It’s hard to create games that appeal to both dedicated gamers and families. The very strategic depth sought by amateurs is a direct obstacle for more casual players. But there is no shortage of people trying because it is a very lucrative market. What gamers miss most are people to play games with, so titles they can enjoy with people in their own house are bound to sell like hot cakes.
Cascadia is the last of this long line. Sweetening the appealing theme of building an ecosystem in the Pacific Northwest and aided by simple rules and fast playtime, it seems to have the chops. But it’s a rough 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’ve 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 punched cardboard from which you blast bulky terrain hexes. There’s also a drawstring bag to fill with thin, brightly colored wooden countertops printed with animal icons. A few cardboard pine cones, score cards and a notepad to help you tally up your scores complete the contents of the box.
What makes the Cascadia components shine is the art of renowned gaming artist Beth Sobel. The wildlife art on the box and cards is top notch, evoking the splendor of the wild. Even the little animal art on the counters and the little terrain on the hexes manage to stir the heartstrings a bit.
Rules and how to play
Cascadia’s core gameplay loop is super simple. You start with three terrain hexes, each with icons indicating which of the five types of animals can live there. On your turn, you choose one of four random pairs of hexagons and animals to add to your map. You can place them wherever you want: the only drawback is that the animal must go on a hex that supports it. That’s it.
Of course, if that was really all there was to it, Cascadia wouldn’t be much fun at all. But it’s amazing how a few basic flourishes to this formula explode the game with possibilities while leaving it very easy to learn. Your objective is to score points, and you get points in two ways. First by keeping the land types together, which makes this open placement less flexible than it seems. And second, by obeying the animal score cards you use for this game.
There’s a whole set of these scorecards. In their simplest form, there are two family versions that give you points for keeping groups of the same animal together. These are a little too simple to hold the interest of adults, but the fact that they do Playable Cascadia for kids shows just how accessible the game is. In the full version, you’ll use a card for each of the five animal types, giving you different rewards for how they’re laid out.
Each animal follows broad stereotypes. Bears like to live in family groups, so their cards give you points for groups of two, or threes, or a combination of the two. Foxes, on the other hand, depend on prey species, so you reward based on the mix of animals in adjacent hexes. Eagles like to be solitary, elk in large herds and salmon for long runs. With three different scoring conditions for each animal, there are plenty of combinations to keep the game varied.
Now, choosing among these four pairs of animals and hexagons doesn’t seem so simple. Each choice should indicate whether it can score you points for terrain and for how you place animals on your map. Often the two are in opposition, and it’s up to you which one to prioritize based on how long you play and what other people are collecting. Momentum can net you big points for a large herd, but if other players are competing to suck up momentum discs, it would be wise to specialize elsewhere.
Despite the fact that you need to stay aware of other players’ actions, Cascadia is otherwise a rather solitary affair. You are focused on what you collect and there is no direct interaction with other players. On the plus side, this means it plays well solo and minimizes friction during family play. On the downside, especially since it’s an all-tactical game, it can drag out time between rounds. It’s a fast game, so it’s only really an issue with a full squad of four.
As long as the turns follow each other fairly quickly, there is a certain pleasure in wondering what you will choose during your turn. Maybe this will be the last salmon you need for a big score, maybe it won’t. Although the tactical focus means you can’t plan ahead, it keeps everyone constantly on their toes. You’ll often be rewarded for keeping your card flexible enough to pivot to different scoring chances if the ones you’re chasing don’t come loose. The result is a surprising amount of excitement for such a low-interaction game.
There’s a lot in the standard game to engage you for many games, but Cascadia offers even more to gamers to keep them interested. At the back of the brief rulebook, there are three charts offering achievements to complete. A set is made up of scenarios, breaking point thresholds with particular combinations of scorecards and criteria. The second is to play 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, sets of hex and animal tokens to choose from. These offer fantastic variety and add a special spice to single-player play, giving you fun challenges to complete rather than repeating for a high score.
Some of the terrain hexes will only support one species, and if you place here you get a pine cone as a reward. You can either cash them in for a point at the end of the game or, when selecting, take an animal and a hex from different pairs. It’s a nice diversification of strategy, but it highlights that, however rich the art, this is an abstract puzzle. There is no connection to any real activity or situation during your in-game decisions.