to make a pure card game. The game was meant to be small in scale and fit into a tuckbox. You could easily take it on a hike, or at least get a hint of the outdoors even if they were playing from the comfort of your home. The gameplay needed to convey the feeling of being immersed in nature, so it became clear early on that relying on a tried-and-true card game formula like trick-taking wasn’t going to work. I needed to find something new.
As a designer, I had grown accustomed to working with tokens, dice, boards, and other common components, and now, left suddenly without them, I had to face the fact that my usual tricks weren’t working. Even something as simple as having players gain resources became a puzzle when there were no components dedicated to tracking them. But creativity is often born from limitation, so I pressed on for several months and designed many rough sketches for possible versions of the game. Some of them had potential, at least one of them absolutely bombed in playtesting, but ultimately none of them felt completely correct. I knew I hadn’t found the game yet.
After Space Park launched at Gen Con 2018, we decided to expand the project beyond cards to include other components. This was the beginning of PARKS as a fully fledged strategy board game. This change allowed me to return to several ideas that I had previously put aside because they wouldn’t work in a pure card game. Fortunately I had extensive notes from my entire design process, so retrieving discarded ideas was as simple as flipping through a sketchbook or opening a text file.
Finding the Trail
I tried to avoid designing a game that played like a road trip across an overworld map of the United States. The focus needed to be on time spent within the parks, not on the time spent travelling between them. Players should feel like their feet are on the ground and they can almost hear the birds. It was becoming obvious that PARKS needed to be a game about hiking.
Hiking is a great starting point because it suggests a lot of associated concepts such as camping, photography, seasons, gear, weather, and more. Perhaps the most powerful of these concepts was the trail, which ended up being the defining feature of PARKS. Trails are mostly linear, so it makes sense to represent a trail as a sequence of action sites. Placing these action sites onto tiles allowed for the trail to be rearranged and expanded throughout the game.
Finally, the game was coming into focus. Players would control hikers that move from one end of the trail to the other. Everything became easier with this idea in place.
The next task would be to find a way to express the pace and rhythm of hiking. If players simply take turns moving a hiker down the trail, then there is a risk that the movement of the hikers will be too steady and predictable, since each player will likely move their hiker a short distance so as to maximize their time on the trail. In reality, hikers don’t always move at a steady pace. Sometimes they stop to snap a photo, while other times they are hurrying along trying to reach the next campsite before nightfall.
The solution was to give each player control of two hikers, but only allow one hiker to be moved each turn. When one hiker was moving, the other was resting. Sometimes one hiker gets way out in front while the other hangs back, and other times the hikers are moving in tandem down the trail. At long last, the game about hiking was beginning to feel like hiking.
Now that the basic gameplay was determined, it was time to consider the long-term arc of the game. I wanted players to experience multiple trail configurations within a single play session, so there needed to be a breakpoint where the trail resets. It felt natural for seasons to serve this purpose. The game could play out over four seasons, with a new site being added to the trail with each passing season. We decided to forgo the normal seasonal progression of spring into summer and so on, and instead we created our own seasons such as the Season of Flowers and the Season of Reefs. This allowed us to have a deck of unique season cards that gets shuffled at the start of each game. Each season card displays a weather pattern of sunshine and rain that is applied to the current trail.
End of the Season
The final step in the design journey was to create a compelling solo play experience. I imagined that players were sharing the trail with park rangers that would occasionally disrupt the player’s best laid plans. It was important to communicate that the rangers aren’t villainous in any way, but rather they are just out on the trail doing their job and sometimes that might inadvertently interfere with the hikers. The rangers move in a mostly unpredictable manner and the season ends when the rangers reach the end of the trail. This creates uncertainty about how much time players have each season to complete their goals.
PARKS will first be available for purchase at Gen Con 2019 and will be available in retail in September 2019.