Visuals matter. In video games, in board games, they matter. We may sometimes say they don’t, but they do. Things like polygon count or the detail of ridiculously costed miniatures on the board may be of minor importance, but that’s only one aspect of visuals or production values. It can’t be denied that what we look at needs to be aesthetically pleasing. It can achieve that in a minimalist way, there is beauty in simplicity, but most people still have to enjoy looking at what’s in front of us. This is clearly shown when gamers want to play games, that are clearly outside their preferences, simply because of how they look. They “Want” the game to be something it’s not because what they want is actually the production values. Root and Everdell are two of the most finely “produced” boardgames in recent memory, with charming art and quality components. I see a lot of criticism leveled towards both of them but much of it comes down to people getting pulled in by their beauty only to find out that the core gameplay was different to what they were hoping for.
At its core, Root is a war game. At times it can be a very cutthroat game that often requires players to self regulate the board state. If someone is starting to run away there is no inherently built in mechanic that will step in and balance things out, no game mechanic deity will come out of the rules to influence the game, it is up to the players to take action against anyone in the lead if they want a chance at winning themselves. This isn’t uncommon in the wargame genre. Fantastic games exist with the attributes I’ve just described. But while a game like Chaos in the Old world has clearly mature themes and art that screams “Brutality” Root is shockingly…… “Cute”.
If I say the words “Highly asymmetrical, area control wargame” what pops into mind would probably be something closer to a CMON or Games Workshop licence. Root’s aesthetics are cartoony anthropomorphized animals in a style that feels like an older European fairy-tale aesthetic. It’s gorgeous, it’s colorful and has high-quality screen-printed peoples that are often referred to as adorable. The game catches one’s eyes instantaneously. People flocked to Root when it first came out in a way that surpasses anything but Wingspan in recent memory. Naturally, disappointment ensued.
Root is not a bad game, I found it to be quite enjoyable. But like most games of its type it has to be played a certain way. Players must be cutthroat, leaders must be toppled, the unfortunate dilemma of “Do I attack the leader to no benefit to myself, to keep alive a chance at winning?” must always be considered. Four veteran wargamers sitting down to a game of Chaos in the Old World will think “Game on” at the thought of all those ideas, but a casual group of friends and families looking to enjoy an evening of cute woodlands critters might not be ready for such choices. Without the proper mindset Roots gameplay breaks down. Some factions will win too often if players try to play nicely (*Cough Vagabond *Cough). Other games might see the relationships among players being the central deciding factor as some players might not want to “Hurt” other players for various reasons outside of the game.
The realization will inevitably sink in that some people wanted Root to be something it’s not. But that’s the power of Root’s visuals. It draws you in, it says “Look at me! Play me! Love me!” and with such captivating beauty that few can withstand it. Artistically, I find the juxtaposition of cute minimalist art to the cutthroat area control gameplay to be brilliant. It’s a stylized choice that I find refreshing. Unfortunately, it’s so effective that while it’s meant to compliment its gameplay it instead masks its true intentions to many gamers.
Everdell proposes a similar problem on the other end of the spectrum. It’s a game that has high quality art and components which create the expectation of a top-quality worker placement game. While Root’s cutesy art is minimalistic, Everdell’s is jaw droppingly detailed. Looking at the beautiful critters and buildings makes me feel like the Redwall series was brought to life in a way I never though possible. Unique meeples, a giant cardboard tree and resources that give amazing tactile satisfaction, all scream that this is a worker placement game of the highest quality. What players get when playing Everdell is something chancier than they may have expected. Action advantage is gained whenever a building is matched up with a specific critter leading to some luck-based outcomes. It’s not as bad as the internet would have you believe but it definitely offers a less deterministic game than most worker placement enthusiasts may have hoped for.
Everdell is not a bad game, I like it a lot more than most people in the Mid to Heavy gamer type tend to. The luck can be mitigated if you steer your ship towards card cycling rather than throw your hands up in defeat when combos don’t come to you. Looking at a stale board state a perfect opportunity to channel your inner “Blue/Black deck” and create your own luck. .
Everdell is part of a wave of modern games that defy genres. It has worker placement, tactile resources, engine building elements previously defined as “Euro” but it’s also exciting, and thematic and with mechanics that contain randomness. It’s similar to Spirit Island in that genre spanning regard. It’s because of it’s gorgeous looks that people want it to be the type of game they want. Worker placement aficionados want an Uwe Rosenberg set of systems because they’re drawn in by its beauty and want to enjoy the gameplay as much as they enjoy the aesthetics.
Both games are fantastic additions to the hobby but they repeatedly get picked up based on their looks after which some casual players would say root is too cutthroat and some medium weight players say Everdell has too much randomness. These games have done nothing wrong other than appeal to human nature. Is there really a crime to being “Too Appealing?”. Before squealing with delight at the cutesy art of Root, maybe do your own research on the type of game it is, lest your conflict averse group have a bad experience. When deciding if Everdell is worth adding to your worker placement collection understand whether your group is the type that has issues with luck of the draw, otherwise every game might end with cries of how it was decided because of lucky card combinations. Both of these games are more than just eye candy, they offer good gameplay experiences, but those experiences are not as broad as their visual appeal. Like any boardgame they’re targeted towards a certain section of the gaming community.