There comes a time in a critic’s life when you enjoy one of the big games, the current hotness, the behemoths that stand astride the hobby. Our minds being what they are, we critics eventually have to tackle these games, albeit with a certain amount of trepidation. I have been here before with Gloomhaven , and now I find myself at the feet of the colossus that is Root.
Root came onto the scene in 2018 from publisher Leder Games and the design/artist team of Cole Wehrle and Kyle Ferrin. It captured the community’s imagination with its fantastic art style and the theme of anthropomorphised animals duking it out for woodland supremacy.
Underneath the adorable art is a complicated, cutthroat wargame where every faction is racing to accumulate 30 points. The wrinkle being that every faction does this differently; the factions are “asymmetric” rather than all being the same, or “symmetric”.
The tagline of Root is ‘A game of Woodland Might and Right’ and it really leans into that theme with its factions. The Marquis de Cat, you can guess the animal, has taken over the forest, their forces spread throughout the woods. The Eyrie, birds, the previous rulers of the woods, are beaten back into a single corner of the woods, sheltering in their trees, plotting their revenge. The Vagabond, a whole host of creatures here, is an individual wandering the forests, adventuring as they need, creating and breaking alliances and turning to war as the need arises. Finally the Woodland Alliance, mice, plot and scheme, only revealing themselves when they have garnered enough support.
Each of these factions really drives home their themes through the mechanics that get them to the finish line. The Marquis is playing a fairly straight forward strategy game, getting points for building infrastructure and expanding their reach.
The Eyrie are set in their ways, and play an action programming game where they have to take all the actions they have promised their citizens they will do every turn. As they expand and make roosts they gain points, and they can truly accelerate in the blink of an eye. Each turn they make more promises, accelerating their plans, but there is the risk of it all falling apart and their court descending into Turmoil.
The Vagabond quests through the dungeons and forests of the world, trading goods with the other factions and having a jolly old solo role playing game style time. Quests give them points as does the establishment of relationships with the other factions. Depending on the type of Vagabond they are they may also turn their hand to the occasional murder just for fun.
The Woodland Alliance doesn’t even start on the board, slowly gaining points by creating sympathy for their cause. When the time is right they can burst through and establish a base, their strategic nous in battle giving them the upper hand in battles and making them difficult to dislodge.
These faction designs are at once Root’s greatest strength and its major weakness. If you are playing with a single group only you can all learn together and get the measure of each faction. Without this knowledge it is possible for a new player to feel overwhelmed and demoralised. It is common that when you first start playing Root that you will see the Marquis shoot up the track early, seemingly unassailable. After a couple of games you know better how to the keep the cat in check whilst accelerating your own plans, and know that despite their fast start you can catch up.
The learning curve of Root is fairly steep but Leder are one of my favourite companies when it comes to holding your hand through those first tentative steps, and beyond. Each faction's sheet is clear, concise, and contains all the information you need to know what it does during Birdsong, Daylight, and Evening, the three phases of your turn. Also the game now comes with a tutorial you can play through to get a better idea of how each of the actions in the game works. Finally the back of each faction board comes with all the information you need to setup that faction and a brief strategic overview of what your path to victory might look like. Brilliant (though it would be nice to refer to the overview in your first couple of games and you can’t do that whilst playing).
I love player aids, even for games I’ve played loads. It means I can get on with playing the game, not remembering the rules. More games should come with them and why more publishers don’t have tutorials in their rules is beyond me. We all know that learning the rules is one of the big stumbling blocks when it comes to boardgame accessibility. Anything publishers can do to make that easier is very much appreciated. Oath and Fort from Leder both have excellent player aids, the latter allowing my wife to get a handle of her first deckbuilding game with ease.
Your first game of Root will likely be overwhelming. You are concentrating so hard on what your faction to do it is hard to keep an eye on what that Vagabond is doing, or how the Alliance is garnering sympathy. As you tackle the more complicated factions it can be hard to see the wood for the trees, and often you might think ‘how do I win with these animals?. If you are willing to stick with it for a game or two, it’s going to click. Even through struggle you will see the potential and you’ll get hooked.
Two more things
Of course Root has had expansions as any successful franchise does. What these expansions do is up the player count and the options, giving you new factions and maps to play with.
This first expansion introduces the Riverfolk Company (Otters) and The Lizard Cult (Lizards). The Riverfolk are capitalism brought to life in the woods of the game. They sell their services to the other factions: troops, cards, and movement down the river that was previously not allowed. They then turn their profits into weapons and come and knock you down. Want to beat up your opponents and then sell them soldiers to beat you up? This is the faction for you.
The Lizard Cult is my personal favourite. They rely on converting the dispossessed to their religion, meaning you end with all the spent and discarded cards of the other factions. As you spread your influence you require sacrifices in acolytes to power your crusade, convert soldiers to your cause, and buildings to your temples. Their gardens, buildings, give them VP whenever they choose to score them, allowing them to accelerate quickly once established. They are sneaky, insidious, and with the potential for all sorts of shenanigans.
In this box you also get some new Vagabond flavours, a mechanical Marquis to use in solo or co-op mode and the ability to play 5 or 6 players. If you are after an expanded player count, or just some juicy new factions, it’s a really strong expansion.
I haven’t had the chance to play this expansion as much with one thing and another. It brings the Underground Duchy (Moles) and the Corvid Conspiracy (Crows) to the table along with two new maps.
The Duchy I have played. Similar to Eyrie they start out with few actions and gain more as they sway ministers to their side. Each minister gives you a new action and as you recruit you’ll find yourself with more and more powerful actions. They are extremely mobile due to their tunneling ability making them a fast, numerous threat that can pop up almost anywhere on the map whilst ignoring the usual rules around movement.
The Corvid Conspiracy are weird (I’ve been in a game with them but not played them). They plant traps on the board, some hurt soldiers, others create them, some give them points. They are playing a bluffing game for the most part with military might to back it up. Keen to play them next time I get Root to the table.
And the rest...
There are a load of other things you can get as well. Resin markers for the clearing suits, another deck of cards that are all different, vagabond meeples for each of the vagabonds, a whole AI expansion for more Clockwork factions, and a myriad of mats and other bits and pieces. I do think the Resin Markers are a good buy as they make the game state a little easier to get at a glance, you can see them in some of the pics above, but the rest is very much down to your own preferences.
The Root of the Matter
It should be clear by now that I think Root is superb. The narrative of battle that emerges each time I play is always different and our group remembers the big plays and close games. If you aren’t put off by putting in some work learning the game, and then teaching it, then I think this is some of the best design to come out in the last decade. It’s nuanced and complicated, without being elitist about it. It wants you to play it, to have fun in its world, and dive as deep as you feel comfortable with. It will hold your hand for as long as you need it to, then set you off into the dark woods to make trouble. Just watch out for that pesky Vagabond.