Category: Tile-placement game
Designer: Randy Flynn
Publisher: Flatout Games
Year Published: 2021
Playing Time: 30 - 60 mins
To Play or Not To Play: Play
Flatout Games is best known for their 2020 hit game Calico. Propelled by a successful Kickstarter, Calico gained a reputation as a welcoming, family-friendly game with tons of hidden depth. It stormed up the BoardGameGeek rankings, and currently sits just outside the top-200. More significantly, it's also the #5 Abstract game on BGG, falling below Azul, Azul: Summer Pavilion, Yinsh, and Patchwork. However, I did not back that Kickstarter, and I haven't played it yet.
Building off that success, Flatout Games launched another Kickstarter in 2020 for Cascadia: a tile-placement game set in North America's Pacific Northwest. After another immensely successful campaign, the game arrived at backers' doors in July 2021. And I was lucky enough to try it out!
As I already mentioned, Cascadia is a tile-placement game. Each player starts with a special triple-hex starting tile. These tiles depict all five of the different terrain types in the game, and also feature icons for all five of the game's animals. The first player selects a tile (from a pool of four face-up tiles) and its adjoining animal token, and places both. The tile can be placed anywhere as long as at least one side is adjacent to another tile. That's right, you don't have to match terrain types at all, if you don't want to. But you definitely want to try, and we'll get to that later. Animal tokens can be placed on any tile in your area that has a matching animal icon. Some tiles have two or three different icons, but only one animal token can go on each tile. Then the players refill the center pool with a new tile, and a token drawn at random from the token bag.
And that's really it. Players go back and forth placing tiles and tokens until the stack of tiles runs out. Players calculate their score and the highest score wins. So how do you score points? There's two ways. First: each of the five animals has a unique scoring mechanism outlined on a set of cards. In the image above, Grizzly Bears score points if you place them in groups of three adjacent tiles, but not arranged in a triangle. This represents a mother bear accompanied by two bear cubs. Each group of three is worth 10 points, but if you only have 2 adjacent bears, or 4 or more, that group is worth 0. So you do place a fourth bear, make sure it's in a different part of your tableau!
So you have to juggle five different scoring mechanisms for each of the five different animals. Will you maximize your Chinook Salmon run, or aim for an enormous Roosevelt Elk herd? It all depends on your strategy and the luck of which tiles and tokens appear in the center.
But you also score points for tile placement. Each tile has one or two terrain types depicted, and you can place them anywhere you want in your tableau. But at the end of the game, you'll score 1 point per tile for your largest contiguous area with the same terrain type. In the picture above, this player would score 3 points for their forest. The largest contiguous forest spreads across three tiles. There's a fourth tile with forest in the bottom-left, but it is not connected to the largest forest, so it does not contribute to the score. You also score bonus points for having the largest contiguous terrain area compared to your opponents.
Yeah, as you can see, scoring in this game is . . . a lot. Thank goodness the game comes with a scoring pad because trying to count your points internally is a nightmare. Which means this game falls into a really interesting space. Playing the game is super easy and accessible. Pick a tile, put it anywhere, and then place an animal token on a tile with the matching picture. That's it. That's 90% of the gameplay rules right there. Anybody can play this game. But all of that complexity gets shoved over into the scoring mechanics. You're constantly trying to figure out how to make your various animal scoring goals work while also building large, contiguous terrains. You'll find yourself thinking really hard every turn as you try to balance your long-term plans with the immediate decision in front of you. It's a cliché, but this game truly is easy to learn, and difficult to master.
Honestly, if this is all that Cascadia was, it would be pretty good. Carcassonne has persisted as one of the greatest tile-placement games for decades thanks to its fairly simple rules but challenging strategy, and Cascadia is simultaneously simpler and more challenging. But Cascadia comes with four different variations for each animal card!
These 20 cards ensure that you will never play the same game twice. At the same time, the cards are designed to emulate animal behavior with their mechanics. As a result, the different cards for each animal type work similarly. For example, the Chinook Salmon cards all reward you for creating meandering lines of salmon, which resemble rivers. Red Foxes reward you for surrounding them with other animal types. And Roosevelt Elks tend to reward you for creating large herds of adjacent elk, but each card requires different configurations. Figuring out how to maximize your points each game is a delightful puzzle that keeps me coming back for more.
The game also features an extra rule to help mitigate the inherent randomness from the tile and token pool. Certain tiles are marked with a pine cone icon, and if you place the pictured animal on that tile you'll receive a pine cone token. You can spend a pine cone token to return any number of animal tokens from the pool back to the bag and then redraw. Or, you can spend a token to split your tile and token draws from different pairs. Any unspent tokens are worth 1 point each at the end of the game, so saving them can be helpful, but spending them to fix a bad draw is always worthwhile.
Before I wrap this up, I want to take a moment to mention the components. The tiles, cards, and tokens all feel amazing! The tiles are the perfect weight, and the five terrain types are easy to distinguish when you're looking at a tableau covered in animal tokens. And the tokens feel amazing, and come in this lovely cloth bag:
Unfortunately, it's not all fun and games. This game's insert is atrocious. It's flimsy, poorly sized, and absolutely worthless as an organizational tool. Fortunately, the game comes with several perfectly-sized ziploc bags to store your components. I highly recommend just recycling the insert as soon as you open the box. But that's really the only flaw. The illustrations are impeccable, the production quality is excellent, and the box is the perfect size.
You should play Cascadia. The theme is well done, and the game is extremely easy to learn. My only complaint is that scoring is so complex that it's nearly impossible to figure out how well you're doing compared to the other players until it's all over. It's also not a terribly lively game. Players will spend most of their time staring intently at their board and thinking since there's almost no player interaction. Heck, this game also supports solitaire play, where you can use a pre-determined set of five animal cards and aim for the best score possible after ~20 turns. If you want a compelling puzzle combined with beautiful components, Cascadia is the game for you.
Sorry for the long hiatus, everyone! Due to a myriad of factors, life got pretty busy and complicated. But at long last, I'm back, and I have several other reviews getting ready in the pipeline. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @OrNotToPlay, Instagram @ToPlayOrNot, or subscribe to this blog for updates on future posts!