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.