Game Night Verdicts #25 – Root

Despite appearances Root is not an easily accessible family game. Not only does it pit players aggressively against each other in a fight for supremacy in the woodlands, its asymmetric nature also requires players to spend quite a bit of time learning the game. Fans often note that when you have put the learning curve behind you, Root reveals itself to be a rewarding experience.

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Still not sure if might and right are the best choice of words here

Unfortunately that argument is flawed in two ways. The first being, that this learning curve is essential to what Root has to offer. Discovering new ways in which rules interact, watching new dynamics arise from unexplored situations or simply finding out the consequences of a player’s rash decision is the entirety of Root’s long-term appeal. In that sense, it follows Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun which puts learning at the heart of a game’s enjoyment. Once you’ve learned all there is to a game, it bores you. Some people consider learning and exploring the strategic depth of a game’s design an asset and a joy. Others see it as a Sisyphean task of trying to grasp the game well enough to play comfortably. Mastering Root’s learning curve doesn’t bode well for either group. But then, that’s what expansions are for.

The second flaw in the argument, is that scaling that learning curve is not a question of when, but of if. Now Root is not so overwhelmingly complex that players won’t be able to wrap their heads around its basic structures. But it requires quite the time commitment from up to 4 people to make it play smoothly. Experienced and veteran gamers may only need a session or two to figure it out, sure. But given its family-friendly presentation, it’s not unlikely that people with a lighter gaming background might find themselves sitting down to play a game of it. It might take more than a few sessions to get the game to unfold as it is presumably intended to. I’ve made the point before, when I criticised Twilight Struggle for simply taking too many sessions to allow players to meaningfully engage each other. Instead they have to spend multiple plays figuring out how to win the game on purpose. The point still stands with Root. It’s infinitely more satisfying to win a game because you’ve played well, as opposed to your opponent getting distracted by their limited understanding of the rules. This problem may even be exacerbated by the very deliberately worded rules.

Root’s rules are technically well-written. In that they are precise and coherent. But they are also practically awful, because their terseness invites interpretation and cross-referencing. The Law of Root (the cute name for the rulebook) assumes you already know how to infer the correct application of the rules contained within it. The Learn to  Play booklet and scripted first two turns feature visual examples that help somewhat. But you still need to keep both booklets in reach at all times during your first couple of games. I’ve rarely felt this unsure about every single rule call I’ve had to make in a game. I must have spent more time reading rules threads on BGG after our games, than I spent playing the game itself. It turns out we played almost all of the game correctly, but none of it with any confidence. After a while, instead of slowing the game down even more, we just guessed the intention of a rule and hoped for the best. I understand that Cole Wehrle is quite proud that all the information you need is on the player board itself. But those boards are really only of use to you, once you have a firmer grasp of the game as a whole. If you’re just starting out, it’s all a very wobbly, uncertain mess. You are unlikely to have the sure footing you need to simply dive in and play.

But the rules aren’t the only thing that Root has going for it. There is also the narrative that emerges through play. A narrative that is, according to its designer, about politics and power. Root’s narrative is an interesting case, since it follows a very distinct design philosophy owing much of its ethos to the simulationist understanding of games, and to wargames in general. Simply put, the rules do not act as mechanisms with which to primarily facilitate or promote specific player dynamics at the table, but instead as both an interpretation and expression of the complex subject it seeks to portray.

Root is a conflict simulation of an entirely fictional conflict, that wants to give players a sophisticated emergent narrative that explores the intricate dynamics of its dense political situation. It really only succeeds at the first of those goals. Root is very good at providing a set of rules that can (and should be) understood as an interpretation of a multi-lateral conflict. Four disparate factions are vying for control of the woodland area by way of scoring VP according to their individual criteria.

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A history of no consequence

But since that conflict is made up by Wehrle himself, his interpretation becomes the de facto objective truth of it. The rules that players play by are not axioms that simulate the multi-faceted political, cultural, military, economical, etc. conflict of a real-world situation. The rules are the constitutive elements of the conflict itself. Without them, there would be no conflict for Root to simulate.

Most conflict simulations offer a singular perspective which the players explore and experiment with through play. Afterwards they can contrast the events of the game with their own understanding of the historic conflict and either expand their understanding, or recognize the limits of the simulation. Such is the case with Twilight Struggle (and the limits of domino theory) or Cuba Libre (and what little many of us know about Cuba’s complex, not too distant history).

In a COIN game like Cuba Libre, the layered political nature of the historic conflict is interpreted in a specific way that expresses itself in the choices made by the designers (Jeff Grossman and Volko Ruhnke). What to incorporate in the design and what to simplify/ignore is itself part of the point of the game. By playing the game we engage the designers’ mental construct of the real-life conflict and test its limits and explore its logical consequences. We engage with the logical and ludic conclusions that arise from the actions we take. And, if we’re knowledgeable or critical enough, we can even ponder to what extent we consider those consequences truthful or accurate. Twilight Struggle, for example, acknowledges that the generally questionable domino theory is considered valid for the purposes of the game, and we get to play out the brinkmanship within the confines of that theory.

Root then follows this tradition of rules and mechanics abstracting specific power relations. It’s these relations that provide much of the game’s asymmetric experience and give play any momentum, as players squabble over supremacy in the woodlands. The fact that Root lacks any ties to the real world is both liberating and catastrophic for the game’s impact, though.

It is liberating to players who now get to imagine the width and depth of the world they engage in during play. The woodlands conflict simulation is just as – and only as – deep and meaningful as our ability to expand upon the individual elements of its setting. It is no coincidence that some players are eager for a role-playing game set in the Root universe. Only if the setting had more meat to it would Root’s conception of rules actually work. As it is, the game lacks the weight and depth to do its conflict simulation nature justice. The artwork is evocative and phenomenal, but that is not enough to make the conflict matter.

Cole Wehrle has actually posted about Root’s setting on BGG, and has expanded on much of the background to the game, the meaning behind certain design choices, as well as how to read and interpret specific player actions in the context of Root’s simulated conflict. This is also what robs the game of depth. If you do read up on his explanation and compare them to your own experience, you will likely find some vague resemblance to what you played. But little of it will have grown organically during play. A game’s narrative, especially when it concerns itself with questions of power, should not require explanations by the designer to get its points across. The game itself is the argument. If it is too oblique and inaccessible it’s not a question of the audience being ignorant, but of the designer failing to make their case.

Even then, Root has no alternative reading to compare our plays to. There is no other historical narrative of the woodland conflict. There is no bigger understanding of the socio-political forces that drive the conflict, there is no room to argue about the finer points of the Eyrie Dynasties historical roots, the Marquis de Cat’s exploitative imperialism or even the moral compromises of the Woodland alliance. There is no real history which the playing of Root manages to illuminate and as such, any reading of its narrative falls back onto being an diffuse rumination about abstract notions of power.

One which is severely hampered and limited by the game’s conception as a competition. Because of that, power in Root is only used to accrue more power, but not to effect change. Why we wield power does not matter. What we pursue it for, is irrelevant. How we use it is only measured by its effectiveness to keep power to ourselves or gain more of it. As the basis of a narrative this is simply too superficial to register.

But the simulationist approach is not the only conception of narrative in board games. I’d argue board games are much better suited to allow for emerging narratives that grow out of player dynamics and interaction. To that end, Root fares slightly better. Our player interactions in combination with the cards’ flavour texts and the actions we take, does create a somewhat coherent narrative. But it covers overly familiar ground about alliances falling by the wayside, once victory is within reach (cf. Scott Westerfeld’s controversial talk at SHUX ’18).

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Stoking the embers of envy to keep the game going

Like many other asymmetric games, Root expects players to play whack-a-mole with each other. Everybody is expected to pull the leading player back while also advancing their own interests. This invites an often very boisterous and loud metagame in which table talk is employed as a means to keep one’s own options for winning open. All while pushing others to exhaust themselves. To some, this qualifies as politics. The James Earnest classic Kill Dr Lucky has already said everything there is to say about this kind of politics at the game table. But much like it is the case with rom-coms, it’s not the content that appeals to its fans, but the tone and style that goes with it. To that end Root delivers a familiar experience in a refreshing new package. You will be arguing, cajoling and keeping your head down when necessary in an attempt to sneak to victory on the back of other people’s exhaustion.

Which only serves to highlight the biggest issues with Root. Since there is no alternative reading to the Woodlands war, its arguments about power inevitably become suspect. It’s a conflict simulation experience that effectively becomes so one-sided, it functions like political propaganda. This is how the conflict plays out. These are the factors the define it. There is no other perspective.

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A winner is you!

The design decision to end the game with a single victor bowdlerizes Root’s own attempt to explore the demands and effects of power and its application. Political power (at the table) and martial power (on the board) is wielded only for one purpose: to beat everyone else.

This may be both the bleakest and most naive argument Root ends up making: power is sought solely to dominate others; or if you’re familiar with its inversion: only those who don’t seek power ought to be allowed to have it. Which is how games of Root inevitably play out. You attack whoever seems to hold the most power, inadvertently giving victory to the player who seemed to pursue it the least or worst.

The purest enjoyment of Root lies not in the playing of it, but in the ensuing discussion, the dissection of strategies and the what-if scenarios you get to play out in your head. It’s a game for people who enjoy talking and thinking deeply about games, like critics or game designers do. If there is any fun to be had during play, it’s the table talk that the game allows for, which hinges primarily on the flamboyant theatrics and charisma of its participants.

Root, for all its high-minded ambition to create a narrative about power and politics, fails to say anything of merit about either. Power exists only as dominance, politics only as manipulation. Ironically, it’s Root’s ambition that makes this verdict so unforgiving. If the game was just a silly, little romp about tokens on a map knocking each other off for some VP, it would be… fine. Just fine. And maybe it is just that.

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