Tuesday, 2 October 2018

I Am Root


For the last month or so, a newly released kickstarter - Root - has been regularly hitting the table at NoBoG to delight or more commonly confound players with it's highly asymmetric gameplay. I've managed to get a spot for every play, and with 4 plays with 4 different factions under my belt feel like I've got a pretty good grasp of what's going on.

So today we're gonna take a delve into Root to explore the good the bad and the ugly about the game, and what makes it different to most of the other games you play.

The Super Quick Overview

It's a bit like Risk. With woodland creatures. And no Australia to hide in, just clearings in a forest. But every player scores victory points differently, recruits differently and gives orders differently. And not everyone is playing Risk. Player 4 is playing a simple building Euro. Player 3 meanwhile is busy collecting sets. But you just annoyed him somehow, and now he's stabbed you in the face. How could he stab your cute rabbit in the head ?! That's it. Time to lead a revolt and kick some serious trash panda ass.

Mmm.What ?!

So cute. So innocent. And liable to slit your throat and burn down
your buildings. The Woodland Alliance freedom fighters terrorists.

Overview

Root is a kickstarted game for 1 to 4 players ( or up to 6 with the expansion ) by Patrick Leder - who formerly brought you Vast : The Crystal Caverns -  and Cole Wehrle - formerly of Pax Pamir - set in an anthropomorphic world of rabbits, mice and everything else in something of a Wind in the Willows meets Game of Thrones. If you've ever read the seminal Red Wall novels, you'll know what's going on here.

The aim of the game is to control the destiny of the Woods, tracked by victory points with a goal of being first across the line in obtaining 30 of them, but also more tellingly, also often tracked by how much of the board you control. Root is very much of a light wargame background, with direct conflict the order of the day, and in most of the factions a primitive game of Risk plays out between competing armies.

Each player faction gains victory points in markedly different ways however, meaning that the path to victory is entirely different to everyone else at the table. You are effectively playing your own version of the game. Crucially however this is not an exercise in "multi solitaire" that some Euros exhibit, wherein each player gets on with their own thing, not bothering their neighbours for an hour before coming up for air and comparing points on how well each player did with their homework puzzle solving strategy at the end of the game. Despite players having effectively their own version of the game to play, the victory point requirements are interweaved and played out on an area control map which means that conflict will occur, deals will have to be made, truces called, blood letting had.

The victory points are common knowledge, and tracked in real time, so everyone at the table can see which player is doing rather well at the moment. This serves as something of a "The Players Provide The Balance" to the game but with one exception, victory points can never be lost, so not letting someone roar off into the lead at any point in the game should be a concern for players.

Play consists in general of a fairly simple, recruit pieces to the board, move them about, fight someone, earn some VPs. However this really is an awful generalisation because for some factions getting pieces on the board is at least half the challenge, many factions gain little to nothing for fighting and for the Vagabond who has no armies, combat can be more of a stealth backstabber operation.

A is for Asymmetric

Root is all about the asymmetry. From a game mechanics point of view. From an enjoyable game point of view, it's probably all about the cute woodland creatures tussling for power - sometimes via kegs of explosives. Each faction in Root presents a very different challenge and set of rules and mechanics about how you earn points and interact with the board. Probably the most demonstrative example of this asymmetry is the setup of two of the factions - The Cats,  ( which represent the existing power, or if you imagine Root to be Robin Hood, then the Cats are the Sheriff of Nottingham ) who start with all but one of the board game areas in their control, and the Woodland Alliance ( Robin Hood and his Merry Men ) who start with nothing on the board, and must work to get sympathy out to inspire a revolt before they can even think about getting armies on the board.

Orange - The Marquise de Cat's forces
 The Cats are largely interested in only themselves. They get victory points for building new buildings, and to do that they need to control areas that have space for new buildings. Leave the Cats alone and they will happily build everything they can - ramping up their power as well as their VPs - only venturing out to fight where they need more space to build. Given that they start the map with all but one space of the map controlled, the Cats are setup for an easy time. ( The Cats are the easiest faction to play, both in terms of initial setup and how straight forward they gain VPs  ).

The Woodland Alliance on the other hand *must* inspire a revolt somewhere to get meaningfully into play.  A revolt eliminates every other player, armies, buildings et al from an area, and replaces them with an Alliance base and a small force to defend it. Robin Hood. Or maybe even a touch of Star Wars Rebel Alliance.

The Woodland Alliance gain points from spreading their sympathy out amongst the woods, and to really get their VPs moving they need to do this in person - sending out armies to spread the word to neighbouring clearings before disappearing off the map once their message is delivered. Or if you are of a much darker mindset, sending out suicide bombers to raise their profile. Freedom fighters. Or Terrorists.

Spreading insurgent sympathy is the aim for Woodland Alliance
The other factions are similarly ... different. The birds rely on being able to push out militarily, then sit on their gains, all the while coping with a pre-programmed set of orders that the player chooses to build which inevitably leads to their downfall as game conditions change. The Vagabond (Racoon aka trashpanda ) meanwhile is a sole operator. Unable to control clearings or build buildings, and militarily the weakest of all, they move between the players either hindering or helping them, and gaining points for doing both. Relationships are tracked, hostile to allied for the Vagabond, earning increasing points for helping allies, and points for killing enemies.

Trash Panda hiding in the forest away from the Cats
The wide asymmetry of the game is what makes it fairly unique in game terms. Truly asymmetric games with more than one faction are relatively rare ( COIN series being a notable exception ) - because meaningful balance starts to become a headache. Asymmetric games can be uniquely fun however in a way that symmetric games can't reach. Endless variants of the horde versus the few play out this truism, as the marines stand against the stealers in Space Hulk, or Yet Another Zombie Setting comes along pitting the mindless hordes versus the more capable living few, or if you're into your computer games, the Zerg stand against the Protoss and Humans in Starcraft. Most of those games or ideas if you look closely however are usually wargame/martial based mechanics. Where asymmetric balance comes down to measuring relative combat prowess. Easy. Ish. Board games that have to balance a whole mess of touchy feely actions *other* than just the roll of a dice for combat is a much harder prospect.

If you've never played a full on asymmetric game, Root is going to be... *weird*. Different. Unusual. Frustrating. Intriguing.

At it's best, the good, asymmetry allows very different strategies to crash into each other for cool emergent gameplay, rolls many different games into one box - each faction providing an entirely different play experience - and is a breath of fresh air in terms of gameplay.

Woodland Alliance not even on the board yet. Biding their time.
They eventually went on to win this game and utterly destroyed
the cats whilst doing so. Viva la revolucion.
At it's worst, the bad, asymmetry presents a steep learning curve. A massive wall of rules, each player dancing to their own exceptions and interactions, leaving you coping alone with what you've got to do AND trying to learn what everyone else is doing so you can meaningfully help or hinder them when it comes to it, and god help you, possibly a badly balanced game ( Chaos in the Old World and the Khorne faction suffers a touch from this ).

And for Root, both the good and bad are present - albeit the balancing in Root seems on point and extremely well done.

Patrick Leder was the designer also behind Vast. And Cole was designer of Pax Pamir. Which is something of an important point to make. Vast is another wildly asymmetric game, this one about a hero, a thief, goblins and a dragon all meeting each other in a cave. A fun and different game, with each faction having it's own mechanics and victory point gaining mechanisms, it also presents something of a steeper learning curve than might be expected for something so simple. Pax Pamir is a different beast, but also has some elements of asymmetry going on - but crucially anyone can align themselves with anything in game, and is far far less ambitious with its asymmetry.

Vast design wise is a good deal more transparent than Root - the visibility of who is winning and crucially, what you need to do to stop them winning is more obvious in Vast. Root being something of a design successor to Vast adds more complexity. You can tell the designers have pushed the concept further down the line, added in more layers choices and actions - but as a result, Root is initially a good deal harder to work out how to make an impact on the game than either Vast or Pax.

Otters. One of the expansion factions. Won the game
handily with a mass of wealth and some very aggressive
late game fighting !
Two new factions come with the expansion, and these are again very different to everything else and even for an experienced player, add in yet another set of rules and interactions to learn in order to determine whats going on. The extra factions are great. Well designed, extremely different, it's quite amazing this many different factions can get jammed into a game. But it comes at a price of more learning. More rules. More things for you to track who's doing well.

F is for Frustration

With so much going on in the game, for new players frustration can mount. How on earth can I compete. How can I stop player X. How do I even get pieces on the board ?! The learning curve is real. And therein lies a problem. Because in a world of much more approachable and equally fun games, why waste your time struggling with one that's a bit of a bugger. I would guess this is probably double the problem where you can't get Root out regularly to a fairly regular group. IE you have time to forget what you learned or how the game works. I would guess Root is a *dire* game to play once every few years with a completely different group of people. Mostly it's going to provide a bunch of head scratching rules checks and slow learning of how the game hangs together before its put away to gather dust and forget again. Bleh !

Working for it in a very touchy feely ssshhh it'll be ok kind of way, is it's very approachable theme and overall graphic design. It's cute. It's uncluttered. For the most part it communicates very clearly what you can do and what's available. And for a game with a lot of moving parts like Root, this helps an enormous amount. Life isn't so bad. One can only imagine the disaster the game would be if it had, say, the design aesthetic of something like Pax Porfiriana. I doubt any but a hardened few would ever play it.

Design

The game is really well designed. Each faction makes sense, has clear goals, and interacts in a meaningful way with everyone else at the table. Your choices as a player vary wildly depending what faction you are - the cats are way less of a thinky faction than say the birds or the woodland alliance. Whereas the trashpanda doesn't require a hell of a lot of forward planning. Nevertheless for each faction there are many meaningful choices. At it's heart lies a simple wargame, and as such, when to attack, when to defend, who to call truce with makes each game and each choice different.

With so many different faction, that they are all even slightly balanced is quite the marvel. It's arguable how much balance the players themselves bring to the table by stomping on the leader, but no faction so far seems like an Easy Win Condition. In the four games I've played, four different factions have won.

Longevity seems pretty good here. There is a lot of conflicting emergent gameplay to explore, and with the expansion adding two new factions and more vagabond options theres a hell of a lot of game to get through. And when that all becomes mundane, the flip side of the board has a somewhat dynamic setup where the clearings are randomised in what they represent.

Overall the game pretty much smashes the design aspect out of the park, a really quality game, one the feels like it has less rough edges than Vast and comes across as a more polished and refined variation on the original asymmetric theme.

Tinker - one of the many Vagabond character options. This guy
starts with no offence, but capable of crafting and better repairs !

Conclusion

There's a lot of concerns about this game with its accessibility. Its learning curve. This is however the nature of the asymmetric beast - if you have six truly different functioning factions, guess what, you're gonna need to learn six different rulesets to fully enjoy the game. Depending what kind of person you are, this may be acceptable or the worst thing ever - I just wanna have some fun, quit giving me rules.

But. The game isn't that complex when all is said and done. You should be able to pick it up pretty quickly after a few turns. And after a game, you'll be in a good shape to know what's going on everywhere.

And the game is very good. Almost unique in its experience - the closest thing to it is a COIN game ( which are fairly unique themselves ! ) or Vast, and Vast feels closer even though thematically COIN should be it's spiritual neighbour. COIN is wayyyy more stodgier and heavy going than Root. Root is ( despite the many rule sets ) more accessible than COIN. Root offers some old school light wargame fare of pushing armies about and smacking people over the head, but in a very modern wrapper of orders and movement limits and tricky decisions.

The great playstyle marries fantastically with the theme, and overall the game is a mustplay for anyone even remotely interested in game design mechanics, or interest in seeing new game ideas with a taste for direct confrontation. With half a dozen factions in the box(es), the game is going to present you with six very different experiences everytime you sit and play, which, off the top of my head, I can't think of any game that even gets close to this. And they are *fun*. And delightful to play off the strengths and weaknesses. Inciting a revolt as the Woodland Alliance in some massive stronghold and wiping everyone off the board is an amazing feeling of the little guy sticking it to The Man. And likewise, stomping out the insurgencies, putting down those annoying rebels can be satisfying.

Great game. Fun experiences. Beware the learning curve ! One to introduce to the inexperienced gaming family this is not !

Appendix - The Factions

Marquise de Cat ( a play on words of My Kitty Cat apparently ) - At the start of the game the Powers That Be. Controlling 90% of the board, they are only interested in building more buildings. With space at a premium however, they are going to need to be in control of a lot of area. . .

The Woodland Alliance - Entirely off the board at the start of the game, the Alliance are the insurgent faction, always with the upper hand in combat due to their guerilla warfare, even at their height of power they cannot challenge the cats or birds militarily, but they can do plenty of damage and excel in alpha strikes. All they need to win is lots of of sympathy to their cause.

The Eyrie - A bunch of haughty birds with powerful military, concentrated forces and always winning ties for control, keen on invading the woods and setting up their eyries. For every nest they create the earn points per turn, an easy path to victory. What's not so easy is their restrictive and pre-programmed orders. Play cards to give orders, but then be forced to play that order in every subsequent turn. Fail and your society falls into Chaos, costing your VPs and turns of turmoil. With a pre-programmed order list, enemy factions can see you coming, and see where your weaknesses lie.

The Vagabond - A trash panda out for number one, the Vagabond has no armies, no buildings and bugger all control. Gaining points for helping allies by giving away cards, the trashpanda trades for items with with to increase the actions possible - each item opening up more action possibilities - and also completing quests - sets of items for points. Able to also make enemies of factions and gain points for killing them, The Vagabond can be a dynamic balance of power, keeping to themselves or wading into the fray as opportunity arises. Half of the Vagabond plays out like a mini RPG, equipping yourself with stuffs for better options.

The Riverfolk - Otters only interested in setting up trading posts and offering their services. Any other player can buy their services as mercenaries, card suppliers or fast movement down rivers to give them a real advantage over everyone else. But the Otters win by accruing more money. The more they have, the more VPs they earn every turn. And if need be the Otters can go to war, always a threat along the river, able to pop up and lay waste to enemies.

The Lizard Cult - An insidious group of Lizards bent on bringing back the glory times of the The Dragon. They get points by spreading their cult gardens amongst the woods and can pop up anywhere at any time to start taking control. Also capable of turning enemies into cultists, the Lizards must carefully manage their ever increasing hand and a flow of warriors into acolytes into conspiracies !

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