Review: Root

Root’s deep asymmetry is one of its defining characteristics, making it a game that begs to be played over and over again. It is a game that takes concepts of real life conflicts and transposes them across a forest filled with charming creatures. The direct interaction in this game means that it’s up to the players to maintain a proper balance, through helping or harming the other factions as they see fit. With each faction having a completely different tempo and progression, there is often a steep initial learning curve in this regard.

In my own experience playing Root, I often felt like the victory (or more often, defeat) was primarily out of my control, heavily influenced by the actions or inactions of other players. Maybe the Marquise ignored the Woodland Alliance early on, allowing them to revolt and churn out the Sympathy VPs at an unstoppable clip. Or maybe the Eyrie completely forgot about trading with the Riverfolk Company simply because they were seated all the way at the opposite end of the table. Despite a sense of lingering frustration, each game I was also left with a sense that next time will be better.

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Setup for a standard 4 player game of Root

In reality, I haven’t yet reached that summit with Root – that game where everyone plays a seemingly flawless game, the most deserving player emerges as the winner through their own merit, and everyone applauds their brilliant strategy. And frankly, I don’t know if I ever will. So that leaves me with the question – is Root a game that’s worth my time?

Like the game itself – the answer to that question is complex, and probably different for each person who plays it. I went back and forth over this, but ultimately for me the answer is yes. If you can get past the concern over who ultimately wins and loses, then you’ll be able to appreciate this game for what it is – a fascinating sandbox where players can test and learn how these completely unique factions interact with one another.

Root does not simply pay lip service to asymmetry, like some games do with minor variable player powers. The starting board state gives you a glimpse of each faction’s unique position, with Marquise warriors littered across the forest, the Eyrie amassing power in one corner, a lone Vagabond hidden among the trees, and the noticeably absent Woodland Alliance. The differences only grow from there, as each player has completely different actions, abilities, and goals.

The Marquise de Cat plays somewhat like an engine-builder, as they collect and harvest wood to place additional buildings, and recruit warriors to protect their tenuous reign over the majority of the forest. The rival Eyrie Dynasties have a programming feel, as they add to their command line each turn as they plot to re-assume their rightful position as rulers of the forest. They steadily grow in power as their command line expands, but they must continue to fulfill all of the orders or fall into turmoil, instating a new leader and starting nearly from scratch.

The Woodland Alliance is an underground movement seeking to spread sympathy throughout the forest. They generally give the appearance of lagging behind early, as they lie in wait and struggle to amass enough followers for a revolt. However, once they get a foothold, they can come on strong and be very difficult to stop.

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The Woodland Alliance and the Eyrie Dynasties, personified.

Lastly, the Vagabond plays more like a lone adventurer in an RPG-style format, as he slinks in and out of the woods to complete quests, gather items, and interact with the other factions. He must choose his friends (and enemies) wisely, maintaining the balance of power long enough to give himself a chance at snatching victory.

If you have the Riverfolk Expansion as well, then you’ll know that two more potential factions are stirred into the pot. There’s the Riverfolk Company, which is a merchant faction of otters seeking to gain wealth and power from the burgeoning conflict in the forest. They set prices for cards, transportation, and use of their warriors as mercenaries, and they use the profits to build more outposts and recruit additional forces. And then there’s the Lizard Cult, an insurgent radical faction that relies on outcasts (discarded cards) and martyrs (killed or sacrificed warriors) to grow in power and spread their influence across the map.

If each faction’s win conditions weren’t already unique enough, the game also features Dominance cards, which allow a faction to remove their VP token from the scoring track and adopt a brand new objective. These Dominance objectives seem to rarely (if ever) result in victory, but if you’ve been paying attention, you may realize that’s really beside the point. Sure, it may be a near-futile strategy, but it’s one more fascinating aspect to explore.

If exploring the wild, weird world of Root sounds interesting to you, I’d recommend the following steps to enhance the experience:

First of all, read Cole Wehrle’s Designer Diaries. Mr. Wehrle has put so much care and thought into the intricate design of Root, and his commentary regarding his inspiration for the game and the various factions allows the reader to appreciate his creative process. He’s an excellent writer, and if you are a student of game design, or you’re a history buff, these diaries are an absolute must read. I’ve linked them in order below:

Once you’ve completed that required reading, just play. You could spend a lot of time learning the ins and outs of the rules for all the factions and building the perfect strategy, but you’d be missing the point. The beauty of Root is in the journey, not the destination. So just grab some friends, pick your factions, and cause some chaos in this wonderful sandbox of a game. Maybe you’ll make some foolish mistakes and go down in flames, or perhaps you’ll execute a clever strategy and still come out behind. Or maybe you’ll achieve a victory that no one saw coming, not even you. The only part of the outcome I can reasonably predict is this: you’ll immediately want to play again.


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