A Game of Woodland Might and Right
Android, iOS, & Steam
# of Players
Dire Wolf Digital
Root is an asymmetrical wargame from Leder Games brought into the digital space by Dire Wolf Digital. Root consists of four warring factions attempting to exert influence, gain sympathy, take down their opponents, and overrun the forest in which the events take place. The factions play by their unique rules to chase their unique points, with the faction that first hits 30 points being declared the winner (if other win conditions aren’t met first). A game typically takes about 30-40 minutes.
Root is an asymmetrical game. Don’t, like perhaps one reviewer, confuse ‘asymmetrical’ with ‘variable player powers.’ Then, like perhaps one reviewer, get overwhelmed when each of the four factions in the base game play by completely different rules with different actions, troops, and goals. Don’t be like that reviewer.
The tagline for Root is “A Game of Woodland Might and Right.” Simple enough, but it really does tell a lot of the story. Each of the four factions here (Marquise de Cat, Eyrie Dynasties, Woodland Alliance, and Vagabond) have their own motivations and claims to being the rulers of the forest. The Eyrie Dynasties were once the rulers of the Woodlands and play the game attempting to spread their roosts throughout to gain VP and additional warriors. Marquise want to overrun the area by constructing buildings to enable easier training of new troops and construction of more buildings, they are the sprawl of the Woodlands. The Woodland Alliance attempts to play at the dissatisfaction of creatures in the forest by gaining sympathy towards their cause, but they are also quick to incite violent rebellions at opportune times. Finally, the Vagabond is the lone wolf, quite literally, of this conflict and must deftly read the current state of affairs between the other factions and make the shrewd decisions on who to help and who to attack in order to ensure their own reputation surpasses everyone else.
Here is where a better reviewer would draw lines between the factions and real-world political causes. A better reviewer might also go into some more depth about how the factions operate, but I’m not going there either. There is as much written on the internet about Root as about any board game I’ve ever come across. If you want more detail, it’s out there and better written than what I could conjure up in this space.
Instead, I can only provide my experience with the game. Phew, it’s a doozy.
The first thing that jumped out at me was that you can’t do much of anything in this game without fully understanding the motivations of your faction as well as the opponents for that game. Knowing that Marquise wants to spread their industrial complex to all corners of the Woodlands is all well and good, but if you have no idea why the Vagabond is sneaking around to the various locations, you will quickly get upended by a superior strategy. This makes Root a colossal task to tackle, quite unlike anything I’ve seen in the digital tabletop world. There are games that rate heavier (Through the Ages comes to mind), but Root is essentially four different games rolled into one, and you have to learn them all to be competent at any.
Sure, there are some overlapping parts of the game. There is a common deck of cards to be drawn from and they do similar things for all creatures when built or played. You get a sword and three points if you build a certain card and another card allows you to ambush an attacking opponent, that’s easy enough. Well, the Marquise can use that card to activate their field hospital to heal downed troops from a fight. Eyrie can use it to stage their actions for the matching location types on the card. And so on.
It’s a lot to wrap your head around, but what happens once you do? Great things, of course! The obvious benefit of having four separate games within one is that there are four separate games within one. Spend a while trying to master the Vagabond, then hop over to Woodland Alliance to spread that sympathy. The combinations of playing games with subsets of the factions are fun to test out, although in my early experience I would say the game is firing on all cylinders when all four factions are in play.
Root is a beast. It will draw you in initially with, most like, Marquise with a relative simple goal and ruleset. It will be fun as your march over your enemies on easy AI and feel the mighty power of ruling the Woodlands. You won’t know or care about the motivations behind each enemy move, and that’s just fine to start out. The game really starts to sing, however, when you do begin to learn those motivations of all four factions in great detail. When you can expertly thwart an Eyrie’s plans and force them into turmoil, it is a truly fantastic feeling. Or expertly read the tea leaves as Vagabond and pick the perfect opponents to help and hurt, shifting balance just right so you can hit those sweet 30 points before anyone else and capture victory.
This is not a game for everyone. That’s the case for any game, but Root takes a different level of investment to really, truly start to pay off. The good thing is that there is plenty to enjoy along the way, but the ultimate question is whether you are willing to ride out a lot of confusion before it all eventually clicks.
Barrier to Entry
The game is taught through five tutorials; one which teaches the very basics and four that dive into each faction’s unique abilities. The overview tutorial is pretty quick and gives you a couple of goals and lets you try to make them happen. It’s not a pure hand-holding exercise, but is limited to movement, attacks, and generating new warriors. The faction-specific tutorials play out over the course of abbreviated games against weak AI. The Marquise tutorial, for example, is a game to 12 points against a single AI. There is also a text rulebook which is good for referencing any parts you may have forgotten from the tutorials.
Root is a highly asymmetric game (I may have mentioned that already), as such, attempting to digest the rules and abilities of all four factions is a bit much. The tutorials are nice introductions to the factions but it adds up to a lot to take in during one sitting. I will say that the tutorial lengths are really well done, you will end up playing a handful of turns on your own which really helps learning.
I would suggest learning Marquise and Eyrie first, then playing some two player games with them so you start to grasp them a bit, I suggest this because that’s what the game suggested. Then learn Woodland and play a few games before finally tackling Vagabond. For me, personally, attempting to learn all four then dive into full games would be a recipe for frustration.
Look and Feel
Oooh boy, this is one amazing looking game. The physical game has some really fantastic artwork and they took that and placed it in an amazing digital setting here. The battles have an old school JRPG look to them. The whole thing just pops off of the screen. This is par for the course with the Dire Wolf ports, but I think Root is their best looking game yet. The folksy, woodlands music is a great touch added on top.
Control-wise, everything works really well. Most actions are click-and-confirm with a few drag-and-drops thrown in. Nothing complicated and it doesn’t need to be. The undo space is limited, however, which frequently bit me as I was initially learning the game.
Online games can be played real-time or asynchronously with three day timeouts. Games are created and joined via a lobby system with the option to password protect them as a way to control who joins. There is a public chat to chat with potential playing partners. Factions can be assigned/claimed or randomly selected when games start.
Early on, there have been some issues with online play. I’ve heard a handful of reports of games being lost due to bugs. Dire Wolf provides great support for their apps so I suspect these issues will be resolved soon.
The game offers local pass-and-play as well as online leaderboards.
Single player games can be played as a standard game versus AI or through Challenge mode. Solo play is what you would expect, select number of players, AI difficulty, and you’re off. The Challenge mode is a great addition which provides you with certain goals or special rules to play with. They start as simple as winning a normal game, but grow into very specific situations such as one on one game where you play as Eyrie against Marquise and you cannot win unless the Marquise’s keep (home base, essentially) is destroyed. The challenges are a nice addition.
The only real problem here is that the AI is, by most accounts, pretty poor. I’m still learning with each play, but I’ve seen reports from more experienced players saying that even at higher difficulties, the AI doesn’t hold up. The easy AI is essentially useless as I was able to dominate in my first ever game after the tutorials. The game has received some AI updates since launch, hopefully more are coming but this has been an issue with Dire Wolf games in the past.
Patrick Leder or Leder Games, the publisher of the physical version of Root, said that Dire Wolf holds the rights to port any expansion content they wish into the digital format. This is great news for fans. Dire Wolf has stated that the first expansion they are tackling is The Clockwork which adds a few automa opponents that you can add to the game to fill out lower player counts. Hopefully the full suite of Root content hits the digital version.
The Wrap Up
Root is a lot for me to wrap my head around. It’s fully asymmetric which demands you learn four different factions completely so you are prepared to take one of them and try to defeat the others. It’s a new experience for me and I’ve enjoyed the ride it’s taken me on.
The digital experience is mostly A+, fantastic, GOAT-level. Graphics, sound, controls, all spectacular. Game modes and online play, check. The issues here are small, but potentially important. The weak AI is a difficult challenge to overcome, so experienced Root players looking for strong AI opponents might be left wanting. The lack of an undo button is a minor issue on the surface, but in a game this intricate, the lack of ability to have a do-over can be infuriating at times. (Looking at you, Eyrie Dynasties!). Outside of that, the game does have a few bugs that are still being ironed out a few weeks after launch. These are important, but I have full confidence that Dire Wolf will get them patched up.
If you are a Root fan and want a way to play online, this is an instant-purchase in my book. If you have been curious about Root from afar for a while but never had the chance to play, this is a great way to scratch that itch for a relatively low price. If you have some friends who enjoy the game but can’t get together as often as you would like, Root is a great way to play a lot of games. If you are a big Root fan looking for some fun variation in the challenges mode, Root may be worth a look. If you are a big Root fan looking for stiff AI opponents to keep you busy for a long time, you probably won’t be satisfied here.
There’s a lot to love about Root and very few things to nitpick. I’ve enjoyed playing Root and suspect most others will find the app to be top-notch.