Cascadia – A Positive Review

Do you see the foxes, cunning, running around?
Or the salmon, swimming, not making a sound?
Ducking, diving, avoiding the bears
that are all nestled up in their own little lairs?

Follow the river!
See how it leads
through forests to deliver
mountains of deeds!

I am not even going to try to bury the lede here. Cascadia is my favourite abstract game.

Sometimes, a board game makes us feel things because of its narrative. The grand adventure that you embarked on and the memories and tales that were forged along the way. Normally, I want (perhaps even need) that in a game which is why it sort of surprises me that Cascadia gets the amount of table time that it does, because this game is not one of those. Like most, if not all, abstract games, there really is no evolving story to latch on to – but that’s not to say that there is nothing at all for your imagination to feast on. Rather, Cascadia hands you high-quality components with lovely art that puts you in charge of forming an evolving and expanding landscape, both in your mind and on the table.

Cascadia manages to be an incredible brain-burner that somehow doesn’t ask for too much brain fuel.

Congratulations, you’re now a Professional Wildlife Architect!

Cascadia is a 1-4 player abstract tile-laying board game in which you find yourself as the grand architects competing to create a place for all sorts of wildlife to flourish. Your task is simple: Create the best landscape.

“And how do you determine what’s the best landscape?” I hear you ask. “Is it the landscape with the largest mountain region? The landscape with the most salmon? The most varied animals?”

And the answer is: Yes. All of it.

During setup, you draw five random scoring cards corresponding to the five different animals in the game (bears, salmon, elks, hawks, and foxes). These cards show the different ways that those animals prefer to be positioned in the landscape. Maybe the hawks want to be alone. Maybe a bear needs a mate but no more than one.

This is an excellent way to make sure that each game is unique which is something that abstract games sometimes lack.

Azul (another wonderful abstract game) has randomization in the form of what tiles come into play each round. But by giving you entirely different scoring cards (and combinations of cards) in every game of Cascadia, you make sure that every game feels unique. In fact, there are 243 different combinations of scoring cards (1024 combinations with the promo pack from Kickstarter).

And sure, combining different scoring cards every game doesn’t make it feel like an entirely new game. It’s still Cascadia. But it’s nice. It’s varied. It helps to make it just that much more likely that I will want to play it again.

But there’s another big reason as to why I keep getting this game out again and again. There is a mechanism in this game that I would love to see in more games, because it is wonderful and it is this:

Package drafting

Cascadia has two main components, namely habitats and animals. You want to connect habitats with the same habitats to make the areas as large as possible, and you want the animals to be in specific positions. But certain Habitat Tiles can only house certain animals, so if you want two salmon next to each other, you better make sure that both those habitats can house salmon.

To help (or hinder) your progress, Cascadia utilizes a mechanism called package drafting (or dual drafting) in which you’re presented with four options in a line, except rather than drafting, say, a habitat or an animal, you have to draft both in a single package before adding a new animal and habitat to the line.

And this is great for two reasons.

Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

First, it opens up the decision space and makes every decision more interesting. If you really want a specific habitat but it’s paired with a less-than-ideal animal, do you still go for it? Or is it better to go for the mediocre habitat with a mediocre animal? Decisions, decisions…

Second, there is always something useful for you to take. And this is a BIG reason as to why this game is so great. With so many different ways to score points, you are almost always guaranteed to find something on the table that you want. Whether that be a salmon to add to your salmon run, a bear to add to your bear family or a mountain tile that connects perfectly to your existing mountains, scoring you many more points.

And I say (or rather, write) ‘almost always‘, because I do need to mention that in all my plays of this game, I’ve had a single game that stood out as sort-of-a-bit-less-than-ideal. None of the correct tiles or tokens came out, neither for me nor for the person I was playing with. It definitely didn’t feel that great. However, afterwards we both agreed that that game didn’t stop us from immediately wanting to play the game again. And we did.

The World of Cascadia

Another reason for Cascadia‘s excellency is to be found in its theme, and I’d like to start this off by returning, for a moment, to the previous fact about scoring cards:

Every game sees you mixing and matching different scoring cards and while this could potentially create a very disjointed set of games with no clear relation between plays, it simply doesn’t. And that is all thanks to the greatest tie ever made. The thematic tie.

The way that the scoring cards work means that all the cards for a specific animal function in sort of the same way. The salmon always want to be in a line next to each other (it’s just a question of how long that line is), bears always wants to be in groupings of a specific number (it’s just a question of how big the grouping is), and the hawks always want to have no other hawks next to them (it’s just a question of how far away they have to be).

These thematic ties help create a board game space that feels coherent while still feeling new every time you decide to open it and play.

And it is so nice to have. The world of Cascadia feels like a living, breathing world, probably most likely definitely due to the fact that it is based on the real region of Cascadia. And the designers know this.

From the moment you open the rule book, you’re immediately hit with the sense that this is a game made by people who love nature. The rule book includes dedicated sections on the region of Cascadia as well as descriptions of all the different animals.

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the art. Beth Sobel’s art is amazing. There isn’t a lot of it in Cascadia, unfortunately, but when you do see it, on a scoring card or in the rule book, it helps immerse you and instantly sparks your imagination. I’ll be honest: While playing Cascadia, I have, more than once, found myself wondering what it must be like to live life as a fox.

Final thoughts

I don’t typically get along with abstract games all too well. I find the very nature of here’s-a-bunch-of-ways-to-score-points-so-try-to-get-as-many-points-as-possible-and-if-you-don’t-do-that-you-failed-games a bit daunting. This probably stems from classic games such as Chess and I won’t even try to compare Cascadia to Chess (mostly due to the fact that, unlike Cascadia, I haven’t actually played a whole lot of Chess). I can’t help but feel this sort of looming threat whenever I play an abstract game that it is a way too direct measurement of my (in)competence.

But Cascadia is not like that.

Instead, Cascadia manages to offer the same many crunchy choices every round where the consequences are obscured by the future tiles that have yet to show themselves. This helps to create a very cozy feeling around the game that can entice even the newest of board gamers. In my mind, the prevalent question in Cascadia isn’t “What will give me the most points at the end of the game?” but rather “What do I want to pursue this round?” And that makes a huuuge difference. It takes a lot of the pressure off the end game and instead you’re given the option of just enjoying the journey – enjoying the current decisions, rather than the consequences. You get to live in the now.

And that’s more than you can say about a lot of games.

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