In “Reaping the Rewards,” I take a look at the finished product from a crowdfunding campaign. Today’s title is Root from Leder Games, designed by Cole Wehrle, which was Kickstarter in November 2017 and was shipped to backers last summer this year. It is currently in production for another print run, though you may still be able to find copies in stores or online.
I wrote about Root last year during the Kickstarter campaign, but the game was still undergoing development and had not been finalized, so a lot of things have changed since then. I’ll also dig into the Riverfolk expansion, which was also included as part of the Kickstarter campaign (and will now be sold separately).
What Is Root?
Root is a game for 2 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, and takes about 60–90 minutes to play. It retails for $60, and is currently on pre-order from Leder Games (though I’ve seen copies on Amazon at a higher price if you can’t wait). With the Riverfolk expansion, the game can accommodate from 1 to 6 players; the expansion retails for $40 and is also on pre-order. Despite what you might assume based on the artwork, I think the game is more complex than most games rated for “10 and up,” so be aware that it would probably be best for an experienced 10 and up.
Here’s what comes in the base game:
- Game board
- Marquise de Cat components:
- Player board
- 25 meeples
- 6 Sawmill tokens
- 6 Workshop tokens
- 6 Recruiter tokens
- 8 Wood tokens
- Keep token
- VP token
- Eyrie Dynasty components:
- Player board
- 20 meeples (birds)
- 7 Roost tokens
- 2 Loyal Vizier cards
- 4 Leader cards
- VP token
- Woodland Alliance components:
- Player board
- 10 meeples (mice)
- 10 Sympathy tokens
- 3 Base tokens
- VP token
- Vagabond components:
- Player board
- Meeple (raccoon)
- 3 Relationship tokens
- 4 Ruins tokens
- 4 Ruins Item tokens
- 7 Starting Item tokens
- 12 Item tokens
- VP token
- 3 Vagabond Character cards
- 15 Quest cards
- 16 Overview cards (4 each of 4 factions)
- 4 Walkthrough setup cards
- 2 Battle dice
- 12 Clearing tokens (4 each of fox, mouse, rabbit)
- 54 cards
As you can see, there’s a lot of components in the game, and not everyone has the same type or number of components.
The illustrations in the game are by Kyle Ferrin, who also illustrated Vast for Leder Games, and they’re fantastic. These woodland creatures are full of personality, and the artwork draws a lot of people to check out the game. Where Ferrin’s art really gets to shine is on the cards, because there are so many different cards all with fun pictures.
The cards themselves are a nice quality, as are all the punched-out tokens, which have a linen finish.
The board itself is a huge illustration, too: a forest with clearings, paths that connect them, and rivers. On the “fall” side of the board, the clearings are colored red, orange, and yellow (and also marked with the fox, mouse, and rabbit icons). The reverse side is “winter,” and the clearings are unmarked (and not color-coded); instead, you use the clearing tokens to randomize the layout.
My copy of the board did have a little bit of trouble lying flat—it tends to stay slightly bent (which you can notice somewhat in the “fall” photo) but I’m hoping that it will eventually flatten out with repeated plays.
The meeples are also a lot of fun, custom shapes with painted faces. There’s a little bit of variation in the painting, so I had one mouse that’s missing an eye, and some of the eyes on the meeples are bolder than others, but that didn’t bug me too much.
The player boards are just large sheets of cardboard, nothing especially fancy, but they help you keep track of all your components and also serve as a reference sheet for each faction. The backs of the player boards have an overview of the faction—the specific components, a few notes about its complexity and abilities, setup instructions, and some tips on playing that faction. Unfortunately, though, this information isn’t accessible once you turn the board over and set up all your tokens on it, so that seemed like an odd choice to me.
The overview cards, on the other hand, provide similar information about playing the faction in an easier-to-access way. Also, since there are four copies of each card, everybody can read up on all four factions, which helps you understand what your opponents are doing, too.
The two dice are custom, extra-large, 12-sided dice, with values from 0 to 3. It’s a nice alternative to traditional d4 (the dreaded gamer caltrop), which doesn’t always roll nicely.
The box came with a plastic insert that was mostly good, though you can’t fit the expansion in the base game box with the insert. I ended up removing the insert, and putting the simple cardboard insert from the expansion box into the base game box, and then I could pack everything together.
A word about the rulebooks and learning the game: The base game comes with a larger booklet called “The Law of Root” that is more of a rules reference, organized with outline numbering so that you can easily reference something like “8.4.2 IIa” if you want to tell somebody about how Martial Law works for the Woodland Alliance. The Law of Root contains rules for both the base game and the two new factions from the expansion. There’s also a smaller “Learning to Play” book that is a little more like a traditional rulebook, with more diagrams and illustrations—the expansion has its own “Learning to Play” book. The strange thing to me is that there is not actually a full components list anywhere—not in the Law, the Learning to Play books, or on the backs of the player boards. Setup is also split up so that there are some general setup steps in the Learning to Play book, but then each faction’s individual setup is shown on the player boards.
In addition to these books, there is also a Walkthrough for the four-player base game. Each faction gets a card that explains their setup (including starting with specific cards rather than randomly dealt cards), and then the accompanying sheet walks you through everyone’s first two turns. The idea is that you read the sheet aloud as you perform the actions stated, and it shows how most of the basic and common mechanics work in the first round; in the second round, you learn more about each faction’s particular abilities. It’s a very cool way to jump into the game, though I’ve found it’s still handy if at least one player has read through the other books somewhat, just to be able to track down answers as they arise.
The Riverfolk expansion includes:
- Mechanical Marquise board
- 2nd Vagabond components:
- Player board
- Meeple (black raccoon)
- 5 Relationship tokens
- 4 Ruins Item tokens
- 7 Starting Item tokens
- 12 Item tokens
- VP token
- 3 Vagabond Character cards
- Riverfolk Company components:
- Player board
- 15 meeples (otters)
- 3 Service tokens
- 9 Trade post tokens
- VP token
- Lizard Cult components:
- Player board
- 25 meeples (lizards)
- Outcast token
- 15 Garden tokens
- VP token
- 5 card holders
- 4 Spy cards
- 2 Overview cards
- 2 Relationship tokens for 1st Vagabond
- 19 Additional tokens
The components in the Riverfolk expansion are, of course, comparable to the base game—adorable meeples, and the same player boards. The one disappointment is that there’s only one overview card for each of the new factions; they’re double-sided and have more text than the ones in the base game, but no artwork. It would have been nice to have them be similar, but particularly to have extra copies available so that everyone could refer to them more easily.
The Kickstarter edition came with 5 card holders—a length of wood with an angled slot—but I believe future retail editions may only come with 1. The card holder is primarily for use with the Mechanical Marquise, an automated player that can be used for solo or cooperative mode, but backers got extras for other players, too.
There are also a bunch of additional tokens—some depict the Eyrie leaders, some have shields on them, and all of them have letters on the backs. These aren’t currently used in the game, but are provided for potential future use in scenarios. (Leder Games hopes to publish more scenarios on the website; so far there’s one Halloween-themed scenario for October.)
Root is GeekDad Approved!
How to Play Root
The goal of the game is to be the first to reach 30 VP; some cards in the game may be used to change your victory condition.
Each player chooses a faction; depending on the number of players, there are various possible combinations of factions, and some that are recommended. Each faction takes their player board, and all components listed on the back of the board. VP tokens are placed at the “0” on the scoring track of the main game board.
Shuffle the common deck of cards and deal three cards to each player. Place the ruins tokens on the four “R” spaces and the 12 regular item tokens in the item spaces on the board. Each player then sets up their factions as shown on the backs of their boards—the setup instructions are also labelled from A to D (plus E and F in the expansion); this is the order that the factions should set up, though actual seating/turn order may be randomized.
I’ll explain a little more about each faction’s setup in the gameplay section below.
Each faction has their own set of rules, but there are some things in common. For instance, when you take a “move” action, you may move any number of your warriors (meeples) from one clearing to an adjacent clearing, along a path, but with this restriction: to move, you must rule either the origin clearing or the destination clearing. You rule a clearing if you have the most combined warriors and buildings (nobody rules if it’s a tie).
Clearings have one to three building slots where buildings can be built; ruins can only be built on if the Vagabond has explored them and cleared them out. Each clearing is also marked with a suit—fox, mouse, rabbit—which may affect some of your actions or played cards.
The cards come in four different suits: the familiar fox, mouse, and rabbit, plus the bird claw, which is wild. Each faction has a different way of “crafting” cards, but you’ll need to match the crafting icons shown at the top right or bottom left. Note that the crafting icons may not match the suit of the card itself. Some cards, like those shown above, have an immediate effect and are then discarded. Most of these are items that you craft, taking the corresponding token from the main board and placing them in the “crafted items” section of your player board for the Vagabond to purchase from you. (And you may also score points for crafting items.)
When you craft, you do not discard the specific tokens your faction uses for crafting—you just need to have access to them.
Other cards give you ongoing abilities when crafted—these are just placed in front of you and do what the text says. You can’t have multiple copies of the same card. It’s important to note that these abilities only apply after you have crafted a card—you can’t use them straight from your hand for these effects.
Another shared rule is battling: when you take a battle action, you pick a clearing where you have at least one meeple, and choose another faction (as long as they have meeples or tokens there) to attack. You roll both of the dice: you take the higher die, and the defender takes the lower die, which determines how many hits each of you can do. You’re also limited in the number of hits by the number of meeples you have present, so if you roll a “3” but you only have 2 meeples present, then you only do 2 hits. Each hit removes 1 piece of the owner’s choice from the clearing, though meeples must be removed before buildings are removed. There are also some additional rules for dealing with effects that give you “extra hits,” and also for situations where the defender has no warriors present (just buildings), so they’re defenseless.
There are some special cards called called Ambush cards in the deck—these can be used by the defender before the die roll to do 2 hits immediately, potentially preventing an attack if there are no warriors left after the ambush. The card’s suit must match the clearing. If the defender plays an ambush, the attacker may respond with an ambush (again, matching the clearing) to cancel it.
Whenever you remove enemy buildings or tokens (not meeples), you score 1 VP.
On your turn, you follow the rules on your board for three phases: Birdsong, Daylight, and Evening. Depending on your faction, you may do more during one phase than another. I won’t go into a lot of details, but I’ll give a quick look at each faction and roughly how they function. Most players will draw 1 card at the end of the turn, with the ability to increase that through draw bonuses.
Marquise de Cat
The Marquise de Cat is the new rule of the forest, and has big plans to drag it, kicking and screaming, into the industrial age.
The Marquise is a builder—you start with your Keep in one corner of the board, a bunch of warriors everywhere, and one of each building: a sawmill, a workshop, and a recruiter. Sawmills generate wood, which is used for building. Workshops are used for crafting cards—each workshop provides an icon of its clearing type toward crafting. Recruiters produce more warriors.
You get 3 actions during Daylight, plus you may spend bird claw cards to take additional actions, and you score points primarily by building your buildings. As you remove buildings from your board, you reveal the point values—plus some of them will increase the number of cards you may draw at the end of your turn. (You do not lose points if buildings are attacked and returned to your board.)
The Marquise uses workshops for crafting—each workshop may be used once per turn, providing the icon of the clearing where it’s located.
The Eyrie are the former rulers of the forest (before that darned cat showed up), and the leaders make big promises about reclaiming what’s rightfully theirs … but their citizens will hold them to those promises.
The Eyrie Dynasties set up at the opposite corner from the cat, and start with a handful of warriors and one roost there. There are four Eyrie leader cards to choose from: your active leader goes on your board, and the rest are set aside. The active leader determines where your two loyal vizier cards are placed in your decree, which is at the top of your player board.
Each round, you must add cards to your decree, which has the actions Recruit, Move, Battle, Build. Then you resolve your decree from left to right, taking one action per card—and the suit of the card determines what clearings that action may take place (with bird cards being wild). If for any reason you can’t resolve your entire decree, you fall into turmoil: you lose points, clear out your decree, and install a new leader. At the end of your turn, you score points based on how many roosts you have on the board. Building roosts will also reveal some draw bonuses so that you can draw more cards.
The Eyrie uses roosts for crafting—each roost may be used once per turn, providing the icon of the clearing where it’s located. The Eyrie also have a special ability: if they’re tied for the most presence in a clearing, they rule it.
The Woodland Alliance is a coalition of the mice, rabbits, and foxes who live in the forest, and they’re tired of being pawns in this game between the cat and the birds. They’re rising up against these imperialists, and taking charge of their own destiny.
The Alliance has a stack of cards on their board called supporters, which they can spend for particular actions, including spreading sympathy (represented by the round tokens). Spreading sympathy to the various clearings will earn increasing points, but also costs more supporters. They can stage revolts to establish their three bases (which reveal draw bonuses), and train officers to take actions like moving and battling. One of the key actions the Alliance can take is adding cards from their hand to the supporters stack, which will set them up for actions on future turns. Sympathetic clearings also make things difficult for other players, because they’ll have to give supporters to the Alliance if they move into those spaces.
The Alliance have a powerful “guerrilla war” ability: they always get the higher of the two dice in a battle, even as defenders, so they’re harder to fight even though they have fewer numbers.
The Alliance uses sympathy tokens for crafting—each sympathy token may be used once per turn, providing the icon of the clearing where it’s located.
The Vagabond is a wanderer who has no loyalty to anyone else—they’re just waiting to see who comes out on top in the new order. In the meantime, they can make friends or enemies of the other factions, depending on what seems expedient.
The Vagabond is a lone character—it’s just one meeple and a whole bunch of items.
The Vagabond player makes use of all those little item tokens: you start with four of them (determined by your character), and you can gain more of them by exploring the ruins (which also clears up a building space for other players) and by buying them from other players who have crafted them. You exhaust items (flip them over) to use them for actions; some actions require specific items, and some actions can use any items.
The Vagabond player has a few ways to earn points. One is by completing quests, which require you to exhaust particular items while in a specified clearing type. As you complete more quests of the same clearing type, they are worth more and more points.
You can also gain points based on your relationship with other players, which is tracked on your relationship chart. As you aid players by giving them cards, you can earn points and improve your relationship with them, eventually becoming “Allied,” which gives you additional points each time you aid them. Or, if you ever kill an opponent’s warrior, your relationship becomes hostile, and now you earn points every time you remove an enemy piece from the board (whether it’s a warrior, building, or other token).
The Vagabond’s special abilities include being able to move in and out of spaces regardless of rule, and also the ability to move into the forest spaces in between clearings and roads. The Vagabond crafts using the hammer items: each hammer provides the symbol of the clearing where the Vagabond is currently.
The Riverfolk expansion adds a few more factions, including a second Vagabond player, which comes with three additional character cards. The second Vagabond functions the same otherwise, and the two Vagabonds are not on a team with each other.
The Riverfolk Company has arrived in the forest for commerce! They’re ready to wheel and deal, selling you cards, transporting you up and down the river, and even fighting on your side as mercenaries … as long as you can afford it.
The Riverfolk, who are otters, use the meeples to track payments and funds. When you buy things from the Riverfolk, you actually give them meeples from your supply, which go into the payments box. These then turn into funds, which are moved to the commitments box to take various actions including establishing trade posts, which earn points. Funds that you don’t spend by the end of your turn can be worth points, so you may not want to spend all of your funds all the time.
You get to set the prices for your services: too low and you may be giving other players too much; too high and nobody will buy from you. The Riverfolk craft cards using their open trade post spaces on their board, with each spot providing the corresponding symbol.
The Lizard Cult
Have you heard of the way of the Lizard Cult? Why don’t you make a pilgrimage to one of our lovely gardens? We always welcome lost souls, and if you’re really lucky you might even become an acolyte.
The Lizard Cult uses cards a little differently than other players: you reveal cards to perform rituals, but then they go back into your hand. You need to rule a clearing to build a garden, but you can recruit anywhere, with your lizards just popping up all over the board. Once you have some acolytes (which you get when your warriors are attacked, or by sacrificing your own warriors), you can perform conspiracies from converting other warriors into your own to turning an enemy building into a garden.
When the Lizard Cult is in play, all discarded cards are sent to the Lost Souls pile on the player board. Whichever suit (aside from birds) is the most common in the pile becomes the Outcast for that round, which is where the Lizards can perform conspiracies.
The Lizard Cult has a few powerful ability: they rule any clearing with a garden, even if they’re outnumbered. The Lizards craft using gardens that match the outcast suit, which means that they cannot craft cards that require more than one suit type.
The Riverfolk expansion also includes the Mechanical Marquise, an automated Marquise de Cat player that lets you play a solo game or a cooperative game. The two sides of the player board correspond are used for the two sides of the game board. The AI Marquise doesn’t act exactly like the regular Marquise, because it doesn’t actually use any of the buildings, but instead just has warriors, and a hand of cards that are used as “orders” to battle, move, and recruit.
For the cooperative game, the Marquise will earn points at the beginning of its turn, and to win all the players must reach 30 points before the Marquise does.
The game ends as soon as any player reaches 30 points, winning the game.
There’s also an alternate victory (and game-end) condition that can be activated with the Dominance cards. There are four of these in the deck, one for each suit. If you have at least 10 points, you may activate a Dominance card during your turn. You remove your score marker from the board, because you no longer care about points. Instead, you must rule at least 3 clearings of the corresponding suit (or two opposite corners, for the bird suit) at the start of your turn to win the game.
The Vagabond (who can’t rule more than one clearing) can use a Dominance card to form a coalition with another player (whether they like you or not). You remove your scoring token. If that player wins, you also win.
Why You Should Play Root
I’ll start off with this recap from my original Kickstarter tabletop alert, which was based on the prototype:
Root was designed by Cole Wehrle, who has a particular academic interest in empires. His previous games have had some pretty heavy themes; I haven’t played any of them myself, but my friends who have speak very highly of them (and also have emphasized that they’re complex games). Reading through some of his Designer Diary posts on BoardGameGeek, I was fascinated because even though this looks like a game about cute woodland animals on the surface, Wehrle clearly has put a lot of thought about statecraft and empire-building and what happens to the people who just live there.
Root is published by Leder Games, which also published Vast, my favorite game of 2016. It brought a whole new meaning to the term “asymmetric game” for me. Before, I often understood the term to mean a game in which players have different powers: Cosmic Encounters, for instance. Everyone plays by the same basic set of rules, but has different abilities, kind of like the way that everyone uses the joystick and the same buttons in Street Fighter but you have different combinations, speeds, and special moves. Vast was asymmetric in the sense that everyone had a different set of rules: like if one person was playing Street Fighter with a joystick and the other person had a steering wheel and foot pedals. Root falls somewhere in between—the differences between the factions are more than just special abilities, but there are more common rules than in Vast also.
And I’ve already mentioned Kyle Ferrin, who also did the artwork for Vast. With the team working on this game, I expect that it’s going to be an engaging and thoughtful experience, and that it will look awesome. I love the tiny snippets of story that I’ve read about the factions, and it’s easy to draw parallels to real historical (or current) events.
One warning I’ll give is that it is still a fairly complex game. I know that for Cole Wehrle, this is one he’s considering a more “accessible” game, compared to his other designs, and I do think that the shared rules make it perhaps easier to teach than Vast, in which you basically had to learn up to five separate games before you could start. But it’s a step up from many games rated “10 and up,” so although I’m very enthusiastic and excited about Root, I would caution thinking about it as a kids’ game that you can just give to some 10-year-olds to learn on their own.
There were some significant gameplay changes between the Kickstarter prototype and the finished game, and the final version flows well. Kudos to the Leder Games team for putting together not only an engaging and fun game, but also a nice way to learn the game as well with the walkthrough. Although I did think some of the choices were a little strange (like not having a centralized component list, or having the faction descriptions on the bottom of the game boards), overall the various factions fit together well, and it’s fun to see how things click into place as you play.
The asymmetric factions allow players to pursue very different paths toward victory, and I’m guessing that many players will start to learn their preferences, which faction’s rules mesh well with their own preferred mode of play. Love resource management, building out infrastructure, and getting an industrial engine going? The Marquise de Cat is right up your alley. Prefer action management or like shifting allegiances between players? The Vagabond lets you play favorites with the other players.
One of my own favorites is the Eyrie Dynasties, perhaps because I like how the theme plays out in the mechanics. The birds demand more and more promises from their leaders: Are you going to strengthen our military? We need to vanquish our enemies! Are you going to build more roosts? And so of course you keep adding to your decree, the list of promises that you’re bound to fulfill every round … until you collapse under the weight of these impossible demands. And when you do, your faction falls into turmoil, overthrows the current leader, and elects a new one, who then begins the cycle again, promising that things will be different this time. It’s a little like a programming game (again, probably why I like it so much) because whatever you put into the program will have to be repeated on future turns.
As with Vast, the experience of playing Root will differ depending on which factions are involved, and with 7 factions to choose from (if you count both Vagabonds), there are a lot of possible combinations. Some are more highly recommended by the rules, but even with those there are still quite a few to choose from. I don’t see myself getting tired of Root for a long time … and they’re already working on some new factions for next year!
I think the cute artwork may draw in some players who normally wouldn’t be interested in a game of this nature, but that’s a good thing. They might find that playing Root draws them into a whole new genre of games to explore. That said, it may also be a bit intimidating to some, so I try to make it clear that there’s a pretty deep strategy game behind that adorable face.
The Riverfolk expansion will be great for those who want the solo experience, cooperative play, or who want to extend the game beyond 4 players (with the caveat that downtime gets longer the more players you add). And, of course, who can resist the Lizard Cult? (Answer: Nobody. You cannot resist their lovely gardens and totally reasonable indoctrination.)
I’m eager to continue playing Root, trying out other factions (and faction combinations), and it’s a title that I hope I can get to the table often in the coming year—something that’s always a little tricky with games I’m not currently reviewing. I’ve enjoyed it each time I played, win or lose, and it’s a world that I’m always glad to visit.
For more about Root, visit the Leder Games website.
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.