Root: Riverfolk Expansion

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The woodland has become more and more popular, and even more factions have come to vie for control and assert themselves as the mightiest in the land. Now, not only are the Eyrie, Marquise, Alliance, and the Vagabond fighting for victory, but now the Riverfolk Company and Lizard Cult have joined the fray! Root: The Riverfolk Expansion is the first expansion of the base game Root. No…
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  • Artwork
  • Complexity
  • Replayability
  • Player Interaction
  • Component Quality

You Might Like

  • Riverfolk Company and Lizard Cult are fantastic additions to the game
  • Opens up options to play with 5+ players
  • Solo mode is fun if you like the Eyrie Dynasty

Might Not Like

  • Solo mode not so fun if you don't like the Eyrie Dynasty
  • New factions aren't terribly new player friendly
  • Doesn't change the core 'Root' formula, if that didn't float your boat
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The woodland has become more and more popular, and even more factions have come to vie for control and assert themselves as the mightiest in the land. Now, not only are the Eyrie, Marquise, Alliance, and the Vagabond fighting for victory, but now the Riverfolk Company and Lizard Cult have joined the fray!

Root: The Riverfolk Expansion is the first expansion of the base game Root. Now, up to six players can fight it out to see who is the strongest in all the woodland. The expansion brings two brand new factions to the mix: the Riverfolk Company, a trading band of otters, and the Lizard Cult, fanatical acolytes who build gardens to control the board.

The Riverfolk Company bring an exciting new trading mechanic to the game and can quickly rack up victory points as they play other factions off one another. The Lizard Cult can build gardens in clearings asserting themselves as the clear ruler of the clearing. With their Conspiracies they can move, battle, and build incredibly quickly.

Along with these exciting new factions the Riverfolk Expansion brings in a second Vagabond player board and three new Vagabond variants, allowing up to two players compete as the wily outcast. As well as this, this expansion comes with a robotic version of the Marquise de Cat, balancing out game play in smaller groups and allowing players to explore new factions.

The Riverfolk Expansion adds two exciting new characters allowing up to six players to play, as well as a solo mode and new Vagabond player board.

Player Count – 1-6
Gameplay Length – 60-90 minutes
Age Rating – 10+

RiverfolkUnless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year or so, you’ve probably heard about a funny little game called Root by Cole Wehrle. Released to critical acclaim back in 2018, this asymmetrical affair casts 2-4 players as different factions vying for control of the woodland. Combined with Kyle Ferrin’s gorgeous art, this is what happens when Cuba Libre meets Redwall. So far, so good. When Root hit Kickstarter backers’ doorsteps two years ago, it already came bundled with its first expansion, the Riverfolk.

Now that it’s available at retail, the two come separately and plenty of late-adopters will be asking themselves, “should I pick up the expansion?”. Well, you’ve come to the right place, let’s get cracking!

What’s Inside The Box?

The obvious draw of the Riverfolk Expansion is the two new factions it introduces. These are the titular Riverfolk Company and the devious Lizard Cult. Both come with delightful screen-printed wooden meeples, cardboard tokens, player boards and reference cards. Even before we get into playing the game itself, I have to say that the Riverfolk and Cult warrior designs are my favourite across the whole Root series. Those little grinning Lizards are adorable.

To pad out the package a little more, we also get tokens and pieces for a second Vagabond player. This means you can now have two psycho raccoons dashing around the forest. We also get the Mechanical Marquise, a ‘bot’ system which commands the Marquise de Cat in lieu of another player. This opens up Root for solo and cooperative play. Nice. There are also three additional Vagabond characters – the Vagrant, Scoundrel and Arbiter – which is a sweet touch. Okay, back on track. Time to talk about those shiny new factions.

The Riverfolk

I’ll assume that you’re already clued up on how Root works, so we can skip to the exciting stuff. (If you’re not, you can check out our base game review for all the basics.) The Riverfolk Company are opportunistic traders, looking to make a quick buck by selling their wares to the warring factions of the woodland. Of course, when business turns sour, they have the military muscle to coerce their enemies into greasing their palms. To that end, as Wehrle alludes to in one of his designer diaries, they are akin to the British East India Company, re-imagined in the vibrant world of Root. A brutal mercantile faction which will stop at nothing to secure even more lucrative profits.

On paper, this all sounds rather grand and, frankly, Wehrle’s execution is nothing short of genius. The services up for grabs consist of buying cards from the Riverfolk’s public hand, hiring their otter mercenaries for use on your turn or getting the chance to temporarily utilise the Riverfolk’s unique ability to travel along the map’s river. Instead of bundling the Riverfolk with some arbitrary currency, the Company exchange their services for each faction’s spare warriors.

Fancy buying that card from the Riverfolk’s hand? No problem, that’ll be 3 warriors s’il vous plaît. Once the Company have these warriors on their player board, they can be used to perform various actions. You can commit a warrior to perform a minor action (draw cards, move, attack), keeping them on their player board for future turns. Alternatively, you might ‘spend’ that warrior to perform more powerful actions (establish ‘trade posts’ for VPs, recruit additional forces onto the map) at the cost of returning the warrior to its owner.

The Lizard Cult

If the Company are hard-nosed merchants, then the Lizard Cult are the complete opposite. A religious sect, the Cult is hell-bent on constructing gardens in honour of a great dragon. No, I’m not kidding! The Lizards take a much gentler approach towards guerrilla warfare. That is until some of their warriors are slaughtered and they become highly-motivated ‘acolytes’. If the Lizards can accumulate enough of these radical followers, they can be spent to perform various ‘conspiracies’. These range from simply infiltrating enemy ranks and replace opposing warriors with their own to literally demolishing any building and immediately placing a garden there. Scary stuff.

However, a Cult needs followers. This is where the ‘lost souls’ pile comes into play. Whenever a card would be discarded, it is instead placed on the Lizard’s board. When it’s time for the Cult to act, they check the most common suit in the pile and that group of animals becomes the ‘outcast’. Mechanically, this makes clearings of that type eligible for Cult ‘conspiracies’. Thematically, it represents the Cult appealing towards the disenchanted forest creatures and bringing them into the fold.  If you’ve played GMT’s A Distant Plain, you’ll recognise a similar dynamic in the Taliban’s tactical advantage when moving through sympathetic Pashtun ethnic regions. It’s just another example of how Wehrle seamlessly crafts COIN gameplay into a far more accessible package.


The Mechanical Marquise

Which brings me to where the Riverfolk Expansion falls a little flat. Root is a notoriously difficult game to get to the table due to its complexity. Therefore, it makes sense to include an option to tackle this game with fewer players. Unfortunately, the Mechanical Marquise doesn’t shine quite as brightly as the rest of the expansion. It’s not terrible, by any means, but it certainly feels like something is missing. Luckily, it’s very easy to operate, so the time spent learning how to run it is not wasted.

In essence, the Marquise has a series of ‘order cards’ (drawn from the main deck) which determine how it’ll act on a given turn. A mouse card might allow the Marquise to focus its recruitment and battling in mice clearings, whereas a bird card would allow it to act in all eligible clearings. There are also additional ‘spy’ cards thrown into the deck, which allow human players to peep at the order cards. This allows you to plan your turn around what the dastardly robo-cats are doing next.

Enough of that though, how does it feel to play against them? In a 1 v 1 game (playing as Eyrie as recommended), it’s a pleasingly tight affair. The Mechanical Marquise doesn’t use building tokens, so the focus is on taking down hordes of feline warriors. This makes it good practice for an aggressive Eyrie player. You have to work hard to stop clusters of Marquise warriors accumulating (which allow it to score points). There’s a nice ebb and flow to the two player game which I’ve always been fond of.

With other faction combinations, it’s always going to be a limited solo experience. The smaller, insurgent factions of Root such as the Woodland Alliance always work better when they have several players to bounce off, so I can’t really recommend the bot for solo play if your favourite faction isn’t the Eyrie Dynasty. As an addition to a two or three player game, I tend to just pass on it. Root is such a political game that it just feels weird playing with a mix of people and the bot. The Marquise have such a crucial role in Root as the forest policewomen that leaving it to a bot gives the game a slightly empty feeling.

Final Thoughts

If this was 2019, I would say to most Root fans that, if you have £30 to spend, you should grab the Riverfolk Expansion. The new factions are great fun, building on what makes Root a fantastic game. The Company are my favourite faction by a country mile and are reminiscent of the Hacan from Twilight Imperium. They give you plenty of opportunities to try clever strategies to coerce your friends. The Lizards, although rather tricky to win with, are a riot. Plus, it’s the only faction where I feel genuinely happy to see my warriors destroyed!

If you’ve played Cosmic Encounter as the Zombie you’ll know what I’m talking about.  Of course, if you found the kingmaking and ‘bash the leader’ flavour of the original not to your taste, then Riverfolk is not going to alleviate those problems for you. In fact, the introduction of the wheeling-dealing Riverfolk Company adds even more opportunities for table-talk and petty negotiating!

However, it’s currently 2020 and there’s another Root expansion vying for your attention, the Underworld. If you’re picking up the retail version, the Underworld adds two factions to the mix (the sneaky Corvid Conspiracy and powerful Underground Duchy). It also adds a new board, bringing the Mountain and Lake map into the fold. Which should you get? Excellent question. In my humble opinion it somewhat depends on how much you value those 5+ player games of Root.

Riverfolk or Underworld?

With 5+ players, the board can get extremely crowded and chaotic; Riverfolk provides you with some latitude to address this. The Riverfolk Company themselves thrive as an additional faction to classic base game line-up, but the second Vagabond can also be useful to introduce another player without cluttering the board. There’s a slight caveat though, in that both Riverfolk factions are a step-up in terms of complexity compared to the base game factions. Under no circumstances should the Lizard Cult ever be handed to a new player!

If you find that you’re frequently playing with only 2-3 players, I would lean slightly towards the Underworld Expansion. At 2 players, the best match-up is Marquise v Eyrie, so the Duchy really help the two player game come alive. Likewise, I find the new maps inject some much needed variety at those low player counts and the Corvids work best for me at 3-4 players. In contrast to the Riverfolk, the Corvids and Duchy are also a little more new player friendly. This could tip the scales for you if you’re constantly introducing Root to groups of new players.

Of course, these musings are pretty subjective and I’m making some sweeping generalisations here! If you already own the Underworld or are thinking of picking up a new Root expansion, you can’t go wrong with the Riverfolk which adds plenty of value to Leder Game’s already impressive title.

Machine War

This post must be prefaced with some notes: first, Root is my all-time favorite board game. It really has spoiled the community for asymmetric games and there is a reason why it is never missed in any discussion about asymmetric board games or why it ranks so highly in most publications’ top board games in general. Second, each expansion I have played has brought so much welcome new content into the game, and that is very uncommon, since a lot of expansions bloat an otherwise streamlined gameplay. When I purchased the Riverfolk and the Underworld Expansions, I also bought them on the Root app, which I have found dramatically decreases the steepness of the learning curve of any factions in Root, and that was a dangerous choice, because I found myself playing the game on my phone every single day.

Finally, I must add, I am actually good at Root. I lost 2 of perhaps the last 30 games I played. I have my preferred factions, but I can play as any of them and give anyone a run for their money. Having said that, I have never won a solo game against the Mechanical Marquise that came with the Riverfolk Expansion, and that’s both what this piece will focus on and also what I would rather no one brought up in my presence ever.

As you may know, Root has a Clockwork Expansion which included an automated – or robotic – version to each of the four base game factions: the Mechanical Marquise 2.0 (an updated version of the original Mechanical Marquise), the Electric Eyrie, the Automated Alliance and the Vagabot. I believe they have learned from mistakes made in their first attempts at solo gaming and vastly improved what they hinted at with the Mechanical Marquise, so let’s look at what didn’t work in their debut solo mode.

The Mechanical Marquise Is Relentless

The Mechanical Marquise uses the normal Marquise’s warriors, but that’s where their similarities end. Where a human-controlled Marquise de Cat’s main way to score points is to build, her mechanical counterpart doesn’t even have buildings or wood. She scores mainly based on occupation. In Birdsong, she gets 2 Victory Points per clearing she rules where she has at least 3 warriors. If that sounds like a farfetched possibility for her, you are mistaken. If her stock of warriors weren’t capped at 25, she could possibly rule 11 clearings with 3 warriors in as early as her first turn. The way she recruits is this: she always has 5 cards on her hand (or her stand, which comes in the box, so you can have all 5 cards stand up with their backs to you, so you cannot see them). In her turn, you will reveal the first of those cards. The Marquise will battle in every clearing of that suit she can, then move from every clearing of that suit she can, as long as she leaves 3 warriors behind, and recruit as many warriors as the cost of the revealed card in all clearings of that suit – whether she rules them or not.

Say the first card you reveal for the Marquise is a fox card with a crafting cost of two foxes. At the end of that turn, you will add 2 warriors to every fox clearing in the board, each of which already started with 1 warrior during setup. In her next turn, if you haven’t taken out any of her warriors, she will score 8 points. Plus one per human player playing, so 1 in a solo game. She will go from 1 to 10 points before you’ve had your second turn. And she will recruit every single time. If she recruits at rabbit or mouse clearings next, the game can end in 3 or 4 turns.

Your Ways To Score Are Slashed

The rules of the game against the Mechanical Marquise specify that you cannot use Ambush cards against her. Because she does not use building or tokens, the common way of scoring is inexistent too, as you will never have enemy cardboard pieces to remove. And there is a rule exclusive to solo mode, which stipulates that the Favor of the Foxes, Favor of the Mice and Favor of the Rabbits card must be removed from the deck, so even if you were somehow able to secure the means to craft them – the Vagabond might, if the Marquise doesn’t win before he can get three mallets – you will never get to use what would be the most powerful tool against a dominating enemy.

Factions that require intentional player interaction to score are also virtually useless. The Riverfolk Company will never sell any services, since the Mechanical Marquise never does anything other than those three actions in sequence: battle, move, recruit. Likewise, she won’t be trying to guess plots from the Corvid Conspiracy, although this is easier to excuse, as the Underworld Expansion, which introduced the crows, came after. But I would expect a faction introduced in the same box as the Mechanical Marquise to be somehow fitted to work with or against her. The Lizard Cult is also affected by her gameplay, since one of their most game changing abilities is to Sanctify – that is, replace an enemy building with one of their own. This causes such bombastic effects when used against other factions, possibly immediately forcing the Eyrie Dynasty into turmoil, or destroying one of the Woodland Alliances precious bases, but against an enemy that builds nothing, it’s impossible to use.

Who Can Threaten The Marquise?

I have made a point of attempting a game against the Mechanical Marquise with every faction that was available when she was introduced: Eyrie Dynasty, Woodland Alliance, Vagabond, Lizard Cult and Riverfolk Company. I also threw the Undergound Duchy in there out of curiosity. They all fail. The factions which in the competitive Root gaming community are referred to as militant (the Marquise herself, the Eyrie and the Duchy) fare a bit better then the other (insurgent) factions, but still cannot keep up with the Marquise’s unstoppable recruiting power. As the Woodland Alliance, you can end the game with your Victory Points tracker in the single digits, as you simply do not have the manpower to meet her in the battlefield in order to slow down – not stop – her massive scoring each turn. The Cult might have better numbers, but with their fighting possibilities being tied to the Outcast suit, you won’t be able to target specific clearings either, and will likely fail.

I’ve seen less dire scenarios in a multiplayer cooperative game against this robotic beast. If everyone really plays together, with the Eyrie deliberately walking into sympathetic clearings to fatten the Alliance’s supporters stack, all players leaving the Eyrie alone to resolve their decree without entering turmoil (sometimes that means intentionally destroying one of their roosts in case they’ve run out and need to keep building) and the Vagabond mercilessly slashing at those cats with his crossbow, you might get somewhere. But that isn’t a solo mode. The manual included specific rules for a 1 player game, but I wonder how they thought that they might make up a feasible game.

Is The Riverfolk Expansion Worth It?

That goes without saying. Every Root expansion is worth it. I’ve observed people setting up a game of Root before where the Riverfolk Expansion was at hand but the somewhat experienced players suggested not bothering with it, as the rules were too complicated and the factions were less directly involved with the conflict. That is completely inaccurate. The otters are a force to be reckoned with if their services are even mildly sought after – and they should be. The lizards may not win often, but they create more chaos than perhaps any other faction out there. And their difficulty level makes them my favorite faction of all to play as. This expansion also introduced more Vagabond characters and the possibility to have two Vagabonds simultaneously. But for a game that is infamously difficult to learn, and therefore hard to find people to play with, a reliable solo mode would be a godsend. They have addressed many of these issues with the Clockwork expansion, but this inclusion in the Riverfolk Expansion is sadly to be shelved.

Zatu Score


  • Artwork
  • Complexity
  • Replayability
  • Player Interaction
  • Component Quality

You might like

  • Riverfolk Company and Lizard Cult are fantastic additions to the game
  • Opens up options to play with 5+ players
  • Solo mode is fun if you like the Eyrie Dynasty

Might not like

  • Solo mode not so fun if you don't like the Eyrie Dynasty
  • New factions aren't terribly new player friendly
  • Doesn't change the core 'Root' formula, if that didn't float your boat