Root ★★★

Before rising to stardom as a game designer, Cohle Wherle was known for being an avid gamer. He could be found on Boardgamegeek, sharing his thoughts on highly combative titles like Dune, wargames or the 18XX series. His first designs, like Pax Pamir and An Infamous Traffic kept that belligerence and added his own sardonic wit.

It should be expected, then, that Root would be about cute animals and the violent struggle for power between them.

WILD WARFARE

Just like John Company was inspired by The Republic of Rome, Root takes inspiration from a family of multiplayer  wargames known as COIN. Like them, Root is an asymmetric game of counterinsurgency and warfare. But its brillance lies in the different way it approaches the topic, using simple euro mechanics and a softer fantasy element.

Root depicts a conflict between four factions. The Marquise de Cat strives to control the woods through industrialization, while the Eyre, the previous monarchs, attempt to regain their lost ground. The rodent equivalent of Marxist revolutionaries, the Woodland alliance, explodes in revolt but struggles to expand while the Vagabond, a merry racoon fellow, cares only about his own goals.

Each faction has a tableau listing how they take actions, how they bring troops to the board and how they get points. The goal of the game is to be the first to reach 30 points, making it a race. However, since every faction has its own development curve, each player sees the conflict in a different light.

Managing that curve while holding others back is the true core of Root. Only one faction can go back on the score track so every point scored by others puts you one step closer to losing. There’s tension between achieving your own goals and not letting others have an easy ride.

Despite the simplified map, little randomness and lack of hidden information there’s enough variability in the game to provide interesting matches. Your turn-to-turn choices  might not be overly onerous but they aren’t wholly trivial. Knowing when to put your foot down and when to allow them to score is challenging and the implications hard to gauge.

MUNDANE

The main fault of Root is that, for a game about fighting, it lacks an interesting combat mechanism. The way it works is that the attacker rolls two dice and takes the highest number. Each side then deals that many hits to the opponent, up to the number of troops they had in the conflict.

I always come out wishing there was more trickery involved. The combat leaves very little room for outplaying your rivals or surprising them with a bold move. You can craft cards by controlling matching spaces on the board and get a small advantage, but most of them simply give you more actions or points. The Vagabond may take some of the latter from you and bear them as weapons, but it’s more of an annoyance than an important dynamic.

So, if the interest is not on the combat, where is it? I’m afraid it’s on your own board, in planning your actions efficiently. And that’s a far less interesting game than one in which the fights require your input. Despite the differences between factions, I can’t help but think who I’m facing is ever less important than how many of their figures stand on my way.

There’s a certain mundanity to the design that leaves me disappointed. The Eyre, which keeps adding more and more actions to their tableau and crashes when they can’t do them all, is a neat design that promotes keeping an eye on your opponents and so is the Woodland Alliance, whose rebellion must be quelled before it grows too strong. But the rest of the game leaves me cold.

The Marquise doesn’t evolve or outmaneuver their opponents. Their available actions are to raise troops, build, move and attack. They feel featureless and flat, a generic faction in a simplified area control game. The Vagabond, on the other hand, bypasses the game’s central mechanics by virtue of being a single figurine which has an unpleasant effect on its dynamics.

If left alone, the Vagabond inevitably wins. But, since he has no real board position and cannot die, there’s no way to interact with him beyond whacking him to slow him down. His contribution to the game from the perspective of other players is that of a tax. Whenever possible, I replace him with one of the factions from the expansions.

FUNNY ANIMALS

Without question, the best part of Root is the art direction. Those little wooden pieces have more joy in them than two Kickstarter’s worth of miniatures. And, unlike those miniatures, they are cheap and make for good playing pieces. I love the contrast between the charming presentation and the grueling reality of the gameplay, too.

It’s not just aesthetics, the whole package shows polish. The player boards show what you can do in a turn, step by step, and aren’t covered in massive blobs of text or minor exceptions. It seems unimportant, but they are vital in getting the players up to speed. Without them, Root wouldn’t have become as popular.

Still, Root fails to grab me. I have fun with it and won’t refuse a game if offered, but it sits well below Chaos in the Old World and March of the Ants in the hierarchy of games I would like to play. It lacks explosion, guile, trickery. It straddles too close to being a game of efficiency, of doing things in the right order more often than your opponents.

Without that element of surprise, Root doesn’t take full advantage of what makes it unique. It doesn’t offer a different decision space than simpler area control games and feels staid when compared to the richer chaos of its best rivals. It’s too inflexible to be truly great and its flaws, while small in number, put a dent in its success.

ROOT (2018)
DESIGN Cole Wehrle ART Kyle Ferrin
PUBLISHER Leder Games LENGTH 90 Minutes
NUMBER OF PLAYERS 3-4 (Best with 3-4) SCORE ★★★

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