Trekking the National Parks Review
I grew up a few hours away from the Canadian Rockies and Banff National Park in Alberta. We’d visit in the summer and go skiing there in the winter. That’s where I fell in love with the mountains, coniferous forests, and the beauty of nature. Now I live in the Eastern United States, and while we may not have those same types of parks and forests, what we do have is not to be found out west. There is a varied beauty in this country that is hard to find elsewhere. Deserts, snow-capped mountains, a super volcano surrounded by gurgling earth, mammoth cave systems that still aren’t completely mapped out, and everything in between. I wish I could visit all the national parks this country has to offer. Perhaps I will.
While I wait for that to happen, however, I can console myself with the board game: Trekking the National Parks.
Trekking the National Parks is a beautiful game of, well, visiting the national parks in the United States. It’s straightforward and easy to learn, and is just as good with two players as it is with five. Its main mechanic is set collection, and you collect trek cards which you trade in for park cards, and you collect rocks (you know you’ve pilfered a rock or something from somewhere special before).
Moving from park to park, you compete with other players to get the most points from parks and rocks. It is simple in concept as well as execution, but it provides both an educational and entertaining look at the various national parks this country has to offer. The game is quite fun, and is also great for teaching kids (and yourself) about this country’s natural beauty.
The first thing I did was look through the park cards. I wanted to look at all of them and reminisce about the places I’ve already visited. Given, that’s not a lot (not yet), but the pictures were so good! From the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone to Mammoth Cave, my wanderlust set in nearly instantly.
The parks cards have fun facts on them about the park, which were fun to read. My boy, who is five, loved looking at the cards as well. We talked about the different places and it was fun to see him get excited about it. (Although, he’s still a little worried Yellowstone might blow up at any moment.)
My first game went exceptionally well. I enjoyed it, and I was eager to play again. It’s nothing earth shattering, but you don’t always need a “unique new mechanic!” to have a good game or a good time. I found the theme and mechanics to work together very well.
Throughout the game, players take turns doing two actions. Once their two actions are complete, play proceeds to the next player. This goes on until either one player has five Park cards, or all of the rocks are gone from the board.
There are four actions, and you can do two different ones or two of the same: draw a Trek card, move, claim a Park card, and occupy a major park.
Now, there are three major parks (out of six) used in a game. When you occupy one of these parks, you get a special bonus, which could be a one-time bonus or ongoing. There are three other parks always visible throughout the game. When one of these gets claimed, another one is revealed. You claim a Park card by trading in the required Trek cards, as indicated by the symbols on the Park card.
The Trek cards also have numbers on them, indicating the amount of spaces you can move. So, when you take a move action, you play a Trek card and move exactly that number of spaces. But what I like about moving is that you’re not limited to only one card. You can play as many Trek cards as you want and go from one end of the country to the other (by adding the numbers together). I like it because it makes you very aware of your Trek cards. You need them to move, and you need them to occupy or claim a park. But getting from A to B as quickly as possible can be hugely beneficial. What to do, what to do….
Hand management is essential in Trekking the National Parks. You need cards for movement and trading. But there’s set collection as well, so while you’re managing your hand, you also have to keep in mind what you need. And, you should probably also pay attention to the types of cards the other players are going for, otherwise you might be storing up for a specific park and have it snatched from under your nose. I like how the gameplay encourages you to try and out-plan your opponents.
Moving is also an interesting experience. You can’t pass over the same route in the same move (no going in circles, sorry), and if someone is on a park you want to pass through, you can’t get by (this park ain’t big enough for the two of us!). This makes for some strategic—or unintentional—blocking. However, you can end your move in the same park as another player. If you do, that player gets Sorry!’d and is bumped back to the Start space. That can be good or bad for the displaced trekker, depending on where you were aiming to go.
When you end your move on a park with a rock on it, you take the rock. Having a majority of rocks in their specific colors gives you points. As you may have deduced, this can lead to some angsty tactics (which I am totally fine with), and it will help dictate where you will want to move, as well as when. There’s a little meta game that’s all about picking up rocks that is quite fun in its own right. Sure, you get lots of points for claiming parks, but the stones are just as much about denying players points as they are about getting them yourself. And if you’re not paying attention, you might end up hitting rock bottom (thank you, thank you, I’m here all week).
With the abilities granted from major parks, the meta game of stones, and the back-and-forth of hand management and set collection, Trekking the National Parks is an engaging game with more going on than it may appear at first glance. It’s fast and easy to teach (and understand), and the turns can go by quickly…assuming people aren’t daydreaming, of course.
If I had to pull a theme out of thin air (which I’m about to do), I’d go with nature. Or, more specifically, the national parks themselves. (But I like the overall theme of “nature,” personally.) There’s also a theme of traveling. It’s not a theme I’m always drawn to (love me some sci-fi and fantasy!), but I do find it quite refreshing. Even just the pictures on the cards draw me into the game.
And the mechanics play well with the theme, which is always a plus. Sure, in real life there will be room for more than one person in a national park (except when COVID spikes, maybe) and you don’t end up somewhere out East if someone happens to visit the same park you do (*poof!* Magic.), but hey, it’s a game. These decisions have to be made in favor of gameplay. And the gameplay has gained my favor.
The thing that stands out about the art isn’t so much the art, but the pictures. Many (most?) of the pictures were taken by the game’s designer, Charlie Bink, which is pretty rad if you stop and think about it. What a great way to use your own photos! The pictures help you get a feel for what the park might be like, and, honestly, I could go through those cards even without playing the game (and I have). But, like I said, growing up close to a national park (albeit in Canada), I learned to appreciate nature and the outdoors from a young age.
These are the things that stand out to me about the game:
- Quality park pictures
- The rock meta game
- Easy to learn and teach
- A great educational tool
Things to Consider
The following isn’t “bad,” but it may be something to consider.
- Complexity: As mentioned, the game is fairly simple and straightforward, which may be a turnoff for some. Personally, I like how simple it is (this coming from someone who likes a super heavy game more often than not). Just know that you should expect lighter fare when getting into this. And that’s okay.
I enjoy Trekking the National Parks. In general, my personal preferences are games with a bit more depth, but don’t take that to mean this game isn’t good. This is a good game. It’s fun, it’s engaging, and there is most definitely a place for it on my shelf and on my table. I am, in the end, quite happy with this game.
It is well done with smooth and fun gameplay. The prime candidates for this game are those whose favorite games lean on the lighter side of the complexity scale. Still, I find the game to be quite engaging with some good strategic thought mixed into it. And I can’t help but fight for my favorite parks as they show up.
Trekking the National Parks will be a great game for my kids as well. They may be a little young at the moment (oldest is five), but in a year or two I think they’ll be able to enjoy it with a little coaching (at first). And, there’s always the cards to take out and look at when I feel trapped and need a getaway. There’s something to be said about pictures that capture the essence of a location, and that’s one of the things I love about Trekking the National Parks.
What is your favorite national park?
About the Author
Benjamin hails from Canada but now lives in Kentucky with his wife and kids. He’s a certified copyeditor through UC San Diego’s Copyediting Extension program. He’s a freelance writer and editor, covering everything from board game rule books to novels. An avid writer of science fiction and fantasy, it comes as no surprise that his favorite board games are those with rich, engaging themes. When he’s not writing or playing games, Benjamin loves to play ultimate Frisbee, watch and play rugby, and read the most epic fantasy books available. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminKocher and Instagram @Benjamin_Kocher. You can also read his board game inspired fiction at BenjaminKocher.com.