4 Lessons from Everdell for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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Last year, Everdell by Starling Games raised nearly half a million dollars on Kickstarter. It has remained a popular board game since, regularly topping out the Board Game Geek Hotness and showing up multiple times as a giveaway prize in Pangea contests. With that in mind, we owe to ourselves to spend a little time studying its success!

Everdell is a worker placement, tableau-building board game. As the name suggests, Everdell has a fantasy setting, and is indeed named for a charming valley within the game’s world. The setting is described as being “beneath the boughs of towering trees, among meandering streams and mossy hollows, a civilization of forest critters is thriving and expanding.”

As you can imagine, this is right up the alley of many dedicated board gamers. But why exactly is that?

 

1. Cute fantasy themes go a long way.

I don’t know what exactly it is about fantasy themes, but board gamers love them. Indeed, readers, moviegoers, and TV bingers all love fantastical settings. This can range from cute and furry settings like those in Everdell and Root to complex worlds like Lord of the Rings or even gritty fantasy epics like Game of Thrones.

Let’s be honest. Life is freaking hard. Sometimes it’s so hard that you don’t even want to face it head-on. Thus, fantasy settings give us a harmless way of unplugging from all the things that stress us out. Science fiction, another perennial favorite of board gamers, is basically fantasy with a thin veneer of science applied. If you don’t believe this, harken back to classic novels like Frank Hebert’s Dune. The shared lineage between science fiction and fantasy is on full display there.

This isn’t necessarily a lesson explicit to Everdell, but the unique history of Starling Games makes it a relevant one. A quick look at the Starling Games About Page states that “Starling Games was launched…in 2018.” In other words, Everdell put a brand new company on the map. That’s a testament to just how much fantasy themes connect to people. That kind of rapid connection to an idea only comes as a direct result of an emotional need being met.

 

2. Worker placement is popular for a reason.

Like many games, Everdell uses worker placement. In the case of Everdell, workers are placed to help players gather resources, draw cards, and take special actions.

Worker placement is also known as action drafting. This is relevant because it means that players are competing for the permission to perform certain actions in the pursuit of certain goals.

Worker placement is a very simple concept with really profound implications. You can play based on just your needs or with the intention to block your opponents from meeting theirs. There is a reason this mechanic is present in many BGG Top 100 Games such as ViticultureCavernaA Feast for Odin, and Agricola.

Sometime around 2018, I did a major poll asking people what their favorite themes and mechanics were. I can’t find the link to it, but the upshot is that fantasy themes and worker placement mechanics blew everything else out of the water. Everdell is popular in part because the creators identified what gamers liked and simply gave it to them!

 

3. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel if your game provides enough variety.

Maybe I’ll get some heat for this, but I’ll just go ahead and say it. Everdell doesn’t really do anything new. It’s another worker placement fantasy board game with good components.

This is not an insult.

There’s an old concept in business called “second but better.” Indeed, the most innovative ideas often fail or turn out mediocre at first, so your best experiences with games (or otherwise), often come from masterful creators on well-worn territory.

A commenter on Board Game Geek, jamesjacob, said it better than I possibly could here, so I’ll just quote him.

Don’t let the charming artwork fool you. This is an impressive game that combines tableau-style engine building with classic worker placement mechanics. On the surface, the rules seem pretty ‘I’ve-seen-this-100-times-before’, but the inter-connectedness of the cards makes for engaging decisions and pulling off combos is very satisfying. 

 

4. 3-D components are a gimmick, but they helped the game draw attention.

On the Board Game Geek ratings page for Everdell, I noticed a few particularly grumpy gamers complained that the fancy 3-D tree included with Everdell does nothing. Fair enough – Everdell could be played without the tree. But I think these gamers are missing the point.

It’s no secret that the board game market is oversaturated and noisy as can be. Anything that can break through the sheer deluge of sameness that defines board game Facebook groups and Twitter feeds is valuable. And indeed, I think it’s necessary if you want to have a shot at making good money on an individual game.

I’ve stated many times before that gimmicks cannot substitute for actual quality gameplay. At the same time, I think gimmicks are necessary to making people look for long enough to absorb the deeper, better qualities of games. The same is true even for books and movies that come out these days. That’s why books have clicky titles and that’s why movie trailers show scenes out of context. They fight for your attention so that enough people stick around to see the real artistry.

 

Final Thoughts

Everdell is an excellent example of a well-made game perfectly tailored for its audience. It’s a fantasy worker placement board game in a hobby industry full of people who love that kind of experience. It isn’t particularly innovative, but it’s well-crafted, so it doesn’t have to be. And it has just the right amount of gimmickry to make you pay attention.

Not bad for a civilization of woodland creatures!

 

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