Review – Root (Digital Edition)
In 2018, the tiny team at Leder Games released their hit area control game, Root: A Game of Woodland Might and Right. It gained such fast critical acclaim that it was impossible to find anywhere and raising the cost of a $60 game to nearly $150 on the second hand market, still selling out constantly. Since then, Root‘s success has allowed them to successfully launch two additional printings via Kickstarter alongside The Riverfolk Expansion and The Underground Conspiracy faction expansions.
Regardless of how well it was performing selling, it ultimately received the same from most reviewers: Root is a complex game that is not for everyone. While it’s one of my favorite board games, Root‘s complexity makes it very difficult for me to find a group of people who want to play it. Imagine my level of joy when I learned that Dire Wolf was launched a digital adaptation where I could get to enjoy the same game online or locally against bots. I’ll tell you what, I was overjoyed.
The core mechanics of Root are quite straightforward. Each player controls one of four factions consisting of cute little woodland creatures who are at odds with one another. Players gain points for controlling clearing spaces on the board by having the most woodland creatures and structures in a space. The first faction to thirty points wins.
Where it becomes complicated is how the factions function and earn points. Each player’s turn is divided into three phases: Birdsong, Daylight, and Evening. What can be done in each of these phases depends heavily on the individual factions but essentially Birdsong acts as the setup portion of the round, Daylight is when the player can execute all of their actions, and Evening is the cleanup portion. But again, each faction is entirely different and the Woodland Alliance breaks this by splitting their core actions between Birdsong and Evening, and preps during the Daylight.
In addition, each faction in Root has such a different method of operation that it feels as if everyone is playing an entirely different game. I’ve provided a lengthy explanation of each faction below to provide complexity context that you can skip over if you’re more interested in how the game translates to a digital version.
The Factions of Root
Marquise De Cat
The Marquise de Cat is the faction that rules over the land and begins the game in near full control of the board. The Marquise functions a bit more like a traditional industry building game. At the start of Birdsong, they receive a X number of lumber depending on the number of Sawmills they have on the board. During Daylight, the Marquise has three actions they can use to either build new structures, recruit more soldiers, march soldiers from one clearing to another, battle in a clearing, or overwork to gain an extra lumber. Earned lumber can be spent to construct one of three different types of buildings.
- Sawmill – Earns one lumber token for each Sawmill the Marquise has on the board, granting more resources during the next Birdsong phase.
- Workshop – Workshops are used by the Marquise to craft cards and items based on the suit of the clearing it’s placed in.
- Recruiter – The recruiter building is where new units appear after using the recruiter action.
Each time the Marquise builds a new structure, they’ll remove the appropriate building token from the pool and place it onto the board, scoring an associated number of points.
Once the Marquise has used all three actions, Evening begins and the Marquise adds a card to their hand form the draw pile and discards down to a hand of five.
In addition to all of the above, the Marquise also have a central location called the Keep that acts as the center of their operations. No other factions can build in the space with a keep. When a Marquise soldier would be killed and returned to the pool, the player can opt to discard a card from their hand to return the eliminated soldiers to the Keep instead, helping the Marquise maintain a stronger presence.
The Eyrie Dynasty are the mortal enemies of the Marquise. They’ve been pushed as far from the Marquise’s keep as possible and desperately desire to regain their woodland territory. However, the Eyrie are a power bound by by the order of their Leader’s Decree.
Each round during Birdsong, players must add at least one card from their hand to one of the four Decree space on their player board. Each turn players will have to execute their Decree during the Daylight phase based on the card suits placed in those spaces.
- Recruit* – By default, the Dynasty will add one warrior to each space with a Roost in it (one of the Leader effects changes this). This can only take place if there is a card placed on the Recruit space that matches the suit of a clearing with a Roost.
- Move* – Moving requires players to move at least one one warrior from a clearing with the suit that matches the card placed on that space.
- Battle* – After all Eyrie soldiers have been moved in accordance with the Decree, the Dynasty can then battle against any faction in a clearing they both occupy.
- Build* – After adding to their forces, moving, and attacking, the Eyrie can build a new Roost where they’ll be able to recruit new warriors in future turns. Like the other Decree actions, this will require a card that matches the suit of the occupied clearing. However, it also requires that the Dynasty rules the space that they build in.
*In all of the above instances, bird suit cards are considered wild and grant players the freedom to execute that action in any clearing.
With each round, a new card is added to the Decree simultaneously granting the Dynasty more actions and making it more difficult to execute every part of the Decree. Should the Dynasty ever be unable to fulfill even one part of the Decree, the Dynasty falls into turmoil and falls apart under the weight of its own power. When this happens, the faction loses points equal to the number of bird suit cards they had in their Decree. All cards are then discarded from the Decree, a new Leader card is chosen, and the round skips ahead to the Evening phase.
There are four different leaders available to the Dynasty faction, each with their own passive ability. The Dynasty player will choose one of the four leaders at the start of the game, and will have to replace them with one of the remaining three after the Dynasty falls into turmoil.
Every Evening, the Dynasty scores points based on the number of Roosts they have constructed.
Like the other factions, they also have two additional passive rules. If there is ever a tie for control over a clearing, Eyrie Dynasty breaks the tie and takes control. Crafting items that would earn the player victory points will never award the Eyrie with more than one point at a time.
The Woodland Alliance is the faction of the people, and quite frankly, they’re tired of their towns getting destroyed by collateral damage in the Marquise and Eyrie’s ongoing feud. As the Woodland Alliance, players will spread propaganda and gain sympathizers in clearings as they prepare their revolution and push back against the oppressors of the people.
There’s a special area called the Supporter Stack on the player board where cards can be “discarded” to. Individual cards in the Supporter Stack can be discarded to gain sympathizers in a clearing that matches their suit and represented by placing a Sympathy token in that clearing. If there’s a pair of cards with matching suits for a clearing that already has Sympathy, those cards can be discarded to Revolt. This will remove all enemy pieces from the clearing.
The Woodland Alliance will then add a base in the revolting clearing, allowing them to recruit new warriors in the future. As part of the Revolt action, players also get to place warriors equal to the number of matching sympathetic clearings into the Revolting space. Lastly, one warrior from the player’s pool gets moved onto their faction board. This is now an Officer that will allow them to take actions during Evening, but they will not be allowed to get moved back onto the board as a warrior in a clearing. It will be important for Woodland Alliance players to maintain a careful balance between the number of Officers they have vs. the number of warriors on the board. Leaning too far in one direction or another can spell disaster.
The Woodland Alliance turn follows the same phase structure as the other factions. In Birdsong, Woodland Alliance will first resolve the effects of Revolt if they are able and then spread additional sympathy. During the Daylight phase, players can craft cards and items using sympathy and add cards from their hands to their Supporter Stack. Players can also choose to Train a warrior up into an Officer.
As mentioned earlier, Officers are used during the Evening phase in order to initiate actions under the cover of night. For each warrior trained into an officer, the player gains one action.
- Move – Players can move warriors into an adjacent clearing.
- Battle – Initiate a battle in a space where the Alliance has warriors present.
- Recruit – Place a warrior in any clearing with an existing base.
- Organize – Remove a warrior from a clearing without a sympathy token to add one, creating the potential for Revolt or additional crafting resources.
Like the Marquise and Dynasty, the Woodland Alliance has passive rules that apply exclusively to their faction. Guerrilla War means that even as the defending player, the Woodland Alliance will always get the higher attack roll value. Outrage allows the Woodland Alliance to add cards from an opponents’ hand to the Supporter Stack whenever an opponent removes a sympathy token or moves into a space containing sympathy.
Overall, the Woodland Alliance is a faction that is intended for the patient player as they are quite limited in the beginning of the game. But once the Alliance gains momentum, they are indeed a force to be reckoned with.
The Vagabond is a lone wanderer who claims no allegiance to the squabbling parties around him and instead seeks personal fame and glory. By traveling alone, the Vagabond can easily sneak in and out of areas that other factions can’t. But in a world as dangerous as Root, even the lone wolf needs allies. Aiding other factions will allow Vagabonds to develop relationships with other factions, making it safer to travel through clearings alone.
While other factions craft items for the purpose of generating victory points, the Vagabond also uses these items to take actions. By aiding players and improving faction relations, the Vagabond can also take items from players to increase the number of actions available.
As a solo figure on the board, the Vagabond can’t be removed from the board the same way as other factions’ warriors. Instead, when a Vagabond takes damage, they choose a number of items equal to the amount of damage they’re receiving and place them in the damaged section of the player board. These items can’t be refreshed in future turns until they are first repaired by using an acquired hammer.
Before starting with the Vagabond, players much first select which Vagabond character they would like to play as. Each of the Vagabond characters has a different set of starting items, changing what their starting abilities are. They also have special ability which can typically be activated by spending a torch item. Players will have to be certain about their character choice as they will not have the opportunity to make changes after the game begins. Unlike any other faction, the Vagabond can slip out of clearings and into the forests, which is incidentally where the Vagabond begins the game.
At the start of Birdsong, the Vagabond will refresh two exhausted items for every tea kettle they have (more on that bit later). Once items have been refreshed, the Vagabond can choose to “slip” into an adjacent clearing or forest without exhausting any action items.
It’s during Daylight that Vagabonds really show how versatile they are. In this phase, items are spent in order to take actions. Vagabonds are only limited in the number of actions they take by how many items they have.
- Move – Exhausting a boot allows a Vagabond to move into any adjacent clearing. If you are allied with a faction, you can move with their warriors as well. However, if the Vagabond moves into a clearing containing a hostile faction, the movement will cost an additional boot.
- Battle – Attack faction warriors in your clearing by exhausting a sword item. The number of swords the Vagabond determines the maximum amount of damage they can deal. Vagabonds are allowed to attack Allied factions, but only if they want to damage their hard-earned relationships.
- Explore – Exhausting a torch item will allow the Vagabond to take an item from underneath ruins in their clearing. Then, the ruin is removed, revealing and additional space in the clearing where a structure can be built.
- Aid – Exhausting any item and giving another player a card from the Vagabond’s hand (matching the currently occupied clearing) lets the Vagabond gain an item from that player. This, as well as exploring, are the easiest way for Vagabonds to gain valuable actions.
- Quest – The ability to travel across the land and complete quests is one exclusive to Vagabonds. At any given moment, the Vagabond player will have three Quest cards in their hands. Each of these Quests has a card suit, as well as two item icons. In order to complete a Quest, the Vagabond must be present in a clearing with a matching suit to the Quest and must be able to exhaust the two items indicated on the card. The Vagabond then earns one point for each Quest of that suit they’ve already completed, or can instead draw two cards.
- Strike – Spending a crossbow item lets Vagabonds remove a warrior from the clearing they’re in without putting themselves in harm’s way by attacking directly. If no warriors are present, the Vagabond instead attacks and destroys an opponent’s structure.
- Repair – If the Vagabond has any items that were damaged in an attack, they can repair the ruined items by spending hammers. This makes it possible for items to be refreshed during Birdsong on the next turn.
- Craft – Hammer items also allow players to craft new items from their hand. The same items are also the basis for their crafting abilities. Vagabonds can only craft items that match the suit of their current clearing. If they own one hammer, it only counts for one of the three suit icons potentially required to create a new item. In order to create the full range of items, Vagabonds will need to have three hammers in their possession.
- Special Action – Each Vagabond character has their own special action that can be activated by exhausting a torch.
In Evening, Vagabonds draw one card, plus one for each coin stack item they have in their possession. They will then discard down their hand down to a max card size of five. Players will also check to see if their total item count (damaged, exhausted, and ready) exceeds their satchel capacity, and discard items as needed. Should the Vagabond be in a forest at this time, they will also be able to rest and automatically repair all damaged items.
Back to the Game
The reason I chose to detail all of the existing factions was to demonstrate just how complex this game can be to master. Yet, one of Root‘s strengths is how easy it is to learn how to play. In their first few games, it’s recommended that players focus not on undermining their opponents but rather learning the game’s core mechanics. Attempting to do anything else would be like trying to learn four different games at once.
That brings us to Root‘s game modes. The digital version of the game includes a single-player tutorial mode that I can’t recommend enough. If you’re new to Root, the tutorial allows players to choose which of the four factions they’re most interested in and go through a step-by-step tutorial in a shortened game session. By going through each of the four factions’ tutorials, players become equipped for the range of Root‘s challenges faster than players would experience in the original game.
I would even go as far as recommending the tutorial for veteran players as well. One of the most jarring parts of the game I experienced was adjusting to where the digital edition placed key information like the faction board and discard piles. For that reason, I’d recommend diving into the tutorial to become familiar with where all of the board game’s elements can be located. Otherwise, Root is the same game that board game players know and love to hate.
Whether you’re on your own or with friends, Root is equipped with a variety of local and online game modes to enjoy. Local options include the standard gameplay against bots, challenges, or pass-and-play. Each one offers adjustable difficulty settings to accommodate the player’s skill level; an absolute must for Root. Of all the mode available, I’ve found myself playing through the challenges more often than anything else.
The challenge mode offers single players unique scenarios, each one playable at three difficulties that are unlocked by completing the previous one. One of the easier challenge scenarios, Riverway Warfare, changes the rules so that any clearing connected by the otherwise nonfunctional rivers are now considered adjacent. Some other challenges like Castle Siege change the win conditions so that the Marquise can only be defeated if their keep is destroyed. These challenges are a fun way to test your skills and master each of the factions against bots while keeping the game varied enough to stay fresh and exciting.
Local solo mode is the standard version of the game that players will encounter when they brave online play. All four factions are available to play against the aforementioned bots at either Easy, Medium, or Hard. This is as classic as Root gets and it’s an excellent adaptation. Dire Wolf did an excellent job translating the spirit of the original game into this version. The constant back and forth push and pull for control over each of the board’s twelve clearings, the clever balance between factions, and the challenge of mastering each faction remains just as enjoyable as the board game.
What I don’t love is the Pass and Play mode. In concept, it uses the digital medium and the physical action of passing around a device (or rotating seats) to recreate the feeling of sitting around the original board game together. However noble an attempt, its translation simply falls short. Area control games, especially asymmetric ones, work best when players can keep track of each others’ movement in real time. The visual transparency of the board state at any given moment is how players can effectively strategize their moves in advance of their next turn. But the Pass and Play mode makes this impossible to replicate.
As all players are using the same device to interface with the game and take their turn, any onlookers would be able to see their opponents’ hands. That’s obviously more information than you’d want to share with your enemies. So in Pass and Play, keeping your screen hidden from others is crucial if you don’t want to show your hand. Again, the trade off is that other players aren’t able to see what you’re doing on the shared board. Once a player ends their turn, the following player will want to take some additional time to review what the previous player did and then take to time plan their move. This process creates a lot of additional downtime between turns and really slows down an already contemplative game. Pass and Play is not a great replacement for the original experience, but it’s a decent substitute, even though it’s not my favorite.
While I’m excited by the prospect of having an online mode to play against strangers from all over the world, these game options often have a limited lifespan on them before players move onto the next game. Only time will be able to tell is that stays true for Root or if they’ll develop a strong player base that continues to make use of the advantages of the online features.
It’s difficult to get a group of people together for a game night. Most of the time the challenges are related to scheduling, and while an online version of Root helps withthat, players still need to have the time to all dedicate to sit down and play simultaneously. Root offers game hosts some turn limit options that help solve this problem. When creating a game, hosts can either set the turn timer to three minutes or three days. If players can’t all log on to play at the same time, the game can be configured to give players days to take their respective turns. Sure, this will likely drag the length of a single game over the course of a month, but so long as you can login for a few minutes once every three days, you’re good to go.
I think that the 3D interpretation of the artwork is great. The 3D character models bring new life to an already delightful cast of characters. However, I must say that I’m still partial to the originals. Something about animating attack actions of these furry little guys makes them more aggressive than the Leder Games design. But with that said, the new animations don’t necessarily take anything anyway from the artistic direction or value of the game.
Overall, Root is a strong adaptation of a great board game. While I’ll always prefer to play the board game version, the digital edition is a good alternative if I’m on the road or want to play against others while social distancing. The board game has two primary expansions that between them adds four additional factions and two additional battleground map options that are sure to be translated into paid DLC. Given the quality of what Dire Wolf produced and the level of impact that each faction has on gameplay variety, any Root add-ons will be an instant buy for me.
Personally, I would have preferred a more direct translation of Kyle Ferrin’s artwork. Nonetheless Root remains a deceptively adorable war game.
Root is a great translation of a complex game made accessible by an effective series of tutorials.
As soon as the game menu opens, a jungle-lite drum rhythm begins playing intermittent harmonica layered over it. It’s strange and delightful and sets the tone for the other musical pieces.
The Steam edition of the game has all the fun of the original with bonus puzzles found in the challenges mode.
Final Verdict: 8.5
Root is available now on Steam and Switch.
Reviewed on PC.