Root does something special: it breaks a conflict-heavy wargame with fully asymmetric roles into easily digestible chunks, then wraps these complex bits in stylized fur and medieval garb.
It’s a sophisticated design that owes as much to Brian Jacques’s charming Redwall series of animal books as it does to GMT’s COIN series of wargames.
Below the pleasant chirping of woodland birds and the rush of the river lies rot; the game’s forest is in upheaval and blood is about to be shed. Root may lull you with its relative simplicity and pleasant facade, but the game really models geo-political instability.
And the best way to learn the game is by exploring its truly unique factions.
The Eyrie, a crumbling royal house
The birds of old ruled with integrity and pride, but the birds of now are a forgotten caste, swapping authority for tumult. Elder feathered statesmen are constantly bickering. Political promises are given and back-meadow deals are struck. The Eyrie is beset with challenges.
When you play this faction, on each turn you add cards from your hand to the “decree.” (The decree is a foe you will come to hate.) Cards consist of different suits that map to clearing spaces on the forest board. Mouse, bunny, and fox are obvious enough, while birds form a wild suit that offers flexibility. As the Eyrie, you will program these cards into your tableau, then execute those actions in a specific order.
Perhaps you place a bird card in recruit, a bunny in move, and a fox in battle. You will then recruit units into any clearing (remember, bird cards are wild), then move a group of warriors from a bunny clearing to one adjacent to it, then finally battle with your squawking combatants in a fox space.
Each subsequent round you must add another card to the decree. Juggling this process becomes incredibly complex, and it must be done while also attempting to build roosts, which expand your empire and earn victory points. Yet you must keep a wary eye on your ballooning set of orders, because if you are unable to accomplish even one of the cards in your decree, your government falls into turmoil and your leader is deposed. This may occur if you possess no more units to recruit—or perhaps you lost your presence in that fox space and can no longer do battle there.
When this occurs, the weight of all those brokered promises squashes you like a filthy pigeon. You lose victory points and must begin your decree fresh with a new cabinet. This will happen and you will brace for it.
The Eyrie is a stressful lot. They’re also fascinating and one of the most rewarding factions, since a properly managed decree can result in explosive turns and an outrageous number of actions compared to your peers.
Marquise de Cat, the military-industrial complex
Described as “nefarious,” these fiery feline invaders are set on colonizing the wildlands. They construct buildings—continually earning themselves points—and are happy to chop down the forest to establish their militaristic order.
These cats are nothing like the birds of the Eyrie. They begin all across the board, having already succeeded on their initial push into the game’s territory. An enterprising feline will build out from their fortified stronghold, working quickly to throw down recruiters and sawmills to fuel their war machine.
These beasts are also efficient. There’s no “decree” or any bickering cadre of elders here; instead, the cat faction simply performs three actions on each turn. If playing with them, you’ll want to build as many structures as possible to keep up with the victory point race, but you’ll also worry about recruiting from your massive pool of warriors while aggressively pressuring your foes.
The Marquise is the most straightforward faction in terms of rules complexity, but like many things in Root, this is deceptive. You will struggle to close gaps in your supply line and to mobilize a dispersed army. You face continual pressure and counter-attack from every angle. Sometimes being a tyrant can feel quite oppressive.
Woodland Alliance, a swelling insurgency
The Woodland Alliance are the insurgents of Root. They begin off the board, poised to spread their sympathy tokens and unify the disparate kingdom. As they gather support, they gain victory points and assert a claim for autonomy.
This is a true guerilla force. Playing the Woodland Alliance, you have the smallest pool of warriors and you require more effort to build your strongholds. You become a huge thorn in the side of those surrounding your territory as they must pay you cards from their hands in order to travel into sympathetic clearings and stomp out the resistance. Those cards are placed in your row of supporters off the board. You spend these supporter resources to place more sympathy tokens or even to revolt and destroy every enemy piece in a vulnerable space. When it happens, this is explosive and extremely gratifying.
Combat in Root is straightforward. You roll a couple of 12-sided dice that show a spread of 0-3. The attacker then removes enemy pieces equal to the higher result, while the defender bites back with the lower result. The Woodland Alliance flips this approach, however; as defenders, they take the higher value, utilizing guerrilla tactics to chip away at larger groups of foes. This can be unnerving to other players, as the cost to snuff out their rebellion can be steep. Playing as the Alliance, you will be hated.
The Vagabond, a strange traveler
This little raccoon is something else. When playing the Vagabond, instead of fielding an army of critters, you have a single meeple. You move through forest spaces that are off-limits to the other factions as you work to fulfill quests and explore ruins. You also utilize a collection of items that players can craft. This opens up a fledgling trade market where you swap cards for those precious little swords and boots.
As a combatant, you’re a cold ninja; you can pick off individual units and generally soften enemies. But you can also go the opposite route and make friends, managing a relationship grid with the other participants, pushing factions along, and receiving rewards by feeding your social entanglements.
The Vagabond is complex. It’s a lost soul wandering the pines and meddling in other players’ affairs. It’s also a total changeup in regards to established gameplay and it feels simply bonkers to play, using a single piece in a game that is primarily about area control. This faction can be the most challenging to strategically assess, and it runs the risk of running away with the game in early plays.
Conclusion: Woodland whimsy
Root’s odd combination of anthropomorphic creatures in a tense political situation is immediately gripping. Each cute meeple is brimming with personality and character, and this colorful approach separates the design from mental images of mothballed Avalon Hill wargames. The shiny coat of paint works wonders to establish appeal, and the game delivers with astounding depth.
That depth—a result of the interlocking and asymmetric factions—does pose a challenge. Learning the game’s intricacies can require some effort. Root may feel “off” at first as you acclimate to its intricacies, but you will eventually settle in and recognize the remarkable balance that was achieved. Identifying each faction’s weaknesses—and hitting those to halt their progress—is key to success.
Publisher Leder Games previously presented a similar puzzle with Vast, a treasure-delving scenario in which you could even play the cave. Root succeeds where that game faltered due to a more consolidated set of common mechanisms. Movement, attacking, and pursuing victory are unified here to provide stable ground from which the game’s unique identities can sprout.
Root works thanks to its deep asymmetry, extended exploration, and pleasant packaging. Don’t let the adorable creatures fool you, this game hides some real teeth.