The cats are in charge. The noble birds are swooping from their roosts. A gathering of woodland smallfolk agitate in their holes and burrows, whispering, whispering. And a winsome raccoon packs his rucksack and sets out for adventure.
Adorable and ferocious in equal measure, Cole Wehrle’s Root is Redwall by way of A Distant Plain. And it’s both a total delight and the most accessible asymmetric experience Leder Games has produced thus far.
There are four factions in Root, each with their own playstyles, rules, and approaches to victory. But don’t let that intimidate you. Unlike Vast: The Crystal Caverns, which frightened away some players with its more-is-more approach to asymmetry, there’s a purity at the heart of Root that wouldn’t feel out of place in an optimistic Bildungsroman. While each of its actors is playing their own role, they’re still bound by the same universal principles. A oneness of being, if you want to be snobbish about it.
Let me clarify what I mean. Playing as the brutal Marquise de Cat feels nothing like playing as the crusading Eyrie Dynasties, which in turn feel nothing like the bashful Woodland Alliance. And forget about the escapading Vagabond. His role is so different that he doesn’t even field armies or build structures.
And yet each of these roles is built around the same core concepts. Vast’s roles were at cross-purposes not only in name, but also mechanically. The Knight was playing a dungeon-diving game, complete with quests and movement restrictions and experience points and all the rest. The Dragon was playing a resource-gathering game where snacks and gems and flames were the resources. The Goblins were managing their own little harem of monsters and clans, then sending them out into the growing cavern via their own peculiar pathways.
You get the idea. Five sides, each laden with their own rules and exceptions and victory conditions. Their own games, essentially. To play Vast well was to understand five distinct experiences and the ways they intersected. It was madness. That was the appeal. But nobody is pretending it wasn’t an appeal without a hefty upfront investment.
Now consider Root.
Each side uses the same movement rules. They do battle via the same dice. They share a deck of cards, and use those cards to activate abilities or craft items for new tricks or points. Speaking of points, everybody wins the same way. In fact, you have to cut a few inches into the design before you start seeing the mechanical differences between its four sides. So, like Vast in some ways, but is almost more reminiscent of Star Trek: Ascendancy, where a shared foundation rooted (pardon me) all these unique factions within the same system. Asymmetrical, but bolted atop enough of a framework that you’ll never need to thumb through the rulebook to recall how the Birds attack the Cats.
This isn’t to say that Root is a total breeze.
It’s important to understand that Root has a wildness to it, a fierce competition to alter one’s place within this ecosystem’s food chain. And like an ecosystem, it veers between self-regulating and fragile. It’s possible for someone to win because they were forgotten by their opponents, or to gang up on a leader so thoroughly that someone else will rush to fill the vacuum that nature so abhors. There are no laws more fundamental than those of tooth and claw, and you’ll have to spend some portion of each turn dragging at the leader of the pack as well as forwarding your own goals. Without that constant tension between rivals, the whole thing fails to function.
But when everyone is paying attention, understands how the roles interact, and is making smart decisions? Man, this thing bellows.
We haven’t even talked about the factions yet. Let’s rectify that.
Given how the COIN Series was one of Cole Wehrle’s primary touchstones in crafting Root, it’s unsurprising that the first two sides fall into the categories of oppressor and oppressed. The Marquise de Cat takes on the role of the governing status quo. This invasive species has recently conquered the woodland, and is now determined to transform all hundred acres into centers of industry. Sawmills, recruiters, workshops — their career revolves around forcing their underlings to strip the forest for lumber, then transporting it to construction sites. Naturally, this requires some policing. Additional cats to keep the supply routes clear, the occasional push into fresh territory, compelling laborers to produce more lumber…
And all with only a handful of actions per turn. Sure, you could spend some mercenary hawks from your hand to get more done, but that cuts down on what you can craft. And it doesn’t help that the cats soon find themselves pressed on nearly every side.
By the upstart Woodland Alliance, for example. These guys are total underdogs — scratch that, they’re under-bunnies and under-foxes and under-mice — and their narrative arc is perpendicular to that of the Marquise. While the cats begin with a warrior in nearly every clearing and are soon digging in their claws to keep what’s theirs, the Woodland Alliance starts completely absent from the board. More accurately, they’re there, running the sawmills and helping craft items, but they have yet to congeal into a fighting force in their own right.
Little by little, they creep onto the table. Cards become supporters, which generate sympathy in various clearings. At first sympathy seems insignificant, incurring a card cost against anyone marching into that space or trying to suppress it, but otherwise just sitting there like a moose turd. And for a while, moose turd seems the order of the day. Stinky, yeah, but often more of a mess to clean up than to avoid.
But all those preparations have a purpose when the turd is finally stepped in. With the right supporters and sympathies, the Woodland Alliance comes roaring into play. It’s a revolution, complete with foot-tall guillotines and birdseed manifestos and everyone in that clearing getting their noggins lopped off. Now with a fighting force of their own, the Woodland Alliance begins exporting the revolution to new clearings. The whole process is about gathering momentum rather than maintaining it — and although they struggle to gain traction, once they get going it’s a true pain in the cloaca to uproot them.
Meanwhile, the Eyrie Dynasties are the old money to the Marquise’s new cash. As the former rulers of the forest, they’re more about stodgy tradition than efficiency. Each turn sees you adding new cards to the “decree,” their leader’s list of campaign promises that — and this is where Root takes a step into total fantasy — must be upheld lest the entire government slip into collapse.
At first this decree is a beautiful thing. Each order is resolved in turn, letting the birdfolk take a whole wing’s-length list of actions. Fresh warriors! Military expeditions! Glorious battles! New roosts! But each new turn brings additional promises, old orders piling upon new, and gradually the Eyrie is transformed from lean fighting raptor to blubbery turkey. Now armies will march back and forth just because the boss promised they would; battles are fought despite being guaranteed disasters; roosts are assembled along ever-more dangerous frontiers. Given enough time, the whole thing implodes. Points are lost, a turn is stalled, and a ruler with new ideas — and a beakful of fresh promises — arises to start the cycle anew.
As different as these three factions are, none of them are quite as distinct as the Vagabond. His is easily Root’s most joyful lot. Rather than leading an army, he’s a lone wanderer, slipping in and out of the forests where nobody can touch him, completing quests at his own leisure, and sometimes taking sides in the conflict. He gains points almost flippantly, which makes him a sort of game timer. More importantly, he’s a prankster, so easily overlooked that he can single-handedly drag a faction back from the brink of victory.
But in another sense, the Vagabond is the game’s most diplomatic role. Since his actions are taken by exhausting his equipment, it behooves him to have as many tools as possible. These tools are the tokens crafted by the other factions for points, and acquired when the Vagabond lends his aid in the form of a card. Just like that, the Vagabond is more than a lone wanderer, but a crucial interloper in the goings-on of the forest.
As you’ve probably guessed, the real joy of Root is found in the way these factions interact, their interests sometimes aligning and something hewing apart. One time, the Marquise was a single turn from constructing her final building, only to watch in yowling despair as the Vagabond emerged from the forest to torch four of her structures and wreck her supply of timber. Another time, the Woodland Alliance’s guerrilla fighters managed to hold their clearing against a vastly superior force of Eyrie warriors. Another, the Marquise suppressed one uprising after another, only to suffer a devastating blow when one finally got through in a vital clearing, wrecking three structures and beheading a dozen felines at once. Power to labor!
Crucially, though, these moments were memorable not only because they were distinctive and impactful and all the usual jazz. They were memorable because they were managed so fluidly. Everyone has their perks. The Woodland Alliance always gets the better roll in battle, the Vagabond can always move into hostile territory, the Eyrie wins ties for rulership over clearings. But these exceptions are minor enough that the game’s learning curve is surprisingly gentle.
Asymmetry in a board game is always spring-loaded, both kinetic and liable to poke someone’s eye out. In many ways, Root represents asymmetry at its best. It’s streamlined, brisk, and bestows each side with an identity without belaboring their differences. If it occasionally requires a certain level of player attentiveness to continue plugging along… well. Is that really such an issue?
Far more importantly, Root exemplifies a lot of the reasons that I play games at all. It’s competitive, even savagely so, but manages to keep its proceedings perky. It’s clever, constantly revealing subtle interactions, new tricks, and diplomatic moments. And it knows how to spin one heck of a yarn, veering between class struggle, ascent and collapse, and tall-tale pluck. You can practically hear the banjos whenever the Vagabond traipses from one clearing to another.
Root is a good one. A great one. One of the best.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. If we raise $1,000,000, I will adopt a cat. Seriously.)
A complimentary copy was provided.