Thank you for checking review #72 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.
**Note: a review copy of the game was provided in exchange for an honest review.
An Overview of Root
Root is a game of adventure and war in which 2 to 4 (1 to 6 with the ‘Riverfolk’ expansion) players battle for control of a vast wilderness.
The nefarious Marquise de Cat has seized the great woodland, intent on harvesting its riches. Under her rule, the many creatures of the forest have banded together. This Alliance will seek to strengthen its resources and subvert the rule of Cats. In this effort, the Alliance may enlist the help of the wandering Vagabonds who are able to move through the more dangerous woodland paths. Though some may sympathize with the Alliance’s hopes and dreams, these wanderers are old enough to remember the great birds of prey who once controlled the woods.
Meanwhile, at the edge of the region, the proud, squabbling Eyrie have found a new commander who they hope will lead their faction to resume their ancient birthright. The stage is set for a contest that will decide the fate of the great woodland. It is up to the players to decide which group will ultimately take root.
Root represents the next step in our development of asymmetric design. Like Vast: The Crystal Caverns, each player in Root has unique capabilities and a different victory condition. Now, with the aid of gorgeous, multi-use cards, a truly asymmetric design has never been more accessible.
The Cats play a game of engine building and logistics while attempting to police the vast wilderness. By collecting Wood they are able to produce workshops, lumber mills, and barracks. They win by building new buildings and crafts.
The Eyrie musters their hawks to take back the Woods. They must capture as much territory as possible and build roosts before they collapse back into squabbling.
The Alliance hides in the shadows, recruiting forces and hatching conspiracies. They begin slowly and build towards a dramatic late-game presence–but only if they can manage to keep the other players in check.
Meanwhile, the Vagabond plays all sides of the conflict for their own gain, while hiding a mysterious quest. Explore the board, fight other factions, and work towards achieving your hidden goal.
In Root, players drive the narrative, and the differences between each role create an unparalleled level of interaction and replayability. Leder Games invites you and your family to explore the fantastic world of Root!
—description from the publisher
Gameplay differences for 2 Players
There are no real inherent differences apart from the removal of the four Dominance Cards from the deck. Apart from that, the factions set up and are played exactly the same as with more factions. There are a series of recommended matchups at this player count in the rulebook, with the most obvious being the Marquise de Cat vs. the Eyrie Dynasty (and arguably the best matchup)
The best thing about Root is the asymmetric factions. They are all unique in how they operate, yet they are easy enough to navigate. There are common grounds in that they all get and use cards, they are working to earn 30 VP, and can make some use of items. Beyond that, each of them does things differently to make every experience feel fresh without it being overwhelming. Certain factions will cater more to certain playstyles, but all of them have their merit and all of them, at least in a 4-player game, will be capable of competing if played well.
The problem that Vast: The Crystal Caverns ran into was the barrier to entry in a game with completely asymmetric factions. Thankfully, this game learned some lessons from its predecessor and provides an easier-to-learn experience with factions that are easy enough to play. The factions are necessary to provide overall balance to each other without the burdensome task of “the Goblins need to do X because they are the only faction that can really slow down Y”, making a much better and overall more enjoyable experience.
The board has two sides, consisting of the standard playing side and a winter side where you can randomize the clearings’ affiliations. I like this idea a lot, as it gives you a static setup to use for early games and a dynamic setup for experienced players. This is the same concept you see in games like Azul, where the player board has a standard side and a greyed out side to allow players to tinker with the layout. More games should consider something like this with the board, optimizing the value in the box and adding replay value.
Combat in this game is simple and mostly intuitive. The attacker rolls two 12-sided dice (values range from 0-3) and the attacker gets the higher roll and the defender the lower roll. Both sides deal those hits at the same time, but are capped on the number of hits they can do by how many units they have present. That lone Cat Warrior can’t clear out three Bird Knights, no matter how often he rolls a 3. This system, while not incredible, is an effective system that keeps the game flowing and makes it so every combat has some risk to it.
#teamwoodlandalliance. That is all. Guess which faction I enjoyed the most?
I rather like two of the three rulebook/references that are included in this game. One gives you the overview of information, allowing any group to start playing after going through a colorful book that walks you through the basics and provides nice examples. Another one is stylized in the format of a wargame’s rulebook and provides very detailed and complete rules. It is the sort of book you want to have as a way of referencing things as you play.
However, the third thing in there isn’t so great. In concept, I like the walkthrough of two turns of play for players. It gets you up and running that much faster and lets them follow a pair of scripted turns that does demonstrate how each faction functions. However, this isn’t executed well because it lacks one key thing: reasoning. It is all good that the Cats are building a sawmill. But WHY? That is what a player wants to know. Otherwise why not just start the game at Turn 3, with those changes already implemented? That is essentially what happens there, because it gives no context or commentary on what is being completed by the player.
There are items that can be crafted by each faction, which is nice because they score victory points. But unless you are playing with a Vagabond, that is the extent of their purpose in a game. They are limited by the quantity available in the supply at the top of the board, but I’ve rarely seen that an issue to prevent an item from being crafted. I do like that the Eyrie has a major drawback on crafting items, as they already score points really consistently. It is a key part of the game regardless, but it really loses the impact when there is no Vagabond. And, as you’ll read soon, the Vagabond isn’t really ideal in a 2-player game…
The factions lose some of the interactions when not every faction is present. As the biggest “for instance”, let’s consider the Vagabond. He cannot function as intended, taking items in exchange for cards and finding peace with factions while warring with other ones. He also loses the freedom to spend any time exploring ruins, as it is almost critical that he combats those Eyrie every turn in order to keep pace on scoring and try to throw them into turmoil – something that, sadly, only worked once for my Vagabond when I played. After that, the Eyrie was able to smartly build their programming around what they possessed on the board and they ran away with the victory.
Which is the other big detractor, tying into the loss of interactions: not every match is balanced at this player count. 10+ point blowouts are not uncommon, and there is no 3rd party to help slow down a leading player. Even the matchups recommended in the rulebook at 2-players, such as the Eyrie vs. the Vagabond, do not play out well. There is really one excellent matchup, and a handful of okay matchups. So if you love Cats and Birds, you’re in luck! Those two are the best against each other. Everything else really shows signs of wanting that extra player or two to help keep things in check.
Root is one of those games that is hard to pinpoint where it should fall. What it sets out to accomplish, it does rather well. It is a fun, fast game that has mass appeal to wargamers and non-wargamers alike. It provides asymmetry, but streamlines the learning process that really hampered Vast: The Crystal Caverns (which was one of those few games that went into the “I never want to try and teach that game” category, right next to Race for the Galaxy). Combat is streamlined and simple, and every faction feels like they have unique paths to their objective of 30 points.
However, this review is not necessarily just a review of the game of Root. You, dear reader, likely want to know about it as a 2-player experience. Can I recommend it?
Had I reviewed this game immediately after my first few plays, the answer would have been “Yes!”. This game made me fall in love with it, and it jettisoned into my experimental “If I could only keep 50 games” list a few months ago as a result. It still might make that list, but for different reasons.
You see, Root is not a great 2-player only experience. If that is the only way you are going to play the game, I wouldn’t recommend it. It will be fun for a while, but you’ll eventually discover matchups that aren’t going to feel balanced (such as the Eyrie vs. the Vagabond, which saddened me so much because I was looking forward to playing the Vagabond! And this was recommended in the rules!) and might take dozens of frustrating losses to finally learn a way to win. Some people might be okay with that and embrace it – I plan to not give up on it myself, but most games these days get at most 10 plays during their life on a person’s shelves before something newer and shinier is fulfilled on Kickstarter to replace it.
Root’s biggest problem, besides the feeling of inbalance, is that it is a game that requires investment. You can play it 3-5 times and get a feeling of satisfaction, but it may take dozens of plays across the factions (not even counting expansion ones) in order to really have things shine through. And the harsh truth is most gamers won’t reach that point before moving on. This isn’t a game to pull out every 6 months to play it once and put it back. It desires regular, consistent play to fully enjoy it – especially with the same game group and at the max player count of 4. It is almost like a legacy game from that standpoint, as it will require committed scheduling to really see the best this game has to offer.
And the best this game offers is not at 2 players. Or even at 3, although that is significantly better. The best Root experience is at a full table, with all factions in play. That version of Root is the experience I can, and will, recommend without hesitation. That version of Root is arguably the best game so far in 2018.
And here lies the caveat for my final verdict. If you are looking at Root for your collection and know it is always going to be a 2-player experience, I would pass on the game as there are simply much better options out there. If you want head-to-head combat, something card-driven like BattleCON or Temporal Odyssey would be great, or for a conflict “dudes on a map” game War of the Ring or 878: Vikings – Invasions of England will provide better experiences for that player count.
If there is a chance, any chance at all, that this will see some plays at 3-4 players it becomes a recommended game and therefore will definitely remain in our collection. It is still fun to play on occasion with 2 players and a game we both definitely enjoyed, and I have a feeling we’ll pull it out every so often when it is the two of us. However, this is going to be a go-to game any time we have a couple over to game with us because that is where Root really, really shines: with 3-4 players. Cole and the Leder Games team designed a fantastic game overall, and I’m definitely wanting to look into picking up that expansion for the solo play eventually. I’m glad we had a chance to play Root, and I think it is the rare game that many players will enjoy. I just wish it was a tad bit better with 2 players.
Hopefully you found this article to be a useful look at Root. If you’re interested in providing support for Cardboard Clash so I can continue to improve what we offer, check out my page over on Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/CardboardClash.
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