Talking Cascadia with Randy Flynn

Interview with Randy Flynn designer behind the upcoming tile-laying puzzle game, Cascadia. In this game (for 1-4 players), gamers will be drafting tiles and animal tokens to build their wildlife populated habitats in the Northwest region of North American known as the Cascadia. Soon to be on Kickstarter (September 2020), Cascadia will be published by Flatout Games (publisher of Calico) and features art from Beth Sobel (CalicoViticultureWorld’s Fair 1893Herbaceous).

Randy Flynn

Thanks, Randy for taking some time out to do this interview. We are here to talk about Cascadia, a game that you designed coming to Kickstarter soon from Flatout Games. First, tell us a little bit about Cascadia, and could you summarize the gameplay for our readers?

Randy: In Cascadia, you build up an environment of habitat tiles which you place wildlife tokens on top of. Each player starts with a triple habitat tile as their initial environment. On each turn, you take a pair – one habitat tile and one wildlife token – from a central market. You add the habitat tile to your environment simply by placing it next to any tile already there. Then you add the wildlife token by setting it on a habitat tile that supports that species of wildlife and doesn’t already have a wildlife token on it. The market is then replenished and the next player goes. This continues until the habitat tiles cannot be replaced – each player will have 20 turns.

Players can also earn “nature tokens” when playing wildlife onto the more restrictive habitat tiles, called keystone tiles. These nature tokens can be used to manipulate the central market so you can get the wildlife you really want. Nature tokens are a pretty important aspect of the game, and players usually regret it if they don’t earn very many. Unused nature tokens will also score a  point at the end of the game.

Prototype of Cascadia. Photo from Flatout Games, used with permission.

Scoring is done once the game ends. About 2/3 of your score will be from your wildlife and 1/3 from your habitats. There are 5 of each in the game – Bears, Salmon, Foxes, Elk, and Hawks; Mountains, Forest, Rivers, Wetlands, and Prairies. Each of the five kinds of wildlife will have a different pattern that you need to match to score points. For example, salmon usually score in “runs” which are irregular lines of connected salmon while bears score in small groups isolated from other bears. The five kinds of habitat all score the same way – you get a point for each tile in your largest contiguous section of that habitat, and players also get points for having the largest or second-largest for each of them. Add in points for any unused nature tokens and then whoever has the highest point total wins.

Every game has a story behind it. What is the story behind the creation of Cascadia?

Randy: I think Cascadia’s story has four major parts.

  • Part 1 – Genesis: The idea came from revisiting a simple game idea note from months earlier about a double tile-laying game where the first step was to lay a foundation set of tiles and the second step was to place a tile on top of each of those foundation tiles. This happened right after Marleen & I had played Tiny Towns a bunch when it was released. After experiencing the variable scoring cards and resource patterns of Tiny Towns, the core idea for what became Cascadia just clicked.-
  • Part Two – Lands & Creatures: The game evolved into one with a board where you played hex tiles that were land and then set circular tiles on top of them that were creatures. It also was played in two totally separate phases – fill your entire board with land first then play the creatures onto that land. The creatures were fairly random at this point, including alligators & gorillas as well as bears & fish. Throughout this part of development, it was called Lands & Creatures.
  • Part Three – Teaming with Flatout: I started talking with my friends Shawn, Molly, & Rob of Flatout Games about whether the game would work as their follow up to Calico. I ran my ideas for what was next past them and they bounced thoughts back at me. It became clear we had similar thoughts about how to develop the game and before Gen Con last year we decided to move forward.
  • Part Four – Development: Shawn & I sat down with the game after Gen Con and immediately did a few things – started changing the lands & creatures to be from Cascadia, and got rid of the board. From this point on it was a highly collaborative effort with the Flatout team and we started tuning the design to increase the game tension and pull the best parts of play to the foreground. Somewhere in here is also when Shawn contacted the artist I really hoped we could get to illustrate the game, Beth Sobel.

Of course, even this overly long story glosses over important details, and it’s not even possible for me to note every important decision that pushed the game forward. But I will say that everyone on the Flatout CoLab team for Cascadia has worked really hard to make it the best game it can be. I’m just amazed at what this team has done with my fledgling Lands & Creatures prototype from a year ago.

Lands & Creatures prototype. Photo by Randy Flynn, used with permission.

Most tiles allow players to choose one of 2 or 3 animals that can be played on the tile (with exception of keystone tiles, which require a single specific animal). What does it bring to the gameplay, and what inspired that?

Randy:  We like to say that Cascadia is a two-layer puzzle. The first layer is the habitats and the second is the wildlife. The wildlife restrictions on habitat tiles are a core part of that puzzle. You need to layout your habitats so that you can organize the wildlife to score well, and it’s the wildlife restrictions that make this challenging. Another aspect of the puzzle is that the habitats themselves score in an entirely different way which creates tension between the two things you want to accomplish.

Initially, the only points were for the wildlife patterns, so the underlying habitat tiles mattered but only for setting up the wildlife. While playtesting this we realized that the habitat tile decisions could be pretty simple, and we decided we wanted more tension in those decisions. So, we set about coming up with a scoring system for the habitat tiles that was relatively simple but added in that tension. Once we did that we realized that it read like a two-layer puzzle where the layers had some synergy and some conflict. So, this idea really spawned from the playtesting process.

Land Tiles. Photo from Flatout Games, used with permission. Note: The picture is of prototype materials.

Central Market. Photo from Flatout Games, used with permission. Note: The picture is of prototype materials.As you mention, there are five different animals in the game: Red Fox, Red-Tail Hawk, Roosevelt Elk, Chinook Salmon, and the Grizzly Bear. Why did you pick those specific animals – over other ones found in the Northwest like the Bobcat, River Otter, Gray Wolf, or Mountain Lion? 

Randy: There are so many wonderful wildlife to choose from in Cascadia! Some of the wildlife are evolutions of what I chose pretty randomly at first. Bears are just cool and have been there since the start. When shifting to be in Cascadia, we chose the Grizzly Bear because it’s so recognizable. It’s also pretty common in the northern part of the region while the Black Bear is more common in the southern part. But some of the choices were about the scoring conditions. We originally chose the Cougar / Mountain Lion but the scoring condition we needed was one about groups and cougars are much more solitary wildlife, so we changed it to be the Roosevelt Elk. These elk are the largest of the remaining elk species and native to the Olympic Peninsula which is really cool.

The animals each score differently in the game, and from game to game, the same animal may score differently, because each one will have a least 3 different scoring cards. At the start of the game, players will choose one scoring card for each animal at random. Why not just have one way to score for each animal? Why did you go the extra step and work to make a variety of scoring for each animal?

Randy: This is mostly about keeping the game fresh. With wildlife scoring the same way from game to game, the optimal patterns would emerge for some players rather quickly. And when that happens with a game, play can become more habit than adventure. With multiple scoring conditions that you can mix and match, each game’s priorities can be a little different. You basically get a new puzzle to solve. But that puzzle is in a system that you already know, so you aren’t starting from scratch.

Another aspect here is difficulty. There is a “starter card” for each wildlife, and we recommend using all five of those in your first game. That’s because they are some of the easiest patterns to play and the cards mesh well with each other. The other cards will be more difficult and might combine with other scoring cards in more challenging ways

What do you think is the most clever of all the scoring cards you came up with? 

Randy: I’ve always been partial to the Fox scoring, especially the starter card and the pairs version. It is the most complex scoring style for sure, but in some ways, it holds the game together. The fox wants other unique wildlife around it, so playing it well requires planning around your foxes. And the high end for scoring on the fox cards is incredibly good, but you will likely give up points elsewhere to maximize your fox score. And it may be worth it!

Fox scoring cards A, B, C. Note: This may not be the final layout, this is still considering prototype. Use with permission from Flatout Games.

Though Cascadia isn’t meant to be an educational game, it does seem to lend itself to classroom use. For example, kids could play and then learn about Cascadia, the animals and habitats featured in the game, what keystone species are etc. Will the rulebook be featuring info about these different things, and would you like to see your game used in the classroom? 

Randy: Absolutely! Everyone on the CoLab team loves the Pacific Northwest and Cascadia, and we really want the game to represent the nature of the region well. The team is already working on this information and what form it will take. We hope it provides a great starting point for discussion and learning, and if teachers can work it into a classroom or homeschooling setting that would be awesome.

Speaking of school, games, and things teachers can use to teach. How much math went into designing Cascadia? What were the things you had to calculate? 

Randy: In many ways, designing Cascadia required less direct use of math than my other games. But it’s still there in some key ways. For example, how many habitat tiles did we need? The inputs to this question include the number of habitats & wildlife (5 each), the number of wildlife options on each habitat tile (1, 2, or 3), the fact that each wildlife has an affinity for 3 specific habitats, that we wanted equal numbers of each combination, and that we needed a minimum of 83 tiles for a 4-player game. After crunching all those numbers we determined we could use 85 tiles.

Animal scoring cards. Photo from Flatout Games, used with permission. Note: The picture is of prototype materials.

Cascadia in action. Photo from Flatout Games, used with permission. Note: The picture is of prototype materials.

Randy, thank you for your time. As we wrap this up, why would tile-laying or puzzle game fans want Cascadia in their collection? What does it bring that is new to their table or collection? 

Randy:  I think the two-layer puzzle combined with the variable scoring cards are a nice twist on mechanics that folks have seen before. And it plays at a speed & length that makes it easy to get to the table, similar to the base Carcassonne game. The variable wildlife scoring should keep the game feeling fresh for folks for quite a while. And finally, in Cascadia, you get to build up a beautiful little environment thanks to the gorgeous art from Beth Sobel. Take a picture of your world before putting the game back in the box!

Thanks again for your time. 

If you would like to sign up to be notified of Cascadia’s launch on Kickstarter this September, you can do so via this link:

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