Before we get started…
If you’ve had even a passing conversation with me in the past year — which given how early this is in my blogging career, I assume that anyone reading this is either friend or family — you know I’ve been playing Root on a weekly basis. And given how frequently I keep coming back to it, I’m sure you can tell which side of the fence I’m on regarding the quality of this game. That being said, I do have a lot of opinions about Root that I think will be useful in deciding if this one’s for you. (Spoiler Alert: it’s not for everyone)
A brief overview
For the uninitiated (or those I was unable to corner into talking to me about board games) Root is an asymmetric strategy game published by Leder Games, designed by Cole Wehrle and with art by Kyle Ferrin. It focuses on several factions of woodland creatures fighting for control over the forest they inhabit. Some fight to be the ruling class, some fight for a more equitable forest, and others play both sides for personal and financial gain.
The beauty is in the asymmetry
Asymmetric games were new to me when I first played Root. If they’re also new for you, the basics are that every player is essentially playing their own game, with their own actions they can take and their own win conditions. These all take place on the same board and every action makes waves throughout the game as a whole, affecting each player’s individual game. Players must use their own abilities to undermine their opponent’s plans, both directly and indirectly, while forwarding their own ends to be the first player to score 30 victory points. The game can be played with almost any combination of the available factions, resulting in nearly endless different types of games. However, results may vary from combination to combination.
I will be unable to fully demonstrate the intricacies of this game without writing a novella’s worth of information. But in broad strokes, each of the boards (there’s two in the main game and two more in the forthcoming expansion) is divided into several clearings. Each clearing is assigned one of the game’s three suits: Fox, Rabbit, or Mouse. Players work to gain control of necessary clearings based on their objectives. Some factions benefit greatly from ruling a large number of clearings, while others couldn’t care less about ruling and have other, more nuanced ambitions.
Seeing the forest for the trees
The game play is deeply linked to the theme and narrative of the game; each player has a different win condition that is reflective of the character’s goals. For example, the cat faction is an imperialist group looking to expand their empire by running the citizen’s out of their homes and depleting the forest’s natural resources. For this reason, the cat player will want to rule as many clearings as possible so they can build more sawmills and smithies. They score points for having more buildings on the field and benefit from having huge numbers of warriors on the board.
The woodland alliance is a more irregular faction, secretly recruiting those sympathetic to their cause and conspiring against their cat oppressors, biding their time until they can stage a revolt. They trade in sympathy tokens and have far fewer meeple than the cats, meaning they lack the ability to have the sheer mass as their larger opponents, but their win condition involves uniting the different animals of the forest under one banner instead of abject domination. By revolting at the right time, The Alliance can immediately turn the tides and rapidly score points for the win. Theirs is a more ideological win than one of supremacy, and their game play reflects that.
Root does a great job of making the ambitions of the characters in the story into mechanics in the game. With 4 factions in the base game, 2 in the expansion, and 2 more being released in another expansion at the end of the year, there are many styles of play to choose from. Different factions bring different elements to the board and inherently change the world you’re playing in. They each interact with each other differently, so every combination of factions feels like an entirely new game. I love trying to find the most interesting permutations of elements in the game; I feel engaged creatively and strategically before I ever even start playing.
The cards in each player’s hand add a whole additional layer to the game. It took several play-throughs at my table before we even really started crafting card effects because there was just so much to the rest of the game to explore and master. Playing dominance cards for example, changes your win condition mid-game, so players must always be on their toes; every aspect of root can change at any turn, and no one is safe.
Root is a game that can be played with 4 people in the base game but up to 6 with the expansions. Despite that, the game is at its optimum performance at 3 players. At 2 players, it’s fun and speedy, but difficult to experience the incredible intricacies that make it unique. At 4 or more there’s too much going on; it takes so long to get to be my turn again, the whole board has changed entirely since my last move. This makes it extremely difficult to maintain any one strategy.
There’s darkness in the woodlands
I’m not blind to its faults, however. Root does have massive issues with its design. Issues that seem game-breaking, at least for me. For starters, Root comes with 3 instruction manuals. I’d like to tell you this is excessive but honestly, if anything they probably could include more information. The first time I played through the game, we sat at the table reading for an hour and a half before we ever started playing. It gets easier a couple plays in, but you have to really want to play this game to get to that point. Every aspect of Root is so well balanced that the rules are irrevocably complicated; this balance is a double-edged sword. The charming theme draws a lot of people in, but the rules create somewhat of a walled-garden around this fun narrative and can turn otherwise eager players away.
Leder Games does include a sample first turn to help guide you through each faction, and I do think this is helpful. What’s more helpful though is finding a how-to-play video online and watching someone explain the rules with examples. Because of this, it’s border-line inaccessible to new players; at least one player needs to come to the board already knowing how to play.
After you get through that initial lesson, there are so many situational events that you’ll have to stop the game frequently to figure out what’s going on. In bigger games, it takes so long to get to your turn, you run the risk of losing interest entirely. I’ve had a couple players never fully grasp their faction’s mechanics and not really understand what to do on their turn. It can be overwhelming if you’re not expecting it.
Aesop, eat your heart out
Root tells the story of woodland creatures fighting each other to establish their own supremacy. The Marquise De Cat are the authoritarian dictators, while the birds of the Eyrie Dynasties are their mortal enemies. This scrupulous and bureaucratic empire, though directly opposed to the cats, are not especially distinct morally and can be similarly oppressive, given the chance. It seems the true heroes are the creatures of the Woodland Alliance, small rodents who use guerilla tactics to undermine the classist regimes fighting for power. The Vagabond faction rounds out the core game, a lone wanderer who slips in and out of conflict and causes mischief for the other players as they see fit.
The mice look like little green toast
Presentation-wise, this game is a gem. I love the economical use of components; each item tends to serve multiple purposes with different factions. Cards can be used to pay some action fees while also have items to be crafted on them as well. The meeple aren’t just used to get your armies on the board, some factions use them as currency. The pieces on your player board that help track your progress get played on the game board themselves when relevant. There are a lot of pieces, but there are a lot of things to do.
By the same token, this economy in its presentation also leads to some minor confusion. We frequently had to stop the game and figure out which part of the card we needed to read for the part of the game we were playing. This gets a little easier with time, but even as we become more seasoned players, it is still a relevant matter. I don’t think there’s a good solution to this issue; it is as simple as the game can allow.
For a game with such confusing elements, the components that help guide you through play are vital, and Root does a sufficient job with this. The general info for each player’s faction is listed on their player board and can be easily referenced in a pinch. The player boards have great flavor text and also help to track your progress through the game. Unfortunately, there is no way to include all the info for the faction on one board, so there are still many scenarios where we have to pause the game to search for specific rulings.
Otter expansions and things to come
To me, the most appealing faction in Root was the Riverfolk Company, a group of otters who build trading posts and sell the cards in their hand and other services to their opponents for monetary gain, dealing arms to both sides. They benefit directly by heightening the conflict between other characters and can change their prices based on what they want to encourage the other players to do. They’re adorable little capitalists (read profiteers) who can travel using the rivers as shortcuts and can sell rides to other players who may not be able to get across the board otherwise. They are the titular faction of the Riverfolk expansion which is available as a separate purchase.
“I’m going to sanctify and then maybe go on a crusade if there’s time.”
The Lizard Cult is a surprisingly fun addition as well. They’re a perfect example of how every minor detail of this game is used for its theme. With actions like Crusade and Sanctify, The Lizard Cult adds fun vernacular to any game they’re a part of. They take advantage of the downtrodden souls who are suffering the most in the war. Whichever suit is most present in the discard pile after every turn becomes the outcasts and the lizards manipulate them into becoming zealots for their reptilian religion. This faction has a strong theme and they affect the game in an interesting way; players have to be cautious about what they choose to discard, and the lizards can play as aggressively as the birds or the cats if built up correctly. However, they have some major balance issues and can almost always be thwarted if the other players are paying attention.
This expansion added so many elements that an already expansive game can see even more play. It also added more vagabond characters that have some wild abilities. One of these new Vagabonds can make other players fight each other involuntarily which adds a fun twist to the game.
With another expansion on the horizon for late 2019, I think it’s safe to say that if the game appeals to you, you’ll get a lot of play out of it.
I would not encourage playing this game if you aren’t fully invested in learning the rules and really going through it. This game’s ultra-specific mechanics prove to be difficult to overcome, even when everyone at the table really wants to make it work. If you’re playing with a more casual crowd who aren’t immediately enthused by the concept of the game, I highly suggest playing something else. Having a video to explain the rules ready to go is basically mandatory for the first few play-throughs because there are so many rules, and so many small details that aren’t clearly ruled on in the provided materials. If you don’t find that level of involvement appealing, I wouldn’t recommend this game.
That being said, if anything about the game’s theme, it’s art style, or the idea of playing a genuine marvel of design intrigues you, definitely give Root a go. I think it is a true testament to how high-quality Root actually is that when you factor in how many disqualifying, game-breaking characteristics this game has on paper, it still somehow manages to be both enthralling and surprisingly balanced. If I’ve convinced you to give it a shot, you can purchase your own copy of Root here.
All artwork found at ledergames.com and Amazon.com