The Inspiration of Root

I received my long-awaited copy of Root this week. I was eager to play it, so I finagled a Sunday game day with my friends to play it and Brass: Lancashire. The latter is incredibly excellent, but today I wish to write about Root, which was excellent, but deeply inspirational as well. 

I'm a little reluctant to write about Root after only one play. After all, I did this with Rising Sun. While much of my analysis for Rising Sun I still stand by, in the end, it's a game I really didn't enjoy. My post came off as a review - it wasn't - and the part about asymmetry in particular I regret. But! I like to take bold shots and sometimes that'll fail somewhat. But, to be clear, this isn't a review of Root. The game is good, and I think you should feel comfortable buying it. But, this isn't a review.

Asymmetry is a deeply complicated premise. I have quite a bit of experience with it personally, with Battle for York before it was signed to Portal and Hocus. While not as asymmetric as those games, Solstice was developed by to be quite a bit more asymmetric when it became Imperius, particularly with the Elder design. I've been a little gunshy about working with asymmetry in the same way a painter might be reluctant to use a color that got him attacked by wolves. 

Let me elaborate. If you're designing with asymmetry, it comes with a few hurdles guaranteed:

  • Asymmetric games are more difficult to learn and teach. 
  • Asymmetric games will generate years of threads accusing you of imbalance, lazy development, and more. 
  • Depending on the depth of the asymmetry, and how it's executed, there will typically be some factions that are easier to play than others. At least, initially. This will fuel bullet two.
  • Balancing asymmetry as the designer is incredibly difficult. It requires an absurd amount of testing where you evaluate different factions in different player counts, against different pools of factions, with different skill levels, and more. At  some point, you have to close your eyes and hit "print." 

As someone who tends to design very nuanced games, usually with a few peculiar mechanisms, the bullet #1 of asymmetry is a really difficult one to swallow. 

But, because I'm stupid, or ambitious, or yes, I'm designing an asymmetric game again. To make matters worse, I have the idea for an asymmetric euro. To quote Moe Szyslak, "Oh dear god no." As a result, I didn't just play Root with joy because of its playful components, streamlined rules, and exciting and tense play. No, I played it as a student sitting at the table of a professor who really knows their stuff.

As I approach my new asymmetric design, here's what I'm leveraging from Root to accelerate and improve my effort.

Update: Reading this after I finished writing the article, I'm not as keen on my observations as I feel many are obvious or less useful. I think that because I know about the game I have in my head (and loosely penned to a degree), I know how the lessons from Root are useful. But, maybe I'm being too harsh on myself. Basically, if this seems stupid and obvious, I'm sorry.

A Simple, Shared Foundation of WGLL: "Ah yes, points are good."

I think this may be the most important lesson, and also, one I think Leder Games improved after Vast: The Crystal Caverns. In Root, I began my explanation, as did the rules, explaining core concepts shared by everyone. We all win with 30 Victory Points, or by using a Domination card. We all earn some points by destroying tokens and crafting items. We all move the same way. We all have the same card requirements. The spatial premise of the board is largely the same. In Vast, every player is literally playing a different game. Netrunner almost reaches the same degree. 

But in Root, there is an agreed upon core that comprises most of the game which means the game is easier to teach, but also, it's easier to get good at the game. Players spend more time focusing on the strategy as opposed to trying to remember how they play, how their opponent plays, and why Joe needs whats-its and Jill needs hoos-its. 

Something I grew to despise in Cry Havoc was watching players go "Wait, what does that building do?" It's those questions that kill an asymmetric game and make it one that alienates itself from so many people. Root really avoids that in a way Vast, at least for me, didn't.

I knew that an opponent's Buildings let them add Units, typically, or perform activities. We all had the same method of destroying them and the same rewards for doing so. Units mostly meant the same thing for every player and were primarly used to assert control over a space, to move, and to fight. Combat was almost the same for every player with very minor and easy to remember differences. 

Another game that I think executes this principle well is Star Trek: Ascendancy. Each faction moves and fights and scores the same way. But, they all have two passive properties, a unique research deck, and different fleets. It makes it very easy to change positions and focus on the game. 

The Same Tools, Different Jobs: "I am playing this card to build."

This is a slight continuation on the previous one in some ways. But, the designer of Root uses his toolkit very wisely and gets value out of every square inch. Cards are valuable for every player and largely mean flexibility, actions, and a more robust strategy. Each player uses their cards slightly differently, but you know a player with a full hand is better off than a player with a smaller hand. This is true in Magic: The Gathering as well. It's a nice, standard thing and I'm glad they used it.

Again, Vast gave some players cards, others tiles, and others tokens. It meant everyone was using a different standard of measurement. In Root, everyone is on metric.

You also see rules-light exceptions. If the Vagabond isn't playing, you still have tools in the game. But, they don't have functionality. Instead, they act as a marker to limit opponents from scoring something that has been used twice. If you add the Vagabond? Suddenly they have value, but not a lot more rules. There is a modular approach to the design here that I greatly appreciate. It reminds me of adding mods to a PC sandbox game, or picking and choosing expansions in Merchants and Marauders. 

The map is also very similar and clean. There are clearings, where everyone builds things in limited space. There are paths, which connect them. If the Riverfolk are in the game, you use the river. If the Vagabond is in the game, he can use the forest. The Swiss Army knife here is robust, flexible, but only as sharp as it needs to be. 

Halfway Point: From these first two thoughts, I'm already making some changes and setting clear expectations for aspects of my asymmetric euro. Firstly, I'm dramatically simplifying my map. I originally toyed with this variable setup that would change from game to game. But, I feel like I'm adding so many rules at setup. This is mental space that is better dedicated to asymmetric powers and strategy. Simple board and setup.

I'm also reminded of how intuitive and simple Root's theme is. You're entities vying for control of something. It's classic, simple, and intuitive. Everything you can do to simplify the extremeties, the better.

I like how everything can root *eh hem* back to points. It's a simple metric by which everyone is judged. You can have different ways to approach them, but if you start there, everyone knows what's good, who is winning, and how to rate their play. I was originally pondering different victory paths, and I know some like that about Vast, but I'm going to return to a point based approach. It's also something which which I'm experienced in my games. 

It's also clear to me that by starting from a simpler base opens up other opportunities. I'll get to that in a second, though.

Simple map. Clear theme. Points. 

The Danger is Easy to See: "Oh no Megan is about to win!"

Simple is the theme of what I'm taking away, right? If your game is inherently complex, you need to be as simple as possible in every instance, right? In Root, it's damn clear who is doing well, why they're doing well, and roughly what you need to do in order to stop them. As I've iterated multiple times, everyone wins by earning 30 points. If someone is over 20? You best keep an eye on them. If someone has declared they're vying for domination? You know what you need to keep them out of.

In too many asymmetric games, I feel people win because they know everyone doesn't fully understand their faction. They make a sneaky move. They could say, "Hey everybody, as a reminder, if this happens, I win." No, they pull off the move and hope nobody asks. Then, sometimes, in some games, they win out of ignorance. That feels lame. 

For every faction in Roots, control of a clearing is good. More structures is good. More units is good. It's also very clear how to "trim" those pesky hedges - through battle, which is simple.

Something I identified when designing an abstract game was that the good ones allowed for a very fast and concise examination of board state. I feel the same can be said of Root. At any point it's very obvious who is performing well. I feel like Rex does this as well. I feel like Star Trek: Ascendancy does this well. I really appreciate this about Root, and I think it's a good thing to keep in mind. 

The Rest is Obvious: "In battle you just do this and that."

It is so tempting to get distracted in a game that's bigger than, well, No Thanks. Seriously. Designers want to over-design how turn order is determined. They want to get clever around scoring during the game, mid-game, and end game. If there's a battle? Oh boy they want a new battle mechanism. In a game like Root it could be very easy to get distracted. But, they didn't.

Turn order remains constant. You just go around the table until the game ends. 

Scoring occurs on your turn. 

The battle mechanism is really simple, yet still allows for asymmetric flexibility and some nuance. You have ambushes, from cards. Attackers get the better value, defenders get the lower value, but sometimes, that changes. The card play and asymmetric changes are intuitive and thematic. 

Something that is true for all designs, but especially true for asymmetric designs, is to pick your focus. In Battle for York, from the beginning, I knew I wanted battles to be very interesting and meaningful. I streamlined a great deal else, even when people really tried to edge things towards a more complex direction. Root seems to be a strategic game focused on the operational level of a bout of ascendancy in a realm. It isn't really about individual battles, but the overall flow of the conflict. 

For my euro game, I know that economics need to be the core of the game. I can get crafty around that, but everything else? I'll need to be disciplined. 

Everyone can play their own game: "Wolves go like this, but beavers, they go like this."

This is the tricky part. I think if you act with too much restraint, you don't really have an asymmetric game. If you go too far, you have multiple games that are being played. I think Root toes the line beautifully.

The Marquis de Cat seems to be a straightforward industrial base. Build factories, spend resources, and expand slowly but surely. 

The Eyrie Dynasty are this wildly expansive Roman empire, and they quickly get out of control. 

The Alliance are your classic guerilla force. They easily pop up and effectively tax everyone for actions agains them.

While I haven't played with them yet, the Vagabond is a muckraker. He picks sides, manipulates, aids, hinders, and is generally a wrench deressed as a raccoon. 

While they could have just tweaked them all slightly, Leder Games didn't. The Marquis are the most straightforward. They almost seem like the first faction designed, and everything from there evolved and twisted. The Eyrie has a brilliant mechanism where you give yourself more actions, but as you do so, you MUST take all of them each turn. This means you must be able to take them. If you can't? You discard everything and start over. It's a pretty brilliant mechanism. The Alliance use a different suite of cards to fuel their rapid expansion with a few key actions. They then take another, more typical turn on top of that. And the Vagabond? He collects items, which dictate his turn options and actions. He seems incredibly flexible, which fits his method of victory. 

Everything builds up to this. Because they kept everything else so simple, they were able to indulge themselves a little here. Because they held steady, they were able to unleash a bit. But, it's still done very thoughtfully. Each player has the same three turn phases. Each player wins in a similar way. Each player roughly values the same things, they just go about their lives differently. It's really smart, and a killer sign of a group that's probably played this game a bazillion times. You can really see the thoughtfulness and discipline shine through.

I've had this stupid idea for a while along the lines of "what if this player has to use auctions for their choices, but only them?" Playing Root leads me to believe that's not only possible, but interesting. 

Start from a core: "Look, these guys are obvious. Then these guys. These are natural. Before we get too wild, let's make these work."

This continues from the previous thought. I can't prove this, but it feels like Root began with three races: The Marquis, the Eyrie, and the Alliance. Not with their final mechanisms, but their approximate gist, style, and behavior. Over time, I'm sure they found how to best emulate this through the mechanisms. But, it seems like they played the game with three for a while. Then, they figured out that the Vagabond slotted in nicely. Then, they figured out how to add the Riverfolk. The lizards. Ultimately, the game seems like it started from a really smart, simple core, then they got wilder, nuttier, and weirder as they identified and filled holes.

I feel like Root teaches me to identify what is most obvious. At work, we often refer to the "Family Feud test" when figuring out what features to put into The Sims. By this, we mean would people be upset if we DIDN'T include something, or vice versa, would they care that we did? With Root, they started with the fundamental aspects of war. Opportunities were then added as they played. 

Maybe I'm off. Maybe I'm way off. And maybe it's just an assumption that leads to confirmation bias as this is how I began my euro. I identified the various entities required in a market economy and turned them into specific roles.

Root has a very clear recommendation for which factions to play at what player counts, and while the game supports other variations, I think these recommendations are wise. I'm also taking this note, perhaps with an even heavier hand. Instead of worrying how to solve certain conditions if, say, a farmer isn't in the economic game, I can say that the first player is always the farmer. While that may turn off some, with a euro, I think a little more structure is acceptable. 

Root is really giving me a lot of good material. It's showing me where I can push things and reminding me where I need to sit tight and act with discipline. Root has me energized to figure out the next step for my euro. 

But also, Root is at the top of my list to play again.