Hard Cuts: The Continued Development of Root by Cole Wehrle
Over the past two months, I’ve had a lot of folks ask me to continue writing designer diaries on the game so that they could keep up with development. This was always a tricky proposition for me, because, for one thing, most of the changes were small and I didn’t know if everyone would want to read a thousand words on why I changed a +1 to a +2. All the same, I enjoy writing these posts, so I figured that, instead of filling the forums with little posts, I should collect my thoughts on the continued development of the game in a single post. The longer form has also allowed me to be a little more candid about the development process.
This is not a story that will interest everyone, and it may even bother some who’d rather not dwell on the difficulties of design. Creative work is a messy business, after all.
For those folks, I will just say that Root has continued to improve is in great shape. For everyone else, I hope you find something worthwhile here. I expect this piece be on the long side. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Right before we launched the Kickstarter, Patrick gathered the staff here at Leder Games for a meeting. He warned us about how trying the next month would be and how much would be expected of us. The hours would be long. We’d get a lot of questions from potential backers, and some of those questions might seem silly or mean. Nonetheless, we had to keep our composure.
Patrick also warned us about something I had never thought about. If the campaign took off, as it did, we would feel on top of the world. But, when the campaign was over, we should expect something of an emotional crash. No matter how successful it was, you simply can’t keep feeling that good day after day after day. He said it plainly. We should expect to be a little depressed at the end, without reason, and should give ourselves time to regain perspective after it was all over.
That last bit turned out to be very good advice.
I don’t know if I’ve ever worked as hard as I did during the campaign, and I capped everything off with a whirlwind trip to BGG CON and then another trip home to work for a few days to see the campaign across the finish line. When I woke up the next day I felt horrible. It was a strange, out-of-the-blue, kick to the stomach. And, while I was moping around, waiting to meet up with my wife and kids for a thanksgiving trip, I remembered what Patrick had said and acted accordingly. I gave myself some distance from the game. I pulled out some old SPI wargames and neglected Sid Sackson games and spent the holiday playing with family without giving Root a moment of my thought. There’s nothing like shouting “You’re not the boss, I’m the boss!” to clear your head.
Still, it was an odd thing. In the back of my head, I knew that a lot of work remained to be done on the game. That the game was close to being finished was immaterial. As anyone whose ever built anything like this knows, the final 20 yards are the hardest fought. The current game was solid, but I wanted it to be great.
Assessing the Work that Remained
When I got back to Saint Paul, the first thing I did was lay out my personal prototype of Root and set-up a game. I had planned on playing each of the factions through a single game to refresh myself, and then write some notes. I took out a pen and pad, wrote the date on top of the sheet and got ready to get going.
I didn’t get far. Instead, I just stared at it. The game was fine. I knew that if I played through it at that moment exactly what I would see. But, I couldn’t stop thinking about a conversation I had with my brother shortly before the campaign was over. Drew has been by my side on every big game design I’ve undertaken. He’s a model critic and collaborator and has impeccable taste.
A couple of weeks before the end of the campaign, he ran several playtests for me and then called me up. We talked for a long, long time about the game. He was enthusiastic about the design and about how the Kickstarter was positioned and how well it was doing. But, when all was said and done, I could tell that he was dissatisfied. He spoke plainly, “It’s not quite there, is it?”
“I mean, I see what you’re trying to do,” he continued. “But, the game is missing its edge.”
His comments echoed the feelings of some of my veteran team who helped me with John Company. Of course, that didn’t make hearing his thoughts any easier. I didn’t know what to say, but I knew he was right.
Here’s the thing: Root was perfectly good at that moment. I knew that if I played through the game I would get a pretty tense affair with a few tough decisions and a close final score. That was where the game was. Kyle’s amazing art had brought the project alive, and it was an easy game to demo and to show off. Nevertheless, the game didn’t haunt me the way other projects had. That’s what my brother had meant. The best designs should get stuck in your head. They should beguile more than bemuse.
This is not an easy moment for me to recall, but I want to say it all the same. The vast majority of creative work is in learning from the work of your prior self and (often) destroying that old work to make way for something better. This moment was made all the more difficult because I was getting good reports from some playtesters, and the reception of the game at BGG CON and Pax Unplugged had been excellent. People were having fun with the game! Who was I to mess with that?
At some level, I knew I was the only person who could mess with the game. Don’t get me wrong, Patrick is a great developer (more on that later), but running Root at Leder included almost as much project management as it does design work. I was setting deadlines and guiding our development and testing schedule. If someone was going to pull the emergency brakes, it was going to have to be me. So, I did.
When I got to the office the next day, I compiled every report and impression on Root I could find and tried to see which elements resonated with my own problems with the design. Much of what I read gelled with my own understanding. The game was opaque, sure, but it’s opacity wasn’t working against the design, making trivial decisions seem more interesting than they were.
You Say You Want a Revolution?
The core of the problem seemed to be with The Woodland Alliance. Patrick confirmed these feelings. After he returned from Pax Unplugged, he told me about game after game where a new Alliance player had struggled with their role. In demos, our volunteers and staff had usually just picked the Alliance to run to keep things going smoothly. That’s never a good sign.
Of all the factions, the Alliance was easily the hardest. It usually took players two or three plays to get a sense of their power curve. That said, once a new player had a handle on them, the Alliance was probably the strongest faction in play. Of all of the factions, the Alliance had to know how the deck worked, which cards to hold on to and which to cash in for action potential.
In earlier drafts of the game, playing the alliance was a tense affair, with lots of opportunities for misdirection. At their core, they had to construct and maintain a complex engine, and hide strategic pivots and developments from other players. Where were the resource centers? When should the Marquise or Eyrie player crack down? However, as development continued a lot of the sharper edges of this design had been softened. This softening wasn’t intentional. Mostly, these changes were an attempt to combat the deck. Despite the centrality of cards in the game, I didn’t want players to ever feel like they were at the mercy of their card draws. But, in adjusting those cards and providing rules that allowed a bad card to be used in good ways, I removed some of the tension from the faction. In short, in an effort to make the game better and fairer, the Alliance was getting worse.
When you develop a game, there’s no guarantee that continued work is going to make something better. This is perhaps the hardest truth of creative work. Even for those who have seen ambitious projects through to completion and success, nothing will stop you from making mistakes. The plays at Pax Unplugged and the reports from my playtesters made it clear that the Alliance’s development was going in the wrong direction.
After reading the reports, I went back to the drawing board, but my first efforts to fix the Alliance did not end well. I had assumed at the core problems of the Alliance were to be found in their inscrutability. In report after report, I read about how other players had no idea what the Alliance was doing. Perhaps, if I made their position more transparent it would help provide the other players space to interact with the Alliance more. So, I built several clever reinterpretations of the Alliance’s mechanical space that were considerably more transparent without really having to mess with the rest of the game. Each was received well enough, but there was still something wrong. My anxieties were bolstered by my development schedule, which pushed me to think small when it came to fixing problems.
Talking to my brother once more, I lamented not having the freedom to consider huge overhauls and restarts. There were deadlines (of my own invention!) pressing against me, and I had to keep a delicate touch, so that the project stayed on schedule. Now, before you get worried about the status of Root, you should know this is a very typical complaint. When you’re neck deep in a project, of course you’d rather scrap it and start over! Usually this is the phase in creation where you start generating all of your ideas for future games. There’s nothing like a new project to pull you out of the dumps.
Of course, I didn’t quite have that freedom. I had an Alliance to fix. And so I cleared my desk and kept at it. However, instead of worrying about schedules, I decided to imagine that this project was still just in its early stages. There were no stakes. I wanted to look at the whole design.
To that end, I read through all of my notes, including the development diaries that I published on BGG. I spent time reading about insurgency and the ways that it’s been inserted into games and thought about how my model of cards as a measure of biopolitics interfaced with those games. The deeper I got the more I became disenchanted with my previous Alliance design. It wasn’t that they were merely a weak point of the game’s design…they were a weak point in my own thinking about the topic of the game.
The conspiracies were a central problem here. Originally imagined as a Netrunner-like heist, they simply didn’t fit the spirit or scale of what Root was trying to do. I maintain that there is a good idea to be found there, but it was out-of-place. So, in a moment of enthusiasm, I mirrored the files for the game and went through the deck, deleting every conspiracy.
I’ll admit too that this purge was also motivated by my own dissatisfaction with the card design. It just wasn’t quite as clean as it should be and it wasn’t getting better no matter which approach I tried. The moment I killed the conspiracies the design of the cards snapped into sharp focus. I showed them to Patrick who was enthusiastic. A few minutes later, I was eagerly cutting a new deck of cards.
As I finished cutting the deck, it dawned on me that I had effectively killed the Alliance. Their central mechanism, one of the founding systems in the game, was now gone. For about a week I struggled to replace the system, eventually coming up with something that almost worked the same was as the conspiracies but without the graphics overhead. However, the problem remained. The Alliance still felt flat.
Then, right before Christmas, I changed strategies. I set up a two player game: Marquise vs. Eyrie and played out the game slowly, almost as a storytelling exercise. I tried to imagine how each of the competing kingdoms would contend with a rebellion. What actions would they take that would antagonize it? How would they fit in? I added pieces to the game as reminders of events. A revolt that broke out in a fox clearing would be marked by a new base of operations. As sympathy for their cause spread, little tokens would be added to the map. Entering those sympathetic territories would be dangerous, and cost the invading kingdoms supporters.
Then, as fast as the card layout had come together, a new approach suggested itself. The reason I was struggling with the Alliance is because I hadn’t given myself permission to add new pieces to the game. Here I should say something about my design background. My previous games have been published by two companies with outrageously difficult production constraints. Weight and cost were constant factors in my design process. In general, it’s a good thing for a design to have. No matter the problem, I tried to keep my solutions simple—at least when it came to components. The challenge was always seeing how much gameplay I could shove into a handful of cubes.
But, if this is a good design ethos generally, it’s also one that can blind you. As soon as I gave myself permission to add a new piece to the Alliance, the revelation was secure.
The New Alliance
The new Alliance is built around two primary concepts. The first is the sympathy token. These are tokens, like the Marquise’s wood tokens, which don’t take up a building slot in a clearing, but also can’t move or fight like a warrior. The Alliance can only have one sympathy token per clearing and placing these tokens on the board is their primary way of gaining victory points.
Placement of sympathy tokens brings me to the second critical element of the Alliance’s new design: the supporter stack. The supporter stack is essentially a second hand, but cards in this stack can only be used during Birdsong to place sympathy tokens and to trigger revolts. Placing sympathy requires spending a number of cards matching the clearing adjacent to where you already have sympathy. Then, on later turns, additional matching cards can be spent to trigger revolts in sympathetic regions. Revolts, in turn, unlock the possibility for military operations, but, at the same time, expose the Alliance to direct attack.
Sympathy tokens also have consequences for other players. Anytime a player moves warriors into a clearing with sympathy tokens, they have to put a card matching that clearing into the Alliance’s supporter stack. This means that marching through territory friendly to the Alliance is something to be avoided. Of course, like wood tokens, sympathy tokens are defenseless and can be attacked, but every removed token will trigger outrage, which causes a card to be added to the supporter stack from the deck.
In sum, the actions of the new Alliance can shape the game considerably. The engine-building nature of the old Alliance has been replaced by a responsive, hydraulic system that is both dramatically lighter on rules and feels more thematic.
Cutting the conspiracies out of the deck allowed me to reappraise the general structure of the deck as well. The deck was one element of the game that functioned perfectly well but that I hadn’t given too much thought. In this way it’s a little similar to the map itself. The map was one of the first things I sketched out, and the game, in many respects, was built on top of it. Because I wanted to allow for the possibility of randomized setups, I didn’t dwell too much on its precise structure beyond just a few general principles. The deck was much the same. I knew it’s size and the relative balance of the different suits. But, as the game developed, I realized my initial desire to create a “tilted” deck (having suits of different sizes) was actually working against the game.
For one, if the deck was tilted the board was not, which created weird strategic imbalances that we’re being forced not by the players but by an artificial constraint. In addition, the deck asymmetry was just another set of data that had to be mastered to playing well, which meant that it was a barrier for new players, but didn’t really offer much payoff for experienced hands.
Now, feeling fresh after a new layout design, I decided to make the deck a little more symmetrical. All of the suits would be made basically equivalent, with one special victory condition and one ambush card per suit. The birds suit would still get their extra ambush.
I also gave each suit a similar structure. Expecting the ambush and special victory condition cards, each suit would be evenly divided between “items” and “persistent improvements.” The crafting costs would remain stable (that is, a sword would cost two foxes no matter the suit), but each suit would have its own particular improvements thematically tied to that woodland nation. The mice, for instance, are good spies and have the espionage improvements. The birds are great warriors and have improvements which help in combat. This coding tightened a lot of the mnemonics already present in the game.
One of my favorite things about the deck alteration was that it meant that we needed a lot more. So now almost every card will have a unique art piece! That’s one change I know folks will be happy with.
In comparison to the Alliance, the design challenges facing the Vagabond were minor. The role worked, but it also felt somewhat aimless in the early game. The trouble was that it’s purpose depended wholly on the other players and the arc of the game. This meant that the Vagabond was probably the worst role that could be given to a beginner.
This was compounded by the fact that the Vagabond had twice as many rules associated with it than the other factions. Even as I chipped away at the Alliance and the deck, I knew I would eventually need to spend significant time with the Vagabond. In order to make the role better gel with the rest of the design, he needed to be simplified and made a little more consequential.
Before I did this, I decided to give the rules a thorough reorganization and rewrite. Aided by my editor, the wonderful Joshua Yearsley, I went through the reference rulebook and enforced a very strict structure, inspired by my favorite elements of classic wargaming rulebook writing.
Rulebook writing is the central task of design, but its often not done rigorously until late in the process. I tend to want to punch my rulebooks into shape a little earlier than many of my peers. The chief reason I do this is because I find the process of writing ideas out and creating a structure for those ideas to be immensely revealing. The troubles I was having with the Vagabond could be expressed as a function how much longer the Vagabond’s rules were. And, it was no surprise that as I tore into the rules, I found the Vagabond section was by far the most resistant to restructuring.
As I prepared to develop the vagabond, I took an approach directly opposite of how I had solved the problem with the Alliance. Instead of reading up on revolutions and feeling the role in a loosely structured mock game, I started with the hard, precise language of the rulebook. Right now the rules for the Vagabond were about two thousand words long. Could I cut it in half?
I started with the exceptions and the definitions. There were lots of places where a slippage in my use of the word “action” had created problems. Then I went to the faction-specific subsystems. The old alignment chart had grown organically but, looking at playtesting data, hardly any of it would be used. The word-count started falling dramatically and after about an afternoon, I had a streamlined Vagabond that worked with about 800 words.
When I played this simplified Vagabond the role initially felt a little flat. It’s turns seemed too obvious and it was missing out on a lot of the challenge that the other players got to experience. Like the Alliance, I realized that the old system had been obscuring the problems by making simple choices opaque.
To fix this problem, I added two systems to the Vagabond. The first was an altered item economy that controlled how quickly items could be refreshed and how many items could be carried. This gave the Vagabond a lot of hard choices about how to manage their inventory and pivot from one plan to another.
The bigger change, however, was the introduction of a questing system. I’m generally suspicious of questing systems, especially those that rely on drawing quest cards and then just doing the thing on the card. For this reason I had thrown out an earlier system. However, the Vagabond needed another source of non-player victory points that they could work towards without tilting the scale one way or another. Because of the changes to the item economy, it was an easy build. Basically, there would also be three quest cards face up. These would be tasks which the natives of the forest would want the vagabond to undertake. Each requires two items to be exhausted while the vagabond was in a matching clearing. The vagabond would then score cards equal to the number of quests you’ve completed of that type plus two. So, the more you help the mice, the more they reward you.
The questing system had two benefits that I hadn’t planned on. First, it gave the vagabond a sense of regional identity, and the geography of the board became a lot more meaningful. Second, provided vagabonds with an interface to compete with one another in games with two vagabonds.
The Last Ten Yards
At the point all of the elements of the base game are basically done. There are a few values that may increase or decrease a little, and a couple of mechanisms that might be adjusted. Figuring out those changes is no easy task, but I know that I’m finally at the stage in this project where I need to do a lot more playing than designing. Thankfully, I’ve still got plenty of elements I need to design for the expansion!
Every creative work is, at some level, supported by the work of many people. Sometimes their support is immediate—perhaps just a room away, helping watch the kids while you work a little overtime. Other types of support are more obscure. I certainly couldn’t have designed this game without the dozens of writers and thinkers who died long before I was born. Nor could the game have been made without the amazing attention and care of our in-house team at Leder Games and our remote playtesting groups. Root is well on it’s way to becoming a great game, and its quality is a testament to them.
If you missed the Kickstarter and are interested in ROOT, you can pre-order HERE