Accessibility & Elegance
Smooth as baby’s bottom, or rough as a porcupine’s back?
4th Place: New York Zoo
New York Zoo tumbles from first to last place in this category. It stumbles right out of the gates with a needlessly complicated rulebook and an overly troublesome setup (especially for the visually impaired) for its target audience.
I’m still surprised at how inelegant this game is for a family-style Rosenberg. There are several little rules that new players keep forgetting or need reexplained. Even as I was first reading through the rule book, I encountered several sections where I felt like I would soon forget these rules if I didn’t play the game quickly and regularly:
- You can keep one animal after clearing a full enclosure.
- You can take one of any animal type instead of the two specified on the action spaces.
- You can’t move animals from one enclosure to another unless you’re placing a new enclosure, then you can move 1 or 2 animals but not ALL of them.
- The breeding sections are not action spaces, although they kinda look like they are.
- You can always add an animal from your house area to an enclosure that just received an animal.
On top of that, the tiles are so similar in shade that you are doomed to fail if you’re just winging the setup in your initial play (the tiles must be placed in many stacks of lightest on bottom to darkest on top). It seems that it may help to separate them into like-colored piles and keep them in individual bags of the same shade. But I will also note that setup was a non-issue for us in later plays due to having trained eyes and good lighting.
Fortunately, these minor gripes quickly fade away as players get deep into their first play and beyond. It is still a title I have no qualms teaching to anyone, regardless of their experience with hobby games, but it’s definitely a bit rougher around the edges compared to its competitors.
3rd Place: Barenpark
Barenpark lands itself in near the bottom mainly due to its setup. With New York Zoo, I at least enjoy stacking the pieces into their respective spaces, despite the unnecessary color-shade challenge that its setup presents. With Barenpark, you merely get a headache of piles and tiles to sort, separate, and stack by player count and point value.
This game takes the longest to setup of the bunch, and it requires referencing of the rulebook for both setup specification and achievement clarification. Fortunately, the rules of play are very straightforward, putting it ultimately above New York Zoo in the accessibility/elegance category.
2nd Place: Patchwork
Patchwork is a game with an easy setup and smooth play experience. Just place the tiles in a random circle, give each player their starting buttons, and dive into the fun. There’s nothing confusing or convoluted about the experience, making it an easy recommendation to couples, family, and friends. There’s almost no need to ever reference the rulebook after your first play, and it’s clearly organized if you do need it.
1st Place: My City
My City is the quickest of the bunch to setup, which is all the more impressive considering it is a legacy game (this is usually a huge weakness of legacy games). Simply dump out your personal bag of tiles, shuffle the deck, read the brief new modification to this round’s rules, and dive into the fun.
Instead of tossing players into the deep end of crunchiness, like New York Zoo, My City gently eases them into a mildly warm hot tub and slowly cranks up the heat with each successive episode adding a layer of crunch. Things never get out of hand thanks to each chapter’s envelope containing a helpful summary sheet of the new changes, victory objectives, and scoring criteria.
My City is also the only game that dictates the specific tiles that all players must use and the order in which they are placed. But as we’ll see in the next category, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. All of this shouldn’t be a surprise that Dr. Knizia takes home the trophy for accessibility and elegance, as he has been running circles in this category around other designers for decades now.
Supporting Gameplay & Mechanisms
What separates the boys from the men.
4th Place: Barenpark
As I’ve mentioned above, Barenpark works best as it is forcing players to consider which bonuses to gain, which awards to prioritize, and which icons to to cover. Rather than being a game of dramatic turns or momentum shifts, it has a point salad style of giving out points here, there, and everywhere, and the player who squeezes a few more points out of each category will come out on top.
If your overwhelming preference is for pleasant, gentle gameplay that pats every player on the back for doing a good job, then Barenpark might be your best option. For me, Barenpark offers the least interesting scaffolding of gameplay and mechanisms for constructing polyominoes on my board.
1st Place Tie: Patchwork, My City, New York Zoo
That’s right, we’re leaping all the way from 4th place to a three-way tie at 1st. While much of this category is especially subjective, I’m only able to confidently declare that Barenpark’s gameplay feels generic and inferior to the other three stellar designs. Outside of that, it’s really up to personal preferences to determine which game is right for you.
Patchwork’s quilting economics provide for a slick and fascinating competition. Decisions are usually difficult to make, as one amazing tile will cost me nearly all of my buttons and different decent tile will allow me to take another turn. To come out on top, I also have to consider my next few turns—how will I afford everything that I want? All the while I am thinking about my opponent’s next turn—what do they want to take, how far will they go around the rondel, and how long will it be until my next turn? Costly tiles become less enticing as the opportunities to collect on button income decrease throughout the game, yet covering each space on your board is absolutely critical to avoiding a huge dent in your score. The combination of time, buttons, and board spaces as precious resources elevate this polyomino game to legendary heights.
My City is a multiplayer solitaire, bingo-style legacy game where one card that displays a specific tile is drawn at time and players must place the matching tile onto their own board. This description of the game was an instant turnoff for me, as it sounded like a shameless cash-grab smoothie of every current trend in tabletop gaming (fluffy low-interaction gameplay + legacy game + bingo-style flip & fill + polyominoes). Yet if one designer deserves the benefit of the doubt, that is most certainly the prolific Reiner Knizia.
Just as he’s always done, Dr. Knizia has taken the simple and ordinary and transformed it into the agonizing and extraordinary. The limitations of placing each tile in a specific, randomized order are perfectly paired with the limitations and incentives that lurk on the player boards. Do cover this, don’t cover that, surround these, and make sure those are touching! Additionally, players can opt to trash a tile instead of using it, but then they are penalized 1 point and miss the opportunity to cover negative scoring spaces.
As each episode nears its end, things get especially interesting. Your dwindling supply of personal shapes become pieces of hope and dread. Players must decide if it is worth waiting for the perfect card to finally come out of the deck when other inconvenient cards are bleeding them of precious points. There’s always the option to bow out of the round in between each card draw when a player is satisfied that they’ve peaked on their potential points.
My City helps to mitigate many of the downsides of multiplayer solitaires by featuring simultaneous play and including an inter-episode catchup mechanism. Through the use of new stickers and tiles, the challenge increases for the leaders while the bonuses improve for the laggers. It’s an addictive and intriguing loop.
New York Zoo has Uwe flexing his favorite design muscles, the left bicep being polyominoes, and the right bicep being animal breeding. But this design isn’t the same old gun show. Somehow it feels fresh and dynamic as you’re never truly sure whether you should be going for more animals or more tiles.
With a rondel ripe for planning and risk-taking, the decisions one faces are both agonizing and thrilling… Do I snatch up a meerkat now so I’m ready for the next breeding, or do I risk putting it off just one more turn and claim that beautiful tile right there? If my opponents move the elephant enough spaces, then I’ll miss my chance entirely! The adorable traveling elephant token is simply a disguise for the subtly cutthroat player interaction. I can go here and get this decent tile, or I can go HERE and cost you the perfect action space for your plans, MUAHAHAHAHAAAA.
In a Board Game Vegetarian world dominated by bland Point Salads, it is SO refreshing to bite into a meaty race game where the first player to fill their entire board wins. The tension of New York Zoo ramps up like no other polyomino game on the market.
Depth & Replayability
In other words, high skill ceilings and lots of mileage
4th Place: Barenpark
Replayability is influenced by several factors including setup and gameplay variety, skill ceiling height, and player interaction/influence on the game state. This is another category that is difficult to compare these games in, but I’ve found Barenpark to be unequivocally weak in all of these factors.
Barenpark has nearly the exact same setup aside from negligibly different player boards and superficially diverse achievements. The strategy is to cover whichever icon and take whichever piece will earn you the most points. The interaction is minimal, because if somebody else claims something before you, it usually only costs you a point or two. Sure, those lost points can add up, but nothing feels individually impactful.
After merely three plays, I felt like I had seen all that the game has to offer. I hear that the expansion adds a great level of crunchiness to the experience, but I’d rather just opt for a more alluring experience than try to salvage whatever is left of this one.
1st Place Tie: Patchwork, New York Zoo, My City
Yep, here we are again. Shame on me!
You can call me chicken all you want, but I sincerely believe that the three remaining contenders possess compelling arguments for their depth and replayability. Patchwork and New York Zoo both contain a huge setup/gameplay variety, considerable skill ceilings, and significant player interaction. Meanwhile, My City makes up for its non-existent player interaction with a tailored difficulty curve, 24 unique episodes, an eternal gameplay mode (for replaying the game outside of the legacy campaign), and engaging gameplay variety (with the randomized order of the deck).
It’s a testament to each of these designs that after all of these play sessions, I’m still hyped to give them another go. Barenpark made a strong first impression at our table but quickly ran out of gas, while the life expectancy of its competitors remains beyond the reaches of my scrutinizing sight.
It’s been a long and fittingly winding journey through the land of Polyominoes. We’ve trudged through every category imaginable to finally arrive at our destination and crown the champion of this great battle.
If you were paying attention, you probably noticed that Barenpark doesn’t fair too well by my calculations. I expected that much, coming into this matchup. It’s the only one of the bunch that has received the big boot from my collection. As for the other 3 contenders, I honestly had no idea which one would ultimately come out on top. I’ve awarded them all a ranking of 9 on BGG, which is no simple feat. Yet the truth is that all 4 of these games are solid titles that may deserve a place on your own shelf if they appear to fit your tastes.
Anyway, enough of that. Let’s get to the results!
4th Place: Barenpark (9.5 points)
While charming and easy to teach, Barenpark struggles to stand out and justify its longer setup and questionable price, especially under repeat plays.
3rd Place: Patchwork (15.5 points)
Patchwork may just be a cheap box of loose cardboard tiles, yet its gameplay has aged incredibly well. It remains an easy recommendation as one of the best abstract 2-player games on the market.
2nd Place: New York Zoo (16 points)
Uwe’s youngest child just barely squeezes past his older sibling (Patchwork) to claim the 2nd place prize. This gorgeous, tense race provides a delightful combination of breeding animals and piecing together polyominoes, and it scales beautifully from 2-5 players.
1st Place: My City (19 points)
After a heated battle of the polyominoes, My City comes out on top as the best of the bunch! Against all odds, Reiner Knizia provides a multiplayer solitaire legacy game that I LOVE. Each successive episode is a smooth yet agonizing experience that layers on new obstacles, objectives, bonuses, or twists to keep things fresh and challenging.
This concludes the first ever Battle of the Polyominoes! Perhaps someday we’ll return with even more challengers to the throne. In the meantime, tell us about your favorite polyomino game in the comments below!
Article written by Nick Murray. To learn more about his tabletop gaming tastes and preferences, check out his blog series: Tabletop Tastes: My Favorite Flavors in Board Games. To follow his designs as they come to fruition, subscribe to our newsletter and follow Bitewing Games on social media!