Reviewing Root:
The Underworld Expansion

A Fresh Look At A Modern Classic

Jan 12, 2020
root underworld header

It’s about time we talked about Root again! This favorite from Leder Games has been all the rage in our gaming group since my Kickstarter copy arrived in 2018. And given the awards it’s received, we’re clearly not alone in our feelings. If you haven’t checked out our review of the original game, feel free to click that link. I’ll be assuming for the purpose of this review that you’re already familiar with the basics of this adorable, brutal woodland wargame. My big questions going into this new content are:

• What changes and upgrades come with the new box?• How accessible is the content compared to existing goodies?• Does the expansion do anything to mitigate some of the negatives folks have against Root?

And with that, let’s dive right in!

Editor's Note: We received a copy of the Kickstarter edition, which includes a new deck of cards, resin clearing markers, and a pack of Vagabond pawns. We review these components in the article, but please keep in mind they aren't included in the retail version of Underworld. They will still be available for purchase separately, though.

root underworld lake board

The new lake map, home to summer getaways. Or it would be if we could get those pesky moles to stop ruining the shore with their tunnels!

All The New Shiny

Whether you buy expansions for games you love because you want more variety in the content or you want to upgrade existing components, Underworld has you covered. Frankly, this is exactly what I was hoping to find when I cracked open the lid. New goodies to spice up the existing formula! In addition to the two new factions which we’ll talk about shortly, you get a new deck of cards to replace the existing deck, three new Vagabonds, and two new maps. Cosmetically speaking, you get a box of meeples for each individual Vagabond and resin markers to replace the cardboard clearing markers in the random setup. Some of these touches are small and considerate (the Vagabond pawns) and some are game-changingly major (the deck). The new map board included is double-sided, adding lake and mountain pass battlegrounds to your conflicts, both with little subtleties of their own (and supporting the random clearing setup).

The Exiles and Partisans deck is the first big change we’ll discuss. This deck is meant to replace the original deck of cards included with the base game; you can still play with either as you wish, but having gone over to the new deck myself I don’t think I’ll ever revert (not even to teach new players). Cole himself has said how the original deck was conservative by design and that he took way more risks and liberties with abilities in the new cards. These cards are more interactive, occasionally a little meaner in terms of their effects, and way more intriguing. For example, False Orders lets you move half (rounded up) of another player’s armies out of a clearing; prelude for assault or attempt to instigate between two other factions, you decide. The deck also includes mini abilities that resemble the game’s factions, allowing minor versions of an Eyrie decree, Otter water movement, or Mole tunnels just to name a few. Of note, a really nice touch is that with the updated deck the artwork now reflects some of the newer factions. Seeing those wacky Lizards doing silly things never gets old!

root underworld mountain board

It's not just sunny lakeside scenes. The mountains offer narrowed movement and tricky trails!

The maps are fantastic in their own rights. The lake forces players to take the long route around the water if they’re unable to somehow move across it. It combines well with the Riverfolk, as suddenly the riverboats, a service we’ve honestly never felt the need to pay for, become a better source of income! Similarly, the mountain pass adds more than just a new setup for roads to crisscross. Factions can clear pathways for points as well as having an incentive to hold the center “pass” clearing for added victory points. The river is of note on this map as well, running through only three spaces (as opposed to four on all other maps), but those three spaces are two opposite corners and the single space with that victory point incentive. The decisions in these tactical theaters remain as thought provoking as ever, and I promise that if you stop to examine the finer details or question what a faction might gain from them the game will yield surprising insights. I’ll leave the rest of the discovery to you, as that’s part of the fun!

And of course, we have the new factions. I’ll save the detailed breakdown for when we update our Root strategy guide (coming Soon™), but they are just as well-crafted as everything else that comes in the Underworld expansion. The Corvid Conspiracy, a shady murder of Crows, likes to play mind games with opponents by placing face down plot tokens that do different things if revealed or removed. They earn more and more points the more plots they can flip over and then keep on the board, but plots also allow them to do things like bomb an enemy clearing to pieces or extort cards from other players’ hands. Those players can potentially remove plots before they take effect by guessing them (giving you a card if they’re wrong), so being unpredictable is key. They’re a tricky balance of guerilla warfare, trickery, and frontline army, somewhere between the Lizards and Woodland Alliance, in my opinion.

The Underground Duchy, a group of Mole lords and nobles, seeks to spread their own influence in the forest by swaying ministers from a special deck of cards into their service. Much like Riverfolk trading posts, you only get the points when recruiting once, and you lose ministers if you lose buildings from the map. Turns out Moles like to walk away from your cause in disgust if they feel you’re not up to the task, though you can re-recruit them for their abilities (minus the aforementioned point bonus). They play a bit like the bigger army factions of Cats and Birds, but with less overall action points; the catch is that your ministers give you extra, free actions each turn, so your best interests are always a balance of defending your buildings and staging daring surprise raids as you tunnel up onto the board. Did I mention the Moles dig tunnels? Of course they do! You stage forces on a special tile “below” the map and then come up nearly anywhere you wish. The Moles, for what I like to call a “big army faction,” have a lot of movement freedom that makes them incredibly dangerous if left unchecked.

root underworld clearing paths

The mountains are narrow at first, but by widening the pathways you can gain a small point boost in addition to your newfound mobility.

Immediately Accessible, No Lack Of Depth

Question number two: complexity. I’m very pleased to say that both the Corvids and Duchy feel immediately more accessible and easy to play right out of the box than the Riverfolk and Lizard Cult. That’s not a dig against the prior expansion; the Otters happen to be my personal favorite faction! But I’ll be the first to admit that strategy and playing those factions well can be a bit—challenging. We still have yet to win a game with the Lizards, even with the balance changes. By comparison, there’s a level of refinement in the newest factions that shows an increasing level of dedication to the concept of a faction and its gameplay. While both factions offer many tasty decisions and have their own curves to master, even in our first games with them we were never at the same loss for how to play them that we were with the first expansion. Additionally, more complex lines of play revealed themselves more readily through the course of the conflict. If this box were sold at a lower cost and had nothing but these two new faction boards in it, I would still tell you this is a must-purchase. The ways they combine with the existing factions to create new and interesting dynamics is totally top notch in keeping with the spirit of the original game!

The new deck of cards, for all its added complexity in how interactions with factions play out, isn’t any more complex to teach. We had a brand new Root player at our game night last week and I taught him with the new deck; he was never at a loss working with these cards, and I was never at a loss teaching with them. There are more cards with unique ability text now, so we’ve found it helpful to read them whenever crafted (or if entering the Riverfolk’s hand for sale). While you can play with the original deck anytime you’d like to swap it back in, I don’t think I’ll ever do so. I lament the loss of some of the original cards like Brutal Tactics or the Favor Of cards, but new additions like Coffin Makers or the mini versions of faction powers more than make up for them. We also found that while it’s fun to, say, combine the Moles with a faction ability to convert units like a Lizard, combining the Moles with their own mini tunnel card makes them even more versatile and powerful! The fact that these cards work slightly differently than faction boards so as to actually combine in favorable ways rather than be redundant deserves special mention, and I found this design consideration to be extremely clever. Two big thumbs up!

There isn’t much to say about the new Vagabonds. Their core gameplay is the same as it ever was, but with three new identities you get even more ways to play! The Harrier is a flying squirrel who gets the ability to Glide into any clearing on the board. She also starts with a sword and crossbow, so watch out! The Adventurer is a barn owl who only starts with three equipment (one of which, of note, is a hammer) but can Improvise once per turn, damaging an item to count it as "wild" when fulfilling quests. The Ronin, a wiley racoon, can Swift Strike, exhausting a sword in combat to deal one extra hit. He starts with two boots to compensate for going hostlie earlier in the game. Really, what more could you want out of the one-animal army that is the Vagabond?

root underworld coffin makers

Coffin Makers earns you a point for every 5 units that are about to go back to their owners. You don't even need to be the aggressor to profit here!

Addressing The Root Concerns

Perhaps the single biggest question I had going into the new content of Underworld was if this expansion would do anything to allay prior complaints against the base game. To clarify, some lovers of wargames decry Root for its inability to let you mitigate the continued assault of the other players; if everyone gangs up on you (say if you’re pulling too far ahead), you can do precious little to stop them, and everyone collectively can do more against you on their turns than you can singularly do on yours. I’ll flat out say that as clever as the new factions are, this fact remains unchanged. Root is not a wargame of perfect strategy where you thrash opponents through superior military force; it remains, as ever, as much a political and power dynamic simulator as a tactical wargame.

That part in every one of my reviews where I give consideration for who this game isn’t for, that’s this part right here. If you’re looking for this expansion to “fix Root,” stop looking. In my experience playing Root is a lot like the hobby of learning photography, something I’ve dabbled in. If you try to force camera lenses to take shots they’re really not suited to take, you’ll get bad photographs. Better to understand the limitations and strengths of each lens and, instead of trying to force them into something they’re not, use them for what they’re best at. You’ll be happier, and you’ll get better pictures. Similarly, Root is what it is. This expansion adds more spice and intrigue to the formula, but it doesn’t change that basic formula at all. If nothing’s changed with your core gaming group or your opinion on the base game, you’re probably not going to find anything here that changes it.

root underworld vagabonds

The new Vagabonds! Each one is a completely new way to play from the myriad of other identities we've already got.

Final Thoughts

The Underworld Expansion sees Root remaining as a game where it benefits you to manage your hand, to table talk and make deals, and to run with the pack instead of pulling too far ahead too early. This is still a game of well-timed grabs for power, of end game point lunges, of hiding your power and not being perceived as the biggest threat while you plan your next move. If you’re already a fan of Root, then let’s face it, you want this expansion. From component upgrades to new ways to play, this box has everything lovers of this game have been waiting for. If you’re not a fan of this game, I’d say you can probably hold off on this purchase. That’s totally fine.

And if you’ve been sitting on the fence, waiting to see if Root is right for you or not, I’d say maybe ask yourself why you've been waiting. If the answer is more content, a feeling that somehow the current six factions would feel too samey after several games, or that the deck of cards possibly didn't have enough interaction in its abilities, then I think you'll be safe to move ahead with this expansion. If I had one lament , it would be that I can no longer fit everything for Root in one box (I'm a bit nuts about fitting expansion content conveniently like that). But if, like me, that's your biggest complaint too, then do yourself a favor and get over it. Get this box. You'll never play without it ever again.

Adam Factor