Root — The Lizard Cult

This series represents a collection of my observations on Root after more than two dozen games. We won't really talk about the presentation of the game, or any of sort session reports; instead, the core focus will be on the different factions, 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

First and foremost, let's start with my most played faction: The Lizard Cult. I enjoy a game I can tell a good story about afterwards, so when I heard Cole describe the Lizard Cult (hereafter abbreviated as LC) as a faction with an interesting narrative, I was naturally very intrigued. From the get-go, I knew the community's laments regarding their weakness, but I was determined to try and make them work. After almost a dozen sessions with the LC, my conclusion is that there isn't one singular cause for their weak stature, but a collection of design issues, each exacerbating the others.

These issues boil down to three particular points:

  1. Their dependence on the most random part of the game
  2. A significantly slower early-game and a lack of good rebounds
  3. A lack of control over their own gameplay and narrative

Root's design presents only two overarching mechanics where luck is a factor: the card deck and the battle dice. Unfortunately for the LC, their main source of actions during Daytime revolves heavily around their ability to draw the suits they need. If you can't get any duplicate suits, or worse — drawing all bird suit — you essentially have no meaningful turns. Regrettably, the Law does not provide any balancing mechanics to offset poor card luck. This has been such a problem on three separate occasions that my group has a house rule where the LC can't start with more than one bird card in their initial hand.*

* The 2018-12-21 rules in which bird cards now pull Acolytes from your General Supply instead of from the board nullifies the need for this house rule.

Compounding to this issue are two more negatives:

  1. the limited hand size applied to all factions
  2. the lack of any “wild” or “empowering” suit

Of course, there are other factions that utilize card suits heavily, such as the Eyrie and Alliance, but they don't quite suffer from having a limited hand size like the Lizards do.* (The Eyrie does not burn through cards and gets access to “draw +1 card” Roosts pretty quickly. The Alliance have their supporter cards in a totally different pile that doesn't even contribute to their hand limit.) Generally, the bird cards, while few, are powerful additions to both the Eyrie's and Alliance's hand while the same bird cards are of low-value to the LC. Furthermore, not only do the Lizards have a suit that is weaker for them, there isn't anything on the other side of the scale, a balancing suit which would be considered stronger.

* The 2018-12-21 had changes that made the LC's “draw +1 card” Gardens more accessible which makes the hand size constraint much more tolerable.

Which brings us to the LC's overall frustrating gameplay. Your primary method of getting points as the LC is to build and score Gardens; however, building a Garden and scoring said Gardens are two separate actions, whereas other building-dependent factions either score automatically (Eyrie), or have the scoring and building all as part of one action (Marquise, Riverfolk, Alliance). Furthermore, while other factions do not incur losses to score, the LC both requires you to spend an action, and to discard the card you score with. While the ability to score multiple suits does help, it's incredibly difficult to get two (out of the three) suits up to the “+3” column and sustain those Gardens for more than one turn. This makes the LC the only building-dependent faction where their ability to score isn't guaranteed. Building a garden doesn't mean you get to score, and just because you scored this round doesn't mean you get to score the next round.

Frustratingly, the LC faces yet another challenge when attempting to score Gardens. You see, when a Garden is destroyed, they also lose a random card from their hand (more on that later). This means that going into the next round, not only does the LC have a lower capacity to score (now having fewer gardens), they also have a lower capacity to bounce back (now having fewer cards/actions). A particularly rough round might leave you with three fewer Gardens and only two cards/actions to try and recover. This leads to a vicious cycle where if you fall down, you tend to stay down for the rest of the game.

Adding oil to the fire, Gardens are also buildings, as opposed to tokens. The fact that Gardens are buildings and not tokens means they're subject to all the additional rules that buildings need to follow (control of a clearing, having an available building spot). Compare this to a faction like the Marquise, another building-reliant faction: not only do they not lose actions when a building is destroyed, but as a consolation, they're guaranteed to re-score that same building should they rebuild it in the future. In essence, not only are Gardens slow and intrinsically unrewarding to build and score, they're also extremely damaging when destroyed.

Interestingly, the 2018-12-21 rules dramatically change the role Gardens play in the game. Gardens used to be essential to build to get the LC's card mill started. Now, only the first two Gardens of each suit (to get your "draw +1 card") are really "essential". This helps alleviate the pressure of having Gardens as buildings (since you don't need to build as much), and frees up a lot of the other Gardens to be used more creatively since they don't hurt your card economy if destroyed. That said, the point about scoring being a separate action is still true and in my experience, the LC continue to be the slowest, out of the base game + Riverfolk, to generate points.

This leads into the last bit which is control of one's own destiny. The LC is the faction with the least control over their environment. Not only do they have very little influence over a core mechanic of theirs (the Hated/Outcasts which also control their Conspiracies and crafting), but they also have one of the few “random card” mechanics in the game. Other factions, when they lose or give up cards, do so either via player's choice or in a predictable manner; however, when the LC loses a card due to Garden destruction, they must randomly discard one from their hand. If you lose your only card of a suit that you needed to score — oh well, better luck next time. Once again, the game punishes the LC by subjecting the player to blind luck when their assets are destroyed. The result? A lingering feeling like a spectator in their your own game: things just unfurl around the LC and the player has little to no options to exert any influence over the development of the situation.

The 2018-12-21 rules do help this a bit. A greater access to cards means the LC gets to discard more often which directly gives the player more influence over the Hated/Outcast suite.

This phenomenon isn't just limited to the cards as well. Conspiracies, arguably the most interesting part of the LC's kit, is actually scarcely* available. Due to how Acolytes are created, some factions simply don't have a lot of interactions with you that create Acolytes. Revolts from the Alliance and Crossbow shots from the Vagabond don't give you any Acolytes, and unless you're playing with a high aggression faction like the Eyrie (situationally the Riverfolk through their Mercenaries) you simply don't get enough Acolytes to make your Conspiracies interesting. Generating your own Acolytes is inefficient; as you only really get 5 actions per turn, spending 40%* of your turn on two actions (one to put a warrior on the board and a second to remove said warrior) to get a single Acolyte is quite underwhelming.

* As stated earlier, bird cards are a lot more feasible now. 20% of your turn for a single Acolyte still isn't great, but at least it's “free” since you no longer need a warrior on the board.

Looking at the bigger picture, the LC don't really “scale” larger over time. The impact of each of the LC's actions doesn't really change. All the other factions have a built-in sense of growth as the game progresses: the Marquise's actions get stronger the more buildings they have, the Alliance gets to cast a wider net of Sympathy, the Eyrie just straight up gets more actions per turn, etc.; but, the LC's actions never get any stronger, nor do they reliably get more actions. It's impossible for the LC to craft Tax Collector, and being able to craft a Better Burrow Bank, though a big help, is not guaranteed. The sense of growth and “being better than where you started” is a fundamental aspect of GMT's COIN games, and the LC's design doesn't always seem like it embodies that virtue.

So why has there been so little in terms of rebalancing the LC? Cole has stated in his Reddit AMA that he's satisfied with how the LC plays because they provide an interesting narrative, but I found the overall experience to be one of inconsistent hardship. While it's true that the LC has “plotlines” that no other faction can experience, it's hard to say that's better when a majority of those “plotlines” are about as upbeat as a Chekhov play. An interesting narrative doesn't cover for an inability to win and lackluster gameplay that can be simply described as “not fun”. In their current incarnation, the LC occupies a role where they're capable of blocking others but never seem to be adept at advancing their own objectives. They're like the designated kingmakers, doomed to play a support role in a competitive game with no teammates.

While certain issues with the experience of playing the LC definitely still exist, the new rules do address many of the mechanical problems. Interestingly, while the LC still struggle with keeping up on the points track, the new changes give them a more pronounced synergy with the Dominance cards. That said, Dominance cards tend to be the riskiest path towards victory as anyone who claims a Dominance card immediately paints a huge target on themselves.