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ROOT

Reviewed by Kevin Whitmore

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Root is an impressive game designed by Cole Wehrle whose John Company (featured in the Summer 2018 GA Report) was released by Leder Games in 2018.  Readers might recall that Leder Games achieved some recognition for its previous release of Vast: The Crystal Caverns.  Vast featured a strong asymmetric design.  Root continues this approach to game design.  But where Vast had players adventuring through a dungeon, Root takes players to a fantasy fight for dominance in the woodlands.

Victory in Root is simple, the first faction to 30 points immediately wins the game.  But nearly every other rule in the game is customized to the various factions a player might use.  In the base game of Root, four different factions are supplied.  In addition, there is also The Riverfolk Expansion, where two additional factions are available to add into the mix.  Further, a second expansion has been announced, with two more factions promised.

The premise at the start of the game is ripe for conflict.  The various factions in the game are vying for dominance, represented by a colorful board featuring 12 clearings interspersed through a vast woodland.  In addition to the clearings, there is also a river running through the woodland which serves no purpose for the base game, but is utilized in the expansion. 

The base game supports games for two to four players.  A fully loaded game will start with two major factions on the board.  The nefarious Marquise de Cat has captured nearly every clearing in the woodland.  But in one corner of the board remains a clearing full of birds, representing the Eyrie, former rulers of the woodlands.  With no starting pieces on the board, the Woodland Alliance is merely an idea, and the final faction is just a sole pawn, the Vagabond, who is able to nimbly move wherever he cares to.

The marvel of Root is the interaction of four different factions, where each faction operates under completely different rules.  If you add in the additional factions from the expansion, you can have games supporting from one to six players, where each faction operates under different rules sets.  This approach is completely new to this reviewer, and frankly impresses me, as the intersections of so many rules sets demands a lot of creativity and consideration from the designer.

Root is a strikingly illustrated game.  Kyle Ferrin has helped bring the game to life.  His illustrations on the player mats and through the entire deck of cards pull players deeper into the theme.  Each faction also has colorful and playful meeples.  The woodland board illustration is nicely done, dividing the clearings into three “suits” (foxes, mice and bunnies).  In addition to providing icons, Kyle colored the treetops for each clearing to help indicate the suit at a glance.  This is a nice touch, making the game easier to parse at a quick glance.  All in all, the graphic design pulls players into becoming one of the animal factions and vying for woodland dominance while communicating essential game information efficiently.

So how does it play?  There is no short answer to this.  With different rules for each faction, far too much detailed exposition could be attempted.  I will offer a few remarks about the general structure of the game turns and the aims and objectives of the core four factions.

At the start of play, the factions and player seating order can be randomized or arbitrarily decided upon.  Once determined, play will proceed clockwise around the table.  One after another, each faction will play its complete turn.  A faction’s turn will have three major phases: Birdsong, Daylight, and Evening.  But each faction will do very different activities during the course of its turns. 

One activity each faction can pursue is to craft in-game objects and/or enduring effects.   The crafting action is tied to the deck of cards.  Each faction starts the game with three cards, and will draw at least one card at the end of its turn.  Most cards have two purposes.  Cards that have a crafting function provide a “recipe” of needed resources to “craft” the item or effect.  If a faction crafts an in-game object, they will receive 1-3 victory points and bring into the game an object which may be used by the Vagabond.  Alternately, various cards have enduring effects which can be crafted, giving assorted bonuses such as an extra hit in combat.

While each faction has differing rules, all will eventually seek to move and battle.  Generally, warriors move from clearing to clearing.  The faction moving must have a dominant position in one of the clearings involved in the move.  Battle is dice based, with attackers usually coming out better than defenders.  At its heart, Root is a war game.  But instead of merely being about controlling territory, Root layers on a race to 30 victory points.  Some points can be won through direct aggression.  Killing enemy warriors does not give any victory points but destroying the enemy’s infrastructure (buildings, roosts, sympathy tokens) do give the attacker a VP.  Root gives each faction proactive ways to earn victory points and most of these methods link to additive measures.  For example, the Woodland Alliance will score significant points for placing sympathy tokens while the Marquise will want to erect buildings.  Each faction has differing objectives.  But combat will always remain an option for each. 

The Marquise de Cat starts the game in a strong position, commanding nearly the entire board.  The Marquise player has three starting buildings on the board, one work shop, one recruiting center, and one saw mill.  For the Cats to do well, they will want to quickly erect buildings throughout the woodlands, as many victory points are available for the construction of buildings.  Each clearing has a certain number of building slots.  The Marquise will have room to grow initially but these slots are a hard limit to how many buildings can be erected.  The Cats will want to build sawmills in order to cut wood.  Wood is the chief currency for the Marquise as all buildings require wood to be built and the prices go up as the game progresses.  The Marquise will also want to build recruiting centers (for more troops) and also workshops (for crafting).  The Marquise has three actions each turn and so much to do.  Balancing objectives against the available actions is a study in logistics.

The Eyrie start the game with a large number of birds clumped together in the one clearing (of 12) that the Marquise refused to begin in.  The Eyrie must program their turns by placing cards into their Decree.  Each turn the Eyrie adds one or two additional cards to their Decree.  In this way, the Decree gets larger and larger giving the Eyrie potentially powerful turns. 

The Decree is devoted to four possible actions:  Recruit, Move, Battle and Build.  The Eyrie use the game cards to program the Decree.  The cards feature four suits, and these suits limit which clearings are “in suit”.  The Eyrie player must conduct each activity in the proper clearing to successfully complete the programmed action.  (Examples: Recruit in a Mouse Clearing or Battle in a Fox Clearing.)  Over time, this can prove to be a big challenge.  Fortunately, one of the suits is wild.  Unfortunately, the program (Decree) will eventually fail.  And when the Decree is not able to be fully resolved, the Eyrie fall into disorder.  At the start of the game the Eyrie player selects from a small cadre of candidates which bird will be the leader.  This leader has two “loyal viziers” who are pre-assigned to two of the four possible actions.  When the Eyrie leader must be deposed, (because of failing to do every action in the Decree), a new leader will be installed.  All cards previously added to the decree will be discarded and the loyal viziers will be reassigned to new actions.  In this way, the Decree is reset back to just two cards (those loyal viziers) and future Eyrie turns will have far fewer actions.  The Eyrie score points each turn based on how many roosts they have on the board and will steadily score points as the game goes along.

The Woodland Alliance begins the game with no pieces on the board – but do not mistake them as a minor power.  The Woodland Alliance has won most of the games this reviewer has played.  The Woodland Alliance starts the game with two groups of cards in hand.  One set of three cards are in his/her hand, just like all the other factions.  But in addition, another set of three cards is on the Woodland Alliance faction board.  These cards can only be used for suit and act as supporters.  A key activity for the Alliance is the spreading of sympathy.  The Alliance player spends supporters to place sympathy tokens on the board.  This immediately earns points for the Alliance.  Later, if these sympathy tokens endure, they become the focus of Revolts.  By way of a Revolt, the Woodland Alliance can finally place warriors on the board, along with a base of operations.  The Woodland Alliance has the potential of setting out three bases (one fox base, one bunny base and one mouse base).  In each of the games I have played, the Woodland Alliance has made strong scoring moves late in the game.

The Vagabond is just a single pawn and he/she is not considered a warrior.  Alone of all the factions, the Vagabond may enter the actual forests.  All other pieces move from clearing to clearing.  The Vagabond has a separate agenda apart from controlling the clearings.  While all warriors must move either from strength or to strength, the Vagabond is considered nimble, allowing it to move freely down any path on the board (but not the river).  The Vagabond has a large number of potential actions and all of these actions are dependent upon which in-game objects he/she has access to.  Initially the game board has a few hidden objects in ruins slots on the board.  The Vagabond can clear these ruins, gaining the object.  But by doing so, he opens up a slot for a potential Eyrie roost or a Marquise building.  The Vagabond is able to roam the board, helping other factions and receiving more in-game objects they may have crafted.  As the Vagabond assembles more objects, the number of things he can do also expands.  The Vagabond can score significant numbers of points by giving aid to the other players.  He does this by giving the other factions cards from his hand and, in return, he gets to take any object that the recipient had previously crafted.  He can also ally with players and begin using his allies’ pieces as his own.  Or he can attack another faction, potentially scoring points with this nefarious deed.  The Vagabond is somewhat complex to learn but once understood can be a serious threat for victory.

Root is an ambitious game.  Teaching Root is demanding.  Even after playing Root, many players will not fully understand how to effectively use the rules for their faction and some players will only have a vague idea how the opposing factions functioned.  This means Root is a game that will not work for casual game players.  Further, experience will pay huge dividends so games with varying levels of experience might be tough on the newer players at the table.  But if you have a game group where exploring a complex game can happen together, Root will provide many hours of good gaming.

This reviewer is in such a group, and I anticipate enjoying many more plays of Root.  We have not yet begun using the expansion factions, and Leder Games has announced a planned second expansion with additional factions.  Root will have multiple configurations for players to try.  I look forward to this exploration.  I am glad to have Root in my collection, but could see how it would not work for gamers who prefer to “move on” and try lots of other games as they are released.   – – – – – – – – – Kevin Whitmore


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