IF YOU GO DOWN TO THE WOODS TODAY
Updated: Sep 6, 2021
Rob Wieland speaks to games designer Cole Wehrle and explores the political themes hiding behind the cute facade of Root...
I grew up playing political games.
While other kids ground their way through Risk, I brought Supremacy to the table and learned just how easy it was for un-winnable wars to begin over petty economics. I preferred the smoky back rooms of Vampire The Masquerade to the dim tunnels of Dungeons & Dragons. I laughed at the absurdity of Paranoia where everyone had a secret to share and clones to burn. I even got people who had never seen Battlestar Galactica hooked on the show by sitting them down with Fantasy Flight Games’ fantastic board game adaptation and showing them why yelling fictional curse words at each other before throwing your friends out the airlock was so much fun.
- I would throw in a hip reference to Among Us here, but I haven’t played it enough to feel comfortable making one, though I understand it is in many ways a spiritual successor to BSG. I would like for you all to please get off my lawn and return to the article -
I stopped enjoying many of these games a little over a decade ago. It’s hard to pinpoint a specific reason. Was this me growing up and putting away childish things? Now that I had a job and a mortgage and paid taxes was I unable to disconnect the fictional worlds I loved from the everyday struggles of our world at large? Certainly the real world was a factor. It was the first time I felt the weight of a 24-hour news cycle on my shoulders. How could I enjoy games about fictional intrigue when every day there was some new real world issue looming on the horizon? It got worse as time wore on to the point where if someone suggested I play something like The Resistance or Coup I actually felt physically ill.
And then I played Root.
‘I first picked up game design while I was a graduate student at the University of Texas,’ said Cole Wehrle, creator of Root. ‘Most of my first projects were complicated conflict games based on historical subjects. But, while working on these games, I had started to think about the possibility of making a more accessible wargame that would introduce a wider audience to the kinds of design spaces that were being opened up by publishers like GMT.’
Root Pits Different Factions Of Woodland Creatures Against Each Other To See Who Will Maintain Control Of The Forest
Root is a wargame with an unusual setting. Instead of reliving a real battle from our history or imagining a battle between elves, goblins and beastmen from a fantasy novel, Root pits different factions of woodland creatures against each other to see who will maintain control of the forest.
There’s been a rush of anthro-pomorphic fantasy products like this in the past few years, including Everdell, a tight worker placement board game, and Humblewood, a 5e setting where different species of birds substitute for the usual suspects in a fantasy game. Games like this have always been around but over the past few years they’ve really established themselves as a popular sub-genre in tabletop gaming.
‘I didn't really know how to form these [wargame] ideas into a game. When I started working with Patrick Leder,’ said Wehrle, ‘he offered me a short concept for an asymmetric 4 player wargame in the mold of a game like Vast. As I worked on the problem, I realised that a lot of my design ideas could be folded into his concept and Root emerged out of the collaboration.’
Most factional games tend to focus their design around each faction being the best at one thing in the game, okay at a few things and then awful at one thing. If the game is about war, trade, diplomacy and exploration, chances are you’ll have four factions that are each good at one of those things. There’s a balance in play of trying to take advantage of your faction’s speciality while trying to interfere with another player doing theirs well. The faction geared for war wants to do battle, but they also want to mess up trade, break democracy and cut off exploration. Even collectible car games that work in this way still have the same basic mechanics at the heart whether they give each faction their own mini-game or try to keep things unified.
Asymmetrical designs like Root upend that idea. Each of the factions plays much differently than the others. The game feels like four smaller games that smash and bounce off of each other to make the larger one.
The core box contains four factions. The Marquise de Cat is trying to cut down the forest for its own power and wealth. The Eyrie is an impressive engine that runs well but when it crashes, crashes hard. The Woodland Alliance bides its time building its power until it explodes onto the board in the late game. Finally The Vagabond tries to keep their head low until it can make a quick, final lunge to victory while the other bigger factions clash with each other. It can be a little bewildering for first time players, but the Root box is stacked with play aids and tiny strategy seconds to help players latch on to what they should be doing. It’s a game where the first turn feels like a lot of random lever pulling but every subsequent one makes it easier to understand which lever does what.
The asymmetrical design also enhances replay value. Players don’t really get the full picture unless they play more than one faction. Add to that the desire to master a faction to win consistently and it's a game that wedges itself inside your head and doesn’t let go until a few plays at different spots in the table. Each of those first plays is a good chance to focus on figuring out what makes a faction tick. Once a player has seen how each faction plays it becomes a lot easier to have a broader awareness of the game board.
Even then, new expansions with their own factions bring the fog of war back into the game as players must figure out how they fit into the game’s larger puzzle. These new factions include everything from moles who struggle over whether to ascend to the surface and expand their power to lizards who just want to tune in, drop out and have everyone join their cult. This is often the heady stuff of epic, all day board games like Twilight Imperium and bleary-eyed-just-one-more-turn computer games like Civilization. How do they pack all these ideas into such a harmless looking game?
That answer lies in the adorable artwork of Kyle Ferrin.
‘Kyle had been drawing animals in a variety of contexts,’ said Wehrle. ‘And he and Patrick had started working on an adventure game called Path. As we got into the design of Root, it was clear to the team at large that this setting made sense for Root too. As soon as we saw the first drawings from Kyle, I think both Patrick and I realised how effective this style could be for what was otherwise a pretty mean game.’
The player isn’t a rapacious capitalist - they are a fancy cat noble
The cute remove allows players to adjust their mindsets to understand how a faction works without completely connecting to a real world ideology. The player isn’t a rapacious capitalist; they are a fancy cat noble. They aren’t crushing a revolution; they are chasing mice out of their infested homes. This is a lesson that’s been applied for centuries; fairy tales about talking animals impart real world knowledge. A dry history lecture is not as effective as telling stories about a war. The game part of Root is cold analytics but the art part of Root is feelings.
These beautiful factions come together in messy, unexpected games. Success tends to come when a player figures out their faction’s style quickly but still it's never guaranteed. Sometimes, another player’s sputtering engine ends up blocking your progress and creates an opening for someone else to steal a win. Most games draw from the tension of staying focused on your strategy while also being aware of other players enacting theirs. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in your own game and find yourself completely blindsided by another player executing theirs one turn ahead of you. That makes it feel more like real world politics than most games.
It doesn’t take much to see the real world ideologies that are in play here. It’s easy to see the Cat faction as exploiting resources for their own greed or how the Woodland Alliance uses the put-upon proletariat whose only recourse is a glorious revolution. The creatures connect with players in an emotional way that playing space tigers or long dead Egyptians does not.
When players crush the Alliance, they apologise and feel guilty. When the Vagabond pulls off a sudden win, the player laughs like a con artist that just fleeced the mark for six figures. These games let players work out class struggles under the cover of cute artwork. It doesn’t glorify any of them, which is what makes it so effective as a teaching tool.
When the Vagabond pulls off a sudden win, the player laughs like a con artist that just fleeced the mark for six figures
Players pulling apart these ideologies to see how they play is one of the most educational aspects of the game. It’s easy to have fun as the Marquise de Cat and also have a moment of horror as you realise just how much of the forest you’ve cut down in pursuit of victory. Or the Eyrie player feeling the power of a brutal political machine and the fury when that machine breaks down and turns upon itself.
The setting and artwork make it easy to shield it as just a game, but true mastery requires time to look at the political aspects and engender a little reflection in the players during or directly after games.
I must admit, the factions that I enjoy playing are not the ones that match my own political preferences. I feel like I get to work out some things in the game. If I lose, it’s no big deal because it proves they were wrong. If I win, remember why the next time I feel like throwing down on social media over politics.
The future of Root looks bright. Not only are there several add-ons that allow new factions to mix and match the ideologies at play, but there are AI solo rules to play in the time of the rona as well as an upcoming RPG from Magpie Games. Magpie has its own political games, such as the supernatural intrigue of Urban Shadows, which itself uses a layer of World of Darkness style soap opera to cover the political echoes of its city based games. The successful Kickstarter Magpie ran to publish the game indicates that there’s still plenty of interest in exploring the world of Root.
Like any blockbuster creator, Werhle wants to continue creating successful games. If the million dollar Kickstarter success of his follow up Oath is any indicator, he’s on his way. Oath looks to explore the current Holy Grail of board game design; a legacy game that remembers without tying up players to a commitment.
Each game begins centered on the previous victor’s territory but looks to allow players who don’t have the backstory to be able to jump into the game at any time and still be able to affect its future.
‘I have no doubt that if I started Root today it would be a considerably different game,’ said Werhle. ‘But that's probably true for any game. With Root, the things I would want to change mostly relate to process. For instance, with Oath we have a system where the core development team can make adjustments to the design and quickly test them with a speed that approaches that of video game development.’
‘This has been tremendously useful and I'm eager to apply those methods to future Root content. One of the biggest advantages of this method is that it allows us to push the design closer to the edge of what a system is capable of. Root is full of conservative design choices which were made mostly because they limited testing liability. And, while this is sometimes the right course of action, it can also foreclose other more interesting elements of a design. I'm very thankful that the game's success has allowed me to keep opening the design space.’
Both Root and Oath are out now from ledergames.com
Root - The RPG is out soon from magpiegames.com
This feature originally appeared in Wyrd Science Vol.1 - Issue 1