Root — The Eyrie & Marquise de Cat

We continue our examination of Root highlighting two factions this time, the Eyrie and Marquise de Cat and focusing on how it feels to interact with them, and how they fit into the “narrative” of the game that seems to be a key part of Cole's design. #Root

For this part, we'll take a look at two factions which I believe are standouts in term of their design: The Eyrie and the Marquise de Cat. I believe these two factions to be “foundational” factions that set a baseline experience for the game. In terms of design, they fit right into the base schema of most COIN games, and provide a consistently engaging gameplay experience throughout. Though highly anecdotal, I have personally enjoyed games I played with the Marquise and/or Eyrie present than games where neither of them are there.

One of the fundamentals of the COIN series is that factions are softly opposed to one another. By virtue of you doing well, it means that at least one other player is doing worse. However, just having a rival mechanic isn't what makes the mechanic special. What makes it impressive is when the tension comes naturally as part of the narrative instead of a forced interaction. It's what differentiates a game like this to a more take-that game. This not only makes the game flow smoother, but also makes it easier for someone (particularly a first-timer) to feel more impactful.

More-so than that, I find that both factions bring to the table something that no other faction can really replace: consistency. The Marquise is a fairly consistent source of development and does a lot of work towards laying out the “groundwork” of the board. On the flip side, the Eyrie is a consistent source of combat and destruction, often times doing a lot of the legwork in keeping checks on factions that rely on scaling into late-game (Vagabond, Riverfolk, Alliance). Sure, other factions can be aggressive or sprawl across the map, but none can maintain the same consistent pressure turn after turn.

Another similarity is that both factions are also very logical in their flow of actions. The Eyrie needs to recruit to have warriors to move to clearings to fight and build roosts; the Marquise needs to get wood and deliver wood to build buildings to craft and recruit. In that way, a newcomer to the game has a pretty good chance of doing well just by doing the logical things their gut tells them to do because they're building the narrative, not playing a gimmick.

However, having the spotlight isn't just the glitz and glamor, you also gotta bare the heat. The Marquise in particular comes under fire relatively quickly in the course of a game. Because they start everywhere, people assume that they're much stronger than they actually are. Thus, the Marquise easily becomes painted as the “villain” of the story and often unfairly (and unnecessarily) becomes the target of aggression from the other players. Between the Eyrie having to satisfy their Battle commands, a constant threat of Revolt from the Alliance, and an ongoing need to protect the Keep, playing the Marquise is a big juggling act that can sometimes be a bit frustrating — particularly for a newer player. While other players start with little and build upwards, the Marquise begins with a lot and eventually gets contained. This isn't to say that the Marquise isn't doing well if he's not everywhere, but it is ironic in a game largely centered around area-control that to do better is to control less.

Though the issue itself is naturally resolved with more experience to the meta, it does lead to some unsatisfying games early on. At the core of the issue is a mismatch in narrative and presentation. Strength for the Marquise does not lie in the number of warriors they have, but the number of buildings and supply lines they can maintain. Therefore, by having their setup be so warrior-heavy, newer players naturally assume the Marquise to be stronger than they are — a logical conclusion given the area-control aspect. The deceptive appearance of strength of the Marquise also indirectly causes a lot of the “inbalance” felt towards other factions, particularly the “underdog” factions like the Alliance or Vagabond, who do not get enough aggression until it's too late.

That said, I do want to emphasize that these are ultimately human-related flaws and not of the design itself. The faction works. Regardless of which stage of the game you're in, the Marquise remains relevant and influential. They aren't the most exciting faction and won't make “big plays” like the Alliance or Lizards might, but the represent a faction of steady growth. Getting ganged up on is an unfortunate side-effect of the game's setup, but Marquise players are given a very unique position in the politics of Root.

Originally, the Marquise was supposed to have its own post with a lengthy section on the negative power-cycling (small losses always lead to bigger losses) of the faction due to how difficult it is for them to maintain a healthy warrior population. The 2018-12-21 rules change to the Marquise's Keep has largely addressed that issue, though I believe it will lead to a slew of other problems as now the Marquise has too healthy of a warrior population which will allow them to "turtle" too effectively. Only time will tell.

Then we have the Eyrie, undeniably the most combat-heavy faction. In my personal opinion, I believe them to be hands-down the best designed faction in both the base game and Riverfolk expansion. The reason I say this is because the Eyrie manages to have clearly defined strengths and weaknesses, but is not pigeonholed by either of them. Their strengths in combat and ability to fly across the board do not typecast them to only relying on aggression; likewise, their predictable turns and the looming threat of Turmoil is enough of a weakness for other players to exploit but not a permanent ball-and-chain. A rotating roster of leaders also ensures some variety in the course of a session and adds a bit of spice.

Gameplay-wise, the Eyrie is unique in their usage of a pre-programmed action track. From a design perspective, this is a necessary balance: giving a faction both the strength of combat and freedom to do so at their own leisure is a recipe for disaster, so the Eyrie's mandate to both perform combat and build nests forces them to engage in suboptimal fights. Furthermore, because the conditions for their Turmoil is public, a lot more negotiation is made possible by the presence of the Eyrie. While other factions tend to either not have much to leverage (Lizards, Riverfolk), or little to negotiate for (Alliance), the Eyrie strikes a comfortable balance between both having something worthwhile to negotiate (their battle strength) and enough leverage in the hands of others to make it possible.

For all their strengths though, the one design flaw is simply how punishing their Turmoils are. At the moment, a Turmoil kind of double-dips on damages: not only do the Eyrie lose the remainder of their turn and all of their mandates, they also lose points per bird mandate. From a points perspective, the Eyrie is not often rocketing above the competition anyway, so the point loss seems a bit aggressive, especially since losing all mandates is already a punishment in-and-of-itself. While a playstyle that leverages Turmoils often is theoretically possible and opens the door to lots of interesting strategies, the current highly-punishing nature of each Turmoil has derailed each of my attempts to do so. I believe even a small change, such as losing 1 point per two bird cards, can open the door to a much more diverse narrative where the usage of the leaders are not so all-or-nothing.

All in all, the Eyrie and Marquise fulfill their respective roles perfectly. One is concentrated on maintaining supply lines and building buildings, while the other is pushed to conquer and expand their territory. The Eyrie is not an enemy of the Marquise, but their motivations naturally are at odds with one another. Compared to a game like Liberty or Death where the Patriots and British take center stage, the tug-of-war between the Marquise and Eyrie is what drives the narrative forward in Root.