Unless 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.
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.
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.
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.