Polyominoes are just plain fun. The satisfaction of piecing together uniquely shaped tiles is genuine and organic. It’s a mechanism that began with the everlasting Tetris, extended with the classic Blokus, and continues to be explored today.
In 2020 alone, we have seen roughly fifteen new board game releases that use polyominoes as their core or secondary mechanism. It’s a trend that seems to be on the rise for designers and publishers, and for good reason! A Feast for Odin is perhaps the meatiest polyomino game of them all, and it ranks in the top 25 games of all time! Meanwhile, Isle of Cats was released just in the past year, yet it currently sits in the top 200 overall games and top 15 family games.
While there are now far too many polyomino games for me to ever comprehensively cover, I have played enough of them to have a solid idea of the genre. Today, I’d like to pit four of these titles against each other in a Battle of the Polyominoes. The criteria for this post’s competition includes games that I’ve played at least 3 times and are family-weight, accessible, polyomino centered designs (sorry, A Feast for Odin!).
I also have to give an honorable mention to the big one I haven’t played, Isle of Cats. If you like psychedelic cats and/or card drafting, then it’s absolutely worth a look! Anyway, the actual contenders of this matchup are the following:
Coming in a an overall ranking of 85, abstract ranking of 4, and family ranking of 9, Patchwork is the quilting titan of the polyomino genre and the big dog of today’s competition by none other than Uwe Rosenberg himself.
Often mentioned in the same breath as Patchwork, Barenpark is the other widely beloved polyomino game about building a bear park with charming tiles. This cozy puzzler comes at us from acclaimed designer, Phil Walker-Harding.
My City is our first young challenger to the polyomino throne. This legacy-style game is backed up by the design chops of Reiner Knizia and the credibility of being a 2020 Spiel des Jahres nominee.
Finally, New York Zoo is fresh out of the oven, yet it earned a place in today’s matchup simply by coming at us again from arguably the master of polyomino designs, Uwe Rosenberg, and one of the most highly acclaimed publishers of the past few years, Capstone Games.
We’ll compare and contrast these games in several categories. Each game will be ranked against the others (1st through 4th) and awarded points (4 through 1 point, respectively). For any ties, points will be combined and split amongst the tied games. These categories are specifically:
- Polyomino Pieces
- Player Boards
- Theme & Presentation
- Accessibility & Elegance
- Supporting Gameplay & Mechanisms
- Depth & Replayability
Without further ado, let us commence the Battle of the Polyominoes!
Why we’re here…
4th Place: Barenpark
Barenpark features 20 uniquely shaped polyomino tiles with 4 different bear enclosure types and the 5th type being a green area (for park guests).
Aside from the green area tiles, each tile within its type also awards its owner a specific number of points shown on the tile. What makes this dynamic interesting is that the first tiles drafted from the animal house section will have more points than lower tiles in the drafting stacks. This puts pressure on the players to be among the first to draft from each stack, but that’s easier said than done when only certain shapes will fit best at specific times during the game.
Ultimately, the component limitation of having only 20 shapes with mere slight differences in their values makes Barenpark’s tiles the least interesting of the bunch.
3rd Place: My City
My City starts each player with 24 tiles comprised of 8 shapes of 3 different colors. While that doesn’t sound like much, the function and number of each player’s tiles evolves and increases as this legacy game progresses from one episode to the next. I’ll be the first to admit that My City’s tiles look the blandest of the four, but the ways in which Dr. Knizia uses them over time is both beautifully simple and wonderfully brilliant.
2nd Place: New York Zoo
New York Zoo’s polyominoes put up quite the fight by coming in at roughly FIFTY unique shapes! This alone makes it quite the treat to have to figure out how to position these shapes together within the allotted boundaries. On top of that, the enclosure tiles live up to their name by having the ability to house one type of animal on each tile and 1 animal on each space of the tile. This being a racing game (rather than a victory point game) makes the tile dynamic even more interesting, as players can either gun for smaller tiles to fill their enclosures with animals faster (and thereby earn bonuses) or opt for larger tiles that cover their board quicker to win the race.
1st Place: Patchwork
Patchwork’s tiles reign supreme with its 34 unique shapes and the fascinating economic dichotomy between button cost, time cost, and button income that each tile contains. This gives players 4 factors to consider every time they are selecting a tile to place on their board. One would never guess that quilt patches are more interesting than animal enclosures, but that’s exactly how things shake out here.
What good is a pile of polyominoes without some boundaries to contain them?
4th Place: Patchwork
Patchwork’s player boards are as bare-bones as it gets. This is probably for the best, as we just established that Patchwork has the most interesting and complicated tiles. Uwe wisely knows when to keep things simple, but that doesn’t change the fact that these boards are as bland as they come.
The only standout feature of Patchwork’s boards is the 7-point special token that is awarded to the first player to completely fill a 7×7 grid within the board. Covering the remaining spaces is still critical, as players will lose 2 points for each space they fail to cover.
3rd Place: New York Zoo
3rd Place: New York Zoo’s box contains more player boards than one would expect to find. This is a welcome feature that tailors the experience to each player count (by adjusting the size of the space that must be filled) and serves to balance the player order (by giving the later players—who are less likely to fill their board and win the game—a more advantaged board). Furthermore, each space of the board carries much more weight as you must fill every space, and do it first, in order to win the game. The helpful player aid icons on the board are nice reminders as well.
2nd Place: Barenpark
Barenpark’s player boards are its bread and butter. Players start out with only one-fourth of their board, a square park area, and each area is packed with carrots dangling across its spaces. As players cover up these icons on their boards, they earn bonuses such as green area tiles, animal house tiles, enclosure tiles, and new park area boards to expand their playing area. This feature forces players to decide between fitting tiles perfectly together or racing to cover spaces and earn the best bonus tiles.
Each park area board also contains a pit that cannot be covered, but will have a huge point bear statue placed on it as soon as the player manages to cover every other space on that board. It always feels good to earn a bear statue, and it’s better to do it early as the bear statue tiles will decrease in value as players claim them.
1st Place: My City
While Barenpark seemed like the clear choice for best player boards due to the dynamic features explained above, after more consideration, it became obvious that My City is the true victor here. At the start of My City, each player is given their own personal board that will accompany them for the rest of the legacy campaign. Players are instructed to name their city and record their victories at the top of the board while the play area itself transforms and evolves from one episode to the next.
Each episode, winners will find themselves placing stickers that increase the challenge of their board while losers earn bonus stickers that improve their odds of victory for the rest of the campaign. The base map already starts out with interesting objectives and obstacles including winding rivers, obtrusive mountains and forests, enticing trees, and pesky rocks. These features are further amplified by the requirement to start your first tile next to the river and place each successive building next to another already on the board.
While the other three games let players put their polyominoes wherever they want, My City forces participants into one uncomfortable challenge after another. Players must maneuver their sprawling city around the obstacles while they surround the bonuses and cover the penalties. These tricky decisions across the player boards are classic Knizia at his finest, and they cement My City as the best player boards in this polyomino battle.
Presentation & Theme
Not to be underestimated.
3rd Place Tie: Barenpark & Patchwork
And here arrives the part where all the bear and quilting fans come after me. I’ve awarded both Barenpark and Patchwork a tie for third place. Yes. that means I’ve ranked a dull town building theme above them both.
The ranking of theme or art itself is subjective, but I’m looking at much more than just the setting of these games. Space Biff offers a great look into setting vs. theme… the gist of it is that the setting is the how the game looks and sounds, but theme is how the game feels. The button tokens of Patchwork and the bear tiles of Barenpark are absolutely charming, but these themes could be literally anything and it wouldn’t affect one’s understanding or experience with the games.
Furthermore, the presentation of these games is absolutely bare-bones. With Patchwork, you get a big empty box to toss your bajillion cardboard pieces into for a nice homemade maraca. With Barenpark, you get an insert that defies all logic and is probably more trouble than it’s worth. Worst of all, Barenpark has the same MSRP as New York Zoo. You’re getting a box of less stuff with relatively inferior quality for the same price.
2nd Place: My City
My City’s presentation and theme are leaps and bounds ahead of the the 3rd placers. This is immediately obvious when you open the box and find… wait for it… plastic bags for your components. GASP. And a functional insert. DOUBLE GASP.
Jokes aside, the production for My City is actually super nice, especially for the price. The legacy chapters are separated into sealed envelopes and the components are extremely well planned.
Beyond the presentation being superior, the theme is subtly but meaningfully integrated into the gameplay by Dr. Knizia. Your first building tile must be placed adjacent to the river. Why? Because communities need water to thrive. And you can’t cover the river with a building… this also makes sense. You have to spread out your tiles from wherever you start; you are not allowed to jump from one corner of the map to another because you’re building a city, not cities. Without spoiling later additions, new buildings and features are added to the game with rules and objectives that continue to carry at least a bit of thematic sense to them.
1st Place: New York Zoo
New York Zoo takes the cake with a home-run presentation—we’re talking 100+ animal meeples plus a tray to hold them, just to scratch the surface—and an irreplaceable theme. Making each tile an “enclosure” that can hold animals of the same type that will breed in sets of two or more just makes sense. Of course the theme isn’t airtight (how does a full enclosure of animals translate to a roller-coaster?…Is there some kind of zoo animal black market we don’t know about?!), but this game is an absolute visual delight and tactile pleasure where you actually feel like you are building enclosures and breeding animals.
Continue on to Page 2 of the Battle of the Polyominoes: Accessibility & Elegance, Supporting Gameplay & Mechanisms, Depth & Replayability, and Final Results!