The Brutally Cute Game of Root

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The Brutally Cute Game of <i>Root</i>

Root hides a complex and highly competitive game beneath the cute veneer of a forested board with clearings populated by adorable woodland creatures with mischievous properties. It’s almost too bad that they’re going to start killing each other before the first round is over.

It turns out that the forest just isn’t big enough for all of these creatures, and the competition for space is immediate. The novel aspect of Root, however, is that each player gets a unique tribe with different starting conditions, powers, and even pieces—a completely asymmetrical game for two to four players (up to six with the Riverfolk expansion) that manages to create a surprisingly balanced experience even though each player operates from a different playbook than everyone else. There are a lot of rules, and learning the game well for one faction doesn’t necessarily prepare you for playing a different faction, but it’s a game that rewards repeated play of any single role.

The four factions in the base game are themselves all very different right from the setup phase. The Marquise de Cat controls most of the board at the very beginning, placing “warriors” (albeit adorable feline ones) in every clearing on the board except for one, and gains points by placing any of its three building types on those clearings, with point values increasing as the player builds more of any one type. The Eyrie, playing as eagles, get that one remaining clearing for their first roost and must expand outward from there by battling the Marquise’s forces, scoring points every turn based on how many roosts they have on the board. The Woodland Alliance represents the oppressed creatures of the forest and scores by placing Sympathy tokens on the board, representing the good will of the people … er, animals supporting the Alliance against the cats. The Vagabond is the one faction without any forces of its own; that player has its own deck of Quests to complete, which it does by stealing Items from other players in exchange for cards, also gaining points for these trades.

All players can also Craft cards or items over the course of the game to gain points, add special abilities, or create one-time effects. The Marquise and the Eyrie can craft cards by controlling clearings of each of the three main card types as long as they have their buildings (workshops for the Marquise, roosts for the Eyrie) in those spaces. The Alliance crafts with sympathy tokens, while the Vagabond can craft if that player has obtained sufficient hammer Items and moves its token to the right clearing. Items themselves are worth one to three points when crafted, while cards with special abilities don’t award points but may make the player more powerful in battle or give the player extra moves.

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The first player to reach 30 points wins the game, which in our experience takes an hour-ish, probably less if all players have some experience, with game time also depending on how fast the Marquise player moves to rack up points since that player has the strongest starting position. However, there’s a second victory condition available in games with at least three players, based on Dominance cards; once a player has at least 10 points, that player can play a Dominance card from his/her hand and try to achieve a victory through alternate meanings, such as controlling three yellow clearings, but doing so means the player removes their token from the scoring track and can no longer win by getting to 30 points.

The beauty of Root’s design is that the roles are all so well balanced despite being different enough that, as one person I played with said, “it’s like we’re playing different games.” I see that as a strength—if you like area control games, you play the Marquise or maybe the Eyrie; if you like hand management and handling resources and trades, you play the Vagabond. It seems like a good game to get people who enjoy very different niches of board gaming to the table at the same time.

The downside of Root is that there are a lot of rules to follow and remember, and since each player’s set of possible actions and order of operations varies, knowing your own faction doesn’t necessarily make it easier for you to teach someone to play another faction. The Eyrie has to follow the moves laid out in its “decree,” which gets longer every round and will eventually become unplayable, forcing the player to take a penalty and lose most of a turn. The Alliance can cause Revolts in certain clearings, removing all opposing warriors and buildings from those spaces—except the Vagabond, who is invulnerable, and apparently just sits off to the side and says ”… but that’s none of my business” while sipping tea. The Marquise has the most straightforward rules of the four base game factions, but does require the player to move quickly while they have the upper hand on the board, and there’s a card that rewards points based on clearings controlled that can give the Marquise a huge bonus (nine points in one of our games) if it’s played early enough; there also aren’t enough building spaces for the Marquise to win by diversifying what buildings they play, so they must focus on one type to maximize their points. There are enough arcana in the rules that the game comes with two guides—a basic rulebook and The Law of Root, which tries to cover everything—as well as a quickstart page that helps players start their first game by dictating the first two moves for each of the four factions. The Riverfolk expansion allows for up to six players, including a second Vagabond faction, while also introducing a solo mode.

Root really does have a brilliant design once you get the hang of each faction’s rhythm—any game that provides four quite different ways to play but tends to produce competitive plays with tight scoring must have a smart, well-tested design beneath the hood. The ramp-up period to learn the game is long, even with the quickstart guide, because much of what factions can do and how they do it is new or just not intuitive. It’s also the kind of game that can satisfy lots of different players, and I could easily see a group playing repeatedly with the same people playing the same factions because they learn specific strategies for each and like the style of one faction over all others. Just don’t let the cute theme fool you—the forest of Root is a nasty, brutish place.

Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.