Transition, Consternation and Root
This column has traditionally been a periodic snapshot of my boardgaming hobby. Not reviews, more drive-by comments. What is troubling me, what is not. Consistently inaccurate market predictions. Frequent repetition concerning oversupply of games. Getting old. That sort of thing. Sometimes I feel I should move to a more formal approach but today, in the midst of a crisis, it is absolutely – sur pointe – perfect. So here goes.
I am starting to drift away from German or, if you will, Euro Games.
The Good News
I am still playing them three times per week.
I am sick of gurning idiots with massive stands selling me games I don’t want, often with zombies, and seemingly having more fun than I have had in my entire gaming lifetime. I am sick of endless interviews with dullard designers. I am sick of Kickstarter. I am sick of the words agonising, awesome, great and hotness. Especially hotness. I am sick of obscenely overproduced games that have their own postcode. I am sick of rip-off wooden box inserts. I am sick of twee game cafés and positive pollyana game groups and pronoun wars and Hipsters discovering boardgames, while drinking coffee. I am sick of dice rolling trays. I am heartily sick of conspicuous consumption, shelfies and ‘haul’ pictures. And more than anything else I am sick of overpriced, pig ugly Custom Game Tables.
Okay. I am a bit tired of the hobby in general and, by extension, the type of games that hobby generates. In a strange, minor, deluded way I feel I have helped create this state of affairs. When there were eight of us in the entire hobby, and there were no English rules, I was excited about these games and I evangelised. For years. I loved writing about and publicising and spreading the word. It grew. It grew some more. Then then there were hundreds of interested parties. Imagine that: a top game could sell upwards of fifty copies. Now, well, it has all gone a bit corporate.
There are too many games (see above), many are overproduced to ridiculous levels, there are too many worryingly similar games and as such there is a slight reluctance to play the pristine Founder of Grimstone: Wordy Subtitle on a Wednesday night. Why? Because of what has gone before and because the designer’s photo is more LinkedIn suit resume than Faidutti-style scruffbag.
I am a scruffbag; some of my friends are scruffbags. No insult intended.
What happens is that we play Grimstone and it is almost always entirely okay.
Not in a conscious way, the reaction to this has been a marked drift back to historical games, sports games and old school wargames. The latter have not evolved much. They look nicer, they are solid, but not a lot has changed mechanically since We The People. Perhaps COIN deserves mention, if blind alleys can ever warrant that. That is a plus. We know what we are doing. We know setup will take longer than High Society takes to play. We know the maps won’t lay flat.
But as an experience – in gaming, immersive, hobby validating terms – I still can’t think of a better choice. Recent games of Helsinki 1918, Napoleon 1806, anything by John Butterfield, and the stunning Cataclysm (GMT) have pretty much redefined a separate hobby.
Of course the sweet spot, which I wrote about many years ago, is the hybrid game. The wargame that has Euro style elements, or vice versa. Never say the word Waro in my presence. We are talking Pax Porfiriana, the sublime Maria, Shogun, Fort Sumter, Hitler’s Reich, Crystal Clans, and the brilliant Quartermaster General series. Which segue brings me neatly, smoothly, and uncannily, to Root.
A couple of years back we spent the autumn learning and playing Pax Pamir. We played a lot. I felt I knew every single rules nuance. The game was a milestone of design – riffing on the Pax Eklund chassis – and its designer was Cole Wehrle. Earlier this year his new game, Root, made a splash on the interwebs and, predictably, I kept an eye on it. I have now played three times and these are my initial thoughts.
Root is an area control game in a fantasy woodland realm. Several factions operate in the woodland and there is little love due to fights over… umm… Acorns. The evil Cats, the pecky Birds, the Woodland Alliance, the Riverfolk. You get the idea. The areas are loosely defined in the sense that there is a map, with paths, river and edges, but also areas like doctrine, peace, hearts & minds and victory (without presence) are up for grabs. Without too much further abstract waffle, this is a thinly disguised asymmetric wargame with Euro mechanisms. It draws on Cosmic Encounter, Dune, COIN, Pax X, Vast and pretty much everything else, plus some very clever new features. It is also, in my humble opinion, the best game of the year so far.
Like CE, Dune and Vast before it, the core element here is asymmetry: varying player powers, rules and targets. All players aim for 30 VPs but the acquisition method and VP sources are unique. Each player is given a tableau card, let’s call this the faction, which outlines your setup, abilities and rules. There are some play hints as to how you might win, and notes to let you know what your rivals might be up to. Discovery and exploration are key.
The game itself is simple enough. Your faction card allows specified actions. Cards are the currency that buys you a variety of desirable things. You never have enough cards. The rules are essentially place armies, move them, fight, destroy stuff – all the usual staples. No supply rules but issues will occur. No ZoCs – hurrah. Combat is quick and neat and is a strangely comforting constant in an otherwise shifting sea.
a) It has cats.
b) It is not cheap to buy now, and the expansion pack may be unavailable. Hopefully there will be a reprint. I am looking to buy, and that is extremely rare!
c) The two player game, while interesting and quick, will depend very much on the two factions you choose. We chose Birds and Vagabond and were almost working together in an odd falsely co-operative, abuser/enabler way. Which itself was worth the price of entry. We also played with three and I think that, and four, could be optimal. “Five or more…. prepare to snore” is the usual rule.
d) Possibly Balance. I can’t speak to play balance. Yet, or perhaps ever. Too many combinations, as you will see. In short, I trust the designer.
Upsides are legion.
The factions are all different. Markedly in some cases. Even The Vagabond, which I wrongly viewed as a fourth player makeweight, is not a bad one to play. The upshot on the board is that armies (‘dudes’ on ‘the map’ for our dimmer readers) vary from having ‘many troops who can’t find an enemy’, through mobile armies, Kampfgruppe and single unit insurgents to invisible charismatic leaders. Some move quickly, some arrive late, some can’t move without major effort and others are virtual. Some fight like demons and others would rather not fight at all. There are peaceseekers concealing large mallets: The Vagabond walks round with a sniper rifle (crossbow) and a sword but such is the design quality, he knows he doesn’t wish to use them.
The game changer for me is that the factions, potentially hinted at in Vast, are rather interesting and I started craving new ones past the seven we have. That is just me. Seven is probably enough. I think with applied brainpower you could model a number of different doctrines from many periods of history and perhaps that will happen officially or unofficially. One faction was shouting Colonial Sudan quite loudly. I had to leave the room and lie down.
What is impressive is the core rules hold most of this together, and those rules are short and tight. Not simple, not complex. Of course, the intrinsic asymmetry requires many exceptions but – broadly – you are all on the same page. There is an internal logic and variations are few and easily remembered. For instance, blue (avian) cards are wild for everyone but the Lizard faction hate birds (obvs) so for them they are not wild and facilitate martyrdom.
That said, some factions march to a very different drum. Their sequence of play might be nuanced, flexible or structured, or need card power-ups. Some have unlimited actions, others just a couple. Some factions have to plan their turn, while Bob is winging it. Others have to crack how to get troops onto the map. One has a shadowy Grand Vizier character who dictates policy until the regime falls and then they get another despot. I could go on. There is a huge amount of design work here. And it works, which is nice.
The theming is a little puzzling. The designer has hinted that he wants to lure Eurogamers into wargames. Root does this by sugar coating in a fluffy overcoat. As soon at the coat is opened and you have played one turn, you will know that this is a proper wargame. What it isn’t is a good historical fit for anything specific, given the number of factions. My mind generates a modern day insurgency conflict, perhaps in Africa. You may veer towards Game of Thrones. My non-marketer, selfish wish would be Sci Fi. What matters is that Leder Games made the call. And that call was fluffy bunnies, appealing artwork and a knowing wink.
It matters not. The woodland board is a sandbox arena in which these various military factions, some benign and opportunistic, some insurgent, some parasitical, can deploy their skills and match up to ever changing rivals. There are choke points, para drops, guerrilla warfare, radicalisation, behind the lines raids, supply issues; all sorts of clever emergent nastiness. It reminds me of BBC’s Robot Wars, except that Mr Wehrle has designed your robot for you.
The target aim of 30 VPs makes it a Euro style game of optimisation and getting your VP engine going (they all run in different ways) and it pans out timewise – about two hours. You could easily play to 40, as they originally designed it. 20 would I feel not give slow starting factions enough time. In that sense Root is a bit of a horse race, where some factions are off and running out of the gate, others start slow and really come on to a sprint finish, and some just canter and gallop alternately. Some fall over.
The pure appeal for me has been experiencing the factions and the interactions. If you know what I mean, the winning here is unimportant as the travelling is enough. Root is that rare gem; an experience game that also works ludically. The rider is that while many Euros do this in small, co-operative snacks, Root is a proper three course meal every time. You learn your faction – this may take a few turns to even grind into action. You then start earning VPs, some factions changing gear mid game. By the end of the game you are really driving the thing and relating. Wunderbar. No need to whinge about multiplayer solitaire systems because you are in a combat situation, so there are decent decisions to make and those bastard birds are spreading faster than seems possible. Interaction is frequent.
I was playing the aforementioned Lizards and this probably sums the game up. The Lizards like to build sacred gardens. They require devotion from their meagre warriors and a few chosen or dead are elevated to acolyte status. They then do stuff like Crusading and Sanctifying. In play they were painfully slow, suffered severe setbacks, were inefficient and understaffed. They have a propensity to repeat themselves. Seriously, I am not sure that they are contenders. But they definitely could win, they are a real challenge to play and I enjoyed every single moment of cracking their cult system, realising they were haters, building the steamroller and even… yes, seeing the humour that the designer has built in. That two hours was as good a game experience as I have ever had. And I haven’t even started to use the event cards properly.
At this point I am going to say that the design, development and testing work is clearly evident, is impressive, and of top quality. It simply embarrasses some of the Kickstarter games I have seen recently. Chapeau.
Root is a wargame. It is a wargame in the same sense that Inis, Shogun, Blood Rage and Civilisation are wargames. Fights happen. Units are removed. Feelings are hurt. I think given the assumed theme, they could have toned down the military aspect but only by euphemism. It doesn’t worry me much, but it moves Root away from gamers I know. Just saying. But as wargames go, it is one of the best.
Overall, I think Root is very clever. Brilliant even. It is full of ideas and exuberance backed up with proper execution. It is an absolute pleasure to play, to experience and to explore. It is exactly the sort of game that you think about on the train. Root is a hobby affirming publication and I hope it becomes a landmark design. Admirable and playable – tough combo.
Mike is stakeholder-owner of the Grimstone© brand of gaming hotness, owns a chain of micro-ludic pubs, eschews coffee, pets and LARPers, develops immersive dexterity games for several charities and is currently sculpting his own image for 3d printing. #pustule
He has an exploratory meeting with Asmodee next week.
Mike is styled by Brooks Brothers. Hair by Vince @ Herr Flick.
PS 3rd September 2019. Last night I took the hit and played the Riverfolk Company who are broadly East India/Hudson Bay types who set up trade posts, have to sell their cards and soldiers to other factions and provide ferry services. Yes, really.
So I pop up in the middle of the usual AK47 style warzone. The Cats are all over the place with loads of troops. The Lizards are spreading their zeal. And the Vagabond is strolling about causing trouble. I am trying to keep everyone happy and sell stuff to them. Unique.
About a quarter of the way in I have no points. I resign myself to being dead last, but as usual I am enjoying the process. So I listen to my customers and sure enough if I cut my prices and offer them a good range of cards, they buy. Soon I have money. Money means I can set up trade posts (invest and get VP but risk attack) or take dividends for VP. All of a sudden I am playing 18xx. I can also start building a small army that I will later need to attack rivals and remove their bases. By the end of the game I have some power and over 20 points of the required 30. Came close third. Cats won in style. Again, I am impressed. Not only is it a completely different experience, but I am in the game.
I seriously think if the Riverfolk were up against three stuffers, who refused to buy, then that would scupper them. But interestingly that didn’t happen because they want my cards, so the designer has created and balanced a market. Possibly. I am told this is a Prisoner’s Dilemma and that if one buyer cracks, they work. We shall see on this faction, but as a first experiment it was well worth it.