I’ve been playing “Root: a Game of Woodland Might and Right”, a delightfully brutal asymmetric game about cute woodland creatures at war with each other. No, not the PbtA published by Magpie Games. I’m referencing the one that is currently marketed as a boardgame, but that I have started thinking more and more as a role-playing game.
First: the fictional content is incredibly rich with character and potential, while being rooted in reality. There are four factions in the base game, with six more in expansion boxes, and each of them has a clear political philosophy and “ethnical” makeup, represented by the faction’s asymmetric rules and its animal species. We have industrial-capitalist cats, aristocratic birds, revolutionary terrorist mice, mercenary otters, religious zealot lizards, pillaging horde rats. Even the meeples (see picture) are wonderfully evocative while simple enough for the player to fill in their own details.
The power of using cute animals for the factions is that they give us license to assume brutal, identitarian, tribal behaviors — that is, things that people do in war — without having to contend at first glance with the moral implications. We did end up doing that, but only upon reflection. I can’t confirm this, but I’ve heard that the factions may be inspired by some actual real-world conflict, like the Soviet-Afghan war, and it would make sense since the creator is a historian.
Second: after playing through many games, I’ve started to identify Root as a story-engine rather than a wargame. The systems are chaotic enough that a small decision can have a big effect in later turns, in ways that are difficult to predict or plan around, but that are definitely identifiable as a consequence of player choices. The various factions interact differently based on how they’re played and on which are present in a game. I find constantly trying to win, but not playing to win — the satisfaction is in seeing how it pans out. Every turn is a choice that says something about the faction, what it values, and what are the developing relationships with the other factions.
This feels much more like a roleplaying game than the dull “official” PbtA based on Root. Yes, the “characters” are not individuals, but the various factions are. When you reflect of the game, you think “the eagles were about to reclaim their ancestral land, but their leadership collapsed and the Woodland Alliance rose up to liberate the oppressed”, or “the otters played every faction against each other, finally having every corner of the woodland in their pocket” I think the moment that cemented this for me is when I saw players naturally engaging with the developing fiction at the table, making choices not based on victory conditions but on actual grudges and relationships with the other factions developed at the table.
It’s a lovely game that keeps surprising me the more I play.