Expectations v Reality: Root
It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in the hobby for a decade or for 3 months, one thing never seems to change for many of us: the allure of new games. Whether it’s that new Kickstarter that finally delivered, the latest expansion for one of your top 10 games, or just the shiny new kid on the block with amazing components that caught your eye on YouTube, the desire to pick up a new game constantly whispers in your ear like a temptress. Because of this, a lot of times you won’t get in the repeated plays some of your old or new games deserve. This column takes a look at that all important first play. Sometimes it can be a make or break - you either love it or hate it. And many times, your expectations going in can have a lot to do with this success or failure.
If you’re like me, when it’s time to get a new game to the table, you’ll do a few things. Learn the rules, obviously, either via the rulebook, a rules video, a playthrough video or a combination of all. You’ll sometimes wander into BGG where you’re bound to run into rules questions, impressions, reviews, glowing endorsements, fiery vitriol, and anything and all in between. Maybe you’ll listen to your favorite podcast (ahem, Cardboard Reality) and have their praise and critiques of the game make an impact on you. So most of the time when you sit down at a table for the first time, you’ve already got some ideas in your head about how this is going to go. Which isn’t a bad thing. And sometimes isn't a good thing. But it is a thing.
Root (2018) - Designed by Cole Wehrle with Art by Kyle Ferrin
Root, which subtitles itself appropriately as “A Game of Woodland Might and Right,” is a game of asymmetric factions of adorable critters battling in the woods for supremacy. Yes, Root is a war game. And sure, asymmetric player powers and factions can be found in many games now, but Root turns it up to 11. Each faction plays wildly different than the next, by a completely different set of rules, mechanics, and even end game victory conditions in some cases. This asymmetry wrapped into a beautiful and contrasting aesthetic has made Root one of the hottest games of 2018. And I’m excited to finally get a chance to get it to the table. Root plays 2-4 players (up to 6 with the expansion), in 60-90 minutes, and has a BGG weight rating of 3.39.
You can find a full rules run down of this game at several places on the internet, so I won’t bore you with the details here. You’ve likely heard of Root, maybe even played it, or at the very least would love to get a chance to sit down at the table and see what all the hype is about. So let’s talk about expectations.
I’ll be playing Root with my normal gaming group. We’re usually at a player count of 4, but for this play-through we’ll only have 3. We’re well versed in a wide array of mechanics, weights, and game styles, but I believe this will be our first war game. Root comes with a dual rulebook set up, featuring a “Learning to Play” guide that will talk you through a couple rounds during your first time at the table, and “The Law of Root” which goes in depth into the rules, fringe cases, and exceptions. This is a refreshing rules presentation, that I hope will help us learn the game quickly, get right into a game, and have all of our questions answered should they arise. I’ve read both rulebooks cover to cover, watched a full playthrough online, and have heard limited thoughts about the game on some of my favorite podcasts. I’m ready to head into the forest and play Root. Let’s have a look at the positive and negative expectations I had going into this first play:
Balance through Imbalance: This could very well end up in the negatives, but for now it sits firmly in the positives. I like games that break the rules. Root does this at every chance it gets. You literally get to do things as The Vagabond that you can’t do as The Woodland Alliance. The Eyrie plays a card game while the Marquise de Cat goes all in on production, building, and overwhelming numbers. I’m very excited to see how this imbalance all balances together at the table.
Multiple Paths to Victory: I’m intrigued and excited by Root’s multiple paths to victory. Yes, everyone can just push forward, up the track, and try to be the first to crack 30 points. But having the ability to play a dominance card and literally remove your victory point marker from the track to change your end game condition is terrific! It not only changes your focus, but now forces the rest of your opponents to change their focus on you as well. The Vagabond, the wild card, can even form a coalition in 4 player games and join the player currently lowest on the scoring track, working with them for a shared victory.
Short Play Time: The game bills itself at 60-90 minutes, and according to several reports I’ve read online of plays, that seems to be a legitimate estimate. I’m hoping that holds up for our play, as this is a game that should only get better with repeated plays, and a manageable play time helps greatly with that.
Adorable Meeples: I love the meeples! I mean, who wouldn’t. And it isn’t just the meeples. The art, the overall aesthetic, and the theme just really immerses me into the experience when I take a look at the box and components. The contrast of cuteness and war feels like a great pitch.
Tough Teach: Perhaps my biggest concern is teaching this game to my wife. My other friend will be ready with the rulebook, he usually is, but my wife is the most casual of our group and usually comes into a game with little to no background. She’s overwhelmed easily by too many rules being thrown at her before a game, and would much rather learn a game hands on. However, the “Quick Walkthrough” guide that takes you step by step through 2 full turns, should be right up her alley.
Player Count: I had hoped to play with 4, as it’s tailor made for that with 4 factions in the box, but we’ll be doing our first play at 3. All indications are that it still plays great with 3, but with one less person to “check” the other players, I’m worried it will be tougher to stop somebody that gets rolling.
Keeping Other Players In Check: I don’t know that this should be a negative expectation, but it is just a worry for me. It appears this game is about tough decisions of either keeping your neighbor in check, or plowing forward with your own point generating game plan. In games like that, you’ve got to depend on others to pull their weight. Not necessarily to do your dirty work, but they have to be aware of what other players are doing and trying to slow them down. Of course, from a competitive standpoint, you hope the other players don’t stop you from running your well oiled machine! I’ll be interested to see how this turns out.
Fiddly Tokens: Maybe I’m becoming a component snob, but the cardboard buildings and tokens don’t excite me. I would’ve loved to see molded minis like in Gaia Project, or even more wooden buildings and resources to complement the meeples. I think this may be a game play decision, to differentiate removing cardboard (worth a point) v removing a meeple (usually not worth a point.) But man it would’ve looked great on the board!
Hype Train Rating Expectations: 5 out of 7.
While I didn't back this game, and don't own it, I'm very intrigued to see what the fuss is all about. Between the wonderful production quality, mostly great reviews, pictures flooding into social media, and competitive nature of this game, I’m ready to roll. All Aboard!
And there you have it. Those are my expectations heading into Root. I’d love for this column to be as genuine and organic as possible, so this is where I bid you an odd adieu, and I’ll see you after the break, and after my first playthrough of Root.
What a rewarding, well-rounded, thought-provoking and tense gaming experience. Root really hit the spot for me in the first play. We had a 3 player game of my Marquise de Cat v The Eyrie v Woodland Alliance, and the Eyrie emerged victorious, thwarting my Dominance attempt, and plowing forward to cross 30 points. Root absolutely hit my expectations as far as balance went.
Nobody is balanced, nobody is created equal, and therefore nobody has a true advantage. But the game really relies on the players to check each other and create that balance. The early game saw my Cats and the Woodland Alliance posturing, saying that the other needed to go take care of the Eyrie. We both swore that we’d get to it eventually, but alas we were both too late. If you’re not a fan of table-talk, and a bit of kingmaking (or rather kingslaying, as you sometimes just need to prolong the game one more turn for your own benefit) then Root may turn you off. It requires being involved in a ever evolving game-state not only from the moves you make, but keeping an eye on other players and interjecting when you need them to make a move to benefit your position. Will they always listen? Of course not. But the potential for diplomacy, scheming, and plotting is definitely there.
The cards in Root surprised me. I knew about crafting items, I knew about dominance and ambush cards, but I wasn’t prepared for some of the special effect cards you could craft. My opponents seemed to be getting them into their hand and onto the table more than me, and had me at a disadvantage should I ever decide to attack them. A future play will have me more aware of these cards. I could see somebody disliking the random draw aspect of getting ahold of some of these powerful effects, so it’s something to be aware of in the game.
The multiple paths to victory were deliciously implemented. The Eyrie was just plowing away at it’s Decree command line, walking around the forest dropping roosts. I was attempting to keep pace with my workshops and sawmills, but couldn’t quite keep it up, so I pulled the trigger on a Dominance card, thinking I could force the Eyrie to focus on me and lose control of their decree. I loved the way Root implements those dominance cards, giving you an out if you’re falling behind and need to change it up.
Play time was on point, with us clocking in right at 2 hours, with a 30 minute or so intro and walkthrough via the provided materials (more on this later!) and then a 90 minute game. That 90 minute play time for a first time really has me salivating to get this to the table again. It is a game that requires multiple plays, and will only get better, and a quick play time is a huge asset to Root. The woodland critter meeples were just as good as anticipated. That menacing glare from the cats really made me want to stir up some trouble and keep pushing for my Woodland domination. The cardboard components were just so-so. Tokens were of average quality, but we had a little warp in our player boards, and the game board never wanted to quite lay flat, almost like it had a bit of bow in it as well. I’d love to see a deluxe edition down the road to address my thoughts on the cardboard tokens, or perhaps some motivated BGG’er will come up with some repurposed component upgrades.
The teach for this game was terrific. Cole Wehrle and Leder Games have come together in a terrific fashion and really put out a top notch product as far as rulebooks go. Having a rules resource, a quick play guide, and a first time 2 turn walkthrough is going above and beyond. That 2 turn walkthrough is something I’d love to see in more heavy strategy games. I was worried about teaching my wife this game, but it was a breeze thanks to this setup. The game also played wonderfully at 3, although we did play with the recommended first time 3 player faction setup. The natural tightness of the board without a vagabond around to clear ruins made for some tough exploratory decisions as you looked over the map. I would be glad to play it again at 3, but I’m definitely looking forward to getting that Vagabond involved, and seeing how that pesky little critter can add to the fun at 4 players.
Root is a winner. The designer, artist, and publisher have put together a terrific package of deep, multi-tiered gameplay, memorable art and components, and wrapped it in a shockingly easy to learn system. This game will take a long time to get great at, but it is a very approachable heavy strategy game. We found ourselves talking after the playthrough for 30-40 minutes about the decisions we made, why we did this, why didn’t we do that, what were you thinking, etc. and that is always the sign to me of a terrific gaming experience. We weren’t debating the merits of the game, or the balance, but just what we’d do differently next time, and how we might have tried to play each other’s factions differently. I love when a game inspires this kind of wrap-up discussion afterwards. Overall, I’m very satisfied with Root. It met my expectations, exceeding them in some regards, and debunked many of my negative expectations as well. I won’t claim to have explored every nook and cranny of this beautiful forest yet, but a very successful first play has me hungry for more.
Initial Impressions Rating After First Play:
6 out of 7
To hear Cardboard Reality’s podcast weigh in, listen to their official review here.