Top Of The Table – Everdell

by Matt Miller on Nov 23, 2018 at 03:30 PM

Easy to learn but hard to master is a turn of phrase that gets bandied about a lot when speaking about games. It’s usually a way of praising a project that offers great depth but simultaneously welcomes newcomers through strong onboarding. In the case of Starling Games’ Everdell, it’s a caution as much as it is a compliment. Everdell’s breathtaking components and art are a sight to behold, and happily welcome new players with a charming woodland aesthetic that’s soft, colorful, and detailed. A brisk turn order starts the game going with little in the way of delay between opportunities to act. But behind the childlike sylvan setting is a complex strategic affair with multitudinous paths to achieving victory – much too complex for most younger or inexperienced players to enjoy.

Understanding what you can do in a given turn isn’t hard, but understanding what you should do is far more involved, and pulling back the layers takes time. It’s likely Everdell won’t fully click in the first hour, or even the first full game session. But dedicated players who stick with it will find something quite magical.

Clearly inspired by classic tales like The Wind in the Willows and the Redwall novels, Everdell transports one to four players to an idyllic woodland valley where bespectacled bats hang from clock towers, hares keep shop at the general store, and postal pigeons dutifully haul letter bags between communities. Much of the charm is captured by the plentiful card illustrations by artist Andrew Bosley, which deserve a callout as some of the most evocative and imaginative of any game in my recent memory.

Everdell features gorgeous card art that helps bring its world to life (click the image to see bigger versions)

That rich table presence is further enhanced by a stunning custom board that represents the valley of Everdell, and which includes a cardboard standee (the Ever Tree) that towers over the back of the board. The branches of the tree house game components come into play throughout the game, and it acts as a physical representation of the passing seasons of the ongoing session. The combined effect is a table tableau that is unlike anything I’ve played, and it really captures the eye. The massive tree undoubtedly adds something special to the game, but comes at a cost. It means that all players should really be able to view the display from the front in order to fully enjoy the experience, and that may be a challenge for some groups who use a playspace that normally lets everyone spread out around the table. Also, fair warning: The cardboard pieces must be dismantled and reassembled for each game; it’s a bit of a nuisance, but really doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes.

Table display is stunning, but it's important to find a seating relationship where everyone can enjoy the view

Everdell’s gameplay is a mix of worker placement mechanics and engine building. Each player is working to establish their own new community in the valley by playing cards from a shared pool (the meadow) or from a private hand. Each card represents a constructed building (like the school, inn, or palace) or a critter (like the teacher, innkeeper, or queen), and is played in front of you in a growing grid layout. Each card has a cost in resources like twigs and berries, and you’ll need to send out your workers to gather those resources at various spots across the board. In a given turn, you have to choose one or the other – play a card or place a worker – so you must think carefully about what you need and how to reach your goals, even as other players weigh the same risks. Do you snag the spot to pick up some extra twigs, but at the cost of that card in the meadow that you and your opponent are both eyeing?

The game unfolds over four seasons, and as winter (the first season) begins, you have only two workers to employ. As the game begins for the first time, I’m sure you’ll feel as I did; how is this so simplistic? Those first couple of turns feel as if nothing meaningful is happening, like a tiny snowball at the top of the hill, with too few actions available, and resource build-up that seems slow. Of course, the snowball grows in momentum as it rolls forward, and the game’s tension and available options rise with each passing turn. On your turn, you may also prepare for the next season, reclaiming all your workers, gaining new workers who have been waiting in the Ever Tree, and triggering production card effects. Oddly, you can move ahead into summer, even as your opponents are still in springtime. You risk reaching the endgame ahead of them, but you have increased workers to use in the meantime, which might pay dividends.

The game can be purchased as a collector's edition with some beautiful extra cards and components, but the standard edition still features top-notch production values

Further complexity arises through the many interconnected chains, combos, and synergies on the cards you’ve played, building up an engine that runs in part on its own. Play one card that triggers another already in play, which in turn lets you gain more resources, and draw yet more cards into your hand. Already have the inn card? Play the innkeeper for free, if you can manage to snag it from the meadow before your buddy. Maybe you planned ahead and put a crane into place two turns ago? Now you can build that theater for three fewer resources. The challenge here is perceiving all the ways to capitalize on your build order, and even noticing opportunities to snag point tokens as they arise through cards and events on the board can be a challenge. This is a game in which experienced players have a profound advantage over new players; that’s not a bad thing, but it’s something to account for in your approach to play.

The other standout feature of Everdell is its replayability, accomplished chiefly through board elements that change each session. In any given playthrough, a series of special events and additional worker placement forest spaces are dealt onto the board. Together, those add up to several new ways to gain resources, and an equal number of new ways to gain victory points, but they’re different in each game. When paired with the manifold chains inherent to cards, I found that every game setup and outcome was very different from the last. And with each one of those setups, I was more impressed with the elegant balance dynamics that hold everything together and keep players from running away with the win.

Everdell isn’t what it might first appear. Its whimsical tone belies a deep strategy experience. It offers a simple turn structure that should play quickly, yet I found it’s easy to get caught up in deciding what single action you should take on a turn; in this case, I don’t think it’s out-of-line to suggest a reasonable house-ruled time limit on player decisions in the name of keeping playtime under a couple of hours. The seemingly player-independent decision-making by each player seems at first like there wouldn’t be much interaction, but opportunities arise in the late game where you can profoundly screw over an opponent’s carefully laid plans. To be clear, none of these factors are criticisms, but simply a caution to players that Everdell might not be what you expect. If you’re brand new to tabletop play, it might not be the user-friendly first game you were hoping for. Conversely, experienced gamer groups should strongly consider checking this out before dismissing it on the basis of the seemingly cutesy theme; there’s much more depth here than you think.

The "Ever Tree" is mostly an aesthetic object on the board, but it does house the workers you'll gain later in the game, and it helps to reinforce the seasonal structure of a given playthrough

Happily, designer James A. Wilson has also included an entertaining solo mode, which acts as an ideal way to learn the game for new owners, populated by an entertaining NPC villain to confront in the form of a conniving rat named Rugwort. Whether tackled solo or with your friends at your side, Everdell isn’t a game that reveals its secrets without effort. But it is a project of tremendous sophistication in its melding of mechanics and theme into an engaging and momentum-driven affair. Embrace its soft-spoken enchanted forest theme, and you’ll discover with time that there’s much more hiding in the tree’s shadow.

As we come up on the end of the year, it’s a great time to dive back through the backlog of Top of the Table, and begin to pick out the games you might want to snag for the holidays and take home to share with friends and family. Click on the banner below to explore all past recommendations. And if you’d like some personalized help finding the right game for your holiday get-together, drop me a line via email from the link at the bottom of this article; I’d love to hear what you’re looking for, and hopefully guide you to something that will bring folks together around the table this season.