Root, a Critical Comparison to Vast (the Crystal Caverns)

By: Mr. Saint

Note: Post originally published on BGG April 2019.

I’ll spare you the game overview, as at the time of writing this review, Root has 29 other text reviews and Vast has 14.  I’m sure other talented writers have already covered how each game plays more eloquently than I ever could.  If you want to skip ahead to the comparison, it starts with the bolded section.

Instead, a bit of background – we discovered Root at Gen Con 2018.  Prior to then, Leder Games wasn’t even on our radar.  We kept on seeing people at the con walking around with the same colorful box with cutesy cartoon animals depicted on it.  A quick BGG search showed it was the hottest game of the Con and as such, we were determined to demo it!  Unfortunately, due to its popularity, that never happened.  However, based solely on what we heard about the game, we blind purchased the base box.  We played Root four times that night in the hotel room, and another two the next morning before heading to the con.  We wanted to pick up the expansion, but it had apparently sold out the day before (and was still sold out at PAX Unplugged in November).

Fast forward to December of 2018.  Researching Leder Games’ other offerings based on the success of Root in our gaming circles, I found the idea of Vast: the Crystal Caverns to be irresistible.  As such, on the Christmas list it went.  I was overjoyed to receive it and immediately started to integrate it into regular game nights, as had been done with Root.

Between Vast: the Mysterious Manor’s impending Kickstarter fulfillment and the incredibly successful completion of the Root: the Underworld Kickstarter campaign, I have been thinking a lot about the two gaming universes. What follows is observations between the two, based on playing of base games of Root and Vast only.  While they are presented as statements of fact, I want to ensure everyone these are merely mine and Mrs. Saint’s opinions and you are free to disagree with them.  Now that I’ve donned my flame-retardant pajamas, lets begin.  

Vast is more asymmetrical, and as a result, Root is easier to teach.

While there is no denying that both Root and Vast are highly asymmetric play experiences, we believe Vast has more asymmetry overall.  The victory condition for Root is the same for all factions – reach 30 Victory Points (excluding Dominance cards).  Similarly, most factions score points primarily by furthering their position on the board (placing building/tokens for the Marquise and Woodland Alliance and protecting established clearings for the Eyrie).  

When teaching Root, much of the discussion revolves around these concepts that are universal regardless of faction- scoring, ruling clearings, battle, use of cards for abilities or crafting etc.  Combined with an individual players’ reading of their faction board, these concepts are usually enough to carry the rules explanation.  As perhaps the “most” asymmetric faction, special attention has to be given to the Vagabond player, primarily by discussing the ways in which their faction differs from the concepts detailed for everyone else.  

This approach is not possible with Vast.  All of the roles have completely different goals.  Moreover, they have completely different stats, abilities, and nomenclature.  When the Knight wants to attack the Dragon, she compares her Strength to the Dragon’s Armor to determine success.  The Dragon draws cards at the end of its turn equal to its Spirit.  A Goblin Tribe’s Strength is equal to its Population and has to be greater than the Knight’s Strength in order to damage her.  When the Knight or the Goblin want to attack the Thief, they compare their Perception to the Thief’s Stealth score.  

Do you see the problem here?  Without the shared framework the factions of Root share, there is no easy way to teach Vast other than to go through each of the roles that will be present in a given game in a high level of detail.  In this way, each of Vast’s roles feels like teaching the Vagabond faction, complete with separate vocabulary, exceptions, and keywords.  Undeniably, this makes each of Vast’s roles feel completely unique in that game’s ecosystem, pushing the asymmetry present in the game to the limit .  However, this achievement comes at the cost of teachability, making Root easier to  introduce to new players.

Root allows for lower levels of direct conflict in a game (though this may effect game balance).

We’ve played Root with a wide range of playgroups, including with a few groups that are relatively new to the hobby. Several times, the first half of games with these less experienced players were mostly devoid of aggression.  I’m not sure if it’s a stigma against appearing “mean” or misunderstanding the potential benefits of combat, but Root does support this playstyle to a degree.  All of the base factions have ways in which they can gain points that do not involve attacking other players.  

Some factions even flourish in this environment. See comments about the Woodland Alliance feeling overpowered on these forums, and comments from other players who did not have this experience.  The key delineator between those opinions – the amount of time players in their respective games spent crushing the Woodland Alliance’s resistance (and I suspect, the amount of aggression present in their games overall).  This also allows for more possible table talk, discussed separately below.

While there are winning conflict neutral playstyles in Vast, they do not exist in a state where they may be reciprocated.  The Dragon is perfectly happy to go about it’s turn without interaction from other players, slowly shrugging off it’s millenium long slumber.  Similarly, the Thief is content to roam about the Cave, collecting and stashing treasure until his victory condition is satisfied.  These plans are constantly disrupted by the other players.  

The Knight must KILL the Dragon to win.  The Goblins must KILL the Knight.  The Cave must ensure all other parties are acting inefficiently until enough time has elapsed and it can collapse, thereby KILLING everyone.  Every turn that the Knight does not damage the Dragon is an opportunity for the Goblins to capitalize on this lack of urgency and set the pace of the game in their favor (which in turn must be checked by the Cave in order to prevent the game from ending too early and preventing its own victory condition).  This creates a frantic race dynamic, where everyone is out for blood from the first turn, with only occasional pit stops to burst the loot pinata that the Thief represents or pick up some treasure. 

We like Vast more as a 2 player experience.

Over 90% of our gaming time ends up being a strictly two player affair.  We attend game nights whenever we can, but real life often gets in the way, so it’s important to us that games we own play well at two players.  While we find the ideal player count of Vast and Root to be four players for both games, we ended up preferring Vast over Root at two players.  

While we feel that the four core factions in Root are reasonably balanced against each other when all four are present, that balance is less refined in 1v1 play.  This was never more clear than when I, as the Woodland Alliance, made the mistake of crafting a crossbow against the Mrs’s Ranger Vagabond.  Admittedly poor play on my part, but even with just the single crossbow that the Ranger starts with, it was going to be almost impossible to defend my bases or keep meaningful amounts of Sympathy and warriors on the board.  Root’s answer to the problem of potential faction imbalance is to suggest that two full games should be played, with players switching factions between games.  This approach is serviceable, and ensures that you experience the faction imbalance from both sides, but does nothing to correct that imbalance.

Contrastingly, Vast resolves potential role incompatibility with a set of Variant cards. These cards change the base rules to each role, allowing them to interact with each other in ways that they can’t ordinarily (such as allowing the Goblins to attack the Dragon in exchange for the Dragon getting +1 armor). The presence of these Variant cards create a level of balance at lower player counts that is consistent with the full 4-5 player experience.  We have played through most of the two player combinations listed in the rulebook, and each of the experiences has felt tight and winnable by either side, with lots of opportunity for clever play and interaction.  

Root has more possible points of interaction, allowing for more “Kingmaking” opportunities, spread over more players.

Regardless of your stance on the idea of Kingmaking overall, and whether table-talk is an acceptable part of game design, it is difficult to argue that Root is not a highly social game (Cole Wehrle, the designer of Root, firmly believes in maximizing player disruption potential, as evidenced by his GDC panel discussion – https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1025683/Board-Game-Design-Day-King) .  With an experienced group, rarely does the perceived “best” player win.  Rather, the person most likely to claim victory is the player that most successfully convinces the rest of the table that they are not a threat while remaining competitive in the VP tallies. In this way, negotiations are a critical component of the total Root experience.  

In many ways, the interaction in a 4+ player game of Vast is more limited. The Goblins cannot directly attack the Dragon, and the primary point of interaction between these two roles lies in the Goblin player successfully positioning their tribes to avoid getting eaten by the Dragon.  Similarly, the Dragon has few ways to harm the Knight, and relatively few ways to interact with the Knight beyond a few abilities that move her away from itself.

Instead, the “job” of policing the table primarily falls to the Cave.  The Cave has a myriad of abilities that allow them to shape the pace of the game.  Rather than individual roles negotiating with one another on the level of aggression to maintain in their individual conflicts, players instead lobby the Cave role for assistance in slowing down their rivals.  In this way, less of Vast’s game occurs above the table, and the tools for influencing the game’s outcome are in fewer hands.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we adore both Root and Vast. We hope this slightly deeper look into a comparison between the two games has proven useful to those that are unsure which series of games they might prefer. We’re very excited to finally get our hands on some expansions for Root with the Underworld Kickstarter, and will be picking up Vast: the Mysterious Manor as soon as it becomes available at retail.  We’re very much looking forward to what Leder Games has to offer in the future!

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