When is enough “enough”? How much additional content can a game contain before it becomes an unwieldy mess? At what point does the lure of “replayability” become simply an excuse to release additional content to cash in?
Good questions all. And all of these came to mind as I sat down to play the new Marauder Expansion for 2018’s sleeper hit Root from Leder Games.
Plenty has already been written about Root, although I note with surprise that we’ve never given it the writeup it deserves. So if you’re looking for a deep dive into the base game, this ain’t it. I’ll just briefly provide some background context first and then move into the questions from the first paragraph.
* * *
Root’s designer, Cole Wehrle, had already made a name for himself with three very well-regarded–but niche–designs. Pax Pamir tackled the “Great Game” of 19th-century imperial intervention in Afghanistan; An Infamous Traffic was an economic game set during the opium trade in China in the 1830’s; and John Company had players wheedling their way to the top of the social and economic ladder as traders in the East India company.
If you notice an anti-colonial theme running through all that, you wouldn’t be wrong.
Then came Root. Its innocuous theme was perfectly complemented by the adorable artwork by Kyle Ferrin and its screen-printed animeeples. I can attest that plenty of folks wandered into my FLGS and bought it on impulse purely on that basis. Little did they know that they were buying an asymmetric wargame of cut-throat competition for dominance, counter-insurgency, and plenty of room for back-stabbery.
Root didn’t necessarily have the breakout success that Wingspan did, but (again, based on personal observation) Leder Games literally couldn’t print them fast enough; the English edition alone has been through six printings as of 2021, and my FLGS was constantly out of stock and reordering it.
Then, the expansions began rolling out.
Arthur Conan Doyle famously killed his iconic protagonist off so he wouldn’t have to write any more Sherlock Holmes stories, only to bring him back from the dead to satisfy the multitude of cries for more detection by gaslight. The Beatles famously tried to make each record sound different from the last–and if some fans didn’t like the change, many others were more than happy to jump on board. And although it’s hard to believe now, Saturday Night Live in its first season resisted using recurring characters because they felt it was “cheating” and “lazy”; they associated stock characters with old-style variety comedy shows like Carol Burnett and wanted to break away from that.
So while creative artists are often reluctant to keep returning to the same material, fans always want more of their favorite stuff–and the businessmen who make the wheels turn like to give them more of what they want. Because they know it will sell.
Why should boardgames be any different?
The trick (and trap) of expansions is delivering content that feels new to players while maintaining play-balance. This is no easy matter; hence the inherent “power creep” in many CCG’s and LCG’s as the meta evolves. The other problem is that after a while, even the best game systems begin to sag under the accumulated weight of all the additional “chrome” that expansions add to the game’s chassis. This is manageable for players who have been on-board from the beginning–they can gradually absorb each new expansion into their mental model of the game’s playspace. But for players looking to enter late in a game’s life-cycle it can be absolutely paralyzing: which expansions are “necessary”? “To-be-avoided” (looking at you, Dominion: Alchemy)?
Speaking of which, Donald X Vaccharino managed to skirt the power-creep problem for Dominion (at least at first) because had the first eight expansions to Dominion mapped out when he designed it in the mid 2000’s. He knew that he’d stumbled onto a system of almost limitless expandability, and throwing everything into one game would be both expensive to produce and overwhelming to players. He was very wise to tinker with the first huge batch of cards and sort them into sets themed by action–and very astute to realize that Rio Grande Games would be much more likely to buy his game with that approach. And he was right; RGG initially only bought Dominion and the first two expansions on a “try and see” basis–and the rest is history.
Cole Wehrle in many ways had his work cut out for him: Root’s asymmetry meant that every combination of factions had to be tested for balance. He must have developed and playtested the base game with the Riverfolk expansion basically done, since Riverfolk was offered as an expansion to backers to be received almost immediately after delivering the base game. I also think there’s a good chance that Underworld was also at least in development at that point, although it was not released until 2020.
The base game and first expansion the Riverfolk are credited solely to Wehrle, but later expansions are credited to Wehrle and a rotating cast of others: Patrick Leder; Benjamin Schmauss; and now with Marauder Wehrle shares credit with three others (Leder, Nick Brachmann, and Josh Yearsley). Part of that is of course because Wehrle had moved on to other designs such as the second editions of Pax Pamir and John Company, Oath, and now, Leder Games’ newest KS darling Arcs. No one–not even Peter Hayward–can maintain that level of commitment to that many projects.
But sharing the load around, while sanity-saving, also risks diluting the elegance and power of the base game. And so, finally: what does Marauders add to the mix, and is it worth it?
Marauders comes with two new factions that definitely feel marauder-y and one new rules module (Hirelings) that, while not exactly laying anything to waste, definitely introduces a disruptive element.
The Lord of the Hundreds faction reminds me of the swarms of rats you get in the Dishonored video games: they swarm, they consume, and they leave nothing behind but the bones. If you’re a nihilist, you’ll love playing them. You start small but grow super-quick. Mob tokens beget stronghold tokens beget more and more minions led by a mercurial chief whose personality (and accompanying bonus) changes every turn. You can use your numbers to overwhelm defenders and steal their stuff, which makes you even more powerful. If you bulk up with loot early you can be well-nigh unstoppable–with the number of dudes you can spam, it ain’t easy to get rid of you. But if you wait too long, other players will gang up and clear you out. The more clearings you occupy by yourself at the end of your turn, the more VP’s you earn.
The Keepers in Iron faction are an interesting blend of Eyrie and Vagabond. They use their Retinue to program their actions like the Eyrie, though the penalty for failing to live up to their promises is much lighter: instead of falling into anarchy, they just lose the card from their Retinue. The Keepers get their own set of goodies called Relics which are randomly seeded into forests at the start of the game; digging them up provides both combat bonuses and mucho VP when collected into sets. But you need to time your VP boosts well: jump out in front at the wrong time and you’ll put a target on your back.
Then we have the Hirelings. They’re like NPC’s, and each faction has one. You add three of them to the game set-up at any player-count, some at full-strength and some “demoted” (ie nerfed) depending on the number of player-factions. You can’t use the Hireling for any faction participating in the game–in this way Hirelings bring some of the “flavour” of other factions.
Hirelings are mercenaries; they’ll work for anyone, but their contracts are all time-limited. The first player to 4, 8, or 12 VP gets to pick one of them to ally with them–but only for a randomly-generated number of turns. Once the contract has run out, you have to pick another player to hand them over to–again, for a certain number of turns.
In a four-player game, Hirelings can make an already-crowded board almost feel too busy. But like any tool, the right use at the right time can help swing things around. The table of experienced Root players I played with agreed that they were a great addition, but would work better with three or especially two players. Allie S even went so far as to say they would be essential with two.
I almost forgot to mention that Marauders also includes an Advanced Setup system which is recommended for experienced players only. Players seat themselves randomly and get initial cards dealt and then draft and set up factions in reverse players order, so you can in theory tailor your faction and initial strategy to your starting hand. Setup rules are also different in little ways to account for the change in setup order. All of which gives seasoned players plenty to chew on.
All in all, although Marauders doesn’t come with its own map, it adds more content than any other expansion so far except maybe Clockwork—but I would argue Marauders is the more necessary buy, except if you play solo. And honestly, with the digital version now available on Steam and iTunes, I feel most solo players don’t need Clockwork as much (and I speak as someone who loves it).
But, back to the initial questions: is more necessarily better?
In my humble experience expansions offer diminishing returns. I’m not talking about games with expansion maps (Ticket to Ride, Power Grid) or lots of mini-expansions that can be added separately but no one expects to play all together (Alhambra). I’m talking about gosh-darn expansions which add whole new boards, rules modules, and components to match.
The first one or maybe two provide designers with the ability to fill gaps in the original play-space and provide enough new content to satisfy people who’ve played the base game to death. But it is very rare that a game is improved much or at all by anything further except to dedicated (not to say obsessed) fans. Once you’re on the third or fourth expansion the extra content makes a once-elegant game a bloated mess full of exceptions and bolted-on bits that come to dominate the player experience. A good designer or publisher in that case might choose to burn the whole thing to the ground and start again from scratch (like how Fantasy Flight rebooted Sid Meier’s 4X franchise with Civilization: A New Dawn in 2017 to replace the bloated mess that its 2010 version had become).
In the case of Root, by my calculation there are now almost exactly 171,000,000 ways to play now–and that’s using only one Vagabond and not including randomly-generated clearings. We’re not in Dominion territory, but that’s still a hecka lotta modes to explore. Different factions, boards, decks, landmarks, hirelings, and combinations of same.
Luckily, even in its most “vanilla” form Root provides a unique experience whose gameplay is deep enough to satisfy any grognard, and whose woodland charm is alluring enough–and whose walkthroughs and online tutorials are good enough–to get curious newcomers drawn into it.
What the Marauder expansion brings to the table are two new (and more importantly, interesting and well-balanced) new factions into the mix; in our game both the Lord and the Keepers were right in the game til the very end. The Hirelings add spice but in our game weren’t game changers–but of course we were playing with them for the first time.
I feel like Cole and Patrick can step back now, breathe a sigh of relief, and say, “job very well done”. A good artist knows when to step back from the canvas.
What? There’s a second Clockwork expansion coming out? Well…ok, but just this one more…
Many thanks to Leder games for providing a copy of Root: the Marauder Expansion for this writeup.
This is extremely thoughtful writing about game expansions — and I’ll note one thing about Donald X. Vaccarino’s Dominion expansions is that irrespective of the quality of the gameplay (generally good; Seaside and Prosperity great; Alchemy meh) the back-of-the-box copy was DELIGHTFUL and always worth reading, if not worth buying a then-$30, now-probably-$40 expansion consisting just of a stack of cards.
Also really happy to see you thinking and writing about games after the June 1st pause.
Awww, thanks man! You da best!