Contrary to what Disney would have you believe, the forest is a dangerous place for a critter just trying to make a living for himself. If it’s not the Cats opening big box stores and driving away small business, then it’s the birds going on and on about their birthright over your land. Ugh! And then there’s those pesky mice handing out flyers trying to get everyone to unionize. Yeah, yeah, power to the people and all that jazz. I’m just trying to get my kids through college! Oh, and let’s not get started on the Vagabond always asking for a handout and talking a big game. I’m watching you, raccoon! Stay away from my dumpster!
How It Plays
Root has you controlling one of four different factions vying for some form of control of the woods. How Root plays is also one of its most highly publicized selling points. Every faction is driven by different motivations and functions in vastly different ways.
Every faction is racing to reach 30 points first but will employ their own unique methods to do so. The Marquise de Cats begin the game in power and are keen on turning the forest into an industrial powerhouse. On their turn they will generate resources and choose from a menu of actions that includes moving armies, recruiting soldiers, and constructing new buildings, which is their main avenue for generating points.
The Eyrie Dynasties are the deposed avian royalty who are looking to reclaim power while beholden to their traditional ways. On their turn, they will add an action (or two) to their decree line and then must activate every card in that line, adding to the programmed actions over multiple rounds. These actions will be done in the following order: recruit, move, battle, and build. If they cannot carry out their programmed actions, their faction falls into turmoil. This will cost them points, clear their decree, and bring a new leader into the fold. Points are doled out based on the number of roosts they have currently built on the board.
The Woodland Alliance are a fledgling uprising looking to drum up support and spark a full-on rebellion. They will gather sympathy from the working-class creatures and force the other factions to give them cards representing support whenever they move into a clearing with sympathy. And so the Alliance goes about sowing sympathy wherever they can and gaining victory points until the rage hits a tipping point, allowing them to fight head-on in guerrilla warfare.
And then there’s the Vagabond. A loner with a penchant for flair, the Vagabond is in it for themself. They have no allegiance to any ideology and will freely trade among all other factions if it means getting loot. They then activate that loot and move around the map accomplishing their own personal deck of quest cards.
The best part about Root is not that each faction plays radically different from one another, though that’s great; it’s not the artwork and production, though it’s adorable to no end; it’s not even the table talk that it engenders, and there will be talk! No, the best part of Root is how clearly the story and motivations flow out of the turn-to-turn mechanical structure. Take the Marquise de Cat, for example. They begin the game with the most soldiers on the map, keying in to the fact that they are in control. They view the future as industry, reflected in the fact that they gain points through building. Their pace is steady. Slowly but surely making new buildings, recruiting new soldiers, creating more resources. The inevitable march of industrialization cannot be stopped. Your goal to transform the forest is reflected perfectly in the victory point reward system.
Then there’s the story behind the Eyrie Dynasties, my personal favorite. They are a blue-blooded, self-entitled, bickering gaggle of birds that have been ousted from power. They seek to regain their former glory but are hamstrung by their adherence to tradition and honor. The Eyrie has a leader on their player board that gives them flexibility when executing certain actions, and every round as they add new orders to the decree, it represents the leader making a strategic declaration. It will be carried out. It must be carried out. When the leader calls for battle, you will battle! But when you can’t carry out the order (as will likely happen), the shame that leader has brought on the Eyrie causes disruption and unrest within their ranks. The inner turmoil that this creates means deposing the old leader and electing a new one, clearing their previous one’s decrees to start anew while losing victory points as a result. It’s a perfect representation of a group that is content while things are humming along but so beholden to decorum that they throw a giant hissy fit when their leader shows the slightest signs of weakness.
And then we have the Woodland Alliance, a ragtag group of downtrodden rodents who are fed up with the powers that be. It’s their goal to appeal to the animals of the forest that their cause is just, that they don’t have to take being the low animal on the totem pole anymore. Sympathy spreads across the board like a simmering fire feeding on the kindling of discontent. Whenever another faction enters a clearing on the map, they must hand over a card to the Alliance player, a nod to the fact that the bunnies, foxes, and mice who live there are converts and don’t really appreciate being occupied. And when sympathy boils over into outright rage, they are ready to fight, and that’s how a rebel soldier is born. Even combat plays into their story. Normally combat is resolved by rolling two dice, the higher value determining how many hits the attacker makes and the lower value to the defender. The alliance flips the script. When they are attacked, they use the higher value, the benefit of a guerilla army more familiar with the forest than other armies.
And then there’s the Vagabond, whose story plays out as if Robin Hood were selfish and more concerned with his reputation than the poor. Unencumbered with maintaining armies or logistical lines of supply, as a single unit she can dart in and out of forest spaces that are inaccessible to the other factions. WIth no political affiliation, she is free to help or hinder the other factions as she sees fit in the quest for more loot! But if she ever draws the ire of a soldier, she’ll have to sulk away and recuperate in the woods before returning to her mischievous ways.
These disparate stories are told through the systems crafted for each faction and could have proven unwieldy in the hands of a less capable design team. While each faction functions in radically different ways, it’s all built upon enough common systems that grounds the experience. Everyone is after the same goal, gaining 30 points first. Movement and combat works largely the same for all factions. The central deck of cards is shared by all players and is tied to the various clearings on the map. Though each faction may tweak combat or movement rules and may use the cards in slightly different ways, there are enough commonalities across the board to keep everyone on the same footing.
That’s not to say that Root is a simple game to learn. It will take time and effort to learn, and every participant has to be willing to make the investment for the best experience to emerge. There is a tutorial that I found very helpful and got us up and running faster than anticipated, and the reference book has proven invaluable when edge cases arise. But the best aid to playing are the player boards. Each board clearly outlines the structure of a player’s turn and notes where each faction diverges from the standard rules of play. There are spaces to keep track of resources and costs, a breakdown of every faction’s turn, and setup guides on the back. With some familiarity with the rules, it’s not unreasonable to have a newcomer learn the game from a quick rundown of the common concepts and the player board.
The question that inevitably arises when talking about an asymmetric game is, “Are the player factions balanced?” It’s a fair question, and I’m probably the worst person to ask. I’ve never been a stickler for balance. Unless the imbalance is egregious, I’m willing to roll with a game if it allows the players to recognize who is surging ahead and, most importantly, gives the players the tools to deal with it. The most prominent tool of interaction in Root is battle. This is a war game through and through. When someone is in danger of pulling too far ahead, it might be a good idea to smash them in the face. The other layers of interaction built into the game can’t overcome the fact that battling will happen and it will happen often. While the cutesy artwork may entice care-bear players to take a glance, be warned: There will be blood!
Root is about power. Creating it, taking it, clinging on to it, and reclaiming it. And each faction has their part in the dynamic. Understanding each faction’s methods will take time and familiarity, but it will ultimately be rewarded with better experiences. In your first game or two, you might be blindsided by the Woodland Alliance’s slow build up. Perhaps it’s their adorable eyes that lull you into a false of security; they will eventually explode into full-on rebellion and roll over anyone in their way. Perhaps you focus too much on the Marquise de Cats because, well, they control the entire forest for crying out loud! Understanding how your own faction works will get you into the game, but it’s not until you understand how they all function that you can start to really play. It will take a few games to suss it all out, but boy, is it ever worth it.
This can, however, lead to some lopsided play sessions if everyone isn’t on the same footing. I’m personally of the opinion that the most experienced players should usually win a game. I appreciate when a game rewards good play learned through experience. It’s what keeps me coming back. It’s what causes me to hone my skills and learn the ins and outs. But in Root it can sometimes happen that the most inexperienced player doesn’t know how to play their part in the story. It’s a tough spot. Root would lose much of its appeal if it shaved off the bits that make each faction distinct, but doing so makes it difficult to know what each player is capable of from the outset. You might have the new person crafting all the exact items the Vagabond needs without even realizing it. With careful coaching, this effect can be minimized, but it is something to be aware of.
And speaking of the Vagabond, in my games they seem to have an outsized impact on the games in which they are present. That’s not to say that they are too powerful; only that their presence is acutely felt. I think this stems from the fact that their part in the story is a little less seamless than the others. They are the loner, easy to ignore, easy to forget. Until it’s too late. In a game about an epic struggle for power, the Vagabond’s narrative for self-promotion seems just a little less grandiose. When the balance of the entire forest is at stake, it’s easy to overlook the player who is going about their business. But in order for the Vagabond to be a viable faction, they need to be tuned in such a way that they are about as strong as the others. Like any game, if they are ignored, they will likely run away with it. It just so happens that the Vagabond is the easiest to ignore. But’s that nothing a few smacks upside the head won’t curtail. Again, with experience and some coaching the Vagabond seemed to fall in line with the other factions.
Root is one of the best games I’ve played all year. It’s no small feat to combine four disparate player factions into a single, cohesive game. While each is mechanically sound in execution and interesting in their own right, it’s not the mechanical motions of playing Root that’s captivated my attention, it’s the way that each faction bounces off one another, plays a part in the larger narrative of the forest’s fate, and how motivation is represented in each distinct playstyle. It takes the sensibilities of a war game by grappling with concepts like politics and power but by setting Root in a fictional world it sheds the need to adhere to historical minutiae and the all the game play edge cases that come along with them. The result is a game that is challenging in execution and subject while also being relatively approachable and relatable.
Review copy provided by Leder Games.
Beautiful artwork and production
Great rulebook and walkthrough
Story and motivations drive the gameplay
Takes dedication to learn and teach
Vagabond feels ever so slightly disconnected from the grand narrative
Great review, Alex! I really enjoy the sandbox-ey nature of this game, and how the asymmetrical factions each play out so differently. I have the expansion, but can’t see myself wanting to try any of the expansion factions any time soon, because the balance between the four in the base game is so good. Great game!
Thanks for reading!
I think there’s a lot to explore in the base game, but that doesn’t make me any less excited to try out the expansion factions.
I’m glad to hear they took the feedback from players who first encountered the game last year at PAX Unplugged. It proved boring and far too long for the experience it provided. It had a number of clever ideas, but they were crushed under the weight of far too many decisions, convoluted differences among the animal races, and a not-so-intuitive playmat. Admittedly, this isn’t one that will make it to my Gaming Table, but as fellow published designer, I tried to provide as constructive feedback as possible for this title. Glad to hear they took some of the advice to heart.