Over the past few weeks I’ve been playing Cascadia by Randy Flynn. One evening in particular I played Cascadia, then immediately after played Calico by Kevin Russ. While the two games share some similarities, the biggest thing they have in common is that they’re both published by Flatout Games and AEG. Because these games share a publisher they often get mentioned in the same breath, so I thought it would be helpful to compare and contrast these titles. Hopefully this may help you decide which one is right for you!

Mocha just made himself at home in the Calico box

Cascadia is a tile placement, pattern building, hex grid, drafting game. Calico, on the other hand, is a tile placement, pattern building, hex grid, drafting game. On paper, the only difference lies in the contrast of themes (wild animals roaming Pacific Northwest landscapes vs. cute cats on a colourful quilt). Both have you placing tiles into a personal tableau trying to manipulate a pattern to achieve the most points in order to win.

Although the two games sound interchangeable, the gameplay experience reveals significant differences, making these two games unique and anything but interchangeable. The main differences between these two games come from the restrictions they impose upon players. In Calico, you have two tiles in your hand that you can place on your board. After placing a tile on your board there are three more tiles in a central pool that you use to refill your hand. Each player in Calico has a dual layer player board showing all the slots that will be filled over the course of the game. On each board the players have three objectives, which provide options for earning points. While the objectives are not restrictions, persay (you don’t have to place tiles according to the objectives), the player board is. Players may not expand their quilts in any direction they wish. Calico seems to delight in painting you into a corner and forcing you to make the best of a bad situation.

In Calico it’s not uncommon to find yourself in a situation where you’re desperate for a specific tile that makes everything work out just right. The lynchpin of your board requires a green polka dot tile, but because there are 35 other tiles in the game, the odds of that green polka dot tile coming out is rather low; absolutely not something you can rely on. There is also no way to mill through the bag or refresh the offer row; if none of the tiles in the offer row are useful for you, too bad. You now have a useless tile in your hand. Hopefully you can pivot your strategy to make use of it.

Cascadia on the other hand starts with 3 empty ecosystem hexes in front of each player, depicting each of the five animals once. In the centre of the table there are four sets of paired components, each comprised of one ecosystem tile and one animal disc. Each turn you’ll pick a paired set, and add the components to your tableau, adding the ecosystem tile first, then placing the animal disc on an appropriate tile in your tableau. Unlike Calico, there is no player board for Cascadia, so players are free to build their terrain in any which direction.

A second major difference is Cascadia‘s flexibility when it comes to choosing components. While Calico specifically has no options for changing the offered tiles, in Cascadia if you don’t like any of the pairs of land tiles and animal discs, you may spend a nature token to pick any ecosystem tile and any animal disc from the four on the table. If you don’t like the selection of animal discs on the table you can spend a nature token to draw new discs and put the old ones back in the bag. Finally, if the offer row shows three of the same animals, you may choose to wipe the three sets of components and be dealt fresh sets. If all four animal discs depict the same animal, they get replaced automatically.

So far the major differences focus on flexibility – the borderless tableau as opposed to the restrictive player board, and the flexibility to change the components being offered in contrast to the “what you see is what you get” style in Calico. The final difference lies in the variety of tiles. Calico offers a larger variety of tiles, making it rarer to find the specific tile you need. In Cascadia, if you do find yourself in a situation where you really need a specific animal or ecosystem tile, there are only 5 different types of each tile. The odds of a tile that you need showing up are pretty good.

Salmon are overrated

My game group played Calico and Cascadia back to back. Two of the people at the table hadn’t played either game before. After playing both, they reported leaning more favorably towards Cascadia, as it felt less punishing. Personally, I delight in the shackles Calico slaps onto your wrists. I find more joy in squeezing out points from a restrictive puzzle, than bathing in points delivered freely by the system.

While playing Cascadia I found myself mathing out the average number of points per animal token I was taking, with ~3 points per disc being the sweet spot and avoiding anything offering below 2.5 points per disc. In all my plays of Cascadia, this best average score per disc seemed to hover between 2.5 and 3 (except for the one time the hawks were at almost 5 points per disc). Calico on the other hand, obfuscates the final score, making it much harder to accurately gauge just how much each tile is worth, especially because each tile may contribute to three different scoring opportunities (patterns, colours, and the scoring objective on your board).

Cascadia offers replayability with 5 different scoring objectives per animal type giving a wide variety of potential scoring objectives. While variety does not equal replayability, it is a nice touch to explore different objectives. On the other hand, Calico has much less variety in it’s scoring objectives, but I find Calico’s replayability largely comes from making the best of a tough situation in regards to the tiles that are available to you on each turn.

Both games have a significant number of scenarios and achievements to give your game an added objective reach for. Personally, I’ve really enjoyed playing the Calico scenarios solo and look forward to seeing what Cascadia does to create an engaging solo player experience.

Both Cascadia and Calico are great games, but they have some very important differences that you should know about if you’re only looking to add only one to your collection. I feel like Cascadia would be more of a hit with younger audiences, or when trying to get your nature loving partner over to the table, while Calico is an excellent suggestion if you and your gaming partners are excited over a brainteasing puzzle. If the only thing that sways you is the presence of cats, then Calico is the right choice for you!

I hope you have enjoyed my thoughts on Calico vs. Cascadia. If you have any questions or want me to expand on something, please leave a comment below!