Making games that appeal to both dedicated gamers and families is hard. The very strategic depth that the hobby crowd craves is a direct turn-off for more casual players. But there’s no shortage of people trying because it’s a very lucrative market. What gamers are mostly short of is people to play games with, so titles they can enjoy with the folks in their own home are bound to sell like hotcakes.
Cascadia is the latest in this long lineage. Burnishing the appealing theme of building up an ecosystem in the Pacific Northwest and aided by simple rules and a quick play time, it looks to have the chops. But this is a hard road, littered with broken boxes, and there’s no guarantee it can emulate the success of other wildlife themed crossover classics like Wingspan (which we awarded one of the best board games of 2019).
What’s in the Box
As a simple game you’d expect a simple set of components, and Cascadia delivers. There’s no board, just several sheets of punch out cardboard from which you pop chunky terrain hexes. There’s also a drawstring bag to fill with thin wooden counters in strong colors, printed with animal icons. A few cardboard pinecones, scoring cards and a pad to help you add up your scores round out the box contents.
What makes Cascadia’s components pop is the art by well-known game artist Beth Sobel. The animal art on the box and cards is first rate stuff, evoking the splendor of the natural wilderness. Even the small animal art on the counters and the tiny terrain on the hexes manages to stir the heartstrings a little.
Rules and How to Play
Cascadia’s core gameplay loop is super simple. You start with three terrain hexes, each of which has icons indicating which of the five kinds of animals can live there. On your turn you choose one of four randomly drawn pairs of hex and animal counter to add to your map. You can place them where you like: the only caveat is that the animal has to go on a hex that supports it. That’s it.
Of course if that’s really all there was to it, Cascadia wouldn’t be much fun at all. But it’s amazing how a few basic frills to this formula make the game explode with possibilities while leaving it very easy to learn. Your goal is to score points, and you get points in two ways. First by keeping terrain types together, making that open placement less flexible than it appears. And second by obeying the animal scoring cards you’re using that game.
There’s a whole deck of these scoring cards. At their simplest there are two family versions which give you points for keeping groups of the same animal together. These are a bit too straightforward to sustain adult interest, but the fact they make Cascadia playable for kids shows just how accessible the game is. In the full version you’ll use one card for each of the five animal types, giving you different rewards for how they’re arranged.
Each animal follows broad stereotypes. Bears like to live in family groups, so their cards give you points for groups of two, or of three, or a combination of both. Foxes, meanwhile, rely on prey species so reward you depending on the mix of animals in adjacent hexes. Eagles like to be solitary, elk in big herds and salmon to make long runs. With three different scoring conditions for each animal, there are plenty of combinations to keep the game varied.
With three different scoring conditions for each animal, there are plenty of combinations to keep the game varied.
Now, selecting from those four pairs of animals and hexes doesn’t seem anywhere near so straightforward. Every pick needs to key in to whether it can score you points for the terrain and for how you place animals on your map. Often the two are in opposition, and it’s down to you to judge which to prioritize based on how long there is to go in the game and what other people are collecting. Elk might score you big points for a big herd, but if other players are competing to hoover up the elk discs, you’d be wise to specialize elsewhere.
Despite the fact you need to remain aware of other player’s actions, Cascadia is otherwise a rather lonely affair. You’re focussed on what you’re collecting and there’s no direct interaction with other players. On the positive side that means it plays well solo and minimizes friction during family play. On the negative, especially given that it’s entirely a tactical game, it can make the time between turns drag. It’s fast playing, so this is really only an issue with a full complement of four players.
As long as the turns keep coming fast enough there’s a certain pleasure in wondering what you’ll get to select from during your turn. Maybe it’ll be that last salmon you need for a big score, maybe it won’t. While the tactical focus means you can’t plan ahead, it does keep everyone constantly on their toes. You’ll often be rewarded for keeping your map flexible enough to pivot to different scoring chances if the ones you’re chasing don’t come off. It results in a surprising amount of excitement for such a low interaction game.
There’s plenty in the standard game to engage you for many plays, but Cascadia offers players even more to keep them interested. In the back of the brief rulebook there are three charts offering achievements to complete. One set is scenarios, getting past point thresholds with particular combinations of scoring cards and criteria. The second involves playing a normal game for a specific goal, like not having a particular animal on your map. The third involves minor rule variations like having three, rather than four, hex and animal token sets to choose from. These offer fantastic variety and add a particular spice to solo play, giving you fun escalating challenges to beat rather that repeat plays for a high score.
While the tactical focus means you can’t plan ahead, it does keep everyone constantly on their toes.
Some of the terrain hexes will only support a single species, and if you place here you get a pinecone as a reward. You can either cash these in for a point at the end of the game or, during the selection, to take an animal and a hex from different pairs. This is a nice diversification of the strategy but it does highlight that however rich the art, this is an abstract puzzle. There’s no connection to any real-life activity or situation during your in-game decisions.