I can't think of a game that's received more hype in 2018 than Root. Cole Wehrle's asymmetrical game of 'woodland might and right' has been in the spotlight since Origins back in June. I follow a lot of board game content on YouTube, social media, and podcasts. This game has been popping up everywhere.
Root has been touted as the spiritual successor to Vast, a popular game released in 2016. Though the games have different designers, both are published by Leder Games, and both feature brilliant art from Kyle Ferrin, whose name quite rightly appears on the front of the box alongside Wehrle. Both Vast and Root share a feature that's rare in popular board games: complete asymmetry.
In Root, as in Vast, each player controls a faction with completely different rules, abilities, and ways to win. There are a few common elements, like a board and a shared points track. However, every mechanic with an impact on strategy is unique to one faction or another. It's a truly fascinating game to play and a beast to review, but I'll do my best to do it justice.
Basic Gameplay Across all Factions
Root's gameplay is governed by some foundation rules that allow the factions to interact. It plays out on a wooded board containing 12 clearings, all separated by forests and connected by paths. Players battle for control between these clearings. At its heart, Root is an area control game. Three of the four factions score points by adding warriors, buildings, and other tokens to the board, then fighting for control against the other players. To enable this area control, players battle - a simple mechanic in which two D8s are rolled and players can do damage based on the number of warriors they control in the clearing.
All players also have access to a central deck of cards, drawing from it throughout the game. These cards have abilities or rewards that can be gained by crafting them with buildings placed in the correct spots on the board and can also be used to pay for things throughout the game or to give yourself an edge in battle. Different factions gain cards in different ways, but all have access to them and they all use them in more or less the same way.
All factions can also gain victory points in a couple of ways to help them get to the winning total of 30. Removing an opponent's buildings in battle will always earn you points, as will crafting certain items. As well as these methods, each faction has unique abilities that grant them other, more effective ways to gain points.
In the base game, four factions battle for supremacy in the woodlands. I'll introduce them here. I don't have space to go into their mechanical nuances, but I'll give you an overview of how they work.
The Marquise de Cat
The Marquise and her feline legion are in control of the woodland. They start with a warrior in every clearing except one. They pushed out the forest's previous rulers and now subjugate its denizens - the foxes, mice and rabbits.
The player controlling the cats benefits from a big starting presence on the board. Their goal is to maintain control. They will score points by building different kinds of buildings in the clearings that they rule. To do this, players spend three action points on any combination of actions that are designed to allow the cats to fight off competition, keep their numbers high, and build increasingly expensive - and rewarding - buildings.
Before the cats invaded, the woodland was controlled by the militant Eyrie, a tribe of birds ruled by despotic leaders. They start with a roost and a huddle of warriors in one corner of the board. Throughout their turn, the Eyrie player adds cards to their 'orders' which specify which actions they must carry out and where.
Ultimately, the birds gain points every turn for the number of roosts they've built, so can build up quite a bit of momentum. But they need to be careful: if they ever fail to carry out an action in their orders, they fall into turmoil! The current leader is replaced, they lose access to a lot of their actions and they even lose a couple of points. Playing the birds is all about careful, long term planning.
The Woodland Alliance
The forest creatures are not passive bystanders in the war for control of their homeland. They have formed an alliance to fight against the cats, birds, and anyone who wants to control them. Though they start with nothing on the board, they use supporter cards to gain support tokens around the clearings, eventually rising up in violent revolts.
Once a revolt has happened and a base has been established, the Alliance can train officers to give their warriors more options and even start to spread out across the board, battling birds and cats alike for control of different areas. The Alliance gains points by spreading sympathy tokens, though they will nearly always be outnumbered and need to be careful not to be pushed back by the superior might of the cats and birds.
Every conflict encourages opportunists who travel around trying to make a profit and a name for themselves. In Root, this role is played by the Vagabond, a lone wanderer who is allied to no one and everyone. The Vagabond is just a single pawn that can move freely around the board, no matter who's in control.
This player gains points by completing quests in different areas to build their renown, by building alliances with factions they choose to be friendly towards and by killing the warriors of factions they choose to pick a fight with. The actions available to the Vagabond are governed by the items they own, which can be gained through trading for the items that other players have crafted or from exploring ruins on the board. Of all the factions, the Vagabond is the only one that rarely needs to resort to regular area control to make their presence felt.
Balance and Strategy
One of the challenges in designing a completely asymmetrical game is balancing it. How do you make sure that every player has a fighting chance when they're all following different rules? I can't answer that question, but it appears that Cole Wehrle can. The games I've played so far have all been close, with no runaway leader.
The game moves in ebbs and flows, with different factions gaining strength at different times. The cats tend to struggle to maintain power as the immediate threat of the birds pushes back their territory, while the Alliance grows in strength towards an explosive finish. The Vagabond is a rogue element whose influence is sometimes light and sometimes very noticeable.
By ensuring that each faction is strong in different ways, Wehrle has given players something to latch onto to inform their strategies. Though the rules can be dense, most players find it easy to grasp their faction's objectives. This helps to ensure that everyone is always roughly on the right track.
In addition, a multiplayer game like this will often balance itself. If one player is clearly doing well, others will be able to work against them to reel them back in. Not everyone likes that style of game, but it's an important feature of Root. The free-for-all battling really works.
Alternate Win Conditions
In addition, Wehrle designed alternate win conditions to throw a lifeline to players who are falling behind. There are four Dominance cards that can be drawn from the main deck. When claimed by a player, these cards replace their points track as the sole win condition for that player. Dominance cards require the player to control clearings of a certain type at the start of their next turn. If they do, they win.
However, the cards are public knowledge when claimed, so other players can work to make sure they don't achieve it. It's a great way to turn someone who is lacking in points into a potential threat without upsetting the game's flow.
Playing with Fewer than Four Players
When I first heard Root being talked about I had one burning question: would it play well at two players? I was concerned that the balance of the game would be off when the number of factions was reduced. It turns out that I needn't have worried.
The Learning to Play book suggests combinations for two and three-player games, indicating what each player should try to do in those scenarios. Essentially, any combination of factions can be used for lower player counts except the Vagabond, who can't be played at two.
I haven't explored two or three player games as much as I'd like to yet, but the one experience I had of cats vs birds was incredibly close. The game felt competitive all the way through, until my wife beat me with a Dominance card. Had I had one more turn, I would have won, which is how close it was. I wouldn't hesitate to play at fewer than four again.
Don't Expect a Smooth First Game
It would be remiss of me to hide the difficult side of Root. Though I don't think any one faction is very complex, teaching it for the first time to a group at full player count was hard. The teaching takes a while because you need to give different guidelines to every player and make sure everyone understands the basics.
The first time I played Root, I was also teaching four other people (the Woodland Alliance was played by a team of two). I knew the basics of the rules but I hadn't played it before to learn the nuances. It felt like I was going back to the Law of Root rule book every turn and afterwards I realised that I'd still made several mistakes. Honestly, I didn't have a lot of fun in that first play through.
The second time I played, however, I was playing a two-player game with my wife. I'd seen the rules in practice and was able to avoid the traps I'd walked into previously. It was much easier to teach the game to just one other person.
If you're teaching people Root for the first time, make sure they know what to expect. If they can read the rules beforehand, even just for a single chosen faction, even better. The game gives you two rule books - one 'Learning to Play' walk through and one complete rules guide, the 'Law of Root'. It even gives you a walk-through to follow on your first two turns. Even so, you won't work out all the rules until you see them in action and that first play through is likely to go wrong. If you accept that and press on, you'll find that this game is truly excellent.
Components and Art
The complexity and depth of Root are hidden behind Kyle Ferrin's adorable art. From the cartoon art on the box and cards to the amazing wooden meeples, this game is unbelievably cute. I have to compliment Leder Games on making Root look as good as it does at the same time as keeping the price very reasonable. They could easily have gone over the top and made this a pricey game with miniatures and whatnot. But the whole aesthetic that they went with works so well.
Closing Thoughts on Root
If you've stuck with me to this point, thank you! There's so much to talk about with Root so it was impossible not to run on for 2,000 words. However, we're almost there. Root is a game with an undeniably high barrier to entry. Wehrle and Leder Games have done what they can to make it accessible, but it's no gateway game.
However, the beautiful design of the asymmetric factions means there's more depth here than almost any game on my shelf. I simply cannot see myself getting bored of it. I want to play every faction and I want to play them again and again in all the different combinations you available.
Yes, it's hard to learn and fiddly at times, but I simply don't care. If I had to nitpick further I'd say that the downtime between turns can be long. However, if you're engaged in the game you'll be using this time to plan your own turn. If everyone does that, it won't be so bad.
Sometimes the hype over a new release is overdone but I can't think of a game more deserving than Root. The Riverfolk Expansion is now also available, featuring two new factions and a solo/co-op mode! Bring on more Root; it's a fantastic game.