As is usual, trouble is brewing in the woodlands. The Marquis de Cat is steadily gathering her force and tearing up trees with industrial might, and the Eyrie desire to re-establish their winged dominance as the ancient rulers of the forest. Whilst this battle begins, disgruntled foxes, mice and rabbits have banded together into the Woodland Alliance, a union of smaller animals that wants representation and reparation from their ‘traditional rulers’. Finally, a lone ranger known as the Vagabond roams the forest, taking here and there, and aiding where it benefits them. From beneath the tree Roots through to the tops of the forest canopy, each faction of creatures in woodlands seek to become oppressor, rather than oppressee.
2-4 Players | 60-90 Minutes | Designed by Cole Wehrle
Root is the brand new asymmetric fuzzy critters on a map game from Minnesotan publisher Leder Games. After their success with similarly asymmetrical game Vast: The Crystal Caverns, Cole Wehrle has taken the concept a step further and here we have Root. The game was brought to Kickstarter in October 2017, and after a successful campaign was delivered just 10 months later in August 2018. Its Kickstarter release and presence at Gencon has brought a lot of attention to the game, and most comments so far have been very positive. Kyle Ferrin has done an amazing job bringing the world of Root to life, the distinctive visual style of the game is refreshing and combined with the asymmetric gameplay, adds a unique new game to the world of tabletop.
How does it work?
Root is a critters on a map wargame with engine building elements, where players race to be the first to reach 30 points. Points are gained in varying ways depending on which faction you play, and factions also have varying abilities and capabilities. At the beginning of the game, each faction starts off with different setup. The Marquis (Cats) begin with a warrior in each clearing and a few buildings. The Eyrie (Birds) begin with a strong force and a single roost in one corner of the board. The Woodland Alliance (Toast) starts with absolutely nothing on the board! And the Vagabond begins the game hiding in the forest, with a few items.
Actions common to each faction are crafting, moving, building and battling. Crafting uses cards to unlock additional abilities or bonuses for players. Moving around the board allows players to mobilise for attack or gather to defend their clearings. Buildings generally give players points or add to their capabilities (allowing for recruitment of new warriors, or unlocking other abilities). Battling enables players to fight one another, and uses an interesting system whereby two dice are rolled, and the attacker receives the higher roll as their hits while the defender deals hits equal to the lower roll.
While each faction goes about doing these actions in different ways, they each need to spread around the board, establishing buildings to gain points. It is necessary to beat down enemy warriors to retain control of the woodland, and to gain new territory. The Vagabond is capable of doing the above actions as well, though acts as a single agent. They have a few other actions available, and can gain points in different ways.
Over the course of the game, each player will build an empire and the increased capability this provides will help push them toward victory. Defending your source of points and destroying your enemies point generating capability is the crux of Rooting, and such this continues until one player emerges victorious with a score of 30 points.
What do I think?
Upon receiving Root I excitedly plunged into my first game using the provided tutorial/walkthrough system. While this was a great way to get into my first game, upon reading the full rulebook(s) afterwards I did learn a few extra things that you might miss otherwise. I’ve played 6 or so games of Root now, and experienced each faction both as opponent and playing them myself.
My complaints about the game below are largely based around my personal preferences for games, and may well be positive points for someone who enjoys the agressive side of wargames.
The Good Stuff
- Root is very easy to learn or teach, and to play. The player aids are entirely comprehensive, setting out the steps you need to move through take to complete a turn. The learn to play rulebook is succinct and in conjunction with the walk through system, the game tells you everything you need to know to get started. I’m very impressed with the effort that has gone into ensuring that everything about the rules of this game are as clear as possible.
- The art and design of Root, (while misleading!) is awesome. The whole experience feels like a gritty children’s book come alive (I’m thinking Fantastic Mr Fox or something) and it’s so charming. Everything in the game has character and it all fits together so well.
- While the factions are quite asymmetric, the core mechanics (moving, battle, crafting etc) are shared between each faction. The factions are similar enough that you can transfer some skill between when playing a different one, but different enough to make the game very interesting and to make playing each faction a distinct experience.
- This might not be relevant to our international readers, but as an Australian, the name of this game, Root, has been and endless source of entertaining innuendo and jokes. Especially in this context, the name of an activity (playing the game).
- When all players have a game or two under their belt (and thus know the dangers of a mature engine, and play aggressively as the game demands), games are surprisingly tense, with scores staying tight until the end. Several games I played came down to every player being able to potentially win on their next turn which was very exciting to play though. I honestly found this factor very surprising, it really makes the asymmetric nature of the game feel extremely well balanced.
- Root‘s battle system is great. There’s a random element, but the spread of outcomes is predictable. Attacking is heavily incentivised by the simple ‘attacker gets the higher roll’ mechanic. While defence is challenging, if it is important then large numbers can hold off an attack for some time.
- The Vagabond faction offers a very zen and flexible experience. Its inclusion provides many options for play which can help accommodate different types of players (those less bloodthirsty for example) into the game. Most of my comments below in ‘The Bad Stuff’ section don’t (have to) apply to the Vagabond faction, which gives you many options to pursue a non-confrontational victory if you would like to.
The Bad Stuff
- The tug-of-war nature of the game can leave players feeling stuck swimming upstream with nothing to gain for themselves, only existing to keep the other players in check.
- There is a recessed area in the insert for the punch boards during shipping. As a result of this, the cards go everywhere while the game is packed in the box as there is nothing holding them in their slot.
- There is a somewhat unintuitive disconnect between how the game implies you win, and how you really win. Root is a wargame dressed up in a cute theme. Each faction gets points from buildings stuff, so when you start out, that’s what you think you should be doing: just building stuff and maybe defending it (which is cute). But you absolutely have to actively fight off other players (which is not so cute) and beat them down to stop them getting too powerful if you want to win, and the way the game says ‘get points by building stuff!’ doesn’t effectively communicate this. After a couple of games it becomes obvious.
- The Vagabond faction, from the Vagabond player’s point of view, is very interconnected with the other players, but from the point of view of the other factions, it is hard to grasp how to interact with the Vagabond at all. Playing against a Vagabond player I was struggling to figure out what I could do to hinder their progress, there appears to be very few options.
- The style of play required to be successful in Root is ‘aggressive to very aggressive’. As a passive/defensive player (mostly) I don’t love the fact that you have to fight to be successful, I would like options to turtle and defend. Defending in Root is designed to be ineffective, and so you need to be constantly gaining new territory and wearing down enemy forces. The strategy in Root is as much about hindering others as it is about helping yourself. I do like how Root takes me out of my comfort zone in this respect though.
- Players need to somewhat work together/organise attacks on each other in order to keep everyone in check. This is always a difficult thing to negotiate, and Root makes these sorts of decision especially painful and non-obvious. As soon as you make a mistake in this respect (“oh, it will be fine letting the Cats go another turn before I knock them down a notch”), it can be all over!
- I feel weird playing as the Sentient Toast faction.
- The game has a heavy engine building element. With new players and early playthroughs, it was non obvious how ‘snowbally’ the engines of the factions can be, and it feels like once you reach a tipping point, a faction can be on an unstoppable path to victory (this seems to apply to at least Marquis, Eyrie and Alliance). If players don’t beat down early and often, a player can get to the point where their victory is inevitable, but annoyingly it is still a few turns off at that point. While some games I’ve played have been remarkably close right until the end, this situation has cropped up a few times.
Root is a surprising new addition to the boardgaming scene. It introduces wargames to the greater boardgaming community in a ‘My First Wargame’ style, and succeeds due to its theming and very well streamlined and easy to learn ruleset. The asymmetric features of the game are extremely well implemented, to the point where I am genuinely amazed how well they work and how balanced the factions seem, even in arbitrary combinations. I was unsure about the game after reading about it being a combat heavy game, but I think it implements combat well. I rarely play a game again immediately after finishing up one round, and I did that with Root. Even after playing it 6 times in one week, I still … just want to play it more! I can’t wait to get my hands on the expansion and try out the additional Factions. If you like the idea of controlling packs of militarised furry critters hell bent on conquering the world for the good of their kind then give Root a go!
The Boardgame Detective has also written an Unboxing article for Root, full of pictures of what’s in the game box!
The copy of Root used for this review was provided to The Boardgame Detective by Leder Games.