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Subject: Pax Pine: A Look at Cole Wehrle’s Root (a Space-Biff! preview) rss

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Daniel Thurot
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Pax Pine: A Look at Cole Wehrle’s Root

One of the things I appreciated most about Geoff Engelstein’s board game rendering of The Expanse was the way it took the venerable Twilight Struggle’s very serious, very wargamey card system and bolted it over the top of something that had nothing to do with real-world history or politics. It was, if you want to be dramatic about it, a democratizing move. Where any quantity of board gamers might shy away from engaging with “serious” topics in their leisure time, The Expanse boasted a deeply smart card system layered over a fictional world, right down to its dumber-than-a-bucket Captain James Holden. If the hero doesn’t bust his noggin over political statements and colonial implications, why should you?

Now, in a surprise alliance between political-game veteran Cole Wehrle (Pax Pamir, An Infamous Traffic, the forthcoming John Company) and one of the industry’s freshest publishers of asymmetric buffoonery Leder Games (Vast: The Crystal Caverns), we’re witnessing what just might shape up to be the next step in the process of bending the branch of wargame-style gameplay into reaching distance of a more general audience.

The game in question is Root. It’s still in playtesting, likely won’t be out for a good long while, and details are still subject to change. But my impressions of an early build have been almost entirely positive.

The concept behind Root could almost pass for the next volume in the so-serious-it-hurts COIN Series, albeit with its shaky regime replaced by the whisker-twirling Marquis de Cat, the terrorist insurgents swapped out for the chipper Woodland Alliance, the disgruntled former rulers and now-expatriates represented by the airborne Eyrie Dynasties, and the wildcard drug runners played by the rascal raccoon Vagabond. It is, in short, pretty easy to see where Wehrle’s wargame impulses are being indulged.

But the beauty of the whole thing lies in the fact that the Marquis de Cat’s excesses don’t require real-world explanation. Gone are terrorism and jungle bases, replaced by cartoon conspiracies and hideouts in hollowed-out logs. If the Eyrie deserved to implode in the first place, we don’t need to debate the merits of its dynastic succession. Wehrle might have enough wiggle room to write a designer diary about how his card system stands in for Foucaultian biopolitics — I always wrote it as “Foucauldian,” but apparently that’s too French — but when you get right down to it, Root is a barnyard romp for four very asymmetric sides. One part Redwall, a dash of Watership Down.

Each side requires their own explanation, so fully do they differ, but before we get into that, let’s talk about those cards. Everything in the game stems from a single shared deck because everybody uses them, though often in very different ways. They can be crafted into upgrades, used in ambushes, sometimes traded, sometimes swapped for extra actions, or perhaps they’ll even serve as the beating heart of your entire avian society — right up until their absence sends you spiraling into total collapse. Essentially, everybody wants them but never seems to have enough.

It’s the one point of real contact between Root’s disparate factions, and it works wonders. One deck, many possibilities. And because everybody is working from the same pool, it’s easy to quickly acquaint yourself with the way even your most mechanically-distant opponent works.

Okay, let’s talk about the different factions, because this is where Root really springs to life.

The Marquis de Cat is a big fat jerk. After ousting the Eyrie Dynasties in the pre-game fluff, his kitty warriors prowl the clearings and protect his starting infrastructure. The problem is that ruling the woodland is far harder than merely waddling into it. In order to set up enough sawmills, workshops, and recruiters to support his claim, the Marquis needs lumber, which in turn needs sawmills to produce and warriors to haul. Unfortunately, recruiting hordes of yowling pussies tends to invigorate the uprising of small animals nibbling at his newborn kingdom’s fringes, and supply lines of lumber and unprotected structures can be raided.

Which is why, for the Marquis de Cat, Root is a game of police work. And I’m not talking about being a detective or other soft-pawed nonsense. I’m talking crackdowns. Hiring hawk mercenaries for extra actions. Massing your soldiery to flood into a contested clearing. As you might expect, there’s a lot of ground to cover, especially since the Marquis must constantly be on the prowl for ways to expand his network of buildings. Fortunately, his game is relatively straightforward. Sawmills and warriors gradually mean more sawmills and warriors, and it’s possible to gain momentum over time. There’s nothing quite like recruiting a whole litter of fighting-cats all at once.

The Eyrie Dynasties, on the other hand, are more flighty. Their swooping soldiery are tough and easy to recruit — how does “free” sound? — and the fact that they earn a per-turn income of points based on how many roosts they’ve assembled can make them seem overwhelmingly powerful. Worse, they also have a tendency to infiltrate the hideouts of the Woodland Alliance, helping out with the Alliance’s efforts to neuter the Marquis de Cat in exchange for a steady supply of extra raptors.

Sadly, the old-money efficiency of the Eyrie’s fighters and fortresses hides the stink of rot. They just can’t seem to hold it together for more than a few turns at a time. Inevitably they’ll run out of warriors to recruit, roosts to build, or cards to chart their turn, and as a result they’ll plunge straight into turmoil. Just like that, nearly all of their warriors and roosts are scattered, forcing them to rebuild from near-scratch all over again.

For the birds, it’s a game of boom and bust, of massing your warriors for a fight then spreading them out to prepare for the coming turmoil. And all the while, your fellow creatures will have their eyes, noses, and other sixth sense trained on you, waiting for the moment when you’re at your most vulnerable.

Speaking of poking you in the vulnerable bits, nobody does it quite like the Woodland Alliance. Although they’ve theoretically been divorced from their wargaming brethren, they still somehow resemble a fluffy-eared Taliban. First of all, they have eyes everywhere, building up an invisible stockpile of mice, bunnies, and foxes that don’t even inhabit the board. Once they’re ready, they spring into existence in hideouts, where they lie low until they’ve built up enough operatives to spring one of their conspiracies. These trigger off the same cards that everybody else is holding, and range from ways to earn points to military maneuvers, buildings that leech off the Marquis de Cat’s income, and other assorted hickory dickory dock.

Of course, the Alliance’s big limitation is that while they can spring into existence nearly anywhere, they very rarely find themselves in control of any particular clearing. Hideouts are vulnerable to being uprooted, and the Alliance won’t always have the right conspiracies to properly defend themselves. Instead, they’re often trapped in their off-board game of preparing for a mass uprising, only occasionally appearing in true force. It takes careful plotting — not to mention a solid knowledge of everything you might steal from the discard pile — in order to create the possibility of a small-folk utopia.

The smallest folk of all is the Vagabond, the wandering raccoon who might be a thief or a helping hand depending on his mood. While everybody else is playing at nation-building in some way, the Vagabond pretty much just wants to slink from place to place, improve his skills, and maybe root through somebody’s trash. He’s able to move through the forests in between clearings, which allows him to dart into and out of trouble — and trouble he’ll get, especially when someone gets sick of him swiping precious cards right out of their hand. Then again, the Vagabond isn’t always looking for a scuffle. He can trade for people’s upgrades, effectively earning more actions, moves, combat strength, and so forth, and moving them into the friendzone — which is important, because the Vagabond is constantly tracking everybody else’s status toward him, and the more he’s known, the more points he’s worth.

More than anyone else, the Vagabond is the guy who’s trying to ensure that nobody is in the lead. In between exploring ruins and maybe aiding the Woodland Alliance, he’s the most capable of crossing the entire forest in a single turn, wiping out some lone warriors, then moving on to something else.

He’s also the guy most likely to ignore the points game in favor of his personal instant victory condition. Everybody has one, like the Eyrie’s secret goal to conquer certain clearings or the Woodland Alliance’s dream of putting a huge army right on the Marquis de Cat’s doorstep. For the Vagabond, victory comes in the form of a many-step quest, complete with allies and nemeses and double-crosses. It makes for dramatic moments in a game already packed with them.

The real thrill of Root is seeing all these cross-purposes coming to a head. There’s nothing quite like watching the Alliance briefly tolerate the Eyrie because they need their extra operatives, or seeing the way the Vagabond bounds between allegiances, or how the Marquis de Cat clashes with so-and-so only to eventually look the other way so they can focus on someone else. Nothing is certain for long when it comes to mother nature.

Naturally, balance is going to be as sticky as it is essential to a game like this, and in Root’s current incarnation it’s easy to feel like you’re never getting the cards you need or that all your rivals are having an easier time accomplishing their goals. That’s not the sort of thing I can currently comment on, since the game balance is still in flux.

For the record, though, I’ve had a tremendous time with Root, even at this stage. It packs wargame sensibilities in an oh-so-approachable package, making it lean and quick, but never too light. Every single action carries real weight, every march will push into somebody’s backside, and in the end only the fittest will survive.

Root is on Kickstarter later this month. I recommend this thing.





This preview was originally published at Space-Biff!, so if you like what you see, please head over there for more. https://spacebiff.com/2017/10/17/root/

Also, I suppose I ought to plug my Geeklist of reviews: https://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/169963/space-biff-histori...
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Clayton Capra
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Quote:
One deck, many possibilities. And because everybody is working from the same pool, it’s easy to quickly acquaint yourself with the way even your most mechanically-distant opponent works.

I love your term mechanically-distant opponent!

Quote:
when you get right down to it, Root is a barnyard romp for four very asymmetric sides. One part Redwall, a dash of Watership Down.

Great review you have captured the heart and soul of Root.
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Jim Parkin
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Dan, did you playtest this at all at the two-player level?
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Daniel Thurot
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Annowme wrote:
Dan, did you playtest this at all at the two-player level?
Sadly, no, I didn't have the time. I played four games prior to my review, and all were fully staffed with four players.

It might also bear repeating that I approached it as a critic rather than as a playtester, and that since the game is still in that pre-release phase that any number of details are subject to change. For all I know, its final release could be an expansion to Archipelago.

However, my experience with the current incarnation of the four-player game has been very positive, and knowing Cole and Patrick, any perceived imbalances will likely be smoothed out. Just looking at the living rules doc passed between playtesters and reviewers, you can see them chugging along. I'll be giving it another shot once the next set of rules gets the go-ahead, and if necessary I'll update my impressions accordingly.
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Jim Parkin
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Cole Wehrle
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Annowme wrote:
Dan, did you playtest this at all at the two-player level?

I don't imagine he did as the two-player rules weren't ready when I send the kit. I can say a couple words about it.

In John Company, the two player was pretty similar to the full game when it came to the territory covered. Of course, the tensions between the players are totally different at every player count. The two-player scenarios in Root are a little more like tactical studies--almost like those old micro-wargames. They are easy to set up, fast to play, and pretty tense.
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Patrick Leder
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The Innocent wrote:
It might also bear repeating that I approached it as a critic rather than as a playtester, and that since the game is still in that pre-release phase that any number of details are subject to change. For all I know, its final release could be an expansion to Archipelago.

As much as I have enjoyed Archipelago I feel like this is very unlikely.
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Brian Train
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Cole Wehrle wrote:
Annowme wrote:
Dan, did you playtest this at all at the two-player level?

I don't imagine he did as the two-player rules weren't ready when I send the kit. I can say a couple words about it.

In John Company, the two player was pretty similar to the full game when it came to the territory covered. Of course, the tensions between the players are totally different at every player count. The two-player scenarios in Root are a little more like tactical studies--almost like those old micro-wargames. They are easy to set up, fast to play, and pretty tense.

You're brilliant, Cole.
I'm sure the references to the COIN system are apt.
Count me in on this!

Brian
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Jussi-Pekka Jokinen
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As a completely sidetracked note, I find Patrick's new avatar confusing because I was so accustomed to the Goblin one. It's like he got a haircut, new glasses, went to the gym and completely redid his wardrobe. Oh, and grew some bunny ears!
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Patrick Leder
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Its confusing me a bit too I might go back to the Goblin.
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GreenM wrote:
Its confusing me a bit too I might go back to the Goblin.

Then again, it'll help people associate you with the new game. Maybe ask mr. Ferrin to doodle you a Goblin with bunny ears or something?
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My interest only continues to grow. Thanks.
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marvelous.

I have been admiring Cole Wehrle's work from afar, enjoying his comments on Phil Eklund's games and statements, enjoying articles and reviews and dreaming of playing Infamous Traffic one day... but now I just want to get Root, read the rules and play.

Thanks for the preview, Daniel.

PS. As usual, though, my main concerns are player count and shipping rates, but both are personal, not game's issues.
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Yaron Davidson
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Thank you very much for this detailed-overview of a preview, the game seems very very interesting and I'll certainly keep an eye on it.


But I must object to the attitude in your intro claiming that things like allegory and indirect references don't exist, and anything that doesn't explicitly includes existing/past events by definition can't be saying anything about them.
SF&F has included a heck of a lot of political (and social and economic) commentary, even in a lot of books that don't have a single person or institution from the real world.
Including, BTW, in the Expanse (much much more so in the books than the TV series, but that one still retains a fair amount of sociopolitical commentary). Can't argue much with your opinion on Holden's intelligence, though (well, he's usually not quite as thick in the books, but still).

Related, I was amused by the apparently-non-political opinion that "a game of police work" involves "Massing your soldiery to flood into a contested clearing" and a strategy of "Sawmills and warriors gradually mean more sawmills and warriors". Yes, I get you're being tongue-in-cheek here, but that is still (or at the very least can, and will be often, easily interpreted as) very much a clear political allusion to some obvious real-world things.

Cole Wehrle wrote:
In John Company, the two player was pretty similar to the full game when it came to the territory covered. Of course, the tensions between the players are totally different at every player count. The two-player scenarios in Root are a little more like tactical studies--almost like those old micro-wargames. They are easy to set up, fast to play, and pretty tense.
To clarify, that "John Company" there wasn't a mistake trying to type Root, but an intended comparison to John Company?
And so, if I read correctly, in the case of Root for less than 4 players the game won't play like the full game (with bots/AIs, or with some generally reduced/scaled surface areas), but rather specific custom scenarios instead?
 
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yarondav wrote:

... But I must object to the attitude in your intro claiming that things like allegory and indirect references don't exist, and anything that doesn't explicitly includes existing/past events by definition can't be saying anything about them.
SF&F has included a heck of a lot of political (and social and economic) commentary, even in a lot of books that don't have a single person or institution from the real world.
Including, BTW, in the Expanse ...

I think the review was perhaps a little too glib on this point, but I don't think it was being completely dismissive of allegory or the connection between fantasy/science fiction and social commentary. I think rather it was intended more to point out that a fantastical setting takes away "real-world history or politics," in a very literal way. That is, the game system isn't burdened by trying to incorporate or manage actual events and personalities, and the baggage they carry, as opposed to a COIN or Pax game. The connections to the real-world are more abstract, on an ideological and philosophical rather than visceral level.
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darksurtur wrote:
yarondav wrote:

... But I must object to the attitude in your intro claiming that things like allegory and indirect references don't exist, and anything that doesn't explicitly includes existing/past events by definition can't be saying anything about them.
SF&F has included a heck of a lot of political (and social and economic) commentary, even in a lot of books that don't have a single person or institution from the real world.
Including, BTW, in the Expanse ...

I think the review was perhaps a little too glib on this point, but I don't think it was being completely dismissive of allegory or the connection between fantasy/science fiction and social commentary. I think rather it was intended more to point out that a fantastical setting takes away "real-world history or politics," in a very literal way. That is, the game system isn't burdened by trying to incorporate or manage actual events and personalities, and the baggage they carry, as opposed to a COIN or Pax game. The connections to the real-world are more abstract, on an ideological and philosophical rather than visceral level.
It isn't what I got from the phrasing (he mentioned the general seriousness/politics/implications, not the more specific events/figures/details), but yeah, I guess it's entirely possible that this was indeed the intent and it just got a little lost in the writing style.
 
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I guess what Dan's meant to say is that people playing/watching fantastical settings are less prone to be intimidated by the issues presented. Of course the game poses social and political questions, but I suppose casual audiences may not care about them. Compare with a real-life setting, where you are invited to reflect about them: how can you appreciate Twilight Struggle without understating the Cold War? How can you understand the in-game actions in a COIN game without knowing how the different actors were involved in the conflict? It takes a particular kind of gamer to appreciate those points.

In another note: great review, Dan.
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Daniel Thurot
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My point has essentially been summed up by Pablo, but I'm happy to clarify.

Essentially, it's possible to play a game like Root — or read The Expanse, or Dune, or engage with a wide array of f/sf — without having to engage directly with the real-world applications of their themes. Plenty of people read for escapism and leisure, and that's as valid a reason for the existence of literature as to confront The Issues. We cushion hard truths in fiction for many reasons, one of them because it makes the medicine go down more smoothly — or sometimes, without even noticing it at all.

In short, you can play Root and not worry about understanding Foucault. It's far harder to play A Distant Plain without confronting real-world issues of quagmire, nation-building, empire, and the intentions of its actors. A perusal of my previous criticism will reveal that I'm invested in serious games and engage with them regularly. In this case, I'm talking purely about accessibility (and perhaps joking around too much for your taste), as I'm happy to see serious mechanisms and asymmetry — and yes, themes too — being introduced to more general audiences. That's something to celebrate. It's also what much of f/sf accomplishes by discussing issues of politics, philosophy, and faith against a backdrop of adventure.

PSchulman wrote:
In another note: great review, Dan.
Thanks, friend.
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GreenM wrote:
The Innocent wrote:
It might also bear repeating that I approached it as a critic rather than as a playtester, and that since the game is still in that pre-release phase that any number of details are subject to change. For all I know, its final release could be an expansion to Archipelago.

As much as I have enjoyed Archipelago I feel like this is very unlikely.

Maybe.... but I'm in if it happens.

(Great review, and this does look cool)
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Yaron Davidson
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The Innocent wrote:
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My point has essentially been summed up by Pablo, but I'm happy to clarify.
Thank you for the clarification.
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Wow.... I never thought that I would see Foucault discussed on BGG!
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Asger Harding Granerud
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Dan, did your games end in kingmaking, as VAST often does? It is something highly interactive multiplayer games are prone too (brawls not races).

And that isn't really meant as a dig at VAST, I really enjoy it. But to me it is so far a premise that you have to accept, which means you're going in for the experience.

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Asger Granerud
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Daniel Thurot
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AsgerSG wrote:
Dan, did your games end in kingmaking, as VAST often does? It is something highly interactive multiplayer games are prone too (brawls not races).

And that isn't really meant as a dig at VAST, I really enjoy it. But to me it is so far a premise that you have to accept, which means you're going in for the experience.

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Asger Granerud
That's a great question, Asger.

In my experience, some of the Vagabond's role is to police the other players à la Vast's Cave. Since VPs are visible at all times, and since his mobility is so high, it's pretty easy for him to move into a remote area and take a faction down a peg. At the same time, though, he's pursuing his own goals, and it seems like he can often do both at the same time. We even had one game where both the Woodland Alliance and Eyrie Dynasties were one turn from winning, only for the Vagabond to reveal that he'd been pursuing his private quest the entire time. Out of seemingly nowhere, he won.

The nature of playing for points rather than only to fulfill an asymmetric goal also means that things progress more like your usual board game than anything in Vast (which I adore, by the way). The Eyrie in particular behave as a game clock. Their per-turn points may fluctuate, but they're always ticking slowly toward that target 40.

So I'd say the answer to your question is mostly no. I can conceive of kingmaking moments (especially for the Vagabond), but nothing approaching the kingmaking that can occur in Vast.
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Asger Harding Granerud
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That answer might just have secured a backer

Unless I can wait for distribution... dilemmas, dilemmas!

Thanks
Asger
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Elias Helfer
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Thanks for the review - I really like your break-down of the factions, which gives me a great impression of what it will be like to play them, and makes it easy to see how assymetric this game is.

What I'm missing, though, is a basic overview of what the game is and how it actually works. There are cards, I guess? And combat? You can win either with points, or with a secret goal? What kind of goal? What is the weight of the game? How long does it last?

Which is something I've been missing from the buzz about this game, and I was hoping to finally find. Even Cole's designer diaries proceed from an assumtion that the reader has a basic familiarity with the game.
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