Dale Yu: Review of Cascadia  

Cascadia

  • Designer: Randy Flynn
  • Publisher: AEG/Flatout Games
  • Players: 1-4
  • Time: 30-45 minutes
  • Age: 10+
  • Played with review copy provided by AEG

cascadia

Cascadia is an unofficial designation for the coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest – including parts of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, British Columbia and the Yukon territory… Roughly the land between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.  This beautifully produced game is set in this region.   The elevator pitch for the game is: a puzzly tile-laying and token-drafting game featuring the habitats & wildlife of the Pacific Northwest.

In this game, players have their own area on the table in front of them where they will build their own piece of the Cascadia landscape. At the start of the game, they only have a single starting piece which is a triangular affair of three hexes stuck together. As the game progresses, more hexes will be added onto this structure, and wooden animal discs will be placed on top of the tiles.

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To set up the game, all of the wooden discs are placed into the bag, they are shuffled and 20 tiles per player plus an additional three tiles are selected for the tile pool in this particular game. 4 tiles are placed face up on the table to form a display (and the rest are left in facedown stacks on the board to create a draw pile), and four disks are drawn from the bag so that each tile hat is associated with a disk.

As mentioned before, each player gets a starting triangular tile. Finally, the five scoring decks are shuffled and a card is drawn from each stack. Each of these cards has a slightly different scoring rubric for the animal which the deck stands for. Alternatively, players can choose which scoring cards they want to play with, or if they are playing the campaign mode, the scenario in the rulebook will mandate which scoring cards should be used.   There is also a supply of nature tokens (that look like pine cones) which are set aside on the table. Players do not start with any tokens, but can gain them in the course of play.

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A player’s turn is fairly simple. The first thing that you do is choose a tile/disk pair from the display on the table. You have to take the pair as they lie on the table, you cannot pick and choose which tile and which disk. Once you have chosen your selection, you then must place the two pieces on the table in front of you. They can be placed in either order. 

When placing your tile, it must be adjacent to a previously played tile but there are no restrictions on matching artwork. When placing your disk, you must place it on a tile which is empty, and which has an icon matching the animal on the disk.  Tiles have between one and three animal icons on them.  If you are unable or unwilling to play the disk to your playing area, the disk is simply replaced into the bag.  After you have taken the components and place them, the empty spaces on the central display are refilled from their respective supply areas.

Now there is a special rule involving the nature tokens. If you choose to discard a nature token on your turn, you can choose to take any tile and any disc, that is you are not restricted to taking the fixed pair.  In this case, after your turn, the empty spaces are refilled without moving any of the pieces which were left behind.

So, how do you get these nature tokens? Well, there are some special tiles in the supply called Keystone tiles. They are easy to identify as they have only a single landscape color on them, a single space for a disc, and the outline of a pine cone next to the animal icon. During the game, when you place the matching animal disk on this tile, you will get a nature token which can be used on any later turn. 

Also, in this phase, if all four disks are of the same type, they are immediately set aside, and four new disks are drawn from the bag. The original matching disks are then replaced into the bag. Additionally, if there is ever a time that three of the four disks match in color, the active player can choose to set those three aside, and draw three new disks to replace them. This smaller replacement can only be done once per turn. Finally, a player can choose to discard a nature token to set aside the four disks in the display and draw for new ones from the bag. 

Once the player has finished his turn, the display is refreshed, and the next player takes their turn. The game continues in this fashion until all of the tiles in the supply have been drawn. Assuming the game has been set up correctly, this should mean that each player gets exactly twenty turns.

The game then moves into the final scoring. The publisher has helpfully included a score pad for you to record the scores as there are a number of scoring criteria.

First, you look at the five scoring cards. Each of the five types of animals has one of its four scoring cards on the table for this game. Each player scores their area based on the criteria on each of these five scoring cards.

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Second, you look at your map in front of you and score for the largest contiguous area of each of the five terrain types. You will score one point per terrain tile in the group. You only score one group per color.  Note that the tiles in a group must be continuous along at least one side of the hex. Some of the art is a little confusing and makes you think that some tiles touching at a corner alone could be continuous, but this is not what it is in the rules. Once all players have recorded their scores for their terrain types, you then assign bonuses for the players with the most tiles in a color as well as second most in the color. The actual amount of the bonus varies based on a number of players in the game.

Finally, players score one point per unused nature token they have at the end of the game.

The player with the most points wins, Ties are broken in favor of the player with more nature tokens left at the end of the game.

My thoughts on the game

So far, I have definitely enjoyed my games of Cascadia. I have always been predisposed to liking tile laying games, so this one is right up my alley. When I first got it, I thought that maybe this would be a Spiel Des Jahres candidate, however after a few plays, I don’t know if it is a good fit for that particular award. That does not mean that it is not a good game, I just feel that the somewhat complicated scoring is actually better suited for “gamers” than it is for the target audience of the SdJ.

For me, there is a good balance of both immediate and long-term strategy in this game. When you start the game with the starting triangle, you have three open hexes to place your animal disks upon. Unless you skip a turn and choose to not place a disk, you will always only have three open hexes for the duration of the game. As a result, you must always consider your overall supply of empty tiles and make sure that you have places to place disks as you get them.  Of course, with judicious use of nature tokens, you can try to modify the disk selection  to allow you to get the color disks you want as well as the tiles that you need.

Though you are never obligated to place a disk, it is a good idea to try to find a home for each one that you select because you need these disks in order to score points at the end of the game. Of course, as each of the five animals has four different cards which could be in the game, your strategy will have to change with each set up. Obviously, the different scoring criteria will also help you decide where you want to place particular land tiles.

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To further complicate the placement of tiles, you also need to consider the different landscapes, as you are rewarded for having large contiguous areas of the same landscape. Though the bonus for the largest landscape in each color is only three points, most of our games have been quite close in the final scoring, and these points can be quite valuable. It is usually worthwhile to try to compete for the bonus if possible. When teaching, I try to make it clear that contiguous tiles are those which share an entire side as the art of some of the landscapes (especially the water ones) make it appear that the landscape could be contiguous through a corner.

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I have found that the power of the Nature tokens can be quite high, and I do make it a point to try to get one early in the game.  While the Keystone tile can be a bit restrictive – as it only has one landscape and only accepts one type of tile – being able to increase your options at later pivotal moments of the game can be huge.  

This game really only has indirect competition as no one can mess with your tiles once you choose them and place them in your area.  The only way you can affect someone else is by denying them the chance to get a tile or disk that they want.  I do tend towards these sandbox games as I like having my own area, and I can spend most of my downtime between turns trying to figure out what I’m going to do on my next turn.  This does tend to make my turns fairly quick on the clock, because I generally have an idea of what disk or tile I want.  Our games here have been coming in around 30-40 minutes, and this length definitely feels right for the amount of game that you get here.

As I mentioned at the start of my comments, I don’t think that this is the type of game that will win the Spiel des Jahres (the game of the year award in Germany) – and this is because the scoring is a bit more involved.  You have a number of things to watch out for, and the varying nature of the animal scoring cards is not something that a beginning gamer is going to grasp easily.  The upside for me (and my gaming group) is that the game find the game interesting, and this is in part due to the somewhat complex scoring  Otherwise, the game checks off a lot of the boxes for that award – the art is great, the overall rules are fairly simple to teach and learn, and the components are top notch.

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This is the sort of game that could get a lot of play in my game group, but I am not sure that it is the right sort of thing to bring out with grandma and grandpa at the next holiday dinner.  Of course, your mileage may vary!  Though I wasn’t there myself, reports from the recent Gathering of Friends showed that this game got a lot of play amongst the gamers there, and that doesn’t surprise me at all.  

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers:

Dan (2 plays with others plus some more online solo games): In general I agree with Dale on everything except suitability for SdJ; the standard animal scoring is indeed probably more complex than the jury wants, but the rules include “family” and intermediate variants which have much simpler animal scoring.

Based on my online solo plays, which always use the same (A) scoring cards, I think to keep the game interesting you do need the scoring cards and you need to change the card mix from game to game.

Joe Huber (1 play): While from a different designer, this game reminds me quite a bit of Calico – and my reaction to the games (both well received in the community as best I can tell) is similar.  To its credit, Cascadia makes fewer design decisions that bother me – it certainly avoids the issue of having very difficult to differentiate graphics, at least for me, and there are more choices each turn.  But – there’s still something missing for me.  It’s a game I can play if others wish to – but I’m not anxious to play it a second time.

Mitchell:  (10 plays) We’ve been playing Cascadia (2 players) for two weeks as our lighter evening game. The graphics are lovely. It is a relaxing game, with enough decisions to keep you challenged without busting the brain. It is not particularly original and without the various scoring options I’m not sure it would be sufficiently robust to keep our attention. Also, with the exception of the competition for the largest habitats (which can decide some games), the game lacks competitive tension. However, that’s not what it sets out to do. It is a fine, easy to learn, attractive puzzle, played on an idealized Pacific Northwest landscape. 

James Nathan (1 play): It was fine.  It’s a game that should be in my sweet spot, with the tile laying, the puzzly scoring, the nature theme, and whatnot. And while I don’t mind playing, it didn’t quite click for me; my apologies for not being able to identify why.

Brandon K (3 plays): I think Mitchell kind of nailed it on the head with the description of relaxing. Cascadia does share a lot of similarities with the publisher’s previous game, Calico and it seems to share even more with their upcoming game Verdant. I enjoy playing Cascadia thematically. It’s an appealing game, and I generally enjoy these puzzle games where you have randomized scoring, but it feels like there is something missing from it to make it stand above the rest. Calico could be a bit of a brain burn, and I liked that, maybe that’s what Cascadia is missing here, maybe it needs to be a bit less relaxing and a bit more taxing. It does nothing new, and what it does do is in no way all that exciting, but (there is always a but), it is done really well and ultimately feels familiar and comforting. 

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale Y, Chris Wray, Alan How, John P, Dan, Brandon K, Steph H., Lorna, Tery, Mitchell
  • Neutral.  Joe H., James Nathan
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
This entry was posted in Essen 2021, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Dale Yu: Review of Cascadia  

  1. frankhamrick says:

    It’s so interesting to see how different gamers enjoy different types of games. Our gaming group l-o-v-e-s Cascadia! It has jumped to the top of our playing list in short order. We think the presentation is excellent; replay ability ( due to the varied scoring card combination) high; the short (ideal) playing time of 45 mins); and the ‘nature’ of the theme (‘puzzley’, tense, as ‘I need a certain animal disk, or terrain feature, but will it be there on my turn’),

    • frankhamrick says:

      (Oops, accidentally sent before finishing, then wrote three additional paragraphs and accidentally erased them before sending!) So I could never reconstruct what I just erased, I will summarize my final thought. A) the setting in the great Northwest, the art by Beth Sobel, the perfect playing time, the nice wooden animal discs, the puzzle-like feel of the game and the tension level of the game appealed to our very diverse playing group. Composed of war, family, and mid-weight gamers, ALL loved this game and to-a-gamer, ALL bought their own copy! A very rare reaction for our group.

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