Root

Root
Designer: Cole Wehrle
Artist: Kyle Ferrin
Publisher: Leder Games
Players: 2-4
Ages: 10+
Time: 60-90 minutes
Times Played: 8 times with purchased copy, 10 different opponents

As befits their style, Leder Games’ Root is known for its asymmetrical gameplay and Kyle’s infectiously delightful artwork. Each player takes control of a different animal faction, and while each faction’s victory condition (initially) is to reach 30 points, substitute conditions will be available.  Each faction can earn points through some common methods (crafting items or the results of some battles) but will also have faction-specific ways to earn points.

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The Marquise (cats/orange), are looking to expand their building empire, with sawmills that generate the wood needed to erect additional buildings, and points will be earned for each building built – with an increasing number of points awarded for specializing in one type of building.

The Eyrie (birds/blue) will earn points at the end of each turn relative to how many of their roosts are presently on the board – points from buildings as income, rather than a one-time award.

The Woodland Alliance (miscellaneous forest animals/green) earn points by spreading ‘sympathy’ – a round cardboard token.  While the cat and bird buildings are square and only a limited number of building slots are available in each clearing, the placement of sympathy tokens can not be limited by the other players’ activities.

The Vagabond (raccoon/gray) earns points by improving its relation with the other factions, attacking their enemies, exploring the ruins of previous forest cultures, and going on quests.

From the expansion, the Riverfolk Company (otters/cyan) will earn points from building trading posts, another round cardboard token, which allow other factions to trade more with the otters (more on that later), and from unused ‘funds’/actions.

The Lizard Cult (lizards/chartreuse), also from the expansion, earn points from square cardboard ‘gardens’, but not upon building or as income.  Rather, earning points is an action for which they will spend a card.

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Once a faction has reached 10 points, there are certain cards in a deck that may be enacted as alternate victory conditions.  I should rephrase – the cards replace the current victory condition for a faction: you must commit to the new condition should you so choose, and 30 points will no longer be of any interest.  These cards each involve “ruling” a certain pattern of the clearings on the board. For the raccoons, this is not possible (for reasons we’ll get to), but they can use these cards to form a coalition with the faction that has the least points, and work towards a shared victory with that faction.

A shared deck of cards limits and enables many of the actions in the game.  The deck has 4 ‘suits’ – mice/orange, rabbits/yellow, fox/red, and birds/blue.  Similarly, the clearings on the board are suited – though none are suited for the birds.  The bird cards act as a wild suit, but some uses will require these cards specifically.

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Some of these cards will enable the substitute victory conditions; some can be ‘crafted’ into items and grant victory points or permanent abilities; and some will allow an ‘ambush’ during an attack. Each can also be used/discarded as a generic card in its suit.

Each faction’s turn is broken down into The Dawn Chorus, err Birdsong, Daylight, and Evening. These function differently for each of the animals, but basically follow the expected structure of appetizer, main course, dessert. Overture, Act Two, Denouement.

Some of the basic actions are available to each faction, but how the actions are triggered will be different, as will some nuance regarding ties, etc.  Moving, for instance, will typically involve moving any number of pieces from one clearing to an adjacent one. It will be required that the faction has the most wooden pieces (Warriors) + square cardboard (buildings) in either the origin or the destination space.

Battle will involve rolling 2 dice showing several sides of 0-3 with an even distribution.  The higher dice will typically go to the attacker, and the lower to the defender. Remove opponents’ wood first, followed by cardboard, up to the number on the dice (not to exceed the number of attacking units). (There are several caveats and asterisks to that paragraph.)  Any cardboard (not wood) removed this way earns the opponent a victory point.

Crafting requires certain units or buildings, depending upon the faction, in clearing(s) of certain suit(s). As I stated previously, some will grant your faction special abilities and some will create an item (e.g. a boot or a crossbow) and earn a few points.  (These items will likely do nothing for you by the way. We’ll come back to those when we discuss the Vagabond further.)

Play progresses around the table until a faction has achieved their current victory condition, with that player -and possibly a coalitioned Vagabond- as the victor(s).  If the victory condition is 30 points, the game ends immediately. For a faction attempting one of the substitute victory conditions, the card will be played during one turn, and if the condition is met at the beginning of any of that factions’ future turns, they win immediately.  I don’t want to go into details of these cards and their usage, but they involve having control (‘ruling’) of a certain pattern of the clearings on the board (e.g. 3 of the 4 rabbit clearings or any 2 opposite corners). As the Vagabond has but a single pawn and cannot achieve any of these conditions, it may use these cards to enter a coalition with the faction with the least points; if that faction wins, so does the Vagabond.

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I want to take a minute to talk about the styles of each faction. First, in brief, and then in more detail.

In brief, the Marquise use something of an action point mechanic; a base of 3 actions per turn chosen from a menu. The Eyrie are a programming faction, with 4 basic actions each turn in a strict order.  The Alliance is somewhat of a guerilla faction that feels like it has less external board game analogies, other than feeling like a COIN guerilla faction.  The Vagabond is one sole highlander raccoon unit with actions dictated by the items available (e.g. exhaust a boot to move).  The Riverfolk set the prices for other factions to buy various services from them (in warrior pieces), and then use these pieces to conduct various actions; some will “spend” the unit, and others will allow you to re-use the unit for an action the next turn.  The Lizard Cult will “reveal” cards to perform certain actions, and prior to that, use a combination of the most common-discarded suit and their previously killed units to possibly perform other actions.

To elaborate further, the Marquise, as I said above, present as a basic 3-action point archetype. They’ll begin their turn with an income phase, take up to three actions (with the ability to pay cards for more), and then draw card(s).  Each of the factions have a hand limit of 5 cards, generally drawing 1 by default with various spaces on their board granting additional draws once unlocked. The Marquise begin the game ruling all but one of the clearings. It is something of an engine-building faction – though I think it is more linear than that term implies. You’ll build sawmills, which produce wood each turn, which you’ll use to build workshops with which you can craft and recruiters where you can add further cats to the board.

The Eyrie’s programming is inflexible.  Each turn they must add 1 or 2 cards to their program, and then the program executes: Recruit, Move (from), Battle, Build.  Here, the suit of the card matters. If the Eyrie have placed a rabbit-suited card to the Recruit slot, they must recruit in a rabbit-location.  If they are unable to? Well, uh, we’ll get to that. There may be more than one card in a slot, and bird cards are wild. The Eyrie will start with a specific leader that grants a special ability, and places two loyal advisors (of the Bird suit) into 2 specified programming slots.  You cannot choose to remove a card from the program. The Eyrie’s Move is a “move from”, and the programmed card’s suit cannot be used as a “move to”. Execute left to right, in order, each turn, and at the end you’ll earn victory points. Once you cannot take an action in your program, however, the birds fall into “turmoil”.  That’s bad. You lose some victory points, clear most of your programming, and get a new leader.

But at least with the Eyrie you start with control of one clearing and some pieces on the board.  The Alliance begins bereft of pieces on the board and are crepuscular. For them, Act 2 is a largely a time of rest, but there’s quite a bit of activity at the dawn and dusk of their turn. The Alliance maintains two groups of cards: one, their hand, similar to the other players; the other, a stack of “supporters”.  It is these supporter cards that, uh, well, will support much of the Alliance’s efforts, and during the day, the Alliance can filter cards from their hand into their support (but that’s a one way path). The Alliance is a jumbled operation – the pre-requisites for an action may only be obtainable after you want to take the action. During the first phase, the Alliance can “revolt” – spending supporters which match a clearing that was previously made sympathetic, to remove enemy pieces, place a base, warriors, and gain an Officer (The Officers will organize the dusk activities of the Alliance, with the number of Officers corresponding to the numbering of actions allowed.)  The other dawn action is to spread sympathy – a round cardboard token – but this happens after that turn’s opportunity to “revolt”. It takes time, but the Officers can build up – until a base is removed and the Alliance is temporarily hampered. For each of the factions, the number of warrior units is a strict limit. This may affect the Eyrie’s falling into turmoil if they run short of units, but bears a large influence on the Alliance in a Civilization-type manner where the wooden component represents not only the warriors on the board, but the officers/number of actions. You must determine what’s the right balance for splitting these pieces. (On this note, watch out for the Riverfolk below…)

The Vagabond is a single unit, and the raccoon’s actions are limited by its items. As with the Eyrie, it starts with a specific character card, and this will give the little scamp a set of starting items (e.g. a boot, a torch, a sack, and a hammer). It has a limited amount of these that can be ‘refreshed’ each turn, and various actions require specific items (e.g. swords for initiating battle). All of this is mutable – it can craft additional items, find them in ruins, or assist others and abscond with items they have crafted. This assistance (“Aid”), allows the Vagabond to take items other players have crafted in exchange for a card, and the raccoon will score point(s). Through these additional items, Scampers can carry more items, draw more cards, repair more items, refresh more items, and fight with a knife in every paw. There will also be quests (e.g. defeating a bear, giving a rousing speech) which will grant cards or victory points.  The quests will require a specific combination of two items and the Vagabond to be in a specific clearing in order to complete it. As a result of battle, some items may also become damaged, with the repair process being either lengthy but relatively painless or short and severe. However, the Vagabond also has the ability to become “hostile” with another faction, and earn points for each piece removed from the board – not simply the cardboard pieces. The Vagabond can spend time in the forest, an area off limits to the other factions.

I’ve found the Riverfolk to be the most difficult to, well, determine how to win with, but I’ll try to save any editorializing for later. Their ‘currency’ is largely made up of what they can earn from other players through selling their services.  The Riverfolk play with their hand of cards face up on the table, and at the end of the Riverfolks’ turn, they set the price for three items: buying one of their cards; using the river as a path; and hiring the Riverfolk as mercenaries, where their pieces will count as your own for battles and determining who rules a clearing.  There’s no money in the game – this payment is made with warrior pieces. The Riverfolk have several buckets on their board which tracks new pieces acquired, unused pieces from the previous turn, and pieces which were used, but will be available again during the next turn. The unused actions may earn the Riverfolk points at the start of the next turn.

Each faction can purchase one of the otters’ services per turn – until they occupy the same location as a Riverfolk trading post, a token which takes two warriors of another faction to build and allows an additional trade.

As I said before, some actions will let you save the warrior to use again the next turn, but others will require you to return the piece to its owner. This can be a tactical point as you hoard pieces that the warrior-starved Alliance may need, or cause the Eyrie to fall into turmoil as they’re unable to recruit as much as their program requires.  If the Riverfolk are squatting on one of the Marquise’s sawmills or a choke point for the cats to get their wood out, how high can you push the cost before the cats balk at your extortion?

I’m beginning to think the Lizard Cult are the actual “programming faction”, but I said I was going to save the editorializing, so we’ll come back to that. The Lizards take advantage of a few game resources that are almost wholly overlooked otherwise: deceased warriors and the discard pile.  During their morning, the Lizards can use defeated warriors for certain actions- but only in clearings which match the most discarded suit since their last turn; if it’s the same suit for multiple turns in a row, they also get a discount. During the day, the Lizards largely “reveal” -but not play- cards for certain actions, including building a ‘garden’.  The garden is a square cardboard token which allows the Lizard Cult to rule the clearing in which it is placed, and also is how the Lizards determine what they can craft. The daylight action which does cause the Lizards to play a card is a scoring action which earns them points for how many of the corresponding garden is on the board.

One nuanced twist of the Lizards among the factions is where the opportunity for crafting occurs in their turn.  The Marquise craft, and then can build the workshops required for crafting. The Eyrie can craft, and then build the roosts required for crafting. The other factions, though, can build their crafting prerequisites and then craft intra-turn, which is to say, the hostile actions of the other factions cannot knock-back the player’s crafting ability before having a chance to use it.  

As the Lizard Cult is largely revealing cards, my experience has been that the hand limit comes more into play here, and the decisions of which 5 cards to keep can be interesting – especially when combined with the Lizard Cult’s outsized interest in the discard pile.

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I like the game.  

I don’t love the game, but it does inspire post-game discussion and car-ride home discussions, in a way that I don’t recall other games doing for years.

I was dubious about buying Root because it fits squarely in the classification of ‘games I want to love, but have trouble admitting probably aren’t for my group’. I enjoy many two-player wargames, but we’re generally too carebear for multiplayer wargames. We love Chinatown, but generally fail to ever negotiate in other games which allow or depend upon “negotiation”. I love the idea of the asymmetry, but would tracking the buttons and levers of the other factions prove to be too much of a barrier to enjoyment?

I don’t mean this as, and I don’t think it is, a hot take, but I’m not convinced Root is especially asymmetric. To step back, intra-player, it certainly is: the cats’ 3 actions versus the eyrie’s programming, etc.  However, aside from the Vagabond, inter-player, the effects feel similar enough that the asymmetry can get lost. If you have crafted an item, moved your warriors, and initiated a battle… from across the table what’s it to me the specific mechanics of how you did it?  Yes, it helps to know the specific buttons I could push to help hold you back, or the buttons I’m inadvertently pushing to help you, but I don’t know that the tactics generally require that sort of analysis.

Part of the enjoyment, I think, comes down to finding a faction you enjoy.  This is one of the advantages of the intra-player asymmetry: have a player that loves setting their own prices in Container? I’d like to introduce you to the Riverfolk.  A player that loves programming? Try on this bird suit. But ultimately, this is a tough one. I haven’t found many folks that look forward to playing the Marquise, and while I love programming games, I found the Eyrie a bore. For me, the changes to the Eyrie’s programming were piecemeal enough (1 to 2 cards per turn), that it largely felt like I had less choices – these 6 actions are pre-determined, but I can add 1 or 2 more of my choosing.  The Lizards, on the other hand, felt more like I was programming each turn, as I chose how to reveal my cards, and after drawing, which should I save for next turn?

The Vagabond is the faction that most feels like it’s an island unto itself.  The Vagabond is sufficiently removed from the general hullabaloo of ruling clearings and erecting buildings, that at times it feels like a solo game being played on the same board. There is certainly “interaction” through aiding the other factions, and points to be had from hostility, but for me, it’s unfulfilling.

I enjoyed the Riverfolk the most.  I enjoyed them quite a bit. But I also never felt in contention. In a sense, they are the third and fourth sides of a double-edged sword.  Root is a game that is rewarded with multiple plays as the players have a better sense of the game’s pacing, and when certain factions could use a quick punch to the gut, and how to keep their eye on the prize.   And the layer within that, is that players can better understand how to oppose factions once they have played those factions. What is the proper price for the Riverfolks’ wares on a given turn? It can be volatile depending on the players’ experience with the game, let alone the factions. (How to earn points with the Riverfolk? There’s more nuance there than I’m likely to be the right guidepost on.)

To tilt at the windmills of why I don’t love it, I think it’s as simple as falling too much on the tactical side of the spectrum. The direct combat adds too much uncertainty to long term plans for my sweet spot and there are several factions that I don’t find mechanically interesting to play.

regards,
James Nathan

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Fraser:  I have only played it twice so far, two player the Kittehs versus the Birdies. Then we swapped and had the reverse rematch of Birdies versus Kittehs .  Both as a beginners type game, so no special victory conditions, just the race to 30 points.  I liked it quite a bit, it will be interesting to see how it plays with more players too and also to try out the other factions.  It may take a while to “learn” each faction. Certainly it took me a while to figure out how to try and play the Birdies in a sensible way and trying avoid the risk of falling into turmoil.  In the reverse game I was certainly looking for opportunities to send the Birdies into turmoil ;-)

At the moment I am definitely at “Like it” at the moment and that may go up after more exploration and plays.

Patrick Brennan: Rarely does a game come along that makes me go, hmm, what the hell just happened there, hang on, let’s analyse it, and play it again as soon as possible. Root did this. A lot of the enjoyment of games come in the satisfaction of riding and mastering the learning curve. In normal Euros that might take a few games and then it’s all marginal. This though has a heap of learning curve to be done. Firstly in your faction, and then in each of the other factions, and then in how they interact, and then the ability to keep it ever so slightly balanced in your favour, enough for you to win, but not enough that the others realise it in time. This is an asymmetrical game of developmental dominance, where denying your opponents their form of dominance is just as important as developing your own. There’s a decent amount of rule learning required as each faction has a completely different turn structure and means of scoring points, but once you’re into it turns are relatively simple. Simple, but with a wealth of options to decide between, where mis-steps can be crucial. Like all asymmetrical multi-player games there’s a dependence on others to know the game well enough to know when they need to step up to the plate in the denial stakes. Regardless, this is a game that I’m itching to explore further in the hope we can achieve mastery and determine how well it shines at that level.

Lorna: I am firmly in the cult of the new. Most new medium weight games get 1-2 plays then shelved for later play. It’s rare that I run into medium weight games that I want to play over and over but this year there have been two, and Root is one of them. I’ve played 8 times with 2, 3, and 4 players. It’s probably at its best with 4 but I enjoy it enough to play with fewer.

Normally I shun multiplayer games with direct conflict where my “stuff” can be removed from the board. It annoys the heck out of me. I don’t mind it as much in 2 player abstract strategy games and surprisingly I don’t mind it in Root. Maybe because it feels more like a chess match in that respect where you expect some sacrifices to advance. The conflict may be too much for some especially the resolution of battles with dice.

What I really find fascinating are the different factions. I love the theme and art. I must admit if this game had little green army dudes and not cute little chunky ani-meeples, I probably wouldn’t be playing. I want to play grumpy cat, angry birds and mouse toast-eeples. It’s challenging to try and understand the best way to play each one. I’ve only played with the 4 basic factions and can’t wait to use an expansion faction. That said it also makes teaching games tricky and the hardest part for me is finding 3 other people who have played before. I’ve had friends put off because the first game experience was marred by missed rules. I can only say that this can easily happen here and most likely will. It took me a few games to learn the basic 4 and I feel to really understand them it helps to play each one. They game is certainly worth pushing through the first game to try it again.

In a sea of mediocrity, Root has reminded me of how much fun a great game can be.

Dale Y (2 plays):  So far, I have only had two plays of the game – well and a solo set up where I tried to learn the rules and get comfortable with the game to try to teach it.  When I saw the game at GenCon, I was honestly not sure if it was my sort of thing, but all of the positive things that had been said about it convinced me to try it.  That has happened – and my initial impression is a waffling one…. I think it is a good game, very possibly a great game. I also think that it’s a game Not for Me. The reason for this is not the Game, but more my own preference in games.  

I have always been on the fence about asymmetrical games; I always have questions going into the game (and usually coming out of the game) whether the asymmetry is balanced as far as gameplay goes.  I know that I clearly cannot say anything about balance after just 2 games. I have only played with 2 different factions, and I am not really sure that I fully understand how either of them work yet – though I did win in one of the two games with the Green Forest Toast, so I couldn’t have been that far off the mark.   My two games have had a lot of back and forth, with the players having to gang up on the presumed leader to prevent them from winning, and then focus on the next presumed leader, and so forth.

There is a little bit more direct fighting/conflict than what my Eurogaming sensitivites like; if you’ve read any of my reviews, you’ll know that I much prefer a sandbox of my own rather than pushing around Dudes on a Map.  But, occasionally, I can go for dice-mediated fighting…

Like Terra Mystica, this game presents the game with a myriad of options/factions, and each one requires different tasks to be done in order to win.  In fact, the strategies here are even more disparate than Terra Mystica. I think that this is genius, and from what I’ve seen, no single faction appears to be clearly better than another.  However, for me, this is the sort of game that I’ll never devote enough time to playing to feel like I’ve mastered it or perhaps even really grokked what a single faction could do, much less the others in the box.  I know that others love this sort of thing, but that’s not the kind of game that I gravitate to – in part because I usually don’t have time to devote 20 plays to a game.

Is that a failing of the game?  Absolutely not. It’s just a sign that this game isn’t for me.  The artwork is fantastic; well illustrated, cheeky/mischevious illustrations on the cards are a wonder to look at.   I do have one quibble with the components – the hint sheet/strategy guide/player aid is ON THE BACK of the player board.  Which means you have to remove everything from your board to look at it mid-stream. Who ever thought this was a good idea?

This is never a game that I’m going to want to play all the time; but it is actually one that will likely remain in the game collection though I don’t necessarily like it;  most of my locals like/love it, and it will still get some play; and while it isn’t the sort of this I want to play 3x/week, there are still plenty of things to explore in it.  I don’t need to be super proficient at every game that I own, and this one seems to hit enough high notes that I plan to keep it around. That being said, I’ll probably only play it in situations where the gamers are playing with factions they are unfamiliar with – then we can all explore our respective strategy at the same time.  (Yes, I know that those who love the game or this sort of game will groan in dismay at this!)

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
I love it! Patrick Brennan, Lorna, Dale Y (theoretical)
I like it. James Nathan, Fraser
Neutral.  John P, Dale Y (in actuality)
Not for me…

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6 Responses to Root

  1. apertotes says:

    Can anyone compare Root to Vaast? Does Root feel even more asymmetric than Vaast or is it the other way around? I can’t say why, but I am more attracted towards Vaast than towards Root, even though almost everybody seems to believe that Root is the better game.

  2. SimonSays says:

    Don’t support Wehrle. Game design for Root is partly stolen from Deep.

  3. 22Games says:

    Now that’s the post about Root I needed. Do you mind if I translate it and post for my shop blog?

  4. ianthecool says:

    Thanks for outlining what type of players your group is, puts your slight disappointment in context. I am interested in this game, but the programming aspect is keeping me away so far.

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