Root: A Game of Woodland Might and Right is a brilliant board game. Published in 2018 by Leder Games, it presents a cute and cheerful vision of a woodland realm and its inhabitants. The setting could rightly be compared to the comic series Mouse Guard or Brian Jacques’ Redwall novels. But Root is a lie. It’s not pleasant or serene. It’s a vicious turn-based game where players jostle for control of the forest and slaughter each other’s people. And now, you can engage in this cutthroat war of tooth and claw on your Nintendo Switch.
To put it bluntly, Root is a beast of a game. But Dire Wolf Digital — a studio known for their tabletop-to-electronic translations — have done an exemplary job in bringing it to Nintendo’s hybrid console. It’s a complex affair with knotty interactions requiring participants to track a wealth of information. The sophisticated tutorial is not only useful, then, but completely necessary. It teaches fundamental concepts, but also outlines the wildly asymmetrical four factions.
The Marquise de Cat are the most direct and simple, starting in control of most of the forest and pushing for victory points by constructing various buildings. The Eyrie, a coterie of regal birds, present a heavy faction able to build momentum through their intriguing “decree” system. This has you programming action cards into a sequence and committing to a strategy. The Woodland Alliance functions as a form of insurgency. They seek to jam up the gears of opponents and cause open revolt, completely destroying entire spaces of the map. Finally, the Vagabond is represented by a single piece on the board: a raccoon bent on exploration and wanderlust. As the raccoon, you travel about trading items with players and exploring ruins. If things get thorny you may even begin to harass and pick off opposing warriors. Additionally, two factions (previously available as an expansion for the physical game) are available now as add-on content: the Lizard Cult and Riverfolk. I haven’t played them in the digital version, but having experienced them on the tabletop, I can say that they’re just as robust as their counterparts.
Image: Dire Wolf Digital
Because they each play by their own rules, learning the differences between Root’s asymmetrical factions can be burdensome. As far as the physical version goes, players only begin to understand the game after just a few playthroughs. Like Scythe, another modern classic board game, Root is played in the open with each player able to peer at each opponent’s sideboard and following along with their actions. Players will even tend to announce out loud what they’re doing every step of the way. Root’s open nature helps players to understand the game in a holistic way.
The digital experience, by its very nature, is much more opaque. Play is smooth and speedy due to the automation of resource management, but it’s extremely difficult for someone who doesn’t have a firm grasp on the whole game to understand the decisions other players are making. It’s trying to convey a literal table’s worth of information on a single screen, after all. You can parse through it all via menus, but the sheer volume of information in Root’s digital adaptation can be overwhelming.
It’s fortunate, then, that this build is relatively refined. The Switch edition of Root benefits from months of feedback based on last August’s Steam early access release. Many previous rough spots, such as slow combat animations and outright bugs, have been alleviated.
Turn-based tactical games live and die by the quality of their AI, and Root mostly succeeds in this regard. I didn’t feel singled out or ganged up on, and the opponents’ strategic decisions were typically appropriate. The difficulty also scales well. The AI’s main flaw, however, is that it doesn’t seem to prioritize factions that are in the lead. While not essential, the tenuous alliances that form when one player is outpacing the rest make for exciting rushes in multiplayer games. Those moments are lost here.
Image: Dire Wolf Digital
One of Root’s defining qualities is the intrigue of its social performance. It’s very difficult to discern who is poised for success as each faction operates under their own rhythm. This leaves a void often filled with conversation. It’s not uncommon for someone to spend half the game trying to convince the table to attack the Vagabond, only for the rest to realize it’s too late when they finally agree. Unless you’re gaming in-person with pass and play, this group dynamic is muted with live opponents on the Switch version due to limited communication.
In all other respects, Root is an extremely faithful adaptation of the board game. There’s even a selection of additional content that was never present on the tabletop version. A fantastic new mode offers challenges that alter the game setup or modify the rules. One such modification allows the Marquise de Cat to utilize their field hospital ability and return felled warriors to their base for free; another modifies the map so that players can move along the river, completely upsetting the normal spatial dynamics. There are several options, and they’re welcome twists for anyone familiar with Root’s complex systems.
I adore Root in its cardboard form, and Dire Wolf’s Switch adaptation accomplishes the unenviable task of bringing its machinations to the screen. It’s a formidable process to learn this game, but there are enough tools here to onboard patient players. Picking apart and re-assembling such an intricate system in an entirely different format is no small feat. Root, in both of its incarnations, is a resounding success.
Root was released on Nov. 16, 2021 on Nintendo Switch. Previous versions released on Sept. 24, 2020 on Windows PC, iOS, and Android. The game was reviewed on Switch using a download code provided by Dire Wolf Digital. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.