Let’s dive back into Root, shall we? Or, perhaps more appropriately, dig back in. While publisher Leder Games basks in the afterglow of another wildly successful Kickstarter (seriously, congrats on 2 million!), I decided to give a good look at their previous wildly successful Kickstarter, one they were kind enough to send me a review copy of: The Underworld Expansion.
What’s In The Box?
It’s an expansion so there’s obviously not quite as much as in the base game…but that doesn’t mean you’re getting skimped. Leder packs a lot into their game boxes and this is no different. The first thing I noticed that I loved is the art, done as always by the inimitable Kyle Ferrin. I love the way the box shows a divide between the Corvids (sneaking in the damp shadows of the forest) and the Moles, toiling beneath their feet. The mystery and gloominess of the two factions is evident from square one. This is born out through the rest of the expansion, striking the perfect balance between serious fantasy and goofy woodland critter that has made Root so endearing. There’s also a a gorgeous floral pattern that is used for the Corvid Conspiracy, one that extends into the inside of the box in a way that’s quite pleasing to the eye. It’s a small detail but I love it.
The new maps are maybe the best yet, with warmer but darker color schemes than the ones included in previous expansions. The Mountain Map is especially striking, full of bright orange paths among black, scratchy hills and dotted with ruins and fortresses. Included pieces are mostly wood (10/10 right there), including big pieces for the Lake’s Ferry and the Mountain’s Tower. The new “meeples” for the factions have the minimal but expressive design of the other factions, though there’s something particularly fun about the strange, squawking look of the corvids.
How’s It Play?
You can check out my earlier review of Root to get the gist of how the core gameplay goes, which is largely unchanged here except by map mechanics (which I’ll get to.) With this expansion, like Riverfolk and the upcoming Marauder, the focus is obviously on the new factions.
The Underground Duchy is the more literally “underworld” of the two factions, being a group of crypto-fascist moles who want to subjugate the creatures who live above them. They have some elements in common with the Eyrie, who share their delicate political situation and more “imperial” playstyle, and the Woodland Alliance, with whom they share a need to sway woodlanders to their cause. Thanks to their burrowing and tunnels, they can be hard to predict and even harder to take out, but since the Ministers running the Duchy are so fickle, every setback makes your job a little harder. Mechanically a pretty difficult faction to get one’s head around at first glance, but very rewarding once you do. Great complement to the other two big factions in the Eyrie and Marquise.
The Corvid Conspiracy is probably my favorite new faction because they are basically all about causing problems on purpose. Since they operate behind the scenes of all the woodland conflict, they’re never going to win an out-and-out fight with the others. Instead, they have many nasty plots which can be strategically placed around the map to bolster their own fighting ability, slow down enemy expansion, and even wipe out entire squads of enemy warriors in one fell swoop. They spread faster than most factions but are always spread thin, necessitating clever use of your movements to ensure the right forces are where they need to be. Reminded me a lot of playing the Vagabond in some ways thanks to the more independent feeling. Make sure everyone involved understands how to deal with your stuff from the jump though, as the Corvids can be very unfair if their opponent doesn’t know what to do.
The two new maps are a nice addition to your Root battlefield rotation. The Lake map is very, I don’t know, sweet in its way. The Lake in the middle means movement is a little weird and often longer unless you can grab the ferry, which lets you move to any other point on the lake with a dock. Lot of strategic use in controlling where the Ferry is, but not so much as to make it stifling. The Mountain map is even more restrictive, with blocked passes to deal with as well as the Tower that a savvy faction can use to shut things down even more. Probably the most “hard mode” map I’ve seen in the game, but a really interesting one.
A Note On Robots
I used the first Clockwork Expansion in my review so I thought I’d quickly give my thoughts on it while I’m here, since it’s hard to give it a full review on its own. The bots added by the expansion are a radical expansion to the way Root can be played. Using one (or more) of them can help fill out limited player counts, which is especially useful if you want to use some of the more specialized factions like the Lizard Cult or the Corvids. They also add in a co-op element to the game, letting players team up to defeat the robotic menace before they can get enough points to win. Neither scenario is easy however, and the AI is devilishly hard to deal with. It’s not the most complicated AI you’ll see in board games, but it’s effective some sometimes a little too good at earning points quickly. The Mechanical Marquise 2.0 and Electric Eyrie are particularly tough since their base strategy meshes with the AI pretty well. The Clockwork Expansion isn’t really essential for your Root collection, but it adds a lot of variety that you’ll probably want after your first dozen playthroughs.
If you like Root, you’re going to want to pick up the Underworld Expansion. The new factions are incredibly fun and fit well into the pre-existing “meta” of Root. You don’t need the Riverfolk expansion to enjoy Underworld, but I think some of the tweaks (particularly in how faction combos work) are almost more important than what the previous expansion added. The drawback is that these feel like they’re much more complicated than before and are definitely “thinkier” than other factions. The Moles especially felt like they took a longer time to click with players. They also don’t easily play well with low player counts, so if you want to pick up Underworld you’ll probably want to make sure you have enough people or invest in the Clockwork expansion.
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Images via Leder Games
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