In Which I Descend Into Madness In An Attempt To Find The Perfect Wilderness-Based Set-Collection Game With Pretty Components.
Everyone in the world loves Cascadia. Like, everyone. I was delighted to pick up a copy at GenCon last year and get it to the table that night. The bright colored discs that clack in the bag! The lovely, cloth bag! The small box! The fun sets of animals to collect! The natural got-dam splendor of it all! And yet.
And yet, and yet.
Friend Taylor, daughter Abi, and I played and we all felt decidedly meh about it. But again, everyone loves it. It’s on BGG’s Hotness. It’s out of stock all over the place. Every board game reviewer thinks it’s so refreshing and charming and, dare I say it, concise. What am I missing?
In Cascadia, players create a simple market area with four hexagonal habitat tiles drawn at random from a stack and wooden animal discs drawn from the aforementioned lovely cloth bag. Players choose a habitat tile and the wooden animal disc next to it and place them in their own natural parks, connecting them like Carcassonne or Gods Love Dinosaurs or any other tile-placement game. The animal disc is placed on any tile that has its icon on it—salmon in rivers, elk in forests, etc. Players score points at the end based around cards associated with each animal, changeable with each game, scoring in a variety of different ways similar to, say, the Sushi Go Party card options. Players can also score points based on their longest “corridor” of each of their habitats and for special, pine-cone shaped tokens they receive for placing special keystone tiles.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it plays a lot like the bits and pieces of a bunch of other games. Which, to be fair, is how games work: designers take bits of things they like and mush them together into something new. Every now and again you get an entirely innovative mechanism and it blows your mind.
In Planet you build landforms on your delightfully three-dimensional board and collect point cards based on how your various landforms connect or don’t connect. I love this game, but wanted something more complex, something meatier. I eyed Ecos: First Continent for a full year before buying it and, while I adore the bingo-style mechanic some dislike, and I am charmed by building an engine that then falls apart as you play, it feels overbuilt, particularly with the 7000 different animal tokens. In Canopy, you’re growing trees but only as a sideline to your main work as rainforest husbandry expert, again drafting animal and plant cards that score and lose points in a Sushi Go-style fashion. It’s handsome and solid and still not precisely what I want. I’ll be playing Ark Nova this weekend: will it scratch this itch?
What I want is this: a wilderness-themed game based around landforms, a mix of actual or abstracted animals lovingly-rendered, bits that feel good in my hands, set-collection that’s challenging enough to keep me engaged but not so fussy that I get irritated. Cascadia would seem to have all of those things in ways the above games don’t, except that nebulous balance between simplicity and challenge. It feels too simple—so simple, we wondered if we’d missed something in the rules.
It strikes me that I want something from Cascadia that it doesn’t and can’t give me, something I’ve been looking for from many other games, as though I’m searching for the one, perfect game, the Holy Grail of wilderness-based, set-collection games with pretty components. As though I’m searching for The One, my perfect human partner, containing within them being the greatest lover, the closest friend, the staunches ally, the best cook, and the most hilarious. As though there can be only one person we love in our lives. As though, with enough iteration, we could achieve that greatness in a board game. (Now I think of it, if it’s only iteration we need to solve this problem, maybe we should get Uwe Rosenberg on it?)
No, Cascadia is a nice game with clean lines, but to me it’s just fine. It does what it sets out to do, but I want more than what it has to offer. Perhaps what I think I want is too clean, too perfect, too abstracted. Cascadia, for all its beautiful colors, has no quirks. It’s a concise but sanitized game that has no real hook for me, and therein is my problem—I want to be hooked, I want to be seduced, and even a little perplexed about why it is so. Cascadia is like a hand model in a glossy magazine—an unblemished backdrop. I want the Tilda Swinton of board games to sweep me up and carry me off, you know?
PS— Some of my students and I are doing a 24-hour board game marathon to raise money for our little, radically hospitable campus ministry. It’s gonna be wild. Follow us on Instagram @edgehouseuc to watch brief hourly livestreams and support us, if you feel moved, at edge-uc.org/donate.