We’re being spoiled for excellent adaptations of board games on the Nintendo Switch. Late last year the magnificent Wingspan landed, and instantly became one of my most-played games on the console (well, not instantly, but I kept playing it until it did… you know what I mean). There’s also excellent adaptations of Pandemic, Evolution, Talisman, Catan and Raiders of the Lost Sea. There’s even Monopoly, but barely anyone actually wants to play Monopoly these days.
And now there’s Root. Root has quietly plugged along as another one of the favoured modern board games. It hasn’t quite earned the reputation as “that game that got everyone through a two-year pandemic” as Wingspan did, but since its release in 2018 is has grown solidly in reputation and stature a really good board game. Board Game Geek even rates it highly, and that is the seal of approval that you’re looking for when it comes to these things. So, let me tell you that the Switch adaptation is excellent, and then spend the rest of the review talking about why Root makes for such a compelling experience.
Most board games give players some kind of parity at the start of the game, both in terms of their respective strength within the game, and their overall objectives. If you’re playing Monopoly, for example, you all have the same amount of cash and the goal is to plunder everyone else into oblivion. If you’re playing Catan, you all start with the same number of towns and resources with the goal to colonise an island. If you’re playing Wingspan, you’re each looking at a blank board and have to collect as many pretty birdies as you can in a limited number of turns. If you’re playing Snakes And Ladders, you’re all on square one, with the goal to reach square 100, and so on and so forth. Root, however, is different. In Root, each one of the four factions has a distinctly different starting position, pathway to victory, and challenges to overcome.
If you play as the cat faction, for example, you start off with just about every territory on the board, and the ability to quickly build on those territories to expand your war effort. The bird faction, meanwhile, starts with just a single territory, but an overwhelming horde of birds, and an explicit task to expand the territory on every turn. My favourite faction is the revolutionaries, where you start off with no territory, but have the ability to spread dissent across the map before inciting a riot, taking over a territory, and installing Che Guevara-like generals to manage your breakaway nation (no doubt both the birds and cats will refuse to recognise your nation and attempt to have your heroes assassinated, but such is the risks of glorious revolution!).
As you can probably guess, each of these factions has dramatically different play styles, and this makes Root a fascinating case study in mastery and tactics. If I want to challenge myself, I don’t need to up the AI of the enemies. I just need to play a game as the bird faction. See, as a strategist, I am a rather cautious and defensive sort. I would rather build my forces carefully, engage in wars of attrition, ambushes and supply disruption, but when you control the birdies in Root, you’re playing the Blitzkrieg strategy and… I’m really not that kind of player. Others would immediately warm to this faction, but find the Guevara-esque heroics much harder than I do.
Root speaks to everything that I think a good strategy game should be. In the really-real world, forces are never neatly arrayed against one another with equal strengths, tactics, equipment and capabilities, so aiming for a pure kind of balance in a board game has always been nonsensical to me. However, so many board games that do try to accurately convey differences in military might and capabilities become so complex that they’re overwhelming for newcomers, and even cause veteran players headaches. Root is a nice and streamlined board game, and you can learn the ins and outs of it within a half hour or so by running through the tutorials. Yet it also offers that dynamic and asymmetric strategy experience that at least quadruples the play value and longevity of it, even against the AI (and there are three more factions to come as DLC in December!)
Also to Root’s benefit is that individual games don’t drag on too long. The one I played on stream (above) only ran for around 40 minutes or so. Obviously if you’re playing against other people (and there are both online and local play options), then the length will vary depending on how long they take for their turns, but I’d be surprised if a typical game lasted for more than 1 – 1 1/2 hours. Now, if there is one criticism that I do have of the game it’s that it’s very momentum based – that is to say that once you’re on top of things its hard to be pegged back by the other players, and that sometimes the winner will be clear from as much as halfway through – though if you’re playing with other human players, there’s always the potential for some temporary alliances that can help there.
The physical board game of Root is lovely, and the digital adaption by Dire Wolf is solid. There’s a lot of love and care that has gone into nailing the aesthetics (as you would expect from a game developer that also produces analogue board games themselves), but at the same time they have plenty of fun animated moments that take full advantage of the video game medium. I don’t really remember the soundtrack though, I must admit. I think it was perfectly adequate!
I hadn’t played the analogue board game of Root before this digital adaptation, but I’m going to buy a copy for the Christmas party circuit now. While it’s not too complex, there’s plenty of depth to Root’s systems, and the careful balancing between them, despite their very different play styles and objectives, makes for a strategically chaotic, but massively entertaining experience. This is a masterful bit of game design, recreated with love for the play anywhere Nintendo Switch experience.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb