Multiplayer solitaire gets a bad rap. Some folks use the phrase as an insult. But the truth is that sometimes I want to interact with my friends directly and other times I want to sit alongside them, maybe chatting, maybe sharing snacks, while playing in parallel without the pressures of competition.
Cascadia, designed by Randy Flynn and beautifully illustrated by Beth Sobel, is multiplayer solitaire to its core. So much so that its best descriptor is “sleepy.” And not necessarily in a bad way.
Cascadia does many things we’ve seen before. A cynic might point out that it doesn’t have a novel bone in its body. Run down the checklist of modern multiplayer solitaire design and it ticks all the boxes. Hexes arranged to create a landscape, check. Light drafting, check. Discs drawn from a bag, check. Scoring criteria aplenty, check. Individual scores that break one hundred, check. The absence of negative interaction, or even positive interaction, check.
But such a description belies what Cascadia does so well. It’s true that nothing here could be classified as new. The systems themselves are so straightforward that they hardly need explanation. On two occasions, when I sat down to teach Cascadia, my audience waved their hands to illustrate that they got it. Does it need to be explained that you’re drafting a landscape/animal pairing? Not really. Seeing the pairs on the table is enough for anybody who’s been playing games for more than a year or two. The only necessary clarification is that the animals printed on the landscape tiles are possibilities, not presences. They represent where you can place your animals, not where animals are already positioned. Ambiguity dispelled. The same goes for the five scoring categories. Apart from contiguous territories, where do points come from? Well, they’re right there. Each animal has four scoring cards. Sometimes bears travel in clusters of three. Sometimes hawks want to see each other. Salmon make lines across your growing biome, but the precise manner of those lines may differ from play to play.
In other words, Cascadia is built from the ground up to be intuitive. You draft some stuff and then put it together. You think about those scoring cards in a mathy but not too-mathy way. You cuss at your sister-in-law when she takes the bear you wanted. That’s the sum of it. You could probably play this thing sleepwalking.
It’s pleasant, in a drowsy sort of way, like lounging on the couch when the sun butters you through the window, or when a long drive along an empty highway sends you edging toward the rumble strips. Also like those dueling scenarios, its reliability hinges entirely on whether sleep seems desirable right now. One of my plays was perfectly relaxing, blunting the edge of a long and strenuous week, similar to the easing pleasure my mother finds in repetitive tasks like stitching or puzzling. Another play was almost the exact opposite. We came to the table looking to think, to vie, to take in steam. The sluggishness made a poor companion, leaving us listless and constantly inquiring whose turn it was.
Mood can be a strange thing. How’s that for a dullard’s aphorism? But there it is. Cascadia is a river tour boat of a game. Depending on the day leading up to boarding, it can spell a much-needed reprieve for one’s soles or yet another obstacle standing in the way of the next destination. In my case, it proved both. Although I must confess it tended more toward the latter.
Cascadia would be easy to go hard on. To do so, I think, misses its raison d’être. This isn’t an exemplar of the experience I go looking for in a board game, absent as it is of message or competition or even the manner of assessment that forces me to think about problems in fresh ways. Put another way, this is a game designed for someone other than Dan.
That’s all right. As much as I suspect I’ll never play it again, I don’t mind having gotten out of my head for a minute. Whether tranquil or tranquilizer, there’s something to appreciate in the occasional calmative.