Root is an asymmetrical war game about different races of woodland creatures (cats, birds, etc.) fighting over territory.
Area Control / Area Influence
Variable Player Powers
It turns out that having children can put you behind the times on the hotness in your hobbies. So, one day I finally made it back to BGG and found myself furiously clicking through information on Root, a game I had never heard of. An asymmetric war game—but with birds and cats and bunnies? Well, does it deserve the hype? Let’s find out!
The game has the appearance of a cutesy game about woodland animals, and none of content is graphic in any way, although the creatures are seen holding and aiming weapons. However, the gameplay itself is very combative, aggressive, and political, and may not be that great for young audiences. The game is also incredibly complex, rules-wise, as well.
For many years, I played Magic: the Gathering exclusively, and I have fond memories of multiplayer politics during EDH/Commander games that lasted for hours. When I finally wisened up and gave up that “drug”, I still longed for those multiplayer political antics and looked for combat-heavy games to fill that void. Most were dice-driven, but I’ve always been someone who wants nothing but cards with rules-breaking text on them. In 2015, Blood Rage quite deservedly became my go-to combat game. So, the question for me is whether Root can offer something different, better, or at least as good as Blood Rage.
Right off the bat, Root‘s main selling point—asymmetric factions—is also its Achilles heel. I’m someone who is very insistent that board games should be as easy to learn as possible, and the most common way to do that is to hide the complexity in the game itself, with cards or other things that develop from the base ruleset as the game goes on. Root, however, requires you to do a ton of leg work just to get started. Yes, you could have each player read up on the one faction they will play, but you’ll still spend all that extra time during the game trying to understand and talk out what your opponents are doing and why. We had three players each read the rules and two watched a video before our first game, and it still took us 45 minutes to take our first turn. Even the second game with the same three players (with the same three factions, rotated) took 25 minutes or so to get going, as we went over rules clarifications and mistakes from the first game.
I think with three (not four) experienced players you can get this done in under 90 minutes consistently, but be prepared for far more the first few times through. It also makes it all that much more difficult to bring in, say, one new player to a future session, although it’s helpful that the factions scale in complexity, so you can give them the easiest one (Marquise de Cat). I shouldn’t be too harsh, however. Root gets the fundamentals right: the base rules that apply to everyone are, indeed, dead simple, and the complexity of the game is almost entirely in the asymmetry. The problem is that you simply have no choice but to absorb all of that information up front, rather than organically over the course of the game.
On the other hand, the asymmetry really is Root‘s greatest strength. I was skeptical, at first. I hate when players are given unique strengths or powers in a way that pigeonholes them into one best strategy. For example, the Leaders expansion for 7 Wonders forces you to follow the Leaders you draft in the pre-game or be left behind, when 7 Wonders (and drafting in general) is its best when players can be flexible early and commit to a particular strategy when the time is right to strike. Star Realms: Missions has the same problem. So, early on, I worried about this for Root. If you make a game where one player can only ever build buildings to win, one player can only ever attack to win, and so on, the game would be very boring. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded.
While Root’s factions play differently, each has a variety of paths to victory. The Marquise de Cat do well to build buildings, but which buildings they choose to focus on greatly changes their subsequent decisions. The Eyrie can set up mega-turns where they take tons of actions, but this comes at great risk. The Woodland Alliance and the Vagabond are a whole ‘nother level of complexity, but they can approach the game in a variety of ways as well. Really, every faction comes down the same basic approach: do combat, knock out buildings and tokens for VPs, get VPs from your board and Crafts, etc. But it’s the way they interact with those “standard objects”—especially cards, that separates them.
I have to say that at first I was skeptical of the card play, as it seemed like the cards did very little. But 30 points is not a lot, so Crafting becomes hugely important, and the way that the cards interact with the Eyrie and the Woodland Alliance create many situations where players valuate the same card very differently, which is one of the top things you want asymmetric gameplay to accomplish (asymmetric valuations). I also deeply undervalued the permanent Craft effects in our first few games, but several of them can be complete game-changers if accomplished early. The more you play the game, the more nuance there is to discover. The first few games you might make a decision for expansion based on what’s open, without consideration for the suit of the clearing, for example—you won’t make that mistake in later games. With an expansion already out for more players and new factions, I have a hard time believing someone who says they’ve seen everything Root has to offer.
Instead, Root has the opposite problem that so many of its genre have. It’s a very difficult task to get it to the table, explained, and played with players who are still interested by the end of the process, and then to get back to the table again and again. However, I will say that the payoff is more than worth it. By the end of each game, I found myself dissecting what had happened—especially those last few crucial turns. And maybe I wasn’t eager to play again right then, but I was eager to go home, do some Googling and riffling through the rules and cards, and look for ways to improve my play for next time, or reporting to other friends about how great our game was.
So does Root replace Blood Rage, or come close? No, but I’m happy to have and play both. One large consideration I have not mentioned is the theme, and Root does far better here than I expected. The pieces and cards and board are sturdy and nice, but not especially grandiose and overproduced—which is fine, because I think the game’s $60 price tag is worth the payoff. The game still looks good, and maybe even more importantly, it looks unique. I was unsure of the art style at first, but after several games I now adore it. The iconography and art design is also incredibly clear and functional. But I do think it’s harder to learn and not as extravagant as Blood Rage. I find the gameplay to be sufficiently different as well. While the drafting Blood Rage nudges you gradually toward different paths, there’s a strong sense of ownership in Root when you think, “I get to be the [insert faction here], and they have all these cool unique powers from the get go!” Overall, I’m eager to play again, and I think Root is an easy recommendation to anyone who likes multiplayer dudes-on-a-map combat games, and has the time to invest (and friends who will do the same).
Thank you to Leder Games for providing a review copy of Root.
+ Factions feel wildly different, but can be understood by other players
+ Intuitive, tense gameplay that doesn't drag
+ Winter board and other variability leads to high replayability
+ Unique, evocative artwork and piece
- Asymmetry means learning the game is a huge undertaking
- Some terminology is hard to distinguish for the first few games
- Combat rolls seem too all-or-nothing
- 60-90 minute play time is NOT true, at least not at first