In Root, subtitled: ‘A game of Might and Right’ each player steps in to the role of a faction of cute (but deadly) forest critters, fighting for ownership of the various clearings in a vast woodland, and like it’s predecessor from Leader Games, Vast: The Crystal Caverns, Root is Asymmetric, meaning that each faction plays differently, and has their own objectives.
I loved the idea of an asymmetric game, even though I haven’t really played many, so when Vast came up on Kickstarter I followed it’s progress closely and backed it. After a few games though, my excitement for the concept was replaced by disappointment, it’s not that I think Vast is a bad game, it’s just it’s so damn difficult to teach. This may be because the core rule book is maybe only 2 pages long and then there’s a further double-sided A4 sheet of rules (in fairly small print) for each of the roles. Each player has to read their own rules (and their interactions with other people’s rules) almost on their own, and those interactions only really start to make sense about halfway through, and well… I just don’t think I’ve played Vast with a group that properly enjoyed the experience.
So in summary, I was disappointed with Vast and sceptical about the concept of asymmetric games when Root hit Kickstarter, but a few things pulled me in.
– I love the artwork
– I love custom wooden meeples, especially those of woodland critters!
– I had a small amount of hope that maybe this being a follow up may improve on the asymmetric concept.
I’m really glad I backed Root and it’s expansion and here’s why:
Root is a “dudes on a map” game, and unlike my issues with Vast, most of its rules are centralised and followed by all players, be it moving around the map, attacking, recruiting new warriors, crafting cards, working out who owns a clearing, or winning the game (hitting 30 VPs) all these things work pretty much the same for all the factions. This makes teaching the game pretty easy and keeps the complexity of learning individual factions to a minimum.
So how is this game asymmetric then? Well, despite all factions using the same rules and having much the same actions they have three main things that set them apart; the way they score victory points, the ways in which they are able to perform actions and their starting presence on the board.
Each faction has a player board that has a clear turn order split into three sections: Birdsong, Daylight and Evening which describes each factions unique flow, the board also contains any special rules for that faction and has areas marked out for things like faction specific tokens or cards.
The Marquise de Cat (Orange Cats) are an invading force that start the game having successfully de-throned the Eyrie Dynasty, they have a large board presence and start with a warrior in all but one on the clearings on the map. Their aim is to exploit the resources of the woodland to build up their forces and they score by placing their building into clearings.
The cats are probably the simplest to use, as on their turn they can choose three actions from their player board to perform, these allow them to bolster or redeploy their forces, battle and build in any order or combination. They feel like a strong force that is being constantly harangued by the other factions, all they really need to do to win the game is defend and keep building but the other factions aren’t going to want to make this easy for them.
The remaining clearing is the starting roost of the Eyrie Dynasty (Blue Birds) these guys start with six warriors and one roost and their aim is to reclaim clearings and build new roosts, they score at the end of each of their turns based on how many roosts they have on the map, so unchecked they will slowly tick up to victory. The Bird’s individuality comes from the way they perform actions, each turn they must add at least one card from their hand to their “decree”:
They then must perform every action on their decree, from left to right, and if at any point they can’t perform that action they fall into turmoil, deposing their leader and losing all the cards from their decree, as well as actually losing VPs. So while they can build up their actions and start to do a lot with each turn they need to be careful. Other players can try to cause turmoil by exploiting a weakness in the decree, or they can be their own undoing, getting greedy with actions like recruit can mean they run out of reserve warriors.
The Woodland Alliance (green mice) start with no board presence at all, these guys are the common folk that are fed up with the warring factions and are aiming to spread sympathy for their cause around the woodland (which they score VPs for), having sympathy tokens on the board give them some agency to use their supporters (a pile of face-up cards) to establish rebel bases in clearings and begin to spread. These guys are interesting because they have a small warrior pool compared to the other warrior based factions, they have 10 meeples and they need to be divided between warriors on the map and Officers which go on their player board and allow them to take military actions. These guys also flip the normal attack rules around when they are defending, giving them the advantage when normally it would go to the attacker.
Finally (without the expansion that is) we have the Vagabond, this guy is a lone wolf, and plays the most differently of the factions, he can’t control areas, and instead can give players aid (handing them cards) to score points, and as players craft objects he can trade cards to gain those objects. His action economy is based around acquiring objects (teapots and pickaxes and coins etc.) and then exhausting them to move, battle, complete quests, explore or even craft more items for himself.
One of the more unique elements of Root is its main card deck and how it interacts with the board. The deck is divided into four suits, Mouse, Rabbit, Fox and Bird and the clearings on the board each have a suit Mouse, Rabbit or Fox.
Many actions in the game require both cards and clearing of a matching suit. Birds are wild so can be used as any suit.
As an example of this if there is a Rabbit card in the recruit section of the Eyrie’s decree, then they must place a warrior in a Rabbit clearing or fall into turmoil, but they could use a bird card from the degree to place a warrior in any clearing (so long as they have a roost there)
Cards can also be used in “Crafting” which can give players items and VPs or give them innate or one-shot abilities. Crafting cost is denoted by the suit symbols, in the top right and bottom left. Each faction crafts using different things, meaning some factions have an easier time crafting. The cats for instance craft using one of their building types “Workshops” so to craft the “Codebreakers” card they would need to have one workshop in a mouse clearing, and to craft the Arms Trader card they would need two workshops in fox clearings.
The cards are lovely glossy and feel sturdy and high quality so a thumbs up from me there, player boards feel much better than the ones in Vast which weren’t great, liable to fraying at the corners, but these don’t feel at risk of that. The board itself is pretty decent sized and is double sided with a more advanced winter map on the back, the tokens are fairly standard and all the art is really pretty.
I feel the one slight let down with the components is the meeples themselves, they just don’t seem that well cut, with noticeable chips and striations around the edges, as well as some fading and misprints on some of my pieces and one of my Vagabonds seems extra thick and I’m not sure that’s deliberate. That being said I am pretty sure that if I asked Leader Games to replace the misprinted pieces they would do so cheerfully, and I sort of like them how they are, they add a bit of extra character to the wooden pieces (I just don’t think that was deliberate)
Oh, also the expansion comes with a wooden card holder block for each player’s hand, which is a nice if somewhat pointless touch.
I’ve played the game with 2,3 and 4 players with various race mixes (including one game using an expansion race) and they have all felt well balanced and quite close, no faction has seemed like they simply weren’t in with a chance, the cats always seem to start off strong and race up the track but they will stall and the Eyrie will begin to creep up to them. With the Alliance and Vagabond consistently scoring a few points as they try and establish themselves. The Vagabond is one to keep an eye on as he can make some fairly large point grab turns if he’s built up the right alliances.
Each player is provided with a strategy card which gives them hints about how to play against their rivals, with tips on what sort of strengths / weaknesses they have, so even if you haven’t played as one of the factions and don’t know their specifics they can still counter them fairly well with that advice.
I’ve really enjoyed every game of Root I have played so far and am keen to play more, I want to re-play the factions I’ve already used to try out different strategies, and I want to try out the factions I haven’t used yet, so I feel like there’s a lot of replay value here, especially as you can flip the board and play on a different map where you randomise the suits of the clearings, which could have a significant impact on some elements of the game.
So overall I recommend Root, although I do have one thing about it I find odd/unintuitive and that’s the way turns are divided by Birdsong, Daylight and Evening. This naming makes it seem like the game is run in rounds where every player would do their birdsong actions in turn before moving on to daylight, etc. but this isn’t the case. A turn runs through a complete round of Birdsong, Daylight and Evening before the next player takes their turn, which seems really odd thematically as that means each players turn is an entire day where the other factions wait out the days until they get to act.
I wonder if at some point in the game’s development rounds worked differently or if the developers just wanted to have the cute names for stages in a turn. There is some theme in this separation I suppose, like how the Alliance do their military actions at night under the cover of darkness, but that doesn’t affect anything at all gameplay wise.
I’ve really struggled here to imagine how Root would work when given an office environment re-skin, it’s difficult to imagine what each faction could really represent in order to be thematically logical. If each clearing was a different office and the factions represented the staff of different departments then why would the IT birds be trying to construct a nest in the sales cats office suite? Root has to lose a point here for this, there are no two ways about it.