4 Lessons from Root for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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Leder Games really nailed it when they came out with their board game Root in 2018. It’s broken into and remained within the Board Game Geek top 50. Indeed, on the Pangea Games Facebook group where we regularly give away free board games, Root has by far the most popular prize we’ve ever given away (all three times we’ve done it)!

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Clearly, they’re doing something right here 🙂

So what exactly is Root? In short, Root is a wargame wrapped in a theme about adorable animals. Marquise de Cat rules the woodlands with an iron paw, forcing the woodland creatures to team up and fight back. This both sets the stage for some really clever asymmetric strategic play and realistically portrays the diabolical scheming of cats.

Many games have come and gone on Kickstarter. It takes a lot to truly stand out and be remembered, and the vast majority have been forgotten. Yet Root stands apart because it’s been a sensation for months on end.

The gameplay has a lot to do with it. Let’s talk about what makes Root special and what you can learn from it.

1. Bringing grit to a wide audience? Wrap it in a cute theme!

Wargames have a tough reputation. It’s no surprise either, they’re hard and they’re hard on purpose. This is fantastic if your sole purpose in board gaming is an intellectual challenge. This is not fantastic, however, if you are trying to get a bunch of friends to play a board game with you.

Presentation matters more than most aspiring board gamers want to admit. If you want a complex game to be approachable to a wide variety of gamers, you have to take a few steps to smooth the rough edges. As an example, Root wisely keeps the games to 60 – 90 minutes.

Root is complex. There is no getting around that fact. However, the cute theme, the character names, the little cat meeples…all of it works for the common purpose of keeping first-timers engaged. There are people who would get into wargames if the right one came along. The sort of wargame that didn’t involve the American Revolution or a byzantine science fiction universe of warring factions with unpronounceable names. Root, in large part because of its theme, is that game.

2. Increase your game’s shelf life by having different victory conditions.

So often, games rely on common objectives. All players must attempt to maximize their victory points to win. Or perhaps they must be the first to complete some task. The point is, in many games, people are trying to do the same thing.

To drive this point home, here is an excerpt directly from the rule book:

The invading Marquise de Cat wishes to exploit the Woodland, using its vast resources to fuel her economic and military machine. She scores by constructing buildings in the Woodland.

The proud Eyrie Dynasties wish to reclaim the glory of their once-great aristocracy and retake the Woodland from the Marquise. They score each turn by building and protecting roosts in the Woodland.

The upstart Woodland Alliance wish to unite the creatures of the forest and rise up against their oppressors. They score by spreading sympathy for their cause across the Woodland.

The wily Vagabond wishes to gain fame-or infamy-in the midst of this brewing conflict. He scores by completing quests for the creatures of the Woodland and by aiding and harming the other factions.

Not only are they reinforcing the theme early on in the rule book, but each faction also has a different objective. This is pretty self-explanatory, but worth mentioning simply because I don’t think enough board games do this.

3. Highly asymmetrical design is underrated.

Different objectives is one way to add intrigue to a board game. Asymmetrical design takes it up to 11!

Asymmetry in board games basically means different players have different abilities. Variable player powers are frequently used to great effect to add light asymmetry to board games. Yet Root takes this to its logical extreme.

In Root, every faction has vastly different abilities. Along with their different objectives, the most effective strategies are wildly different. You can read about that in-depth in this great article on Sprites and Dice.

Seem like it wouldn’t work? Seem like a monster to balance? These are valid concerns, but consider the following reviews on Board Game Geek:

  • “Totally asymmetric but surprisingly balanced” – Patmol, 10/10
  • “Excellent design, asymmetric factions. Really enjoyed.” – sedlak87, 9/10
  • “Still, while there are a lot of four-player, asymmetrical games out there, I think this is the best.” – Salo sila, 9/10

As you scroll, you notice people write reviews in a way that implies the balanced nature of the asymmetrical design is surprising. To me, this sounds like a lot of people are craving asymmetry, but they don’t see it implemented well very often. For that reason, I think asymmetry is underrated in board gaming.

4. Give players the thrill of discovery.

When you have a game that engages players with a theme early on, they’re encouraged to learn for a longer period of time. With asymmetry in the design and unique objectives, gamers will find every game to play differently. Little nuances come out over time.

What does this result in? A thrill of discovery! Not just of unique plays and maneuvers, though that is important on its own. I think Root leads players to realize that they like game styles that they wouldn’t normally play, namely wargames.

There are tons of great games. I’ve name-checked too many to count on this blog. But how many great games help players realize they like an entire genre of games they had not previously considered?

Final Thoughts

Root is a sensation among board gamers for good reason. By playing it and studying it, we can learn more about effectively implementing asymmetrical game design. It’s also great at teaching us how to use theme to introduce gamers to much grittier games than they would normally play. Not bad for a game about woodland creatures!

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