All the Woodland Critters
Everdell is an attention grabber, there’s no doubt about that. From the first moment you see that ridiculously large cardboard tree set up on the table, to all the fantastic component pieces and adorable wooden creatures, it’s a game that catches your eye in an instant and begs you to give it a try. You can play as your favorite clan of critters with the goal of building your own prosperous city in one year’s time. The question is, is the gameplay as beautiful as its production?
The Forest through the Trees
Your goal in Everdell is to accumulate points by using your limited supply of animal workers to build a city full of unique residents and buildings and maybe even throw an event or two. At the beginning of the game, you’re limited to just two workers, but at the start of each season, you’ll acquire additional helpers until you have a full team of six by the time Autumn rolls around.
At its core the game is all about acquiring resources, such as berries and stones, to play cards from your hand or the board. These cards represent the city you are building, and will not only give you points for the end game, but also various special abilities, or even extra spots to place your furry friends. Creating a smoothly running engine with these cards is the key to constructing a great city. Some cards work in conjunction with each other and sometimes you can place certain “critter” cards for free if the prerequisite structure has already been built in your cozy timber town.
Events placed near the top of the board act as goals for you to aim for to net some extra points. Four of them are the same every game, challenging players to build a specific number of one card type in their city. Card events, placed on one of the looming cardboard tree’s branches, are a little different. There’s a small deck of these and are randomized from game to game, they not only give you points but also additional bonuses like extra resources.
After you place all your cute little forest denizens are deployed in a season, and you can’t or no longer wish to place any more cards, you move onto the next season by removing all your meeples from the board and gaining a new worker from the next season space on the top branch of the tree. Some seasons also give you a harvest phase, where cards with the matching symbol generate new resources for you at that time. Play continues this way until the final season is completed by all players, then the player with the most points is the winner and the true king or queen of the forest!
Beauty and Brains
I admittedly had a very cynical initial impression the first time I saw Everdell. The whole production was undeniably gorgeous, but I had a very nagging feeling that it was all just a thin veneer to cover up a lackluster rule set. I’m very happy to say I was completely wrong.
Let’s start with the production. The artwork looks like it’s straight out of a storybook. The creatures on the cards all have a personality to them, from a turtle who presides as a judge, to a studious bat with glasses; it’s all very charming. The board itself is a little strange looking at first, and uneven circular shape with an indentation for the discard pile, causing it to take the shape of a painter’s pallet. The board looks like an open field and doesn’t have defined spots for placing resources or cards. This lack of intrusive black lines and boxes to denote spaces for the components makes the artwork pop even more.
The “meadow” area where cards are placed to be drafted by players is just a large grassy opening in the middle of the board. Some variable action spaces are placed in little clearings in the forest at the edges of the board, and the Grand Tour event, represented by a large boat, is actually placed in a little river that winds from one edge of the board to the other. All of these are small touches, but very nicely done.
The resources are really well produced and fun to play with. The berries are made of rubber and are satisfying to gather, the collector’s edition of the game comes replaces the cardboard point counters with metal coins that have a surprising amount of heft to them for their small size. The only resource I found slightly annoying was the wood logs, since there are simply perfectly cylindrical tubes that end up rolling absolutely everywhere, especially when they’re on the board. Luckily this was fixed in the second edition printing of the game, which added a branch to the twigs, keeping them from rolling, though that was little consolation for many first edition owners who were then forced to shell out a few extra dollars for the small upgrade pack.
My biggest point of contention is the large cardboard tree, which is the first thing you notice when it’s set up on the table. While it’s a nice thematic touch and does serve some purpose, it ends up being a pain much of the time. Our first edition tree started fraying after the first play, and we were forced to start applying tape to it in order to minimize the damage. In addition, the tree winds up getting in the way often. It’s easy to nudge accidentally, causing either the meeples, cards, or all the above to come tumbling off its branches, forcing you to do some mid-game maintenance. The giant deck of cards fits neatly into the trunk of the tree, which is a cool little touch, but it means you can only draw cards from the deck from a very particular angle, and it just ends up being easier to set it somewhere else by the board within reach of all players.
The gameplay is your typical worker placement affair with a few caveats. Some of the buildings you can place in your city are also action spaces that can be used by any player, though if an opponent uses yours you are compensated, which is neat. It is very easy for players to forget about these cards in your area though since their off the mainboard, an issue that was fixed in the expansion with little sign standees to show where the open spaces are. Probably the coolest little hitch is the fact that your workers stay on the board until you take the “prepare for next season” action. Many of the locations are limited to just one piece, including some very powerful card spaces that can give you a ton of resources. If you play well enough you can stay in a previous season for many more turns than your opponents, thus locking those powerful spaces away from them until you’re ready to move on.
When you can get an engine going the game can feel very satisfying to play. In general, you want to get a system going very early that will net you as many extra resources as possible. While you do start with a large number of cards in your hand, and there are the eight cards in the meadow that all players have an opportunity to try and grab for themselves, luck of the draw certainly comes into play, and when you’re unlucky it can be a little frustrating at times.
For example, there are only two seasons that let you harvest. You begin the game with only two workers and if you don’t have any harvest cards available to you at the beginning of the game, it can feel a little bit like you’re behind the 8-ball. In addition are some of the event cards that require very specific combinations of cards in order to be claimed, where it’s entirely possible you could go the whole game looking for that second card to claim one of them only to never have it arrive. These are not game breakers in any way, there are plenty more ways to claim resources or gain points, but it’s easy as a new player to hone in on these two aspects only for the luck of the draw to betray you.
What the game does do very well is pacing itself out. The first few rounds of the game you have very little to work with, those first two workers aren’t going to get you very much at the start. As you gain more and more workers with the passing of each season however, your seasons will get more and more complex, resulting in huge action chains that feel super satisfying to execute. There’s something inherently fun about all your opponents running out of actions before you at the end of the game and they watch as you are able to pull off another five to six more actions before the game’s end.
Everdell is a worker placement experience that everyone with even a passing interest in the hobby should play at least once. Its excellent production value will suck you in, but the fantastic engine building and core gameplay loop will be what makes you stay. It’s not quite light enough to be an introduction to the genre, but it could certainly be a wonderful “next level” game. There’s enough to explore with the large card deck to give it some replay value, and with expansions such as Pearlbrook, which is already out, and the upcoming Spirecrest & Bellfaire expansions, Starling Games is guaranteeing their baby will have staying power for a long time to come. Everdell is a walk through the forest you won’t regret.
Final Score: 8/10
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AKA “The Board Game Mole”
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