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Root Review

Quick Look: Root

Designer: Cole Wehrle
Artist: Kyle Ferrin
Publisher: Leder Games
Year Published: 2018
No. of Players: 2-4
Ages: 10+
Playing Time: 60-90 minutes

Find more info on BoardGameGeek.com

WARNING: This is a preview of Root. All components and rules are prototype and subject to change.


tl;dr: An absolutely gorgeous COIN (COunter-INsurgency) game, with some very interesting mechanics, and ultimately a game I want to love a lot more than I actually do.

Getting to the Game: Setup for Root is elegant, as each player establishes their beginning placement a bit differently from the others, setting the table for what is ultimately a very asymmetric, but still interactive, experience. I'll mention more about the actual components below, but since this is the first time you'll get to see the art by Kyle Ferrin, take just a second to look over the board and the cards. They're phenomenal and worth any time you spend taking them in.

The rules for Root are...mixed. The materials that come along with this game say it's for ages 10+, but I'm not sure I totally buy that. Each faction plays differently, so I think a 10 year old could play the cat faction with no issues, it would take a very different 10 year old to be able to play the Vagabond or Alliance and do well/enjoy it. Plan to spend some time talking through each faction and their goals, as they're all different and not just in the way they score points. There will be a quick reference guide with the retail version of the game, but we only had the rule book, and it's dense for some of the factions. Let's get into that.

NOTE: The prototype version of Root that I was given came with a rule set that I played, and was then immediately replaced by a brand new and totally different set of rules. These new rules were then edited once again, so the following review is based on the most recent set (December 1st).

Playing the Game: <deep breath> Root is a strange beast of a game. I don't know anything about Vast (the previous game from this design group), but other players in my group talked about it in hushed tones, the way one might talk about Arkham Horror or Twilight Imperium. The rule set for Vast is complicated, basically each player learning their own game. Root feels similar, though not quite as burdensome. 

Each player will take on the role of one of the warring factions of the forest. There's the ruling Marquise de Cat, who starts the game with a firm grip on each clearing of the forest, and is there to make sure her rule goes unchallenged. The fickle Eyrie, a society of hawks who are governed by structure and rules -- fail to follow those rules, and your leader is deposed, along with the house of cards they've built. The Woodland Alliance, who above all seek harmony in the forest for all creatures great and small, and enforce their presence in guerilla encounters here and there throughout the forest. Finally, there's the Vagabond, who plays with guile and cunning, turning the tides of battle everywhere they go. The first faction to accumulate 40 points wins, though there are ways to subvert even that basic rule. 

Each faction takes their turns in three parts: Birdsong, Daylight, and Evening. Each faction can also use the cards in their hand to craft improvements, which are either used immediately, or sit above their player board waiting to be used or stolen away. Each faction scores points. That's about all the blanket statements I can apply to all three factions together. The best way to explain the game as a whole is to look at each faction and how they play.

The cats are the most straightforward of the game's factions. Their goal is to cement their starting hold on the forest. Beginning with a warrior in every clearing of the forest, the cats build quickly and efficiently, racing to quickly lock everyone else out of the forest's precious resources. Building sawmills to harvest wood (their primary resource), recruiters to add additional warriors to their side, and workshops to create improvements, the cats are pretty standard collect-and-build-and-score game play. 

In our games, the cats were clear on what they were doing, but they weren't particularly interesting. With so many cool and fun mechanics in Root, the cats get none of them. They are clearly here as the ruling faction everyone else is out to stop, and they play very much like that. The cats will run away with the game if they go unopposed for too long, so the best way to interfere with their plans is to get in their face early and often. Ultimately, this faction is based on resource collection and warrior placement.

The Eyrie get by far my favorite game mechanic. The hawks start by choosing a leader, which will dictate the starting locations of cards in your Decree. This decree consists of four actions, which must be taken in order every turn. You take these actions a number of times depending on how many cards are in that slot. Every turn, you must add at least one card to the decree, in any slot you choose. Careful planning here is a must. The Eyrie has absolutely dominating action potential if you can plan it carefully. Eventually, you'll be unable to follow out one of the actions you've set up, and the Eyrie falls into turmoil. All the cards you've carefully planned so far are lost, a new leader of the Eyrie is chosen, and you start building your decree over again. 

This programming mechanic is so interesting and well-crafted; it forces the Eyrie player to plan ahead as far as possible. Interrupting the Eyrie's well-laid plans, then, becomes the most important way to stop them from snowballing into a quick win. The Eyrie is hampered somewhat by needing to place a Roost in order to produce any warriors or improvements, but they can only place a Roost if their decree says to, and they can only place one roost per clearing. So, quick expansion is necessary if they want to set up without falling into turmoil. It's an absolutely delicious balancing act, and very, very fun to play.

The Alliance works in shadow, slowly building supporters based mostly on opposing the Cats. Every time the cats recruit additional warriors to their side, the forest rises up in opposition, giving more followers to the Alliance. The Alliance creates hideouts in three different clearings across the map, taking advantage of spaces the cats and hawks have left behind. Once these are established, they provide spaces for the Alliance to play cards either face up to gain the benefit from the bottom of the card, or face down to squirrel away until their next turn, not counting against their hand size. They can also build strongholds, which provide them with a foothold in the forest once they're set up.

This faction is by far the slowest to get going, and if the other players at the table have a target out for the Alliance, it can be incredibly frustrating to play. The Alliance requires established board presence to play and stash their cards, but without a large push of warriors early, they can't defend those spaces against the cats for sure, and possibly the Eyrie, depending on placement. A stronghold really helps this faction thrive, but due to the requirements, they can't really be built early on without a lot of help. If the Alliance gains the foothold they need, they quickly become a serious threat. The problem with them is they're too easy to keep down early with coordinated effort. 

Additionally, the snowballing power of this faction relies on the cats doing well, but the Alliance themselves can only win if they keep the cats down, so they're working against themselves a little bit. If they can find the right balance and get their machine working, it's incredibly satisfying to pilot and can be truly dominating.

The vagabond faction comes last, and in our games, seems by far the most confusing and difficult to play well. The vagabond's main game mechanic is acquiring and utilizing items. Each item allows the vagabond to take a different action, and is exhausted when used. There are four items randomly scattered about the forest at the game's start, which the vagabond must go and reclaim. Additional items can be gained by crafting, but here's where the first of the vagabond's complications begins to feel really painful. Each faction can use the resources of the various clearings to build improvements from the cards in their hand, which provide victory points, delayed benefits, and instant bonuses. The vagabonds have no warriors or structures of their own, so they use crafting items which always match the clearing they're in. This means that any card that requires more than one clearing type is automatically uncraftable for the vagabond. For these, and for most of the improvements in the game, the vagabond will be waiting for someone else to build one, and then gift that player a card in order to steal it.  

The secondary mechanic for the vagabond is the influence wheel, which looks incredibly complicated. That sentence should end with, "but isn't," but I can't make that assertion. It's a convoluted way to force the vagabond to pick sides in the larger game, and many of the actions on the wheel focus on combat. Combat for the vagabond hinges on sword items, which again, must either be found or crafted (one of the vagabond leaders starts with two). All of this means that if the vagabond player can't find the cards or items they need early on, not only are they set massively back in the game, but they also spend their early turns just churning and not actually playing. This includes the strategy of starting a battle but not being able to deal any hits because you don't have any swords. It's possible, but it feels bad, and while it feels bad, it also feels like you're not understanding it correctly, because it couldn't possibly be supposed to feel that bad. Now, it's likely that new rule sets will clarify the vagabond and make them a little simpler to play (so far, every rule set change has included changes to this faction), but the three rule books that I have seen so far have tested differing ways of carrying out similar functions. It seems like the designer is into this function for the vagabond, and it just doesn't feel fun. 

Artwork and Components: I can't say enough about the artwork of Root. The pictures provided above don't do it justice. From the cards, to the player boards, to the actual game board, the art single-handedly sells this game. The Kickstarter campaign had an add-on to acquire prints of game art, and it was the first time ever I thought about getting those. If you're the type of player who benefits from theme and a rich visual experience, then this game deserves a very serious look.

I didn't get the actual game components in my prototype kit, but the website and Kickstarter campaigns show off some really great stuff. Differently-shaped wooden meeples with screen-printed faces are perfect for the style and feel of Root. Plastic minis, currently all the rage amongst modern games, would be completely out of place here. The entire game takes place in a forest, so wooden pieces feel totally on-brand.

The Good: I know I keep saying it, but the art. Oh my God, the art. There are also some really dazzling mechanics on display here. The Eyrie's decree, the Alliance's dependent support, even the way turns and card draw are handled. The fact that each card in the game has a separate use for every faction, and the card doesn't look busy or cluttered. The way theme is interconnected between all the factions, giving everything a very tense Watership Down feel. All very, very good.

The Bad: The actual playing of the game. This feels overly harsh, but I have to be honest. Sitting down to play it, looking at it, going over the rules and how each faction has it's own goals, I wanted to adore this game. When we actually played it, though, it was 90 minutes of nobody really knowing what the other players at the table were even doing, and some of us not even knowing what we were doing. A lot of this could be cleaned up with rule changes. I hope that's the case, and the final game keeps the promise of the aesthetic. I will absolutely keep my eye on this one, and despite the fact that I can't recommend it right now, I want to make it perfectly clear that I think there's a really good game in here somewhere.

Score: As it stands today, due to all of the conflicting feels outlined above, I'm giving Root a score of Nice is Different Than Good.


About the Author:

Nicholas Leeman has been a board game evangelist for over 10 years now, converting friends and family alike to the hobby. He's also a trained actor and works summers as one of the PA announcers for the St. Paul Saints, a professional baseball team. He lives in Minneapolis, MN with his board gaming wife and son.
Root Review Root Review Reviewed by The Madjai on December 13, 2017 Rating: 5

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