Putting Down Roots (Again)
Root is mighty cool. I wrote as much last week. But that was before trying my hand at everything offered by its first expansion, Riverfolk. What follows are my thoughts on every last additional ingredient it tosses into Root’s already-potent stew of factions. Like so:
Card Holders: These are card holders. If you don’t know how you feel about card holders, then you don’t know anything at all.
Got it? Great. Let’s do this.
As you might expect from a game featuring four asymmetric factions, the centerpiece addition of Riverfolk comes in the form of two new sides.
The first are the titular Riverfolk Company, a band of slippery, commercially-minded otters who could be considered Wehrle’s homage to his libertarian Sierra Madre, uh, roots. More than most other factions, their approach relies on playing nice, at least for a while. Their particular engine runs on trade, offering precious cards, mercenaries, and even the ability to move along rivers as though they were regular paths. And as anyone knows who’s ever found themselves unable to scurry a band of warriors into position for an attack, that extra bit of mobility can go a long way. Doubly so in the endgame, when wrecking some buildings might be enough to push you over the edge to victory.
Since “currency” is a flimsy notion in the wild, what does the Company charge for these services? None other than warriors themselves, spent from faction pools to work off their debts to the Company. From there, the otters spend these warriors to take actions. Certain options only spend them temporarily, such as movement, battles, or drawing new cards. Others require the Company to return the warriors to their owners to recruit fighters of their own or cobble together trade posts.
It’s a peculiar role, both squirrelly and deeply involved. Your prices can fluctuate over time, so it’s possible to charge a rival through the snout if they’re desperate for another card or some help in a fight. Of course, this prompts the Company to constantly otter their wares on the market, offering reminders nearly every turn that you’ve got something for sale. And since your hand is public — and always willingly sold — there’s no real chance of catching an aggressor in an ambush.
Still, your strength lies in the fact that your services will likely be desirable to someone, making it possible to gain an edge even as you approach your victory threshold. By wheeling and dealing, the Company winds up feeling like a totally natural addition, a band of merchants liable to haggle their opponents into full-on destitution.
The Lizard Cult, on the other hand, is significantly harder to figure out. And a lot of their worst problems are due to their thematic perfection.
Here’s what I mean. Rather than sending used-up cards to the discard pile, the inclusion of the Cult means they accumulate in their bin of “Lost Souls.” Whenever the Cult’s turn rolls around, this pile determines which clearings the Cult’s most useful actions can be taken in. Whether waging a crusade (basically just a battle) or setting up their gardens at somebody’s expense, the Cult needs both the right arrangement of Lost Souls and Acolytes — warriors who’ve been sacrificed to the cause — in order to jump into gear.
They have other options, of course, though they’re less formidable. The point is, more than any other faction, the Cult relies on a very particular arrangement of cards. The stuff everybody discards, the things you happen to draw, whether the proper clearings have the proper enemies to convert or sanctify…
This isn’t to say the Cult can’t succeed. In fact, by carefully seeding the right gardens and spending your matching cards at just the right time, they can score more points in a single turn than any other faction can manage. But getting there will often leave you at zero points for over half of the game’s duration. And in the meantime, it behooves you to drag out the proceedings.
In the end, the Lizard Cult isn’t impossible. But like the faith they espouse, they’re a bit zany, a bit fragile, and struggle to come together as a coherent whole. Which is certainly thematically appropriate, but may frustrate anybody who doesn’t want a significant challenge.
The other additions are similarly divided. The Mechanical Marquise is a great way to round out the player count or provide some stout resistance during a solo or cooperative game, effectively flooding the forest with felines, gnashing with tooth and claw, and scoring points whenever they gather into a true hell’s clowder. The additional Vagabond, on the other hand, means that you can have two players who are easy to overlook, love to steal all your crap, and rapidly win out of nowhere. Huzzah.
Personally, the most interesting feature of the Riverfolk Expansion is the possibility of playing with new combinations, including the option of playing with five, six, or even — gasp — seven players. The downtime is America’s silent killer, and the game state tends to resemble an overturned table by the time your next turn comes around. But with a group of amiable folks who don’t mind chatting and will descend upon any lollygaggers with a harmonized chorus of cusses, the results are pleasantly chaotic.
Fans of Root will likely already have access to the Riverfolk Expansion from its crowdfunding campaign. But for latecomers who’ve discovered something to love in Root, this is pretty much a no-brainer. It offers one and a half great factions, a reasonably tough automated baddie, and further flaunts the way Cole Wehrle and Leder Games are making some of the most interesting asymmetric games on the market.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. There are now two additional factions!)