#010 Rescue Polar Bears (2017)
Designer: Jog Kun & Huang Yi Ming
Artist: Lauren Hsiu & Collin Wang
Publisher: TWOPLUS Games & Mayday Games
Player Count: 1-4
The Arctic is getting warmer. The sea ice is melting. It's only a matter of time before the polar bears run out of habitable sea ice. You and your fellow sea captains and scientists must come together to rescue the polar bears and collect enough scientific data to persuade the governments of the world to take action! No pressure.
What's in the box!?
Those polar bears are Grade A ADORABLE! You want a game with table presence? Here you go! The polar bears do get most of the love, but let's not forget the 3D cardboard boats or the center flag meeple--outstanding job with game production.
On your turn...
1. TAKE THREE ACTIONS: These actions include (1) moving your ship, (2) loading one polar bear onto your boat, (3) unloading all polar bears off your boat onto a base tile, (4) picking up an adjacent data token (how you win the game), or (5) removing an adjacent ice tile from the board to lower the temperature.
If you end your movement on a data token, you may pick it up for free. If you end your movement on a support tile (the red buoy), you draw and immediately resolve a super helpful support card.
Every three data tokens you retrieve allows you to upgrade one of the ships. Each ship is unique so the upgrades may include getting more helicopters, moving faster, being able to load more polar bears, or even getting more actions per turn.
2. ROLL THE BLUE DIE: The blue die controls the mating cycle of the polar bears. Climate change can't change the heat between two polar bears! The rules are quite complicated. Thankfully the game includes a highly intuitive player aid with a flow chart. Thank you! On a side note, it is quite odd that a cub will grow up into a male polar bear on one turn, and then spawn offspring with his own mother on the next turn. Expect rampant incest jokes. Yes, that's my game group.
3. ROLL THE RED DIE: The red die controls climate change. It's a thing! At the end of every player's turn, the arctic gets hotter and hotter, and will eventually melt an ice tile and potentially murder all the polar bears on said tile.
Play continues until 20 data tokens are retrieved (You WIN!) or one polar bear dies (You LOSE!) or the temperature gets too hot (All the polar bears die and oh yeah, you LOSE!).
On the AI's turn...
Describing what you do on your turn of a co-operative game is only half of the game. The other half is played by the AI or the game itself. So what exactly is happening in this game?
The board is covered with 20 ice tiles numbered 1 to 20. Each one is inhabited by polar bears. The lower numbered tiles have fewer bears, but the larger numbered tiles have 3 bears (the maximum number of polar bears a tile can have). Each of these tiles corresponds to a number on the temperature track. This is why the temperature track is ranged from 1 to 20.
There are 20 alert tokens. Each alert token corresponds to an ice tile and therefore also corresponds to a temperature. Yes, the alert tokens are numbered 1 to 20. At the start of the game an alert token is flipped and the number on the back is noted. The flipped up alert token is placed on the corresponding number on the temperature track. The ice-melting token is placed on the ice tile matching the flipped up alert token.
Let's say you were lucky and the flipped up alert token is numbered 15. The alert token goes on the number 15 on the temperature track. The ice-melting token is placed on ice tile 15.
At the end of a player's turn (after they roll the red die) if the temperature equals or exceeds the alert token (15 in our example), that ice tile melts. If there are polar bears on that tile, they will evacuate onto an adjacent ice tile. If the adjacent ice tiles are full (full = three polar bears), the remaining polar bears drown in the sea. One helicopter token must be spent to rescue each drowning polar bear, so if two bears are drowning then two helicopter tokens must be used. If one or more bears can't be saved and drown, then the players lose the game.
When an ice tile melts, a new alert token is drawn, flipped over, placed on the corresponding number on the temperature track, the ice-melting token moves to the matching ice tile, and the temperature drops 5 degrees. Then the race begins again.
In addition to the ice tiles slowly melting, the polar bears are getting it on. They are growing and mating. Female and male bears spawn two new cubs, which then may grow up and potentially spawn even more polar bears. I guess they're too busy to notice they may be related.
mini game play TL; DR
To simplify, it gets hotter and hotter and hotter until an ice tile melts. The polar bears evacuate or die. It gets colder by five degrees. It gets hotter and hotter and hotter until another ice tile melts. The polar bears evacuate or die. It gets colder by five degrees. It gets hotter and hotter and hotter until another ice tile melts. The polar bears evacuate or die. It gets colder by five degrees. If it goes above 20 degrees, you lose. If one polar bear dies, you lose. If you can't get 20 data tokens before all hell breaks loose, you lose. Oh, and all the while, the polar bears are getting it on and having cubs, which means more polar bears to potentially evacuate or die. On the bright side, you get bright shiny 3D cardboard ships to help you out. Yay?
A majority of the conversation is debating which polar bears to remove from which ice tiles and when. If the temperature gets too high, breaking an ice tile with a ship to lower the temperature becomes a heated debate. Loading bears onto a ship is slow and eats up your actions. Being efficient with the rescuing is paramount. This problem is exacerbated because every turn the bears grow or reproduce and every turn the temperature rises. Players will be racing to rescue polar bears and if a window opens up they'll grab data tokens (how you win the game) or grab supply cards (how you don't lose the game quickly). Game play is very tight. It is easy to focus solely on rescuing polar bears, but that's not how you win the game. You must find those windows to collect data; otherwise, you won't win. Remember, not one polar bear can die.
Similar to Pandemic, each boat has a unique player power: The Icy Cape (green) creates more data tokens. The Polaris (brown) loads polar bears twice as fast, but moves very slowly. The White Wave (gray) moves three times as fast, but can't load any polar bears unless upgraded. The Arctic (blue) may draw twice as many supply cards. The Breeze Dragon (red) can be upgraded to have up to 5 actions per turn. You'll need to work with your fellow captains to rescue those polar bears efficiently. Remember, not one polar bear can die.
What you've heard is true. The original rule book is a mess. There is some broken English, but that isn't the problem. It wasn't structured well and was fairly unorganized. While I was reading it, I was reminded of reading Arkham Horror (Fantasy Flight Games 2005). There were references to other rule sections that hadn't been explained yet, unclearly written sections and game pieces, and a few printing errors.
Thankfully the Mayday Games Rulebook is available for download on BGG. It's a definite improvement although I'm confused as to why the component breakdown is still located at the end of the rule book. It did however address some frequently asked questions, which is great. It bothers me that people might think it was the broken English that hindered the rule book instead of it being poorly structured, unorganized, and worded. Gamer English can sound weird at times, but it's necessary for clarity and ease of game play.
While preparing for this article, we played several co-operative games, and it was quite shocking to discover that this game is quite hard--really hard. Preventing viral outbreaks (Pandemic), surviving on a deserted island (Robinson Crusoe), going insane while exploring the haunted corridors of a cursed mansion (Mansions of Madness), and assassinating Hitler (Black Orchestra) were are all significantly easier than rescuing polar bears in the arctic. I don't mind difficult co-op or solo games; I rather enjoy them. Nobody suspected saving drowning polar bears would be more difficult than assassinating Hitler.
The serene cover art is beautiful and heartbreaking. The polar bears are unbearably ADORABLE. Everything about the graphic design is suggestive of a family game, so when you witness one adorable polar bear drowning after the next, it can become quite frustrating. I could easily see non-gamers and families becoming quickly discouraged from playing after losing a few games back to back to back.
Mechanically there is a lot going on in the game as well, and I could also see non-gamers struggling with managing these mechanics and all the tokens (A LOT OF TOKENS) in this game without someone there to hold their hand. As a gamer, I appreciate the new, unique, and challenging mechanics, but they can be a bit unintuitive at first. It felt a bit weird that retrieving data tokens is how you win the game--not rescuing polar bears. If you don't rescue the polar bears you will lose quite quickly, but it's not how you directly win the game. More than one player were confused by this.
Masked behind the co-operative gameplay is a pick-up and deliver game. I have never understood why this particular game mechanic can be divisive at times, but it's there and it's a major part of the game. If you're a hater of pick-up and deliver, I would suggest you play this before buying. At the very least, you're not delivering cubes, tokens, or chits; you're rescuing crazy photogenic polar bears. That should count for something, right?
There is also a scaling issue. Not in terms of players, but in terms of boats. We tried several times to win this game with only two boats and lost every time. The game does become more manageable with the more boats you play with. It may even be a bit too easy for experienced players with four boats. You're supposed to play with one boat per player, but I strongly recommend you always play with 3 or 4 boats regardless of player count unless you like torture and disappointment. Remember, not one polar bear can die. If one single polar bear dies, you lose the game--ONE polar bear.
I may have come down a bit hard with those negatives, but those problems needed mentioning. You will most likely have to power through one learning game to fully grasp all the rules and uses of all those tokens. Andy Dufresne, you'll crawl through 60 minutes of complicated rules and mechanics, but come out delighted and rewarded on the other end. Rescuing Polar Bears is one charming board game. The temperature and ice melting mechanics are a bit tricky at first, but the tense game play, smart graphic design, and excellent component quality will charm your socks off. Every learning game I taught was immediately followed with players demanding to play again--the best sign for a game. Everyone (even the pick-up and deliver hater) agreed they would play this game again. Debating where your ships should go and prioritizing polar bears is addictive and fun. Watching those adorable polar cubs drowning really pulls on your heart strings. It has a unique and laudable theme, and OMG those polar bears! Players will be taking photos on their off turns; it's a thing with this game. Rescue Polar Bears is a solid game whose components and graphic design rescued it from mediocrity and brought us a unique, truly memorable, and difficult co-operative game worthy of shelf space. Two thumbs up!
I really, really, really like this game. The components are good quality. The polar bears are adorable and give the game amazing table presence. 3D boats! There are quite a few mechanics for non-gamers to get confused by; however, after powering through one learning game, you should be able to grasp the mechanics of the game and hopefully how to win. Speaking of winning, you might not be able to do that much at first because this game is hard. It's one of the hardest co-ops I've ever played actually. If for some reason, you don't find the game hard at all, there are variants to raise the difficulty. The game doesn't scale well; the more players (boats) you use, the easier the game gets. I would recommend that for a two-player game, you control two boats each. Despite these minor problems Rescue Polar Bears really stands out. The unique theme and table presence really pushes this game from an average solid game to something quite special and worthy of its shelf space. (4 out of 5 = I really like it!)
Rescue Real Polar Bears
There are hundreds of amazing co-operative board games on the market today. Every now and then one comes along with a heavier theme and an important message. Regardless of whether or not you like this game, its theme must be recognized and lauded. Rescue Polar Bears is a fun board game, but let's not forget that it is based in reality and real polar bears need real help. For additional information on conserving polar bears and the sea ice they live on, please visit the NPO, Polar Bears International. Bringing awareness to this actual problem is only part of the solution. Learn more about this amazing non-profit and learn how you could help rescue real polar bears in the arctic.