domingo, 2 de outubro de 2022

Cascadia: a perfect balance between theme and abstraction in a boardgame

Cascadia has just arrived in my collection last week. That’s the "family game" big winner in the last Spiel des Jahres (the well-known "Oscar" of board games).

The board game is a puzzly tile-laying and token-drafting game featuring the habitats and wildlife of the Pacific Northwest. In the game, you take turns building out your own terrain area and populating it with wildlife. You start with three hexagonal habitat tiles (with the five types of habitats in the game), and on a turn you choose a new habitat tile that's paired with a wildlife token, then place that tile next to your other ones and place the wildlife token on an appropriate habitat. (Each tile depicts 1-3 types of wildlife from the five types in the game, and you can place at most one tile on a habitat.) Four tiles are on display, with each tile being paired at random with a wildlife token, so you must make the best of what's available — unless you have a nature token to spend so that you can pick your choice of each item.

I usually say that if you deconstruct a board/card game till the core you will probably find an abstract idea made up with geometric shapes, numbers, patterns, colors, etc. Some of these analogic games use this abstract idea to give life to whole games, as we can see in GIPF Project titles, as an example. On the other hand, we have games created with specific themes, narratives, ambiences, etc. Games that put a thematic skin on abstract mechanics.

Cascadia is a great example of how a game can establish a perfect balance between these two points. The abstract component (the core of the game´s mechanics) is easily visualized in the gaming score, in the tiles and how the colorful tokens match with them. But Randy Flynn, the game designer behind Cascadia, made an excellent thematic insertion in the abstract field of the game.

Obviously, you can change the "nature" theme from the game and place "aliens", "ninjas”, or "zombies" in the same place, but the result in terms of gaming experience will not be the same. Why? Because Flynn looked to the abstract mechanics and abstract components and found a way to describe, very close to reality, the behavior of the animals and the ecosystem around them.

Cascadia is an excellent example of how some themes connect perfectly with some mechanics. It is a practical example of the definition of "game design" proposed by Brathwaite and Schreiber (2009, p.2) who define the term as the process of creating goals that players feel motivated to achieve and rules that they follow. A process where they are making significant decisions to achieve purposes, all the time. In other words: game design is an experience architecture process; it is the materialization of an idea in the form of a game.



BRATHWAITE, Brenda;SCHREIBER, Ian. CHALLENGES FOR GAME DESIGNERS: non-digital exercises for video game designers. USA: Cengage, 2009.