Root: The Marauder Expansion | Designer Diary 3 - Seeking Out the Hidden
Introduction by Patrick Leder
After designing the Warlord and moving it into testing, I started working on my ideas for the Badgers. I wanted two things: a faction that was hard to kill and a faction that was slow to act.
I made the Badgers less numerous but hard to kill. The Badgers are Armored, making them take one less hit in battle. On the other side of the coin, though, the Badgers were Cumbersome, so they could only move one warrior per move action unless they paid cards to move extra warriors.
Also starting out, the Badgers took three actions per turn, but they also placed order tokens on the board. The orders were randomly drawn from a pool each turn, and then placed during the Evening. This would force the Badger to plan ahead as well as telegraph what their powerful warriors would do next turn. On the other hand, if they banked tokens for a few turns, they could erupt into a fury of activity.
I feel the largest consideration in designing a Root faction is to hit on a unique scoring mechanism that ties well into the faction’s actions and drive their interaction with the other factions. The Birds gain points for ruling territory. The Cats also need territory to construct their buildings. So I came up with two angles for scoring.
At first, the Badgers would automatically build a road between any two clearings where they had a building, replacing the path between the clearings. These roads could be used by any player to gain free movement, and they allowed the Badgers to move freely without their limits. The Badgers would score a point for each road in play. In this version, the Badgers’ buildings also gave other players bonuses. I wanted some weighted system where the Badgers got rewarded for players using the Badgers’ actions, but we never figured out how to fold that in.
The roads introduced two problems. First, they were too dependent on the map. Some maps let the Badgers score too fast, but they struggled in other places. Even on the same map, the Badger’s starting clearing could vary things. I could hand-wave this problem, since much of the game is about making the best of the faction mix and the problems introduced during setup, but in this instance there was just too much volatility. Beyond scoring issues, the roads didn’t fit well on the paths, since they are not the same length.
In addition, sharing abilities with the other players for points introduced (for a militant faction) the problem that in a two-player game, the other player just wouldn’t want to use their abilities.
With these systems falling apart, I tried returning to a more basic scoring system where the Badgers would just score points for controlling clearings, essentially like the Birds. This kept the design moving forward while we continued working on other parts. Around this time, Cole and Josh suggested building scoring around using routes to recover artifacts from the forest back to the players’ buildings. Josh proposed a way to do this, and I agreed to let him take over the design.
Now, over to Josh—
Goals and Spirit
A little while back, when we decided to change the Turtles into the Badgers—yes, they used to be turtles!—some people on our Woodland Warriors Discord started discussing the question of starting design by grounding in theme versus grounding in mechanics, and how we at Leder Games think about this question. Here’s how I responded:
A militant faction. We want the Marauder Expansion to significantly increase the number of reasonable faction combinations that you can play.
A foil for the warlord. Dovetailing from our first goal, we want the Badgers to be fun to play not just in multiplayer games but specifically head to head against the Warlord.
A semi-cooperative faction that builds board infrastructure. This felt like a design space that had gone mostly unexplored. The closest we had gotten was the Riverfolk Company, and the only part of them that dealt with “infrastructure” was their Riverboats.
A tough but cumbersome faction. We hadn’t really explored a “bruiser” style of faction yet, so this was also appealing.
Throughout the rest of this diary, you’ll see that some of these goals were in tension or mutually exclusive, and we needed to focus on the qualities of the faction and then cut out what wasn’t working. So let’s get into it.
The Six Cuts
Regardless of medium, the creative process can be long and bumpy—a wonderful recent article on this is An Oral History of The Emperor’s New Groove, about the titular movie from Disney. I really recommend you go read it, but in case you don’t, the key quote is “...every movie is awful the first six times. Then on the seventh time it’s kind of good.”
If you followed the original Root and Underworld campaigns, you’ll know that both the Woodland Alliance and Corvid Conspiracy were completely redone from what we presented in the campaign. And though we doubt the Seekers will see huge changes once we start this Kickstarter campaign, they have already changed a lot.
Below, you’ll find the six main design cuts over the past month and change. As with any categorization scheme, this list is imperfect: tucked in it are many false starts, failed experiments, transition periods, omitted changes, mixed designs (including a very short-lived almost Ticket to Ride design with hidden route-building cards), but here we go!
The Infrastructure Cut: This was basically what Patrick described in the intro. The Badgers telegraph their turn using order tokens. Orders on the map do powerful things in the clearing where the order is. Orders on their board do weaker things from a choice of many more clearings. The Badgers also have public buildings that other factions can use, and they build roads automatically between their buildings. The Badgers are Armored but Cumbersome, though they can get around this hindrance either by spending cards or by “strolling” along their roads at the start of their turn. (I still love the term “stroll.”) They score points each turn depending on how many roads they have.
The Charities and Vendettas Cut: There was plain too much stuff happening in the Infrastructure Cut, and road scoring was too variable, as Patrick described, and didn’t feel interesting. Order tokens are out, and public buildings are rebranded as “charities.” If other players destroy charities or Badger warriors, the Badgers can place vendettas on the board, which hinder players there. The Badgers scored by discarding cards matching clearings where they had charities.
The Outposts Cut: Scoring from charities also wasn’t interesting—dumping as much of your hand as possible was always the optimal play. So, the relics emerge. Basically, the Badgers score by delivering relics to matching outposts, which also basically function as the charities did before. Relics got placed from the supply either when the Badgers put down a new outpost or during certain times of the Badgers’ turn. At some points, other players could also put down relics.
The Rootball Cut: The idea of relics was good, but the strategic arc of the Outposts Cut fell flat, and tactical questions during Daylight in the Outposts Cut were not especially interesting. Most of the fun came from choosing where and when you put outposts and relics down, and not much from trying to get the relics back to where they needed to go. So the relics moved from the supply into the forests, which added more geography to the relics game, and made it possible to form some kind of strategy around how you were going to move around the map. Also, you needed to recover relics from “recovery clearings,” specific clearings on the edge of the map specified at setup—thus “Rootball” for its similarity to touchdowns in American football.
The Dice Cut: The Rootball Cut was just too wedded to the recovery clearings, leading to Badger balls that could warp relics across the map with ease. Also, many rules were confusing—”How exactly do waystations work?” “Do I get the bonuses, or do other players get them?” “Why are the contracts different for other players and for me?” It was a mess. This cut introduced the idea that you could recover a relic from a clearing matching its suit by rolling the battle dice. The more matching clearings you ruled, the more likely you’d be to recover the relic. It also introduced Return to the Wood, where enemies who removed relics scored extra points depending on how many matching clearings they ruled.
The Current Cut: The Dice Cut was a huge leap in the right direction. Now, everyone had incentives to think about the geography of the board in a way that hooked into the core game mechanics, especially around rule. But various parts of the design were still unbalanced, too difficult to plan for, and too brittle. Specifically, it was far too important to just constantly get more warriors on the board, to the exclusion of other parts of the design, and people could use bonus moves to get around the Badgers’ Cumbersome trait. My work in the recent past has focused on these problems.
The later changes also helped us solidify the Seekers’ theme. As with many Root factions, I wanted the Seekers to have a mixed, nuanced relationship with the creatures of the Woodland, but the Rootball Cut sent a pretty one-dimensional message: they were removing relics from the Woodland and taking them somewhere else. They’re just appropriating relics, which they may or may not claim to be their own. Boring. If they’re collaborating with Woodland creatures to recover the relics instead, that’s a much more interesting story, since it leads to questions like “What is actually happening to the relics? Who are the parties invested in helping the Badgers?”
For more examples of the Seekers’ mixed relationship, look to their actions. For their Delve action, you’ll see that you spend a card matching the clearing you’re delving in. This means the Seekers might not be doing the seeking all themselves, but rather hiring (or forcing) Woodland creatures to trek out into the forest. But on the flip side, their Escort action lets you remove a Seeker warrior to draw from the deck or the discard pile—perhaps even the very card you discarded to Delve in the first place! Maybe your Woodland companion would’ve gotten lost, or killed, but you Escorted them, so you keep them as a contact and friend. The Seekers are certainly not “the good guys,” but that doesn’t mean they can’t do admirable things.
Round and Round in Circles
Design is not linear, not just a gradual accumulation of good mechanics. Much like the Alliance and Corvids before them, the Seekers have retained much of their spirit, even if their mechanics look totally different. Getting around their Cumbersome trait in the form or roads disappeared in the Charities and Vendettas Cut, only to reappear as caravans and waystations later. Telegraphed turns in the form of order tokens disappeared from the Infrastructure Cut, only to reappear as missions or contracts later. And so on. Themes emerge, then disappear, then reappear. It’s natural. Cole likes to call it “the development merry-go-round.”
But sometimes, going in circles isn’t a sign of healthy progression toward a goal. It’s important to constantly ask yourself why you’re falling into certain design patterns and whether they’re serving your ultimate goals. The mechanics that show up again and again might have stuck around because they’re truly good, but they might be darlings or false foundations:
Darlings are things that you simply feel a strong emotional attachment to. You might feel clever for making them, or maybe they’re old ideas that feel nostalgic and remind you why you got excited about the design in the first place. But they don’t actually serve much of a purpose. The Badgers haven’t had all that many persistent darlings so far—after all, handing over a design to someone else is a surefire way to make darlings disappear.
False foundations are things that actually serve an important purpose in the current design, but make it harder to solve the larger problems and work toward a truly ideal design. They could even be conflicting design goals that need to be reconciled. This was definitely true for the Badgers, as I’ll describe now.
The Badgers are Armored, so they are terrifying to be close to. If they’re also supposed to be semi-cooperative and focused on shared infrastructure on the map, what’s the incentive to be close to them? You might make the incentives strong, but then who will want to destroy the Badgers’ stuff. Why slam into their wall of teeth if you can benefit from it? Plus, even walking into the Badgers’ clearing and standing there is dangerous, since the Seekers can battle at even greater advantage on their own turn. You’re gonna get your face eaten off.
This issue led me to add relics. If it was terrifying to be near the Badgers, then how about creating something that players could interact with far from the Badgers, if need be? However, a new mechanism should never distract from existing ones, but rather it should add new dimensions. In the context of semi-cooperation, relics broke this rule for many factions. The Marquise would stop building and start double-moving around the map, pulling relics everywhere with them. The Corvids went relic-mad, since they ignored rule when moving, and stopped plotting.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Alliance didn’t care about them at all since they didn’t couldn’t take many moves, and likewise for the Lizards. This was too stark of a divide—some factions were pitched into a relic fever-dream, and others couldn’t give a damn. Perhaps only the Eyrie struck the right balance, since they needed to figure out things to do in their Rube Goldbergian turn anyway, so they interacted with the relics by using actions that would have gone to waste.
A second big question dogged the semi-cooperative relics: can enemies destroy them? When they could, the question of “destroy or return?” often came down to simple math. Boring. When they couldn’t, this prompted thorny ruled questions—were they “tokens” anymore or some other class of piece? Being the rules writer for Root, making a new component class was going to make my life, well, let’s say “difficult.”
Even worse, making relics act differently from normal tokens means that they might need to look different from normal tokens. When teaching Root, it’s easy to distinguish what you get points for destroying and not by saying “If it’s cardboard, you score a point. If it’s wood, you don’t.” This means the relics probably couldn’t be wood or cardboard. So what’s left? We thought it would be neat to use resin, so they felt like stones, but this was expensive and we could think of a dozen things the money could be better spent on.
Cutting the Knot
Semi-cooperation really just really wasn’t working. So I cut it.
On its face, this change may seem like it makes games with the Badgers much less interactive, but I would argue the opposite. In the current design cut, enemies are incentivized to think about soft pressures—Who has the warriors and actions right now to crack open a Badger wall? Do they also have the incentive to do so? Do I? If I’m more worried about the aggressor than the Badgers, should I put myself in between them to dissuade them? Do the Badgers have a chance of recovering those relics on their next turn, or will they wait? What relics are they holding on to? Can I get myself rule over the clearings that the Badgers care about, either to prepare to crack the Badger wall or make it harder for them to recover their relics? These questions feel rich, deeply informing Root’s gameplay rather than overshadowing it.
For this reason and more, I love where the design has gone, but challenges certainly remain. Are the Seekers’ missions well balanced? Are they able to score points fast enough? Are they over-reliant on certain strategies? Are they able to police the map when needed? Are some parts of their rules still a bit too complex? Is their play arc reasonable across all the maps, especially with highly clustered clearing suits?
Thankfully, these are all firmly development questions rather than design questions, and I’m really excited to see where they go next. Pretty soon, Nick Brachmann is slated to come onto the project to help me bring them to the finish line with continued development.
The Noun Project is an incredibly useful resource for game prototyping. The prototype of the Stone Seekers currently uses variants of Noun Project vectors for the idol and tablet relics, the mission marker, waystations, and caravans.
- Josh Yearsley
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