The New Kid On The Board
With the annual publication of Boardgamegeek’s legendary Geeklist “20 Most Anticipated games of” going live a few weeks’ ago (12th year and counting!), Tora, our guest Interviewer was delighted to have the chance to sit down with Randy Flynn, the designer of Cascadia, a game which is currently sitting at no.3 in the nomination list!
Interview with Randy Flynn; The New Kid On The Board
With the annual publication of Boardgamegeek’s legendary Geeklist “20 Most Anticipated games of” going live a few weeks’ ago (12th year and counting!), I am delighted to have the chance to sit down with Randy Flynn, the designer of Cascadia, a game which is currently sitting at no.3 in the nomination list!
Randy, thank you so much for chatting with me today. Before we get into the dizzy world of designing a game which is hitting the hotness before it has even been published, can you tell me what drew you into board gaming initially?
Although I played some games when I was a child, and even designed a few, I really only got into board gaming when I met my partner and her son about 9 years ago. I had been hearing about a few games, and thought it would be a great thing for us to learn together. And I was so right! I had no idea where that would lead. We started with Catan and Carcassonne, and it took off from there.
It is really interesting that you came to the hobby proper later in life and wanted to explore it as a fun, family activity. With the brilliant Carcassonne and Catan as your gateway games, mind you, it was going to be hard to resist diving down into the board gaming rabbit hole!
Do you still consider yourself a player first, designer second or has the creative process overtaken the hobby aspect of gaming for you?
I think I’m equally player and designer. I love both for sure. Working regularly on game design has definitely changed my perspective quite a bit when playing. But it hasn’t changed how much I love to play.
Well, I for one am glad that your early years designs and your passion for family game time have culminated in your first published game; Cascadia! Without doubt it has been a runaway success on Kickstarter, smashing through the funding goals like The Hulk! You must be very excited! Can you tell me a little more about your journey from idea to launch?
Cascadia started with a design note from a few years earlier about a double tile-laying game where the first layer of tiles dictated what was allowed to be placed on the lop layer which would provide scoring. Flying home from a vacation where we played Tiny Towns for the first time, the idea of combining that with pattern building and variable scoring cards appealed to me. I had a playable game in a few weeks, though it had a board and entirely separate phases for each layer.
Over the next couple of months, I honed the game through solo testing and both private and public playtesting until it had five kinds of habitat tiles and five kinds of wildlife like it does now. At that point it still had individual player boards, but the phases were gone. And this is when I started talking with my friends at Flatout because they had showed some interest in the game as they were building up to their first Kickstarter, Calico.
I can’t deny it; I love Calico and the fact Cascadia is being published by Flatout Games was the hook that first pulled me into finding out more about it. As you are now part of the Flatout Games CoLab team which is bringing Cascadia to our tables, can you tell me more about the CoLab initiative?
Once I had agreed with Flatout Games to work with them on publishing Cascadia, I shelved the game for a couple of weeks. After that Shawn Stankewich and I had a design day where we started trying the changes we’d talked about, like eliminating the board and adding habitat scoring. Some things clicked immediately that day, like eliminating the board. Others took more time to hone, like habitat scoring. But it was a great start.
From that point on, I worked a lot with Shawn, Molly Johnson, and Robb Melvin at Flatout on the game development. One thing that we were all on the same page about from the start was that we wanted Beth Sobel to do the artwork, and I was ecstatic when she agreed.
Beth did a lot of wonderful work on this game, but I wanted to highlight the habitat tiles. We had a very abstract design and linear design on the prototype, but we hoped to give it a more natural shape. What Beth came up with was truly better than I could envision. I was just ecstatic seeing details like the way rocks tie various river tiles together.
Seeing an artist like Beth take your raw idea and create something like that was a wonderful new experience for me. Of course, Dylan Mangini took Beth’s work and built the graphic design around it.
I love the way the look threads the needle between simplicity of visual and beautiful representation. That experience is a credit to Dylan's excellent work.
Kevin Russ eventually started putting together the rulebook. I’ve written rules for a number of my prototypes, and it’s a difficult process. Seeing someone skilled drive that process was a great experience. And Kevin has such a good eye for graphic design as well, so I think the rulebook itself is a lovely piece of art.
As far as the CoLab itself, it’s great working with that team. And it’s important that it’s a team where people have responsibilities and roles but everyone has a voice in pretty much every area of the game. The credits you see in the final rulebook don’t even capture all the work each person did. Everyone had at least some hand in the game development, for example.
Wow, it sounds like a real powerhouse of talent and true collaboration! I am going to be like a kid on Christmas eve waiting for future announcements from the CoLab team! Ha ha.
Focussing on Cascadia for now, however, the game is promoted as a dual layer "puzzly tile-laying game" which is simple to learn but challenging to master and this definitely ticks all of my perfect-board game boxes as a player:-). What is it about the mechanic of tile-laying that appeals to you most as a designer?
One of the first games I played in this hobby was Carcassonne, which is a near perfect game from my standpoint. The beauty of tile laying is that it typically gives you a few simple choices that only get complex based on what else you or the other players have done. Carcassonne doesn’t put many things on the tiles – roads, cities, fields, and monasteries. The legal plays are easy to understand. But once you get about 10 tiles on the board, you tend to have lots of interesting choices about what to do. With Cascadia, I wanted to explore that and hopefully contribute something new and interesting.
Definitely! The crunch that comes through tight decision making and the tense trade-off between reacting to your opponent and planning ahead is really pronounced in tile layers (and the biggest reason I LOVE them!).
This can be hard to capture in solo mode but, from what I can see online, Cascadia seems to have retained the atmosphere of the game for single players. It may be a reflection of the challenging time we are living and playing through but how important is the solo gaming mode to you as a designer? Was a full solo mode something you had in mind when you began thinking about your design or was it something that evolved as a reaction to the increasing interest in solo playing?
For physical board games, I like the idea of solo gaming a lot more than the reality. I do play solo games, but not very much. I did not consider the solo mode for Cascadia at all during early development other than noting it should be pretty easy to design one. But John Brieger impressed on me that solo modes are very important to Kickstarter backers while being less important to folks buying in stores. This was pre-pandemic, of course. So, I knew adding one would make a lot of sense. In the end this is an area where Shawn created the mode and I just gave feedback. But when we got the solo mode demo online? That’s where it sizzled for me.
Ah, so solo play really seems to be an area where the CoLab effect shines through!
As well as who we play with, how we value representation in board games is also changing. Accessibility and diversity have become hot topics and, thankfully, something which gamers think and speak out about much more publicly in this social media dominated age.
As a designer, do you consider potential issues like diversity, colour vision deficiency, or dexterity issues in your own games? If so, is this from the get-go or is it an organic development as your design progresses?
I try pretty hard to start thinking about these issues early. Not necessarily on day one, but once I think a design has some legs I will shift my thinking and try to apply various accessibility filters to my thinking. I use a color app on my phone to see how well components should be distinguishable for most colorblind folks. I try to use a combination of symbol and color wherever possible.
That is very reassuring for future players of Cascadia! Do you think the industry as a whole is meeting the challenge to incorporate best practices into new games coming out onto the market?
Like many areas of progress, some of the industry seems to be doing well in this area and some isn’t. There are still games coming out that mess up the most basic colorblind issues when there’s no good reason for it.
Linking to those gorgeous (and hopefully distinguishable!) colours, the theme of Cascadia is beautiful - the Pacific North West is a stunning part of the world. I appreciate that it can sometimes be difficult to sustain a strong theme in an abstract game but the atmosphere of the region seems to have been captured in your design and in Beth's illustrations and Dylan’s graphics. Based in Seattle with your gorgeous doggies (and fantastic hair colour!), I can see that inspiration is all around you. But, as a designer, how important is theme to you when developing a game?
It’s rare that I have a solid or developed theme early in the development of a game design. When Cascadia was still a bunch of text notes, I thought it could be a city building or nature building game.
When I started crafting components I decided to put plants and animals onto habitats. Pretty quickly, I dropped the plants and stuck with animals. The Pacific Northwest theme occurred to me during this time and I started mentioning it to folks during playtests and design discussions. Part of agreeing to work with Flatout was to commit to this theme because we were all on board.
Well, I am a huge fan of the region so it was a no-brainer on that front! I may have hinted a few dozen times how excited I am to talk to you about Cascadia and I don't even want to admit how excited I am to be able to play it when it releases next summer haha but can you give us a peak into what the future holds for you? Do you have any more projects in the pipeline and, if so, are you allowed to tell us a little more about them?
The first game design that I playtested publicly is for Tabriz. Tabriz is a worker movement game where you buy and trade for fabrics and dyes in the bazaar so you can weave Persian carpets for commissions. It’s a light to midweight euro game. This game is signed by Crafty Games and you’ll see more about it this year.
I have several other games that are at a very good state but not yet signed, so I’ll be pushing on those. One is a fairly pure abstract tile layer and another is a roll & write that can play many people. Right now, I’m enjoying poking my design skills at different genres. This has me collaborating on a train game at the moment that I’m pretty excited about even though it’s very early.
Tiles, trains, roll and writes?? Ah, Randy, come on, it’s like you’re reading my wish list! I am going to seriously need to get more shelf space; Kallax no.2 here I come! hahaha
I have taken up far too much of your time already but I am going to sneak one last question just for fun, if I may; if you could play a board game with anybody (real or fictional), who would it be, what game would you play, and (perhaps most important of all!) what snacks would you choose? 😊
Some of my favorite nights right now are playing Concordia or other euro with my partner, sister in-law, & brother in-law. Sitting down for a couple of hours with some good beer, chips, and home made salsa is hard to beat. And I’ll do that pretty much any night. But I also got to play Cascadia with my son and his friend several times on our vacation trip last summer and that was a blast as well.
Ahh, extra brownie points for family over fame (and classic snackage never disappoints!) 😊
Randy, thank you once again for chatting with me today. It has been an absolute privilege to find out more about your background, inspiration, and future projects. I am very much looking forward to a gaming future (and shelves!) filled with games by Randy Flynn!
Thank you, Tora! I really enjoyed the questions and the chat. I do hope Cascadia lives up to your expectations.
Best wishes and looking forward to hearing from you.