You thought the 2020 Presidential Election race was cut-throat? Just wait until you find out what’s going on in the woods. If you’ve been curious about the board game Root, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s dive into our Root review and find out more about this “Game of Woodland Might and Right”.
Brief Overview of Root
Root is a war and adventure game in which up to four factions of fluffy (but tough) critters fight for control of the Woodland. It uses an asymmetric game design, meaning that each faction has its own abilities, characteristics, and victory conditions. The battling factions include the powerful Marquise de Cat, the mystical Eyrie Dynasties, the plucky rebels of the Woodland Alliance, and lone mercenary, the Vagabond.
Turns consist of three phases, in which players use their cards to find items, put up buildings, rally forces/supporters, make battle with one another, and try to earn victory points. This can be done in a variety of ways depending on your faction. The cats, for example, focus on building an economic powerhouse. While the Woodland Alliance must generate enough sympathy among the critters of the forest to cause an uprising. The first player to achieve 30 victory points wins.
Versions & Expansions
There are three expansions for Root:
Root: The Riverfolk Expansion – introduces the Riverfolk Company and Lizard Cult factions, along with a solo mode.
- A New Core Faction: The Riverfolk Company
- A New Core Faction: The Lizard Cult
- An Extra Vagabond
Root: The Underworld Expansion – also adds in two more factions (the Great Underground Duchy and Corvid Conspiracy) and two more maps.
- Two new factions, the Moles and the Crows
- New double sided Mountain/Lake Map
- Raft and Tower Pieces
Root: The Clockwork Expansion – means you can automate the four factions, letting you play co-operatively or to simply bulk out the player count.
Open up Root, and inside you’ll find:
- 1 game board
- 4 faction mats
- 2 custom twelve-sided dice
- The Law of Root rulebook
- Learning to Play rulebook
- Learn-to-Play Walkthrough sheet
- 56 wooden meeples
- 25 Marquise de Cat warriors
- 20 Eyrie Dynasties warriors
- 10 Woodland Alliance warriors
- 1 Vagabond pawn
- 98 cards
- 93 tokens
Root is a beautiful production. The artwork alone gives the game a notable identity and wonderfully complements the strength of the storyline and factions within the game. The expressions on the faces of the characters, with their big bulging eyes and cheeky smiles, can’t help but endear you to the characters – making it all the more heartbreaking having to send them into battle.
The faction boards are huge in order to fit everything on. They’re well organized and, while busy, clearly lay out everything you need to know about your faction and its situation throughout the game. Again, the artwork on these is utterly fantastic, as it is across all the components. However, there’s one area that stands out most for me…
… the game board. It might just be a big dark forest, but it is enchanting. Every individual little tree and its branches are beautifully animated, while the clearings and other animations are gorgeous, too.
You can also flip the board over for a snowy, winter version of the game, which changes the structure of the map. It doesn’t look quite as cool, but that would have been hard!
Handily, there are two manuals in the game – a Learn To Play guide, for first-timers, and a more in-depth rulebook. The Learn To Play guide is brilliantly written, easing players into the game without being too over the top. I was impressed with the rulebook, too. The wall of text might give it the appearance of having been ripped from the middle of the 1930 Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act, but it is in fact easy to read and – most importantly – easy to navigate.
How to Play Root
First of all, assign each player a faction and the relevant faction board. The faction board contains all the information you need about your faction, along with a list of starting pieces and instructions. All players should put their score markers on zero, then draw three cards.
Turns and Game Structure
Each player’s turn has three phases: Birdsong, Daytime, and Evening. A player completes all three phases on their turn before play moves onto the next player. This continues until one player wins the game by scoring 30 victory points.
The actions the player can perform in each phase, the abilities they have, rules they must adhere to (such as type of movement), and the conditions for scoring victory differ depending on the faction they’re playing. I’ll run through a quick overview of each below, followed by some basic concepts.
Marquise de Cat
- The powerhouse of the lot, your aim is to tighten your grip on the Woodland by honing your economic and military machine with an engine-building technique.
- Scores victory points by constructing buildings.
- Must generate high volumes of wood for building upkeep.
- Special abilities:
- Is the only faction that can place pieces at the clearing with the keep.
- When a warrior is knocked out, she can spend a card to revive them back at the keep.
- The Eyrie are an old aristocracy that want to reclaim their control of the Woodland.
- Scores victory points from their number of roosts on the map in the Evening phase (so that’s a chance to earn victory points every turn!)
- You are forced to take a Recruit, Move, Battle, and Build action each turn (known as your Decree). If you can’t, you fall into turmoil and lose victory points, among other things.
- Special abilities:
- They rule a clearing even when tied for presence there.
- A rag-tag group of revolutionists that want to unite the downtrodden creatures of the forest into full-scale revolt, while at the same time stop other factions from becoming too powerful.
- Scores victory points from each sympathy token that is placed.
- Special abilities
- When defending in battle, the Alliance uses the higher roll and the attacker uses the lower roll.
- When an enemy moves into a clearing with a sympathy token, they must give you a card that matches the clearing type.
- The Han Solo of Root. You’re a lone mercenary that seeks to gain fame by helping – or harming – other factions.
- Scores victory points for improving relationships with other factions or destroying pieces of factions that are hostile.
- Only has one pawn, which can move freely and can attack like a warrior.
- You will focus on managing and using items. These can be acquired by exploring the forest and helping other factions.
Map and Movement
The map is split into 12 clearings, connected by paths. Clearings are where most of the action in Root takes place. Each has three slots on which buildings can be built. It also has a suit (fox, rabbit, or mouse), representing the community living there.
You move pieces between clearings along paths. To be able to do so, you must rule either the clearing you are in or moving to. You are deemed as ruling a clearing if you have the most number of pieces there (warriors or buildings).
The cards in your hand are used primarily to pay for the actions you want to take. They, too, are split into suits: fox, rabbit, mouse, and bird. Bird cards are wildcards – they can be used in place of any other suit. To take an action in an area, you will need to use cards that match the suit of the area.
These cards also have a special effect or ability at the bottom that can be activated in exchange for the cost (known as crafting). This could either be a one-time effect, such as finding an item, or an ongoing effect.
On your turn, you can battle other factions in the same clearing as you. To do so, both players roll a dice. The attacker deals hits equal to the higher roll, the defender takes the lower roll (although this number cannot exceed the number of warriors you have in the battle).
Then, both players remove the number of pieces equal to how many hits they took.
There are various effects that can grant you extra hits in battle, allowing your hit count to exceed the number of warriors you have.
Your First Game of Root
When not playing with four players, there are, of course, various combinations of factions you can play with in Root, which greatly contributes to its replayability. However, some are more viable than others for first-timers, and I strongly recommend checking out the list of these in the Learning To Play guide before diving in.
There are four dominance cards in the Root deck. If played, these override your initial victory conditions and give you a new objective to win – for example, ruling three mouse clearings during your Birdsong phase. You must have at least 10 victory points already acquired before you can play them.
Note that they can also be played like normal cards. However, if they are played, then your opponents have the option of taking it, instead.
In the case of the Vagabond, who cannot rule a clearing, they can ‘form a coalition’ with the lowest scoring player at the time. This means they will work together with that player to achieve the Dominance Card’s objective and, if successful, share the win.
Before any rolling takes place in a battle, the attacker has the option to play an ambush card, providing they have one that matches the suit of the clearing. If they do, two hits are dealt immediately to the defender. However, the defender can foil the ambush if they also play an ambush card that matches the clearing.
Pros & Cons
- Cracking theme and story
- Players control the narrative
- Endless replayability
- Lots to get your head around
As alluded to above, the theme is strong with this one. From the faction backstories to the components, to the actions and mechanics of the game, everything is dripping in theme. Before even playing the game, you’ll have quickly bought into different roles of the factions.
In fact, it reminded me a lot of Star Wars. The Marquise de Cat being the dominant engine of the Empire. The Eyrie Dynasties the creaking, old Jedi. The Woodland Alliance clearly taking the role of the Rebellion. While the Vagabond could easily be any of the mercenaries just trying to make their way in the galaxy by siding with whoever pays them most – it’s up to you if you choose the path of Han Solo or Boba Fett.
It’s these choices to drive the narrative – open to every player – that really make Root special, though. Each game could be totally different to the next, as players employ different strategies to achieve victory. Each game will carve out its own memories and personality.
This means Root scores highly in replayability. Not only will every player want to try out being each faction, but each faction has multiple ways they can choose to win. Throw the dominance cards into the mix – which change up the victory conditions – and you’ll find it hard to play the same game twice.
There’s always a risk with asymmetrical games that one faction will end up winning more than the others, or one will prove to be much more fun to play. And, while there are some discrepancies, on the whole, the designers did a brilliant job of balancing.
Factions for Different Strokes
Personally, I enjoy the flexibility and politics of playing the Vagabond the most, and I found the rules of the cats to be a bit rigid. But different personality types will be drawn to different factions.
The only real gripe you could have with Root is that it can be quite a lot to take in the first time around. The rules, abilities, and objectives of the individual factions aren’t too complex, but staying on top of all four in order to properly formulate a winning strategy can be hard.
Root Review (TL;DR)
Root is a war and adventure game for two-to-four players. Taking on the role of one of four asymmetrical factions, you must battle for control of the woodland by achieving your individual victory conditions.
There are spade loads of theme here, which is beautifully drawn out in the game artwork and components, and even more so in the backstory to the game. It’s then entirely in the hands of the players to drive the narrative, making each play-through as memorable as it is engaging.
Finishing a game of Root feels like waking up from a dream. You’ll blink a few times. Shake yourself back into reality. Grasp hopefully for your non-existent bow and quiver. Then peer at your hands and realize you don’t in fact have the paws of a fox or wings of a hawk.
It’s rare with a war game that you can become so attached to the faction that you’re playing. But such is the depth of the theme in Root.
And I really can’t recommend it enough. The mechanics of each faction work together brilliantly to form a superbly well-rounded asymmetrical war game. It might be a bit much for sporadic play with regular newbies. But, with a recurring group of players, Root will be a well of entertainment, emotion, and anecdotes for years to come.
That’s if you can shoulder the guilt of forcing cute woodland critters into armor and then sending them off to war…
Have you tried Root? We’d love to hear your thoughts! Drop a comment below.