Root review: the board game retains its brilliance in the switch to digital

As much as I admire strategic board games, I don’t often get terribly invested in them. It’s not for lack of wanting – it’s just that the cost and the time required to play a full session are pretty steep requirements, not to mention the difficulty in finding several other people who would be willing to invest in learning a dense, deep experience with me. Just like with the TV shows that friends constantly recommend, I tell myself I’ll “get around to them eventually”. But what I really mean is, “it’s never gonna happen”. The intention is there, just not the follow through.

Note that the images here are for the PC version, as borrowed from the Steam listing.

However, every now and then, a board game will come along that pulls on my attention so strongly that I can’t ignore it any longer. Root (created by Cole Wehrle and published by Leder Games) grabbed me almost instantly with its wondrously woodsy aesthetic and its play on politics and war through the guise of anthropomorphic forest fauna and their devious if cute machinations. Even looking beyond its, uh, looks, Root is a marvel of game design, prompting players to reach for different victory goals while simultaneously foxing their opponents. The crux of the experience is that the Marquise de Cat has taken over the woodlands, and various other factions (the warlike birds of the Eyrie, the slinky and conspiratorial Alliance and the crafty Vagabond in the main game) are all making their bid for control. It’s asymmetrical, complex and loads of fun. My family and I only bust it out a handful of times a year, and it’s always a treat.

So imagine my surprise when I saw a digital representation appear on the Nintendo Switch (it’s also available on PC and mobile). The potential is obvious: I can play Root with a lovely animated veneer, and without having to tidy up all the pieces afterwards, and as an added bonus, I can find someone to play against online at any time.

And sure enough, as soon as I booted up the game and saw a cute animal folk band playing fittingly bard-like tunes, I was in. Way in. The rest of the game is as advertised: a tidy and beautifully realized representation of a brilliant board game on an incredibly handy screen.

Trying to explain the rules of Root to someone without walking them through a game or two is a fool’s errand (and probably not something you’d be interested in reading about here). The key thing to know is that the experience varies depending on which faction you play. Importantly, Dire Wolf’s digital rendition of the cardboard classic features an amazing tutorial that walks you through the overall flow of the game, explains what each group is trying to accomplish and tells you how you can win. It can be a little impenetrable at times, but the cartoony vignettes help you to parse all of the information you’re being given, and these lovely asides never get dull. When you think you’ve gotten a handle on the game, the basic single-player experience has you trying to meet certain criteria in various scenarios. These not only help to expand on the ruleset by having you use them practically, but also offer a good challenge for those who can’t or don’t care to play online.

Beyond that, the core experience of the board game is completely intact, with options to play against people online or locally by taking turns. Full disclosure: I haven’t played online yet, so I don’t have anything constructive to talk about in regards to setting up, cross-play or network stability. To be frank, unless the game is broken and unplayable in that state, I wouldn’t have anything constructive to say either, because I’m not a very technically minded player who worries about those kind of things. Still, as a pass-and-play experience, Root is a proverbial chef’s kiss of a game; it’s soon to be my stalwart companion on an upcoming six-hour plane trip, and I couldn’t be happier!

The digital version of Root might lack the tactility of the board game, but otherwise I couldn’t ask for a better conversion. A lot of love and care went into the creation of this digital edition, and it shows. Even more enticing is that the expansions are also on their way to add even more wrinkles and nuance to the core experience. Even without those add-ons, I can see Root continually staying in high rotation on my Switch; the type of game that never leaves the home screen. If you’re anything like me, the idea of having such an accessible way to play such a brilliant board game without the usual hassles of setting up is a complete boon, and Root is one of the best proofs of concept for digitizing analog works.  

Root was developed by Dire Wolf and Leder Games, and it’s available on PC, Switch, Android and iOS. We played the Switch version.

Disclosure statement: review code for Root was provided by Dire Wolf. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.

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