Root Review

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MB Updated January 20, 2019
Root Board Game Review

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The best and most important game of 2018.

I'm not going to waste my time writing or your time reading by describing what you do in Cole Wehrle's Root. I'm not going to enumerate what the phases are, how you score points, explain how crazy asymmetrical it is, fawn over how cute it is, or laboriously trot out all of the routine Consumer Reports product facts you can discover elsewhere by reading someone else’s coverage or by simply downloading and reading the rulebook. All of those things are important- the stunning highwire act of balancing wildly different player factions and standardized procedural elements for example. It's significant that Root is essentially a distillation and refinement of concepts developed in the far more complicated and far less accessible COIN designs. I think it is also worth mentioning that the game looks incredible with an instantly iconic illustration style, executed by Kyle Ferrin, which looks like a cross between Bill Watterson, Richard Scarry, and Animal Crossing. It absolutely matters that this game is extremely well-written, well-designed, and well-developed- on all of the above points Root would already be a game-of-the-year contender.

However, there are other reasons that I believe Root is in fact one of the best games I have ever played. I'm sure that statement will raise eyebrows and maybe even elicit some harumphs. Some may argue that it's a new game, but I would counter-propose that greatness doesn't always take 20 years to become evident. And I knew from my very first play that Root was something special not only because of how it created a fully realized game world, but also how it captured a completely fictive moment in this world's history and brought its themes to life. I mean themes, not setting. Setting is the pictures, words, and contextual framing. Themes are the meanings, subtextual concepts, and ideas beneath.

It is a period of tumult in the woodlands with three factions pursuing different agendas - and then there is a fourth actor or actress that exists as a kind of Yojimbo-like, spoiler figure between the rival powers. The Marquise de Cat has risen to power and seeks to develop industry, relying on a large martial presence to spread from a central power base. It isn't hard to imagine this faction as Saruman, sending his Uruk-Hai out from Isengard to subjugate, dominate, and exploit. Directly opposed to them are the Eyrie, an avian race representing the old, dynastic rulers of the woods that must struggle with a traditional internal political system as much as they will against rivals. But they gather in flocks, and shrewd bureaucratic positioning can find them reclaiming their territory. But there is also a rebellion stirring, as the diverse creatures of Woodland Alliance seek to rise up against both the interlopers and the de facto rulers. The problem with managing their influence is that sympathy can fall on their side, increasing their relative power. The Vagabond is the game's big question mark. Will he or she act as an agent of the Marquis or the Eyrie? Or will the role they play tilt the balance to the revolution? Or will the Vagabond emerge as the only real winner?

The degree of sophistication with which Root describes these four very different themes of conflict is quite far removed from what most players may be used to in encountering the usual "dudes on a map" or area control games. By vesting each of these factions with completely different processes and mechanics - all of which interlock in a way that recalls nothing less than EON's classic Dune- the game is able to depict this fictional turning point from different ideological angles. There are some ways this game is like a 4x design- but not every faction does every X, some factions do X differently, and some factions do X for different end results- and in a way more compelling and narratively richer than the basic "different victory condition" or "unique faction ability" tropes.


It is true that there is something of a rigidity to this format as each side requires that you mind their very specific objectives and play by their very specific rules. But I would argue that there are enough variable elements in place (card play, dice rolls, player behavior) to keep it volatile. The drama is high, regardless of which story arc the faction you are playing follows. And as you engage with the narrative, the senses of triumph, failure, and opportunity are revealed to be part and parcel with each faction's identity, philosophy, and agenda. There is more to this game than the gee-whiz, every side is different reaction suggests. The mechanical and gameplay differences here are founded in the themes that each faction represents, themes that describe different aspects of participation in political, military, and ideological conflict.

This is what makes Root such a great game, and it is what I predict the horde of games that are going to be chasing what this design does so right over the next five years are going to get so wrong. The asymmetry isn't there to artificially create an illusion of replayability, as is often the case in games with "unique" player factions. It's there to circumscribe the story of Root and to bring out what "might and right in the Woodland Realm" means, as the subtitle evocatively suggests. Here's a hint- "might and right" are different depending on which side of the conflict you are on.

I love teaching this game, even though it is something a challenge because you have up to four players each playing, essentially, a unique set of rules overlaying a central design. There is a moment when a new Alliance player realizes how utterly explosive their uprising in the mid game can be after a long, slow build up. I love how a Vagabond player suddenly understands that a single, treacherous crossbow assassination can tip the scales in a clearing. There's always a feeling of defeat when an inexperienced Eyrie player blows their mandated Decree and has to essentially sack their entire leadership- but theirs is a government that cannot exist without the churn so you explain how they'll still earn points for their roosts and rebuild for the next turn.


This sometimes charming, sometimes brutal world comes to life in the players' eyes, and it's magical. As these players become veterans, this wonderful sense of discovery is surmounted by a gradual understanding of this game's intricate pathways, trajectories and flow. It becomes internalized and each game this moment- this made-up history of this made-up time- breathes again.

All of the things that make Root truly great are directly tied to narrative, theme, and representation in a way that very few games attempt. It may be that Mr. Wehrle is among the few designers working today that are able to use the games medium to strike at these depths. Root is a masterpiece for all of the reasons you've read elsewhere for sure. But I would add that there are reasons below the surface - at its root if you absolutely must - that make it not only the standout game of 2018 but quite possibly of this generation.

An advance review copy of this game was provided courtesy of Leder Games. There Will Be Games accepts no payment from publishers or designers for reviews, editorials, or other content.

There Will Be Games Root Board Game Review

Root Board Game Review Michael BarnesFollow Michael Barnes Follow Michael Barnes Message Michael Barnes

Editor-in-Chief

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of FortressAT.com and Nohighscores.com as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film. 

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Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #281929 19 Sep 2018 20:52
So is there enough cardboard inside the box to give it enough value for the money?
SaMoKo's Avatar
SaMoKo replied the topic: #281930 19 Sep 2018 21:07

Gary Sax wrote: So is there enough cardboard inside the box to give it enough value for the money?


This. Do one of those box opening reviews and finish by slowly pouring the contents onto an exotic bed while purring about the future resale value
CranBerries's Avatar
CranBerries replied the topic: #281931 19 Sep 2018 21:07
Should I sell my backup guitar to buy this?
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #281937 19 Sep 2018 23:05
No.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #281938 20 Sep 2018 04:15

I love teaching this game, even though it is something a challenge because you have up to four players each playing, essentially, a unique set of rules overlaying a central design.


This is really interesting because that's essentially how another Leder Games title, Vast, works. I think I described it as something like every player having their own rules, and the game falling out of the parts where those rules intersect. It's quite the most innovative design I've played in years, although it's clunky and quite hard to teach and learn.

Yet although Root and Vast are from the same publisher, they've got different designers. I wonder what the story is here? An in-house development synergy, perhaps? Or maybe a case of the one game inspiring greater heights in the other.

Got a copy en-Root (see what I did there?) so hopefully I'll get the chance yo explore this myself.
mc's Avatar
mc replied the topic: #281939 20 Sep 2018 04:52
I could be wrong but I've got the impression the company is pretty much aiming to make asymmetric games the only thing they do.

Wehrle, the designer of Root, got a full time job with them and i think was already working on it as a more accesible COIN style thing, and yes, I think probably building on what Vast had done too.

I think that's the gist of it anyway. Pretty sure I've heard both him and the Vast guy interviewed together on some podcast.
Ska_baron's Avatar
Ska_baron replied the topic: #281941 20 Sep 2018 06:32
Looking forward to playing this one as I absolutely agree with Michael's assessment (from afar anyway).

And yes, Leder Games is all about asymmetry in their published games.

But how can we not address the most salacious aspect of Root? It's plagiarism! www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/1944526/official-status-deep
The board game industry is still so small and messy.
mc's Avatar
mc replied the topic: #281943 20 Sep 2018 06:38
Wow. Interesting reading... cheers for that, I hadn't come across any of that.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #281944 20 Sep 2018 07:49
So Michael (or anyone else)... does Root fire any games for you?
stoic's Avatar
stoic replied the topic: #281945 20 Sep 2018 08:12
.

GorillaGrody's Avatar
GorillaGrody replied the topic: #281946 20 Sep 2018 08:22

hotseatgames wrote: So Michael (or anyone else)... does Root fire any games for you?


I'm familiar only with Fire in the Lake and Cuba Libre, of the COIN games. My gripe with them is that they are designed by the same sort of designers who cut their teeth on the "simplicity" of wargames featuring stuff like the Battle of the Bulge. When these designers sit down to design games around the liberatory struggles of the Viet Cong or of the the anti-capitalist forces of revolutionary Cuba, they treat them as orders of magnitude more complicated than a traditional wargame. This complication constitutes a critique, acknowledging the failure of liberatory movements over the course of history.

Imagine that we needed to play out the Battle of the Bulge with the full knowledge that, 70 years later, fascism would be ascendant around the world, because, you know, war is complicated. I find the level of abstraction found in Root totally refreshing, by comparison. And cute.

TLDR: COIN is complex to a fault. Root has l'il cutey-cute baby animals. Fired.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #281947 20 Sep 2018 08:40

stoic wrote: .


Usually yes? But I don't see how a 30 minute 3-4 player game automatically ends up a toad.

Edit: 90, thanks Charlie. My point still stands, I think.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #281949 20 Sep 2018 09:00

Gary Sax wrote:

stoic wrote: .


Usually yes? But I don't see how a 30 minute 3-4 player game automatically ends up a toad.


It's a 90 minute game typically (120 in my one five player game), with three player possibly being as quick as 70ish minutes. Two player is 45-60, and while not awful, I wouldn't go to this as a two player game regularly.
BaronDonut's Avatar
BaronDonut replied the topic: #281951 20 Sep 2018 10:33

GorillaGrody wrote: When these designers sit down to design games around the liberatory struggles of the Viet Cong or of the the anti-capitalist forces of revolutionary Cuba, they treat them as orders of magnitude more complicated than a traditional wargame. This complication constitutes a critique, acknowledging the failure of liberatory movements over the course of history.


Hey GG, can you elaborate a bit more on this? I don't totally understand the connection you're making between complexity and critique.

In my (our?) limited COIN experience, they seem to be more of a sidewise step in complexity to their more traditional brethren, choosing to focus their mechanics on interplay between political entities than, say, the fire rates and effective distances of different automatic rifles. To me, this kind of complexity generates a more productive and critical engagement with historical conflict; it's why Fire in the Lake is a better Vietnam game than the ones that treat American forces and VC as equivalent shirts-and-skins chits on a map.

Of course, maybe you're not talking about mechanical complexity? Maybe it's in the framing of the conflict? Or maybe representing any of this in a simulationist way is inherently anti-revolutionary?

Will 100% agree with you that cute animals are always better, though.
stoic's Avatar
stoic replied the topic: #281953 20 Sep 2018 11:07

Gary Sax wrote:

stoic wrote: .


Usually yes? But I don't see how a 30 minute 3-4 player game automatically ends up a toad.

Edit: 90, thanks Charlie. My point still stands, I think.


It will be a toad for most after the initial cuteness of the artwork wears off and the vast majority of gamers decide that, "No," they don't want to fanatically learn the rules of each and every faction in order to balance out this asymmetrical game, and, they also grow tired of looking for dedicated Root players who rooted out the rules well enough to make this a competitive game meriting repeated play. This toady will soon reveal itself. Croak...
BaronDonut's Avatar
BaronDonut replied the topic: #281955 20 Sep 2018 12:07
Also, congratulations to the editorial team for putting together a downright adorable cuddly critter / cute monster review week.
Not Sure's Avatar
Not Sure replied the topic: #281959 20 Sep 2018 12:39

stoic wrote: It will be a toad for most after the initial cuteness of the artwork wears off and the vast majority of gamers decide that, "No," they don't want to fanatically learn the rules of each and every faction in order to balance out this asymmetrical game, and, they also grow tired of looking for dedicated Root players who rooted out the rules well enough to make this a competitive game meriting repeated play. This toady will soon reveal itself. Croak...


Every game is a shelf toad when you have 1000+ games. Root's a good game, worth replaying. Most of the copies sold won't get 10 games played on them, if any at all. That's the reality of the current market.

That's got little to do with Root, and everything to do with 5000 games a year and Pokemon collectors catching them all.

The asymmetry is a hard nut to crack. But if Dune can survive as a classic (toad that it fucking is...) then Root has a chance too. Even better in that it's not based in a 50-year-old novel, and plays in half the time. Will it? Who knows.
GorillaGrody's Avatar
GorillaGrody replied the topic: #281964 20 Sep 2018 14:30

BaronDonut wrote:

GorillaGrody wrote: When these designers sit down to design games around the liberatory struggles of the Viet Cong or of the the anti-capitalist forces of revolutionary Cuba, they treat them as orders of magnitude more complicated than a traditional wargame. This complication constitutes a critique, acknowledging the failure of liberatory movements over the course of history.


Hey GG, can you elaborate a bit more on this? I don't totally understand the connection you're making between complexity and critique.

In my (our?) limited COIN experience, they seem to be more of a sidewise step in complexity to their more traditional brethren, choosing to focus their mechanics on interplay between political entities than, say, the fire rates and effective distances of different automatic rifles. To me, this kind of complexity generates a more productive and critical engagement with historical conflict; it's why Fire in the Lake is a better Vietnam game than the ones that treat American forces and VC as equivalent shirts-and-skins chits on a map.


This may be getting too deep in the water for this particular forum, but for my part, I don't really see simulation as equaling accuracy, and certainly not critical engagement. In fact, I see it as a lot more dangerous to simulate the desire people have for politics to transform their lives as a tug of various chits on the board which, in some other context, would simulate fire rates and movement capabilities. Fire In The Lake doesn't really ask why America was in Vietnam, and I'd argue that's because the tactical realpolitik of the game doesn't allow the question to be asked. America was ever in Vietnam, according to Fire In The Lake: play it again and see if you can win it this time. In Root, however, I am encouraged to ask why the Eyrie behave the way they do. The reductiveness and essential quality of their role demands the question.

Games, to my mind, don't produce convincing simulations. The harder they try, the worse they become. I mean, try playing GURPS sometime.

Games do, however, produce beautiful abstractions. I think gamers often try too hard to tell themselves that abstractions are simulations because they are beautiful, especially when those abstractions suit their model of the world.
ChristopherMD's Avatar
ChristopherMD replied the topic: #281966 20 Sep 2018 14:43
How does getting players up to speed on how to play the various factions in this game compare to Cthulhu Wars? I'm sure the mechanics are different but it sounds like they have the asymmetrical faction strategies in common.
BaronDonut's Avatar
BaronDonut replied the topic: #281971 20 Sep 2018 15:00

GorillaGrody wrote: Fire In The Lake doesn't really ask why America was in Vietnam, and I'd argue that's because the tactical realpolitik of the game doesn't allow the question to be asked. America was ever in Vietnam, according to Fire In The Lake: play it again and see if you can win it this time.


This is a really great thought, thanks for it.

I think you're right in saying that games never really work as true simulations. Their gameness, the need to be a playable thing, seems to be at odds with the goal of simulation (or recreation or whatever). It will never be sufficient. That said, I think games can generate ideas and posit models and have interesting things to say about the past, even if they are compromised by abstraction. I mean, all the other tools we use to deal with or interact with the past are abstracted or reductive in some way, too: narrative, theory, statistics, etc. I think a game can communicate something useful, even if that's only the worldview and assumptions of the designer.

Also, lol, GURPS, no. Never again.
Ken B.'s Avatar
Ken B. replied the topic: #281982 20 Sep 2018 16:07

ChristopherMD wrote: How does getting players up to speed on how to play the various factions in this game compare to Cthulhu Wars? I'm sure the mechanics are different but it sounds like they have the asymmetrical faction strategies in common.


I'd be interested to hear that comparison as well. I have good luck in teaching Cthulhu Wars like this:

"Cthulhu, you're the hammer, you want to fight and die a lot. Black Goat, you're Zerg, you want to spread your forces everywhere. Nyarly, you are highly mobile and conduct guerilla warfare. Yellow Sign, you're playing your own wandering mini-game. Try not to get the guy with his butt cheeks showing killed. You folks ready to play?"


Well, ok, that's *mostly* how it goes, anyway.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #281989 20 Sep 2018 17:20
I'd say that it is actually somewhat easier to get new players going than Cthulhu Wars, except for two things.

One is that it simply takes longer to do the ol' rules talk. You need to go to each player and explain what they do, how they do it. This is not terribly hard. The game makes it fairly easy, actually, as it provides these helper cards for every player explaining what all the other factions are about. As long as everyone is aware that they have a subset of rules and that not everyone gets points the same way, etc., it usually works out OK. I think it helps if you explain that one faction is the invader, one is the existing government, one is the rebellion, and one is the mercenary. Those simple terms bring a lot of the concepts together. So that's kind of like the Ken B. Method, isn't it?

The other is that there are things that are not immediately visible. For example, in the last game I played, the Marquise player was completely waylaid because they didn't understand how the Alliance can basically nuke a clearing in an uprising. They didn't expect the effect of it to be so severe, and it wasn't something they picked up on in the rules or the buildup. This can also happen with the other factions if they don't quite catch some of the subtleties.

With all of that said, I think Root has a little less in terms of different elements to learn, reflecting on the spellbooks, different units, special abilities, GOO differences, and so forth.

I've taught it to a grand total of 11 newbies and although that first game is going to be a learning thing, I don't feel like anyone came away feeling like they didn't know what was going on or anything like that. There is a walkthrough/play through of the first couple of turns you can do if you really want some firmer guidance.

In sum- some of the "OMG every faction is different, what do I do" fear is overblown. This is not a complicated game.

On the "shelf toad" issue...it doesn't matter. Even if I never play it again, it's still an incredible game. The notion that a game has to be immortally replayable for the rest of your life to be great is kind of dumb. I've only read The Scarlet Letter one time, but it's still an amazing book. The game can be picked up again and learned again in 10 minutes and it's rarely more than 90 minutes long, so it's not like there is a special consideration because of its format or whatever.
Ken B.'s Avatar
Ken B. replied the topic: #281992 20 Sep 2018 17:53
Alright Barnsey, no one answered this, so I gotta know:

Kickstarter for Pax Pamir is wrapping up today. I watched that video and I'm all in. The theme and unique production are just...man, it looks amazing and a gameplay video hooked me even more.

Being as Pax Pamir is Root's spiritual ancestor, do I "need" Root too? (Understanding that "need" is a hideously abused word in our hobby and I use it fully ironically as you could bury me under the weight of all the games I own and it would crush my bones to powder and take years for anyone to ever find my lifeless husk.)
Not Sure's Avatar
Not Sure replied the topic: #281993 20 Sep 2018 17:54

GorillaGrody wrote: Fire In The Lake doesn't really ask why America was in Vietnam, and I'd argue that's because the tactical realpolitik of the game doesn't allow the question to be asked. America was ever in Vietnam, according to Fire In The Lake: play it again and see if you can win it this time. In Root, however, I am encouraged to ask why the Eyrie behave the way they do. The reductiveness and essential quality of their role demands the question.


I cannot see how the first sentence and the third co-exist there.

The Eyrie were ever in the forest, it pretty much says so in the rulebook. Root might encourage you to invent some background for why your animals are duking it out, but a game of FitL starts at the same point as Root: "however we got here, here we are, let's fight".

The difference being that you can hit the books and research any number of interpretations of why America was in Vietnam, and then square your ideas of the game model with the assumptions that were made to enable it being a "game".

Root backstories are fan-fiction, and I never feel a demand to write fan-fiction.
Not Sure's Avatar
Not Sure replied the topic: #281994 20 Sep 2018 18:00

Ken B. wrote: Alright Barnsey, no one answered this, so I gotta know:

Kickstarter for Pax Pamir is wrapping up today. I watched that video and I'm all in. The theme and unique production are just...man, it looks amazing and a gameplay video hooked me even more.

Being as Pax Pamir is Root's spiritual ancestor, do I "need" Root too? (Understanding that "need" is a hideously abused word in our hobby and I use it fully ironically as you could bury me under the weight of all the games I own and it would crush my bones to powder and take years for anyone to ever find my lifeless husk.)


Aside from being from the same designer, there's no actual lineage there. Pax Pamir was (and will be again) a derivative of Pax Porfiriana, a shifting-strategies game of buying the right stuff out of the market and deploying it to get an edge over the other players.

Root is an asymmetric light wargame, with its origins in COIN (among other things), and it's about using your various species advantages and disadvantages to race towards an abstract finish line of "30 points".

They're very opposite in design, Pax is about differentiating yourself from a horde of equals through clever play (and good luck/timing), while Root is about measuring your inherent differences against a common goal.

One game is not required for the other at all. If you like one style and not the other, buy that one. Or both. Or neither.