Root – Riverfolk and Underworld Expansions Review

As the endless struggle for dominance over the woodlands continues unabated, new factions have started to appear and add their voice to the endless cacophony. A group of enterprising Otter merchants/mercenaries seek to profit from the ongoing conflict in the woodlands. A mysterious Reptilian cult is using dark rituals to convert followers to their cause and take over the forest. A Bird splinter faction exclusively consisting of Crows has begun executing devious terrorist plots in order to gain superiority. And of course, never underestimate the Mole-people’s ability to spring from the ground at any moment with a surprise attack. From beneath the tree Roots through to the tops of the forest canopy, each new and old faction of creatures in these woodlands continues to seek to become oppressor, rather than oppressee.

Some sneaky Crows lurking in the background

This review is a different from usual, as we are looking at expansion content for Root. The base game of Root was released in 2018. If you want to know about the base gameplay and my thoughts, please check out my previously published Root Review. In this article we will look at each new faction from the Riverfolk and Underworld expansions, along with the other modules that have been released for the game, having a short discussion of each element on its own.

The Riverfolk Expansion

The Riverfolk Expansion was the first expansion released for Root, adding two new factions to the game – the Lizard Cult (hereby known as the Lizards) and the Riverfolk Company (Otters). The addition of these new factions brings the total players supported by the game up to 6. The expansion also includes pieces for an additional Vagabond player, allowing for more flexibility in player configuration for larger games. Both the Lizards and the Otters are distinctly different from the 4 base game factions and provide fresh new mechanics. A big theme among these new factions is player interaction with the other factions during gameplay.

The Lizards

The Lizard Cult is a faction that uses its ‘conspiracies’ and rituals to expand across the map, converting other player’s warriors to their own cause and building gardens which give them points. The Lizard strategy revolves around building and holding as many gardens as possible, as gardens are their primary points scoring mechanism. Gardens are quite powerful (they grant control of a clearing regardless of the strength of other factions there) and so they are high on the list of enemy priorities for extermination.

Often cited as the most challenging faction to succeed with, it can feel like a futile struggle to try win with the Lizards but it is possible. Players are faced with a steep challenge to increase strength, especially with a heavily restricted ability to pre-emptively strike at other players. If left alone to gather some power at the beginning of the game, the Lizards can get strong enough to be competitive, but an early beat-down can mean the difference between a good game and a game long struggle.

The Lizards are great for a player who likes heavy interactivity in a game, and is prepared to play in a highly defensive and cautious manner. Taking risks to spread out as the Lizards usually spells the end of their engine and additionally, being heavily targeted by other players can make a recovery to a win basically impossible. Carefully choosing where and when to perform your conspiracies to minimise rebuke will unfortunately often mean targeting weaker players. While one of the more fun factions to play mechanically (mostly due to the wololo), unfortunately I have to concede the Lizards are probably the weakest faction in the game.

Maybe the otters can do a good deal on keeping these numerous cats away!

The Otters

The Riverfolk Company faction earns points from building trading stations across the map, as well as hoarding ‘funds’ (warriors) in reserve. The Otters use their ‘funds’ to do actions, and ‘funds’ are gained from other players via the Otter Store, an offering of goods and services that other players may purchase by handing over some of their spare warriors to The Otters to be used for their own business. The Otters have an open hand and players may buy cards from them. They can also pay for transport along waterways, and hire Otter warriors as mercenaries for use in their own battles.

The Otters offer a very different play-style, which is also very interactive, but highly dependant on other players. One of the most interesting decisions in Root is setting the prices for Otter services. Sometimes you may not want people to employ you (for example, you might not want any of your Otters hired as mercenaries in this round) so you push up the price of that. Other times you may be desperate for ‘funds’ so you will drop your prices and make sure to remind players on their turn of your wares. A good advertising campaign is key to an Otter victory.

The key issue with the Otters is they are very easy to embargo when they are near to a win. You need to be crafty, and organise for some way to gain more points than your opponents would expect you to get in one turn (maybe with a sneaky crafting card). Otherwise the table will simply say ‘stop trading with the Otters now or they will win’. I think the Otters are a great pick for a player who prefers and economic game to a combat oriented game. You might get hired to help in a fight but ultimately no one can blame you for the attack. And if the person who got attacked hadn’t wanted to lose their warriors, they could have hired you and attacked first.

The Additional Vagabond

An extra copy of Vagabond components are included with The Riverfolk Expansion, which is intended to be used in 5-6 player games. I found it a bit unusual to play the game with two Vagabonds when I tried it once so I think I’d give it a miss in future. If there are two players who would strongly prefer the sneak and quest gameplay style of the Vagabond however, then the option is there.

The Underworld Expansion

The Underworld Expansion adds two more factions – The Underground Duchy (Moles) and The Corvid Conspiracy (Crows), along with a new double sided map board. Optional extras available during the Kickstarter and from the Leder Games Store were also released alongside this expansion: The Exiles and Partisans Deck, and The Vagabond Pack. Despite many (9) factions now being available for use the game is still capped at 6 players, but if you are truly crazy you might like to play it with more, there’s nothing stopping you!

Moles

The Underground Duchy uses a system of engine building (sort of similar to the Eyrie) to build up a powerful set of actions and in turn, to earn points. The engine of the Moles can be directly attacked by taking out a building the Moles own on the map – this will force them to sack one of their ministers which will remove one of their ongoing abilities. The Mole strategy primarily involves building and defending their structures while enlisting Minsters that earn points and provide them powerful bonuses.

We sometimes call the Moles the ‘Wingspan‘ faction because the engine-building the Moles have is quite reminiscent of that engine building game. A player who enjoys setting up some complementary combos and doesn’t mind playing on the defensive a bit will enjoy the Moles. Due to their ease of gaining warriors, the Moles do play a small role as mediator and may need to step in to help control the power of other factions that are looking to be growing too quickly.

Unfortunately due to their imposing appearance the Moles are often the target of attacks looking to pare them down and so you will have to contend with constant battles and the especially annoying event of having to discard your Ministers (and lose actions/powers) when you lose a building. The especially detrimental part of discarding Ministers is that your best one goes first, so it can be quite a blow when you need to do this.

The Lake Map and a lonely Owl Vagabond

Crows

The Corvid Conspiracy (yes, I looked twice too) is almost like a Toast 2.0 (The Woodland Alliance from the base game). They very similar to The Woodland Alliance in that they build up power and if left unchecked can easily snowball victory with a massive amount of points in one round. The Crows gain points from leaving plot tokens around the board and flipping them over during their turn to surprise the other player and gain some points in the process.

A player that likes to plan a few turns ahead, and try and sneak something past under the radar will enjoy playing as the Crows. You need to be prepared for a lot of disappointment though, as Crow plans are very fragile and easily disrupted. If you don’t like having to think on your toes or start again from scratch hoping this time around you will make your plan work you won’t have fun with this faction.

One of the bigger drawbacks playing with the Crows I’ve found is that because their abilities heavily interact with other players (and often does so in quite a negative way) you will find that people will be quite upset with the ‘surprises’ that happen then interacting with the Crows. Unfortunately running through faction abilities at the start of the game is not often sufficient at notifying all players of this and some people have been quite taken aback at losing the entire contents of a clearing when a bomb goes off. Luckily it is easy to hand the Crow’s board around so people can consult the list of plot tokens on it, and there are a few good options for mitigating the plots (you can attack them to remove them, or you can take a gamble and wager a card on a guess to remove it as well).

New Maps

The Lake Map – I found the Lake Map very interesting. It adds a new raft that can be used to move warriors to locations on the lake-front, but ultimately the raft is a bit restrictive. It can get stuck in an unused corner easily and then might not get used again for a long time (this happened in games I played on the map). Maybe a mechanic where you can call the raft over to you by spending a card would make it much more useful. The map felt very unconnected because of this. I didn’t play this map with the Otters, but if they can provide ferry services on the lake then this could be a fun role.

The Underworld Map – The Underworld map adds two new mechanics – blocked pathways and a ‘king of the hill’ central clearing that awards one point if you hold it at the end of your turn. When I played with this map, it was largely forgotten to open the blocked pathways, which you can do by spending a card on your turn. Despite this, I still felt that scoring a point for unblocking a pathway seemed unnecessary. The 1 point a turn for control of the central clearing did lead to some fun play but once someone gets really stuck in that clearing, it can be maybe a bit too powerful of a bonus. Overall I did like this map over the base game map, there are more interesting things to think about but I wouldn’t recommend either of the expansion maps for beginner players.

A veritable Lizard dominance of the tower!

The Exiles and Partsans Deck

The Exiles and Partisans deck is an alternate deck of cards that you can play a game of Root with. During set up you completely replace the old deck with this one. The set of craftable items remains the same as in the old deck, along with the dominance and ambush cards, however the craftable passive abilities are replaced with a new set of abilities that give players bigger changes to their faction’s gameplay. New cards allow factions to ‘borrow’ abilities from one another. One card allows any faction who crafts it to tunnel like the Moles do, and another allows you ignore who rules a clearing when moving. Other interesting cards let you send ‘false orders’ to another player’s warriors, moving them out of a clearing, along with several other cards that allow for significant strategy changes to be made. I would say the only drawback with this expansion is that it adds in even more asymmetrical abilities that are not-so-visible to other players and add an additional layer of burden – ‘oh so if I try to do this then you can use your ability, and that card, and this other thing’ etc.

Even More Vagabond

The Vagabond Pack is a small box containing a few extra Vagabond class cards and some specific meeples for each of the Vagabond classes. It is a welcome addition to expanding the Vagabond faction. While the meeples are purely cosmetic I did find a couple of the new classes included more passive options which can make the game fun for those who don’t really want to be locked in combat for the whole game.

Just a note on fitting all this stuff in the box – if you are interested in a sort of Root ‘Big Box’ solution, I put together a few tweets here that shows photos of how I fit everything neatly in one box.

In Summary

If you read my review of the base game of Root you’ll have seen I very much enjoyed what the game brought to the table, especially in tempting me out of my comfort zone into playing a full on war game. It has since become a solid favourite from my shelves, and adding on the additional factions, and maps through the expansions has increased the re-playability and flexibility of the game. I think one of the great things about the now large variety of play styles offered by the game is it gives me the option to ask a player ‘what kind of game to do you want’ and hand them a faction that will give them the most enjoyable experience. With the now 9 factions on offer, you will also find very interesting combinations leading to gameplay and situations that are new and exciting to experience. I can recommend picking up The Riverfolk Expansion if you would like more ‘euro’ style factions, and The Underworld Expansion if you would like to add more chaos to the game. You can find these and the other small expansion items at the Leder Games Store!

The copy of the Root Expansions used for this review was provided to The Boardgame Detective by Leder Games.

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