Actually, you are not a bear without cares in Carl Chudyk’s newest game, Bear Valley – you are a human who cares very much about surviving the wilderness and not being eating by the titular ursoids that inhabit the forest primeval. (Yes, I had to look up “ursoid” to make sure I was using it correctly – such is the price I pay for giving you scientific knowledge along with your game review.)
Starting from an initial layout of the valley floor (marked by a salmon-filled river that evidently attracts bears in a similar fashion to the way I am attracted to Cadbury Eggs), the players explore and traverse the wilderness using a push-your-luck card-laying game system… encountering equipment, terrain, enchanted glades, and, yes, those darn bears. The first player to navigate from the starting camp (we’ve named it Camp Doom) to the safety of the ranger station wins. Alternately, a player can win by being the last surviving camper. (Yes, it’s kind of like the Friday the 13th film series, on the guy wearing the hockey mask is a grizzly.) If the exploration death runs out, all of the players lose… and the bears (the game system) wins.
So, here’s where I’d normally put an extremely detailed, appropriately lucid and well-thought-out explanation of the central game mechanism: how to move. The only problem is that, in classic Carl Chudyk fashion, it’s substantially easier to explain the game in person with the components on the table than it is to write up in any kind of coherent fashion. (Seriously – try explaining the Splay or Dogma actions from Innovation or the process of how cards move from “pool” to workshop to merchant in Glory of Rome. I love both of those games… but until I played them, those concepts were clear as mud to me.)
Instead, what you’re about to get is my rambling attempt at outlining the basics of the game:
The player creates a pathway for their move by following the trail from card to card Traversing adjacent cards that are already part of the tableau Exploring by drawing and placing cards adjacent to their present point in the trail
The player piece is not moved until the player decides to stop traversing and/or exploring
There is no limit on the number of cards a player can traverse and explore, however… The farther a player moves in a single turn, the more likely they will “get lost” or meet a bear
Only one player can move across/onto a trail on a card When a card has two separate trails, two player pieces may be on the card
Terrain affects movement You must stop traversing or exploring when you end up on a card with water… bears like water! You must stop traversing or exploring when you move off of a mountain card… you are worn out & tired! You can end up forced to explore in a different direction when you are in the woods… it’s dark & the trail isn’t always clear! Bears aren’t terrain, per se, but your turn ends without moving when you find a bear… and you can’t traverse through a bear card.
There are tools scattered throughout the wilderness (evidently the bears have been eating tourists for a long time out here) A canoe can help you cross water A flashlight lets you move through a cave A rope allows you to drop down from a bridge to the trail below A machete lets you make a path through the underbrush
There are enchanted spaces that can affect you if you being your turn with them Start in a mushroom field and you can reject one card you explore and draw a replacement Start with a fox and other players don’t block your movement Start with butterflies and you can’t get lost this turn
The game also comes with 6 character cards – each character has a weakness. For example, Fozzie is scared of bears. (Though I’m not sure if he’d be scared of them in their natural habitat: a Studebaker. And, yes, I’ve seen The Muppet Movie way too many times.) If you’re playing with enchanted cards active (which I highly recommend), each character also has a special power which assists them in their journey.
Once you’ve learned how the game works, gameplay flows quickly. In fact, that’s one of the things I enjoy about the design of Bear Valley – it’s a fast-moving game. It also has the “Carcassonne Effect” for new players – since there is no hidden information, experienced players can help get newbies up to speed.
I have two small complaints about the game – or, maybe better said, the production of the game. While the card & component quality is good, the rulebook could have been better organized. As it stands, you need information from 3 different places in the rulebook as you are learning the game. Since the rulebook is broken up by a prodigious amount of examples (not a bad thing, by the way), this requires a good bit of leafing back and forth.
Which brings me to my second complaint – I wish there was a player aid card that incorporated:
Movement effects Getting lost Meeting bears
Enchanted glade effects
There’s the aforementioned nice multi-page rules summary up on BGG… but I’m always a fan of player aid cards included in the original publication of the game.
Please note: neither of these complaints are deal-breakers. I still really like the game.
The Best Way To Play
The rulebook has a plethora of game formats & variants: Basic rules Basic rules with Advanced rules Advanced rules w/Enchanted variant
Each of those variations can be played with a suggested “long” or “short” course based on the number of players in the game.
We’ve found that we like the game best using a long course with the “advanced” rules and the enchanted variant. The addition of the enchanted spaces can make it more difficult to block trails and enables end-game lunges. The same is true of the tool spaces – their special powers keep the game from devolving into “plug the chicane” mode. (“Plug the chicane” is a tactic familiar to anyone who has played Detroit/Cleveland Grand Prix and/or Ausgebremst.) As well, the consolation move rule from the advanced game can occasionally offer a helpful alternative to a busted turn.
I also think the game works better with 2-4 players… though it’s perfectly playable and fun with 5-6 players. Both of our games at the higher numbers ended with the player who lagged behind and collected gold getting the win.
Note: in 9 plays, we’ve never had the deck run out for a bear all-you-can eat buffet. I’ve wondered if discarding X number of cards (dependent on the number of players) might add some tension to that element of the game – but I haven’t experimented with it – yet!
I don’t think that Bear Valley is the best design from Carl Chudyk – I’m happy to give that honor to Innovation. At the same time, I think this is a great filler game that is both highly portable (it’s in a pretty small box and could easily be slipped into a baggie to be transported easily on trips) and lots of fun to play.
It has what I’m going to call the Chudyk Factor – it’s a feature (or a bug, depending on your tastes) of pretty much every game design from Carl C. His games manage to include a great deal of randomness from the card draw and card effects – and yet experience with the games slowly reveal more ways to control and channel the randomness. Bear Valley is not an exception to this – each game we play seems less “throw yourself onto the mercy of the fates” and more “how do I make this odd turn of events work for me?”
It’s quirky – and the various card effects take a bit to gel in your head – but once they did, we’ve had a great time with this filler card game – both with my boys and with gamers.
And here’s the most important thing… I keep putting in my bag to take to game nights long past the requisite “4 plays before I’ll write a review” threshold. For all its eccentricities, Bear Valley keeps me wanting more.
This review originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.