Time: ~75 minutes
Times Played: 7
Root took 2018 by storm. The original Kickstarter, launching in 2017, made $607,770 more than their initial goal and the relaunch with The Underworld Expansion made $1,701,461 more than their initial $25,000 pledge goal. Based on money alone, Root is a smashing success. It has that same aura that heavily hyped games like Gloomhaven, The 7th Continent, Seafall, and First Martians had but does Root fall more towards the former or the latter?
The game immediately draws players in thanks to the wonderful art from Kyle Ferrin. The jolly woodland critters of the Root world come to life thanks to Kyle’s designs. It gives each unique, asymmetric race their own distinct look and feel. The artwork might be the gold standard for what future board games should measure themselves against. Everything is a joy to look at and the cards create a narrative that helps immerse players into the world and thus, the game.
In all honesty, the artwork is almost too good for Root as it appears to promote a lighthearted, friendly game of whimsical Raccoons and Birds when in reality, Root is a wargame with direct conflict and posturing at its core. It’s not necessarily a bait-and-switch as they haven’t promised anything to the player but if judged right from looks, there will be some confusion. The juxtaposition of the bright eyed and bushy tailed critters to the mechanics of a wargame is a mash-up that I’m on the fence about. I have had friends and strangers drawn in by the images only to be turned off when they realize what the gameplay mechanics actually are. It’s almost the inverse of judging a book by its cover.
But on the flip side of that, it takes a genre of games and makes it more accessible for any and all players as they’re not forced to play as an Axis power, a Demon from Hell, or a Bloody-thirsty Orc. It’s a new and novel approach, graphically, to a genre that is typically either dark and brooding or COIN/GMT style chits on a table. I personally love the clash of styles but it does help that I can go into the game explaining to others that you aren’t picking berries or building dams, you’re fighting for woodland supremacy.
Continuing on with the art, I want to take a second to commend the designer and artist for creating a world where there isn’t a necessarily good and evil side. It’s so common to play a game and be stuck playing as the Nazi’s or the Barbarians and you are keenly aware of the atrocities they committed and for some, it can be hard to differentiate between the history and the game. Root doesn’t have that issue. The created factions have their own backstory and the history is more gray than black and white.
The four factions of Root are the Marquise de Cat, the Eyrie Dynasty, the Woodland Alliance, and the Vagabond. Each faction has different actions and scores points unique to themselves so it’s paramount that players have a basic understanding of who they’re controlling before the game begins.
Right at the start of each game, the Marquise de Cat look like an army that has conquered the woodland but doesn’t have the infrastructure in place yet to support their newly won spoils (hence why they’re tasked with building structures). They are sprawled across the board with many cat warriors and if not kept in check, continue to expand intrusively.
The Eyrie Dynasty feels similar to the Cat army as they have similar objectives (but play much differently). They have a robust army but a problem with politicking and internal squabbles can (and will) derail their goal of seizing the land from the other factions. The birds were my favorite faction due to the nature of how they play and the puzzle that was understanding their needs politically.
The Woodland Alliance are the insurgents; guerrilla fighters that are aiming to take down the mightier armies and conquer the forest for themselves. I love the idea of the Alliance with how they try to sway the public to their side and their ability to create hideouts and strongholds across the board. It feels thematically correct and introduces the gray area of war. I don’t quite understand the Conspiracy aspect of their route to scoring points however. I understand how to do it and how the points are acquired by the action, but I don’t know what the conspiracy is or how it’s impacting the other players. I assume it’s some type of espionage or sabotage (or maybe even assassination) but that’s never really explained. The conspiracies are also another subject on the cards that players have and unless you’re playing as the Alliance, that part of the card means very little to you. I enjoy the multi-use of the rest of the cards but this sticks out since it’s so targeted towards one faction.
The Vagabond is a faction I don’t quite get. I thought this would be my favorite faction as it involves high interaction with other players, bartering and negotiating for crafts, and being a lone wolf against the greater forces. Thematically, I don’t understand how the Vagabond fits in with the other characters. We rationalized it as being the hero of a quest that has their own narrative going on adjacent to the conflict. If the Vagabond wins, they’re the tale you hear bards sing about and epics written about as they’re the mighty hero. If they lose, it just shows that war is more than the individuals that partake in it. Maybe that’s too deep for what they actually are but it helped tie the character to the rest of the game for me.
Root features a two-turn tutorial that allows players to act out their faction and get a grasp of what they can do before jumping in. I was a big fan of this and it helped put some of the concepts into play for me and my group. Reading the rules is one thing; performing the action is another. I know there has been updates and FAQ’s regarding the rules and balances of the factions since the initial release. I appreciate the updates but do want it known that I have only played Root under the original rules.
The rules of Root, while vast, are not necessarily difficult to comprehend and the game does come with a reference that can be checked for particular questions and situations. While there are a lot of special circumstances and the factions are unique to one another, I never found the rules complicated or confusing and the reference guide helped answer any question that we did have. As this game is massively popular, there are also almost 700 Rule posts on BGG about the game so if there is a question that’s not in the book, someone somewhere has probably asked it. In addition to the books, the player mats with reference to the factions turn help everyone be aware of how the game is played and what is going on. The faction boards are great for putting the information right in front of you.
Even with all the reading and prior knowledge in the world, I don’t think players will truly grasp what their faction (and those around them), are doing until they’ve had a chance to play that faction a few times. Trial and error is Root’s greatest friend and foe. On one hand, players will want to experience the other factions and the different ways to play their initial faction. On the other, players will see a game that requires a lot of investment before it gets “good”.
I don’t mean that as a slight either. Root is a game that you may know whether you love or hate as soon as you play but that assessment could change after a few plays. My initial play left me unimpressed. By my third or fourth I was starting to see the intricacies and by the time I set the game aside for trade, I was over it.
Root does a good job of making the factions unique and they all feel different. If this is your cup of tea, you’ll enjoy the aspect of learning the different ways they play and how they try to assert themselves in the forest. This was easily my favorite part and one of the reasons I played Root as many times as I did; I wanted to see what the other factions were capable of. I enjoyed learning how to operate and play each faction and the puzzle aspect of knowing how everything works appealed to me but once I had a grasp on a faction, the actual playing of the game bored me. This hurts because I spent so much time exploring and learning the ins and outs of what was in front of me and once it ‘clicked’, the shine was gone and I was left disappointed with what was left behind.
I want to say that Root is more of a race than it is a game of area control and conflict as the game is relatively short and any strategic decisions are tied to the faction you are in charge of and/or the brevity of the game. Grandiose plans will not come to fruition by the time another faction crosses the points finish line.
At its heart, Root is a game that has players interacting to rule the forest. For a game about area control and woodland warfare though, I loathed the combat system. For a game so card driven, the randomness of the dice rolls seemed counter-intuitive to everything else we were doing as players. I just…I don’t understand why this mechanic was placed into the game and it removes any semblance of strategy as even with a majority offensive, you can lose battles thanks to the randomness that are dice rolls. Putting lipstick on a Risk still makes the game Risk at its heart.
I know that in Root, combat is more a last-ditch option or one of opportunity, but it still feels lackluster. Now, if the goal was to make a simple and easy follow way to resolve battles, then Root does that but it doesn’t feel good. I don’t feel like I’ve outwitted or outmaneuvered my opponent because I rolled a ‘2’ and a ‘0’. There are ambush cards that help swing the tide of battle but those are few and far between. The only times I felt joy in combat were when I scored a monumental upset and the randomness went my way. That’s not fun to me though. If I’m in such dire straights that only a Buster Douglas-type situation will save me, I shouldn’t be saved.
The card system, which has roots with the combat that takes place, has similar complaints for me as it’s situational and far too random to be of use. I’m not even sure if it’s the randomness of the combat that bothers me for that the impact of combat is often marginal at best. Winning a clearing never feels decisive and while you may clear the enemy from a location, Root makes it easy for players to recover from defeats rather easily.
The game as a whole feels unrewarding to me. You sink time and energy into playing the game and perfecting your strategy and then the player across the table goes “I win” and the game is over. It feels…no, it is incredibly anti-climatic and the game ends before it truly ever reaches its peak. This might be because the scoring feels arbitrary to me. The actions I was taking felt slow. You were building this engine that was barely chugging along each round until the game was over. You get one point for doing this while your opponent gets three for doing that. Rinse and repeat for a few turns and then a player scores twelve points and the game is over. For a game with such gorgeous and immersive artwork, the scoring felt like I was just trying to accumulate points for the sake of getting those points.
The heart of Root is the asymmetry introduced for the four player factions and while it gives each one a unique feel and play style, I felt like the differences were in place for complexity purposes and not strategic choice. In fact, when playing the game, each player mat lists off what a player is to do for each round and it felt like I was never making true tactical decisions as opposed to picking the one or two actions that were available to me. While the base game doesn’t have a solo mode, it feels like one is a step away as the game almost plays itself.
Due to my perceived lack of options, I was never overly interested in other players turns. Yes, I wanted to know what they were doing and where they were going but not once did someone perform an action that left me put out.
Root was designed to be played with anywhere from two- to four-players but I honestly felt like it was only somewhat enjoyable at four-players. Four-players is the best player count but it has to be four experienced players. Having one new to the game means they’ll be fresh meat for the player on their left. Four brand new players isn’t bad either but they won’t understand the intricacies of the other factions and how they score which means a modicum of the game is missing. Root can be unforgiving if a mistake is made and for new players, it just snowballs into a situation where you have no chance to come back.
Three-players, with the right players and factions, can be as rewarding as a full four-player game but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend getting Root if you only have three to play with. Same with two. I would never recommend playing Root at two-players. Two-players removes the interplay from the factions and that’s a large part of what makes Root enjoyable. There are match-ups to make the game more balanced faction wise but Root lost most of the depth when played only at two.
The best way to describe Root is that as a player(s), you need to unlock its potential. The relatively short play time helps but there is a significant time and effort investment needed to truly reach its apex. If you have a group that falls in love with the game and can get continual plays in, then Root might be worth taking a flyer on (if you enjoy asymmetrical wargames). If you don’t have the time and fortitude to put forth into Root, you won’t enjoy it to its fullest capacity.