Root belongs to a small but burgeoning subgenre of tabletop board games where players immerse themselves in the woodland worlds of mice, racoons and other wild critters. For the most part, these are adventure-style games, heavy on narrative detail. But Root is different: behind its endearing exterior is a challenging conflict game in which four factions clash for control of their forest home. This really is nature red in tooth and claw.
What’s in the Box
While Root comes in a relatively small box, it’s heavy with content. There are three rulebooks: a quick-start walkthrough, a more verbose guide to the game in the box, and a full bullet-pointed rulebook which includes details for the game’s many expansions. There are four different player boards, one for each faction, and the board itself which is double-sided and so offers two different maps to play on.
Beneath all that cardboard are the game’s compellingly cute components. First, a stack of cards illustrated in the unique, striking style of Kyle Ferrin: he’s also responsible for the board and box art but it’s on the cards that he truly shines, with characters and scenes in pen and ink that somehow manage to be both adorable and deadly serious at the same time.
That dichotomy is also captured by the bag of screen-printed pawns which use simple eyes-and-nose features in an astonishingly characterful way. There are three piles of pawns for the cats, birds, and woodland critters in the game plus a single fourth pawn, which evokes a racoon, for the vagabond. Some punch-out tokens and a pair of custom 12-sided dice, printed with 0-3 three times over, round out the contents.
Rules and How it Plays
At first glance, Root looks like a typical game of conflict and territory, where players are fighting to control portions of a map. And in some respects, it’s exactly that. But it’s far more novel than it may appear because it’s a highly asymmetric game. Each player controls a faction which not only has a few special powers as you might see in a typical game of this style, but that essentially plays the game by its own, distinct rules. This takes some getting used to — hence the helpful quick-start guide — but the results are sublime.
There are a few shared concepts that all the factions use. Players get cards each turn which must be “crafted” in order to be played or which can be discarded to fuel certain effects. Everyone uses the same movement, control and combat system, which involves moving between board spaces and rolling two custom dice with the values 0 to 3. The attacker gets to use the highest dice and the result is the number of casualties inflicted on the enemy. Even this takes some getting used to but it’s an interesting concept that really rewards aggression.
Root is far more novel than it may appear because it’s a highly asymmetric game.
Beyond this, the factions diversify. The cats are the closest to a standard wargame, with a pool of actions they can use to build, move and attack, and they get points for defeating enemies and creating their own structures. The birds are also a conquest-based faction but they play very differently. Their faction has a “decree” which indicates they must take certain actions in certain spaces, and you must add to the decree each turn. This can give them a huge pool of actions but if you fail to meet the dictates of the decree the result is disastrous, losing you points and forcing you to start a new decree from scratch.
Pitting the cats against the birds is the recommended setup for a two-player game, and it makes for a fascinating face-off. On the one side, you have the familiar cats, seeking to gain territory and resources as they amass forces and creep across the map securing territory. On the other you have the birds, gathering speed and strength with each passing turn like some demented clockwork toy before crashing and starting over. The bird player must carefully plan his decree to make it achievable for as long as possible, while the cats balance their need for consolidation against the desire to mess up that decree by ensuring the birds can’t take the necessary actions.
The other two factions are even more peculiar. The Woodland Alliance is essentially an underground guerilla army made up of the disaffected critter peasantry. They can sacrifice cards to buy sympathy in a clearing which can, later, blossom into a revolt, destroying enemy forces there and adding the Alliance’s own troops from their limited pool. Once established, incursions by other players into Alliance territory cause outrage, bolstering their cause despite the military setbacks. It’s the dilemma faced by all powers struggling with insurgencies in microcosm, and it brings engrossing new dimensions to the strategy to see it portrayed in a relatively accessible manner alongside the clash of more regular forces.
Our final faction is the Vagabond, a lone piece that plays more like a role-playing character, accumulating gear to build actions, than any kind of military force. They have the most complex rules and the most fluid palette of point-scoring. They can prosper by exploring old ruins and completing quests then, later in the game, will become friends or enemies with other factions in the game, scoring additional points by trading or attacking them respectively. Playing the Vagabond is a careful balancing act of predicting how the game will ebb and flow so you can support and annoy the right people while leaving yourself space to pursue individual goals.
Root really shines with all four players. The military clashes between the birds and cats set the stage, while the Woodland Alliance and the Vagabond hide behind the curtain, trying to furtively pull together points. This dynamic feels very unusual, with the two armies fighting in a zero-sum game of tearing strips off each other while always looking over their shoulder lest they outrage alliance supporters or earn the enmity of the Vagabond. The result is a game that feels like a war board game, but one where the negotiation over alliances takes a back seat, letting mechanical strategy shine through without reducing player interaction.
Getting to the point where you can fully enjoy the game, however, takes some effort. Learning one faction is fine, but you really need to know the rules for all the factions to plan your strategy well. To properly grasp things you ideally need to play all the factions, more than once, so you can understand the problems from the inside. And while the asymmetry in Root is fascinating it can also lead to some unfortunate games in which each faction feels like it’s doing its own thing, and a leader can coast to victory without the other players being able to do much about it.
Where to Buy
Root works because it is at once familiar and novel: a wargame with a cutesy theme disguising a highly asymmetric strategy affair. It’s a dichotomy that bears some really quite bizarre fruit, with some players claiming it represents various sociological theories of power and oppression. Whether you want to get quite that deep into its verdant glades is up to you: many will find its long learning curve too off-putting to even get close. But the fact that some players can, and do, think about the game in such detail stands as a testament to just how compellingly unusual and exciting Root can be.