Game Pile: Root

In 2018, the board game Root was released by Leder games, to a sort of confused, but very enthusiastic ‘hooray!’ Based on earlier successes by the same developers (and some weird, contentious ‘hey, you copied my notes’ complaints), Root is an asymmetrical war game, where in the base box, you have four factions competing with one another to try and take control of a nonspecific woodland glade. Each faction, the game promised – and delivered – are different; not the same rules with a few different units, but entirely, meaningfully, complicatedly different in how they relate to one another.

Lauded for its emergent complexity and its charming aesthetic, Root is one of those games that quickly became institutional; multiple expansions, fan merchandise, an RPG in the setting, all that stuff that signalled people are into your game, the base board game Root is probably one of those recent classics.

I never wanted to buy Root, though.

Time to level with you about Root, the board game. It is a lot of game. As kickstarter products go, it’s one of those games that absolutely jam-packs the box with stuff. I have memories of handling Root in real life that I think is from a convention, but never actually picked it up off a shelf with intention to buy. It’s a really, really charming game, and the game you get is very rewarding per-pound price. To complain about Root the board game is to pre-emptively make excuses about why you don’t like it, it seems.

Root is however, a game with two material needs that are hard for me to stomach. First of all, this is a game with four factions, each of which play explicitly very differently and do their own unique form of play, which means that you need players for that. This isn’t a game I can take to a family gathering and sit down and play once or twice with my mum and nephew. This is effectively four separate games in one box and each of those games interacts with one another, and those interactions are complicated. Basically, this is not a game for ready sharing, this is a game for playing and replaying with a small group of people who want to play it again and get better at it.

This is a game for four people like me.

I don’t have four people like me. I do have a gaming group, but they’re all on Discord right now for Pandemic reasons, and if we did sit down to play a physical board game, there’s a lot of stuff in the queue ahead of Root – like the excellent Imperial Assault one of us is running.

There’s this other thing Root needs that I don’t have, which is table space. This game sprawls out and it needs a gutter to play around so you can put your player card somewhere and your hand and keep track of what’s going on. I do not have a big, clear, open table for playing board games. When I do have access to big tables, it is often at the University, or it is at my parents’ – and my parents have dining tables that have other needs.

Point is, Root is a game that asks of me materially in ways I cannot give it.

This is where I get to point to good news, everybody, because Root has a digital version on Steam. and that good news is extremely good news. See, to my absolute shock and delight, Root on Steam is pretty much everything you’d want out of a digitised version of the game. It is visually charming, with lovely models and animations that do not carry the same aesthetic character as the meeples the board game does, but still convey the tone of the different factions.

As a digital game, Root melts away a lot of the things the game does that you need to pay attention to and process and handles them for you. You do not need to shuffle, the deck of cards is not a thing you look at – it’s just that at the end of your turn, cards appear in your hands. You do not need to look over at other player’s boards or ask them to calculate their Victory Points for you, because those are presented on the interface itself. Information is brought forwards as necessary and you are given room to inspect the game in the ways the game recognises you need to.

It’s also quiet: You do not have to communicate with the other players if you don’t want to. For random games of a board game with strangers, this seems like a bad thing, but you have to remember that the videogame community and board game communities are not necessarily dealing with the same problem. Videogame players can use the videogame plateform to quell anxiety, and to not have to talk to people or make sure they’re managing the rules correctly (and avoiding a socially awkward fight at the table) can be a delight. The game handles asymmetrical play – where you can turn up, play a turn, then log off for days at a time if necessary.

Is it a strict upgrade? of course it’s not. To talk about these games as if they’re comparable versions with a better or worse misses the point. Root is a beautiful game that’s very complex, hard to manage in your house, and challenging to find players for, which means for me, it’s strictly superior to have Root on Steam.

But you know what will never happen?

My partner will never wander by the computer while I’m playing Root, look over my shoulder, and say ‘oh, that’s cute, can I join in?’

I will never be able to take a meeple from the box of this and use it in another game for an impromptu bit of house ruling.

When the servers shut down, I will lose access to this copy of Root and have no way – literally no way with my current skillset – of changing that.

If I don’t plan on playing Root this month, I won’t be able to hand it to my friend Pendix and say ‘hey man, give this a shot with your partner for a few weeks, see what you think.’

The ways we structure our relationship to games change based on how we play them. Root has a digital version that solves so many of its problems, and let me play the game with some people I really care about. Opening those pathways limits others, and that means that as with many such things it’s a compromise. In a lot of ways, it’s best not to think of Root the board game and Root the digital game as just the same game, but rather, two asymmetrical factions in the same space, competing for your attention in different ways.

Root as I said up, in the top, a really charming game, a game that I like and that doesn’t serve my needs a lot. But now I have a version of it I can always play with one of my friends. We can even play with the expansions very cheaply. For this reason I give Root a score of Friends/10.

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