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.
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.
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...