Bear Valley

Stephen from Stronghold Games asked us to write the review in English, so we can also post this review on BoardgameGeek. Apologies for our Dutch readers.

Bear Valley, a place in the wilderness known only to a select few. You and your fellow explorers have been dropped there along the river with one simple mission: make your way back to base camp. Explore the savage woods, follow the rough pathways and use any item you come across to your advantage, but watch out for bears and don't push your luck or you might get lost. Do you have what it takes to become the ultimate survival champion?

Bear Valley is in essence a card game, with some extra tokens for players and equipment. It comes in a smaller box, as part of the Pocket Line series from Stronghold Games. The material is ok, with nicely illustrated cards and detailed equipment tokens. Only the canoe token feels a bit awkward, being just as small as the machete and even smaller than the rope or picnic basket. This was probably decided to make it fit in the punch out board, but a slightly bigger size would have made it stand out better. Finally there is the rule book. With its 40 pages it looks kind of intimidating for what is supposed to be a small game, but after 10 pages you can already start playing a basic game. The rest of the pages are filled with detailed examples and advanced rules and variants. It is well written and so far we did not get into any situation where the rules are unclear or did not provide an answer.

The game setup is simple: just arrange the river cards with the drop site at one end and the base camp at the other. Several example layouts are provided according to the number of players. You can also add or remove river cards to tune the game duration. Other wilderness cards will be added during the game, forming a hex pattern (i.e. 'landscape' oriented, with the possibility to add cards left, top left, top right, right, bottom right and bottom left).

Let's begin by explaining the base game, which is played without equipment and without character traits. It is mainly intended to get you acquainted with the movement and exploration rules. On your turn you indicate the direction that you want to travel. You can follow an existing pathway into another location, or you can explore an undiscovered area. In that case you draw a wilderness card and try to match one of the paths with the exit you have chosen. If the card can be matched you are free to continue moving or exploring. If it can't be matched, the card is placed anyway, but you are considered lost and you remain at your starting position. When you decide to stop moving/exploring, you move your token to that last location.
A simple concept, but of course there are complications. First of all, you are not allowed to end your turn or move through a location that is occupied by another player. Next, there are certain cards that influence your movement: a card with water makes you stop, a mountain tires you so you have only one move left and if you encounter a bear you get lost immediately. Finally there's the aspect of time. Each step takes one hour, and the longer you explore the higher the chance you get lost. For example, if you explore an area at your 5th step ("5 O'clock") and the card has exactly 5 exits then you are lost. Needless to say that the odds are not in your favour... There are also some positive effects in play, like escaping a bear on your 1st step and crawling through the underbrush if you can't match an exit while exploring on step 1 or 2.

With the advanced rules the character traits and equipment come into play. Each character has a trait that results in a specific disadvantage. For example, one character suffers from vertigo and thus can't cross bridges or overpasses. Another one is out of shape and can carry only one item.
The equipment can be found in the wilderness when a card is explored that has an item displayed. The item is then placed on the card, and whomever starts his turn on that card can use or carry the item. Items can be really useful, like the canoe that allows you to travel via water, the machete that allows you to chop a path through the trees, or the picnic basket that allows you to sneak by a bear. However, once you use an item you must leave it behind so it can be picked up by another player.

The advanced rules also introduce other options to spice things up. You can explore via caves, you can trade equipment in a trading post and you can collect gold which offers an alternative way to victory (drop 3 gold at the starting location and you win the game too). Perhaps the most interesting addition is that you can now move through other players' location if you carry more gold, or in case of a tie (including no gold) less equipment. This provides opportunities to overhaul a player that is blocking a promising way out. There is still more to say about the advanced rules and variants, but I leave it up to you to read the manual for more details.

So, on to some gaming experiences. I played the base game once and twice with the advanced rules. It's probably no surprise that I recommend playing it with the advanced rules. It offers a much richer experience and vastly more options to explore. Starting players seem to have a bit of an advantage here. Although their moves are restricted during the first turn, they usually end up blocking the other players which either have to wait or make a big detour with less chance of success. On the next turn the starting players can then make a rush into the best directions.
It also seems that there will be only 2 or 3 viable paths to the destination. When playing with 4+ players (up to 6 can compete) this can become a problem if certain players get behind and are not able to catch up, either due to their trait or lack of equipment.
Player interaction is also very much part of the game. You can block a path by standing on a location, or cut off an exit by tactically placing your explored card. Be prepared for some strong language when that occurs...
Of course, a lot depends on which cards you draw while exploring. If you're really lucky you could win this game in 2 turns, but you could also end up blocking your carefully crafted path without escape, forcing you to retreat. In one game it even looked like the base camp would get completely cut off, but fortunately a machete came to the rescue.

Ok, time to round up. Bear Valley is a fun exploration and tile laying game suited for the whole family. It offers a lot of variation and replayability due to its nature. Its short playing time (15 to 30 minutes) will probably contribute to the 'one more time' syndrome. I can definitely recommend it, although with 5+ players it might get crowded and some players may get behind and frustrated. But hey, maybe there's a strategy that we didn't find yet so please don't let this keep you from trying it.

This game was donated by Stronghold and can be played at Het Geel Pionneke from november on.

Number of players : 2-6
Age : 8+
Time : 15 - 30 minutes


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