Pax Pine: A Look at Cole Wehrle’s Root
One of the things I appreciated most about Geoff Engelstein’s board game rendering of The Expanse was the way it took the venerable Twilight Struggle’s very serious, very wargamey card system and bolted it over the top of something that had nothing to do with real-world history or politics. It was, if you want to be dramatic about it, a democratizing move. Where any quantity of board gamers might shy away from engaging with “serious” topics in their leisure time, The Expanse boasted a deeply smart card system layered over a fictional world, right down to its dumber-than-a-bucket Captain James Holden. If the hero doesn’t bust his noggin over political statements and colonial implications, why should you?
Now, in a surprise alliance between political-game veteran Cole Wehrle (Pax Pamir, An Infamous Traffic, the forthcoming John Company) and one of the industry’s freshest publishers of asymmetric buffoonery Leder Games (Vast: The Crystal Caverns), we’re witnessing what just might shape up to be the next step in the process of bending the branch of wargame-style gameplay into reaching distance of a more general audience.
The game in question is Root. It’s still in playtesting, likely won’t be out for a good long while, and details are still subject to change. But my impressions of an early build have been almost entirely positive.
The concept behind Root could almost pass for the next volume in the so-serious-it-hurts COIN Series, albeit with its shaky regime replaced by the whisker-twirling Marquis de Cat, the terrorist insurgents swapped out for the chipper Woodland Alliance, the disgruntled former rulers and now-expatriates represented by the airborne Eyrie Dynasties, and the wildcard drug runners played by the rascal raccoon Vagabond. It is, in short, pretty easy to see where Wehrle’s wargame impulses are being indulged.
But the beauty of the whole thing lies in the fact that the Marquis de Cat’s excesses don’t require real-world explanation. Gone are terrorism and jungle bases, replaced by cartoon conspiracies and hideouts in hollowed-out logs. If the Eyrie deserved to implode in the first place, we don’t need to debate the merits of its dynastic succession. Wehrle might have enough wiggle room to write a designer diary about how his card system stands in for Foucaultian biopolitics — I always wrote it as “Foucauldian,” but apparently that’s too French — but when you get right down to it, Root is a barnyard romp for four very asymmetric sides. One part Redwall, a dash of Watership Down.
Each side requires their own explanation, so fully do they differ, but before we get into that, let’s talk about those cards. Everything in the game stems from a single shared deck because everybody uses them, though often in very different ways. They can be crafted into upgrades, used in ambushes, sometimes traded, sometimes swapped for extra actions, or perhaps they’ll even serve as the beating heart of your entire avian society — right up until their absence sends you spiraling into total collapse. Essentially, everybody wants them but never seems to have enough.
It’s the one point of real contact between Root’s disparate factions, and it works wonders. One deck, many possibilities. And because everybody is working from the same pool, it’s easy to quickly acquaint yourself with the way even your most mechanically-distant opponent works.
Okay, let’s talk about the different factions, because this is where Root really springs to life.
The Marquis de Cat is a big fat jerk. After ousting the Eyrie Dynasties in the pre-game fluff, his kitty warriors prowl the clearings and protect his starting infrastructure. The problem is that ruling the woodland is far harder than merely waddling into it. In order to set up enough sawmills, workshops, and recruiters to support his claim, the Marquis needs lumber, which in turn needs sawmills to produce and warriors to haul. Unfortunately, recruiting hordes of yowling pussies tends to invigorate the uprising of small animals nibbling at his newborn kingdom’s fringes, and supply lines of lumber and unprotected structures can be raided.
Which is why, for the Marquis de Cat, Root is a game of police work. And I’m not talking about being a detective or other soft-pawed nonsense. I’m talking crackdowns. Hiring hawk mercenaries for extra actions. Massing your soldiery to flood into a contested clearing. As you might expect, there’s a lot of ground to cover, especially since the Marquis must constantly be on the prowl for ways to expand his network of buildings. Fortunately, his game is relatively straightforward. Sawmills and warriors gradually mean more sawmills and warriors, and it’s possible to gain momentum over time. There’s nothing quite like recruiting a whole litter of fighting-cats all at once.
The Eyrie Dynasties, on the other hand, are more flighty. Their swooping soldiery are tough and easy to recruit — how does “free” sound? — and the fact that they earn a per-turn income of points based on how many roosts they’ve assembled can make them seem overwhelmingly powerful. Worse, they also have a tendency to infiltrate the hideouts of the Woodland Alliance, helping out with the Alliance’s efforts to neuter the Marquis de Cat in exchange for a steady supply of extra raptors.
Sadly, the old-money efficiency of the Eyrie’s fighters and fortresses hides the stink of rot. They just can’t seem to hold it together for more than a few turns at a time. Inevitably they’ll run out of warriors to recruit, roosts to build, or cards to chart their turn, and as a result they’ll plunge straight into turmoil. Just like that, nearly all of their warriors and roosts are scattered, forcing them to rebuild from near-scratch all over again.
For the birds, it’s a game of boom and bust, of massing your warriors for a fight then spreading them out to prepare for the coming turmoil. And all the while, your fellow creatures will have their eyes, noses, and other sixth sense trained on you, waiting for the moment when you’re at your most vulnerable.
Speaking of poking you in the vulnerable bits, nobody does it quite like the Woodland Alliance. Although they’ve theoretically been divorced from their wargaming brethren, they still somehow resemble a fluffy-eared Taliban. First of all, they have eyes everywhere, building up an invisible stockpile of mice, bunnies, and foxes that don’t even inhabit the board. Once they’re ready, they spring into existence in hideouts, where they lie low until they’ve built up enough operatives to spring one of their conspiracies. These trigger off the same cards that everybody else is holding, and range from ways to earn points to military maneuvers, buildings that leech off the Marquis de Cat’s income, and other assorted hickory dickory dock.
Of course, the Alliance’s big limitation is that while they can spring into existence nearly anywhere, they very rarely find themselves in control of any particular clearing. Hideouts are vulnerable to being uprooted, and the Alliance won’t always have the right conspiracies to properly defend themselves. Instead, they’re often trapped in their off-board game of preparing for a mass uprising, only occasionally appearing in true force. It takes careful plotting — not to mention a solid knowledge of everything you might steal from the discard pile — in order to create the possibility of a small-folk utopia.
The smallest folk of all is the Vagabond, the wandering raccoon who might be a thief or a helping hand depending on his mood. While everybody else is playing at nation-building in some way, the Vagabond pretty much just wants to slink from place to place, improve his skills, and maybe root through somebody’s trash. He’s able to move through the forests in between clearings, which allows him to dart into and out of trouble — and trouble he’ll get, especially when someone gets sick of him swiping precious cards right out of their hand. Then again, the Vagabond isn’t always looking for a scuffle. He can trade for people’s upgrades, effectively earning more actions, moves, combat strength, and so forth, and moving them into the friendzone — which is important, because the Vagabond is constantly tracking everybody else’s status toward him, and the more he’s known, the more points he’s worth.
More than anyone else, the Vagabond is the guy who’s trying to ensure that nobody is in the lead. In between exploring ruins and maybe aiding the Woodland Alliance, he’s the most capable of crossing the entire forest in a single turn, wiping out some lone warriors, then moving on to something else.
He’s also the guy most likely to ignore the points game in favor of his personal instant victory condition. Everybody has one, like the Eyrie’s secret goal to conquer certain clearings or the Woodland Alliance’s dream of putting a huge army right on the Marquis de Cat’s doorstep. For the Vagabond, victory comes in the form of a many-step quest, complete with allies and nemeses and double-crosses. It makes for dramatic moments in a game already packed with them.
The real thrill of Root is seeing all these cross-purposes coming to a head. There’s nothing quite like watching the Alliance briefly tolerate the Eyrie because they need their extra operatives, or seeing the way the Vagabond bounds between allegiances, or how the Marquis de Cat clashes with so-and-so only to eventually look the other way so they can focus on someone else. Nothing is certain for long when it comes to mother nature.
Naturally, balance is going to be as sticky as it is essential to a game like this, and in Root’s current incarnation it’s easy to feel like you’re never getting the cards you need or that all your rivals are having an easier time accomplishing their goals. That’s not the sort of thing I can currently comment on, since the game balance is still in flux.
For the record, though, I’ve had a tremendous time with Root, even at this stage. It packs wargame sensibilities into an oh-so-approachable package, making it lean and quick, but never too light. Every single action carries real weight, every march will push into somebody’s backside, and in the end only the fittest will survive.
Root is on Kickstarter later this month. I recommend this thing.