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  • Essays
  • The Root of the Familiarity Problem

The Root of the Familiarity Problem

J Updated
The Root of the familiarity problem

Game Information

Game Name
Publisher
Designer
There Will Be Games

Without a regular group, is Root worth the effort?

My first play of Root was a bad one. I was the Woodland Alliance (I'm a Marxist, yo, and I think the person teaching us the game figured that that would appeal) and there was one other newbie (my girlfriend, Tricia, playing The Eyrie), while the teacher and our fourth player had played once or twice before. The teacher took the Marquise and the other "veteran" took the Vagabond. As usual, most of the game for the Eyrie was figuring out how not to fail the Decree, while most of the game for the Alliance was figuring out how to make the cards and, thus, Supporters, work to my advantage. The Marquise stumbled along (this was long before the rules tweaks), bashing heads with the birds, while I tried to erect something useful in the SW corner. Eventually, the Vagabond won because, also like usual, he was playing his own game in the hypothetical corner of the Woodland and no one thought to stop him before he'd finished half the quest deck. Neither Tricia nor I had any idea if we liked the game.

I played a couple more times, under some duress, and eventually discovered some of the beauty behind the mechanics and the genuine viciousness that embodies successful play and which, of course, utterly belies the cutesy animal theme that drew in so many people that would normally never even glance at anything resembling a Dudes on a Map game and their associated piles of troops. So, like most people, after repeated plays I "got it." Root, for me, had gone from wondering what all the fuss was about (like the continued mystery of, say, Wingspan) to a realization that this was really an interesting approach to a well-worn genre of game. It was something I wanted to try again and again, either playing different factions or even sticking to one and trying different angles with it. (The last time I played the Eyrie, I started with the Builder because I had some great crafting cards and proceeded to create an even bigger early-game scoring snowball than the birds usually achieve.) There's a lot to discover in the game, even for regular players.

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Howevah, the best way to illuminate said discoveries is to do so with experienced players and, in most cases, not just experienced, but the same experienced players. Root is not a newb-friendly design. It is the current standard-bearer for "asymmetric play." I've seen the latter label applied erroneously to many other games where people have "variable player powers." It's not the same thing. As opposed to the clans in Rising Sun simply having different special abilities, the factions in Root function differently. It's arguable to suggest that they're not even playing the same game; similar to Leder Games' previous release, Vast. To play Root well, you not only have to be familiar with your faction, but you also have to know (potentially) how the other seven operate, as well. Barring that scenario, you're going to have players with such different ability levels in the game that at least one other player will have a significant advantage and one or more will have no idea what's going on before it suddenly ends. My first game was a pristine example of this.

Root is a game for which, to unlock the full experience, you essentially need a regular play group, which I've discovered to my chagrin is an increasingly rare thing in recent years, despite what all the videos on YouTube will show you. It rewards awareness of strategy and awareness of opponents' playstyles like any other game will. But the required knowledge to even get to that level of consideration is far more than most other games you'll encounter. This is the drawback of "asymmetric gameplay", as you as a group will have to grow through the phases of considering this or that faction to be over-powered or weak, before you consider a wholly different one to be offenders in either/both of those categories next week. You'll have to grow through the initial, simple strategies (i.e. Attempt to bitterly retain every clearing with the Marquise, before realizing it's better to withdraw and consolidate and then hit back at the Eyrie and the Alliance when they overextend, etc.) before moving on to more considered and/or subtle ones. But then you'll have to realize that what works against one combination of opponents may only have worked because of those opponents. All games go through this period of comprehension, but not all of them are in the position where you almost have to relearn to play every time you try a new faction or place such a burden on new players, who will rarely be able to step out of the role of semi-roadblock to the rest of the game's function.

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I watched one of Quackalope's videos while waiting for the Underworld expansion of the game to arrive and found myself to be genuinely envious when he casually mentioned "the last few times we've played this" to his partners on the show. It was clear that they'd played together many times and had reached the point where many aspects of the various factions were second nature to them. I think the inability of that sense of familiarity to develop for most players with Root is the game's one significant failing. It's still wildly popular and critically hailed, but it's unusual to see that many accolades rain from the sky when the design violates an increasingly prominent aspect in our little niche: accessibility. If you don't have that regular group, you're often teaching new people how to play the game. But there's really no way to separate the design from the necessary learning curve. There are occasional games that will present a "Loved it from the very first play!" scenario, in the same way that most games are better with increased plays and increased knowledge on the part of the players. But there aren't many that seemingly demand it in order to be successful. It's a credit to Leder Games' approach that they were willing to stick to their initial design principle borrowed from their somewhat-but-not-hugely successful Vast and run the risk of releasing a game that many people have considered impressive, but still unsuitable for their play habits, time, or group. That's a design approach determined to do something different and, in fact, wildly succeeding, even if it implicitly excludes a large segment of, again, our little niche hobby audience because they simply won't be able to access the game's true beauty often enough to make it worthwhile.

I'm a Root fan. I love the game. I desperately want to play it more often. But I find it an odd quirk that the most heralded game of the last couple years essentially can't reach its full potential with most groups unless those groups can devote an extended, regular period of time to it. Or maybe I just hang around too many Euro players...

There Will Be Games

Marc Reichardt  (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Marc started gaming at the age of 5 by beating everyone at Monopoly, but soon decided that Marxism, science fiction, and wargames were more interesting than money, so he opted for writing (and more games) while building political parties, running a comic studio, and following Liverpool. You can find him on Twitter @Jackwraith and lurking in other corners of the Interwebs.

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Articles by Marc

Marc Reichardt
Staff Board Game Reviewer

Articles by Marc

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Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #307917 12 Mar 2020 09:21
This is a really good article!

To begin, I pretty much agree with your assessment.

BUT, I think Root comes as close to being accessible despite these things as you can. Play time is short. The player aid is really good at taking you through even unfamiliar factions step by step. The shared rules are pretty simple. Most of the factions strategywise have a pretty succinct and intutive inital explanation. Despite all the complications, the game is a VP race that you can watch occur on the board.

To me, I think that's why it has been popular despite completely agreeing that the real meat is in playing it a number of times against similarly experienced opponents.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #307919 12 Mar 2020 09:45
Thanks!

Absolutely agree. I think Leder did a really good job of breaking down how the game functions in their player aids. The experience that I've had with new players is that they're kind of lost in the descriptions of factions. You know how with more symmetrical games you can pick up rules tips from other people's questions? In Root, you often can't because explaining to the Eyrie player how to work the Decree has nothing to do with how the WA spread Sympathy. So that "extra" teaching time that often occurs during play is lost on a lot of players who are still trying to figure out how their unique faction works.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #307920 12 Mar 2020 09:46
It is a good article. I hope that the day comes where I am playing with at least 4 players and we all know what we are doing. Once we got to that with Cthulhu Wars, it was really great.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #307922 12 Mar 2020 09:59
Cthulhu Wars is another good example. Even though all of the factions play the game the same way, the depth of the strategy becomes more evident when you start planning for spellbooks to come out at the appropriate times, which means at least being familiar with all six spellbooks for each faction, which is a tall order for newer players.

"Do I have to be concerned about that cluster of Goat cultists over there if he gains Frenzy? Or will he go for the implicit power boost of Thousand Young, suddenly flooding the map? What if he picks Ghroth...? Wait. No one ever uses Ghroth."
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #307925 12 Mar 2020 10:28
These issues help to make a nice cutthroat game of Lords of Hellas so attractive. Players' abilities diverge a bit during the game, but for the most part everyone can do the same things, and you really get to drill down on how you will win, and how others are trying to win.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #307927 12 Mar 2020 10:47
Right. I had to stop myself from expanding on the point about inaccurate use of the term "asymmetrical", because I wanted to go on a rant. Some people on BGG and Reddit have been claiming that ANY variation in abilities (the fabled "Variable player powers") makes a game "asymmetrical", which is decidedly not the case. If everyone has different powers but is still playing the game the same way, it's not Root.

sigh... I've still only played Lords of Hellas once. I want to play again, but just haven't been able to manage it.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #307938 12 Mar 2020 12:22
I don't find the extreme asymmetric design of Root to be an advantage. Yes, everybody is playing a different game, in part because no single player is allowed to play the full game. The divergent roles are each scripted to the point of having a personal flowchart for how each turn is executed. That feels more confining than a game where each faction has different advantages or disadvantages.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #307940 12 Mar 2020 12:42
I've never run into the scripting problem that some people have complained about. I think one of the game's more remarkable qualities is that, despite each faction feeling like it should be played a certain way, there's actually a lot of room to try different things based on board state and opposing factions, as I was mentioning with my Builder-first approach with the Eyrie.

Part of that may be random chance, but part of it may also be the fact that I end up playing a lot of games with new players, who tend to do, um... odd things sometimes. But those odd things can still sometimes work!
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #307942 12 Mar 2020 12:45
I'm up to around 30 plays of this now, and many of them have been with new players. What I've found lately is that letting the new player take the Vagabond (if there's only one new player) is often the best way to handle it, despite it being listed as "moderate" in complexity. A newbie stuck in the middle as the cats or floundering as the birds might walk away with a wholly different experience. I've also found that 2-player cat v. birds games are good ways to ease someone into the game, and they only last about 30-45 minutes. When teaching a whole new table, I walk through the factions and try to get people to offer up what they'd like to be based on the descriptions. Regardless, I almost always pick my faction last, usually resorting to either cats, birds, or my dear Riverfolk Company.

I try to get the game going as quickly as possible, with the cat taking the first turn and basically having to coach people through their first turn or two- there really isn't any way around it. It's far preferable to 5-10 minute explanation _per player_ when they don't even have any context for what they can do yet anyway. You have to be ready to stop and answer questions at any time, but I've gotten my "play a 4-player game with 3 newbies" time down to just under 2 hours, set-up and all.

My 3 player games with experienced players are typically 45-60 minutes now, 4 player games a little longer.
Disgustipater's Avatar
Disgustipater replied the topic: #307957 12 Mar 2020 15:30
I played a 5-player game last week with 3 new players, and the host used some question flowchart to assign them factions. He gave one of them the Lizards, which I thought was a terrible idea. Luckily I was sitting next to him and was able to coach him through his first few turns. After 2.5 hours, the Vagabond was leading at 15 points and the Cats and my Crows a little behind that. We called the game as it was getting late. I’m pretty sure the Lizard player (at 3 points) probably wont look at the game again.
Needless to say it wasn’t a very satisfying experience.

I think it would be amazing to have a Root group similar to a Twilight Imperium group I play with. All veterans with our 6-player games usually only lasting between 3.5 to 5 hours.

I’m attempting to get a regular group up and running, so hopefully that will pan out. A man can dream...
Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #307960 12 Mar 2020 15:58
There was a series of posts in a thread awhile back about how some groups were refusing/resistant to new players learning ROOT because it "slowed down" the game/experience for the rest. And I can see that - there are some games I resist involving new players with ( Eklund type games for instance ) for the same reason.

And while the base rules are very easy, once you throw in the faction specific rules it can present a steep learning curve. The good thing is that the game is relatively short, and from what I've seen most people learn at a rather geometric rate- not just their own faction but what the other factions can do as well. I think part of the learning curve is that the game doesn't rely on traditional mechanics - some people have trouble grasping novel stuff like this.

Its an interesting dilemma - how do you separate difficulty from "novelty" when describing a game's complexity ?
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #307964 12 Mar 2020 16:31

Msample wrote: Its an interesting dilemma - how do you separate difficulty from "novelty" when describing a game's complexity ?


I think that's a big part of it and it was definitely an issue in my first experience. I had never played Vast and most of the other "asymmetrical" games that I'd played (like Chaos in the Old World) were still not at the level of Root. I was sitting there thinking: "This is a DoaM... but not like anything I've played before." But when you get down to it, the mechanics aren't really that complex. They're just different.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #307966 12 Mar 2020 17:34
When explaining the rules, I point out pretty early that everyone gets points by removing buildings or other "pieces of cardboard," how the combat dice work, and then say that each faction has some other way of getting points.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #308080 15 Mar 2020 14:44
Right. One of the biggest hurdles I've found with regular gamers is crafting. A lot of them have real trouble with the fact that that sword they just crafted is basically just 2 points, unless they're the Vagabond... who typically doesn't craft. I get a lot of: "OK, but now what do I do with this sword/hammer/boots/tea?" And I'm all: "Nothing. You just scored 1/2/3 points and now it sits on your board, waiting for the rodent to come by and hand you a card for it." The blank look I usually get is telling, since most DoaM players are like: "Hey, I just spent a resource to develop this tech!" and they're expecting to climb a tech tree like in TI4 or something like that.

But, yeah, no. You're just closer to winning the game. I'll usually try to follow up with a story about how I've won more than once by holding on to some key crafting cards and then suddenly bursting forth with them in the last turn for 5 points or something like that. Then they look at their cards and you can see the light bulb go on.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #308088 15 Mar 2020 17:37
Yeah, I've seen people struggle with crafting too, especially since the suit you're crafting can be different than the suit of the card itself. Toss in how every faction uses something different to craft, and there's some confusion.

On the novelty vs. complexity scale, another game that comes to mind is Tragedy Looper. It's not really that complicated, but it's generally unlike anything anyone has played, and dozing off at any point during the explanation can cause some serious belly-aching later. It being one v. many makes that problem even worse. That's why I like 2 player Tragedy Looper the best, but I may never play it again...