Cascadia Review - Home on the Range
Updated: Jul 7
Cascadia is essentially a double-layered tile laying game. You have terrain tiles on the bottom and will score points at the end for your largest group of each terrain, plus a bonus if you have the biggest group of that type. Each terrain tile also has 1-3 animals that can be played there, though, and the five possible animals each have their own scoring conditions based on which animals are near them. You get a bonus token for playing the matching animal on tiles that only allow 1 species, but you get more flexibility from tiles that allow 2 or 3. In this image, for example, the hawks wanted to be in a straight line from other hawks, the salmon wanted to be in connected groups of up to 5, foxes wanted to be near as many of the same species as possible, and elks and bears wanted to be in specific small groups.
You build all this by drafting a pair of wildlife and terrain pieces from four available pairs and then placing each piece somewhere on your board. You can choose pieces from two different pairs or refresh the wildlife if you spend one of your bonus tokens, but since these are worth points at the end, you have to be sure you'll get a decent benefit from doing so. It's a satisfying puzzle to figure out how to keep your terrain groups going while also allowing your wildlife to be placed where it scores the most points, and thankfully each animal has five different scoring methods that you select from at the start of the game. All the cards of one species follow a certain theme (salmon always want to be connected, for instance), so most cards are familiar enough to be quickly understood while also providing some variety to the gameplay.
I was initially a little disappointed with Cascadia because it doesn't even try to recreate the extremely tight, almost push-your-luck gameplay of Calico. That game requires you to play tiles of specific colors and patterns onto a fixed-shape board and awards huge numbers of points if you can create specific patterns that often conflict with each other. It requires a lot of planning to keep your odds of completing the best patterns as high as possible, and in the endgame you almost always have to make difficult choices about which goals to sacrifice to keep your highest-value objectives alive. Cascadia, by contrast, allows you to build out your tiles however you want, and you can get through a whole game without facing any terribly difficult decisions in some cases.
I still prefer Calico, but as I've played more of Cascadia, I've found that the fun of it is in carefully planning your board to create big scoring opportunities in ways that build off of each other. You may not have those memorable moments from Calico where you have to pick between a likely 5 points and a more difficult 10, but if you've set up your board well, you might be able to play one piece that gives you both scoring opportunities at once. It's a different way of approaching a similar puzzle that, for me, is a little less fun, but it's still satisfying at the end. Cascadia also has the advantage of being more approachable thanks to its more forgiving scoring and family modes: You can play with very simple scoring definitions if not all players are ready for the full game, and it's harder to get a demoralizingly terrible score in any of the game modes.