“Thematically, I wanted space in Root to attack some of the most insidious tropes about how states should behave in games… The biggest offense, in my opinion, is the erasure of the different peoples that comprised a state… The cards in a players hand represented the biopower on which their political faction could draw. So managing a hand by choosing which cards to hold and whether to expand hand size or the flow of new cards in and out of a hand because an exercise in Foucaultian biopolitics.”
The game components of the highest quality, with wonderful art by Kyle Ferrin that conveys both the whimsy and barbarity of woodland combat. The are touches of craft everywhere. The player boards are masterpieces of clarity, and absolutely necessary since every faction plays differently. Combat is resolved with large d12s marked from 0-3, which have a satisfying heft and roll. The core game is based around four players, with support for two to six with the expansion, and a co-op mode against a bot faction. Each player turn in broken into three phases: birdsong, daylight, and evening, and each phase offers potential actions relating to building, crafting, recruiting, and battling. But in an amazing bit of asymmetric design, no two factions plays remotely similarly.
The Marquis de Cat is a rising imperial power. The Cat has a powerful economic engine but has to spend cards to get more than three actions per turn and has trouble putting out fires across the map. The Woodland Alliance are a furry Viet Cong, spreading networks of sympathizers through the woods. They have a pile of supporter cards, which they use to spread sympathy and foster revolts, building towards a conventional military per the third stage of Mao’s People’s War doctrine, but their army will always be small and limited compared to the other factions. The Eyrie Lords seek to reclaim what was once theirs, making multiple moves with a decree stating where they Recruit --> Move --> Battle --> Build, but if they can’t do one of those actions, they fall into disarray, losing their turn, a lot of victory points, and their decree. Finally, the Vagabond is a lone hero, a trickster figure who aids and fights the other factions, completing quests to win fame in the eyes of the common people. The expansion factions are Otter Mercenaries, who sell their services to the highest bidder and hope to come out of the war with the most profit, and the Lizard Cult, who use the discard pile to rally the discontented of the woods to their alien ideology.
The fluff is amazing, but Root goes one further and makes the gameplay work. Pacing in boardgames is what separates the good from the great. Root is a brisk 60-90 minutes, played to either 30 victory points or one of four domination wins based on control of the board. This is just enough time to expand, to suffer reverses, and to make a break for victory, without a tedious step of playing out the inevitable. The strategy is driven by intense player interaction. The Cat, Eyrie, and Alliance must expand to score victory points, making conflict inevitable, but any faction that draws the ire of the rest is going to get bloodied. Politics at the table matters as much as Wehrle’s biopolitics of hand management.
Root compares favorably to its nearest neighbors in the design space. The COIN series (A Distant Plain, Andean Abyss, Fire in the Lake, etc) are the gold standard, but while I love a good COIN, they are heavy games, with a lot of tiny pieces, complexities to remember in your turn, and player aids that are more functional than elegant. The card-driven turn order and events also introduce some unfairness. I recall one game of Fire in the Lake where a card event wiped out every NVA base along the Ho Chi Minh trail, and then due to turn order they never got a chance to rebuild. Just bad luck. The COIN games go a little too far in emulating the quagmire of counter-insurgency warfare. To win, you have to knock opposing factions down to low resources so they can’t fight back, establish dominance over your ally, and then hold it until the next scoring phase. Ending a COIN game with a victory for anyone is hard.
Scythe is also a near neighbor, a thematic blend of Eurogame and wargame. Scythe is fast, but it often feels like multiplayer solitaire, as each player optimizes the economic engine on their own board. The battles are more border skirmishes to get victory stars, not decisive actions for control of territory. The Scythe board is big enough that attacking someone is rarely required, and combat punishing enough that conquest is discouraged. Scythe ends abruptly, usually when one player jumps from four to six victory stars. And while the theme of mechs and workers battling it out in interwar Eastern Europe is cool, I’ve never felt like it was linked to the mechanics. Popular support is a number on a scale, not a political reality. When in my game of Root, the Vagabond allied with the Marquis de Cat and destroyed a Woodlands Alliance base, scattering their supporters, I could see the action of this powerful hero-turned-villain striking down rabbits in red berets in their tunnel command post.
I’ve only scratched the surface of Root. I can’t wait to learn how to play properly. It is genius. Sheer, bloody, genius. This isn’t a world for the weak. If you want to rule, you have to be the cutest and the deadliest!