Root — The Vagabond

Continuing our examination of Root, this time we're focusing on the mixed bag called The Vagabond. We'll take a closer look at the interactions the faction brings to the game, and highlight some problematic areas that comes with it. #Root

Throughout the rest of this deep dive, we'll be talking about the single issue that contributes the most to the Vagabond's flaws: the faction's current design betrays its design philosophies and only works in its current state because it doesn't experience competition for resources.

In Cole's Designer Diary regarding the Vagabond's design, he highlights two principles that drove the faction's design:

  1. Instead of having an internal scoring engine, the Vagabond should score primarily on player-to-player (P2P) interaction.
  2. The Vagabond should act as a balancing force, weak by himself, but strong with Allies supporting them.

The trouble with those two particular design principles is that they pretty much describe a vicious circle. By having no intrinsic way to score points, the faction has no urgency or priorities; but, by being weak, the faction has no pressure to exert to entice other players to interact with them and give them urgency or priorities. Cole speaks a bit about the struggles the Vagabond's purely P2P design in a post Kickstarter blog article. Quote:

“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.”

What caused the Vagabond's gameplay to fall flat? Personally, I'd chalk it up to the overwhelming presence of one-sided mechanics that constitute the Vagabond's gameplay experience. Because other factions rely mostly on the central “core mechanics” (controlling clearing, building things, battle, etc.) of Root, they are all intrinsically tied to one another via their common mechanics. The reason these mechanics create such tightly coupled gameplay is because these are two-way mechanics. Each action the active player takes must consider the leverage the opposing player has (e.g., Player 1 doesn't just Battle Player 2 willy-nilly because Player 2 fights back). However, the Vagabond's lack of common mechanics also breaks this important pattern of action-reaction.

Besides Battle and occasionally the Character Card's special ability, most of the Vagabond's remaining mechanics are one-way mechanics. These are actions that require another player, but either have no bearing on the other player, or is done so in a way where the other player has no leverage or counter-actions. For example, the Aid action, supposedly a central part of the Vagabond's design and the driver of their main feature, the Relationships, is incredibly boring. Even though I get a card, I cannot leverage the Vagabond's Aid into my strategy. As another faction, I cannot rely on the Vagabond to provide consistent Aid; when I do get Aid, I cannot guarantee that the card I get will be useful; and furthermore, I cannot refuse the Aid. What should be an important event is made so dull since there's no risk involved on either side: I don't lose the crafting points if an item is taken, and the Vagabond has no risk of being denied.

In fact, the entire Relationship mechanic is quite one-sided. Whether or not I'm Hostile has no bearing on my turn-to-turn actions — I don't get any points for damaging the Vagabond's items, nor do I suffer any movement penalties — the effects are strictly for the Vagabond alone. Even should I reach “Allied” status, the benefits are still mostly for the Vagabond. They get another avenue to score, and it's not like the Aid cards when Allied are any better. This mechanic is the core of the Vagabond's design philosophy, and for the other players around they table, they couldn't care less about it. I have personally never been a part of a game where someone's Relationship with the Vagabond was a deciding factor in an important mid- or late-game decision. It's an afterthought at best and just noise at worst.

Ironically, the faction that was meant to be most dependent on player-interaction ended up with a core mechanic that has the least interactivity. To address this issue, Cole implemented the Quests as a way to give the Vagabond “another source of non-player victory points.” The Quests, along with the Vagabond's ability to craft cards, betrays the 2nd major design philosophy. Ideally, the Vagabond should be weak in the early game, naturally growing more powerful as they collect more items (actions) and foster Allies. However, in its current state, the Vagabond is too self-sufficient in every phase of the game, which in turn, further undermines the Vagabond's Relationship mechanic.

In the early-game, the Vagabond can keep toe-to-toe in VPs with most of the factions. Through a combination of crafting, Quests, and Aid actions, the Vagabond manages to remain competitive in the period of the game in which they're supposed to be at their weakest. In most 4/5 player games I've played, by the end of turn 3, the Vagabond never fails to be in the top 2/3 highest scoring factions. Why is this the case? Because there is no pragmatic way to prevent the Vagabond from scoring, and there is no incentive to do so. As we touched upon earlier, Aid actions cannot be stopped, and the only way to prevent crafting and Quest points is through Battling the Vagabond and damaging their items. Unfortunately, not only is Battling the Vagabond unrewarding, it also eats up a valuable action in a phase of the game where players do not get many actions. This makes the very act of attacking the Vagabond a prisoner's dilemma, which objectively does not work in any game without binding contracts. If everyone spends an action to attack the Vagabond, then that would certainly curtail the Vagabond's strong early-game. However, no one wants to take the risk because the others who don't commit to the plan end up with an advantage (less likely to be the target of Strikes or Battles from the Vagabond).

Why do we want to avoid Battles with the Vagabond? Well, in most cases, you become Hostile to the Vagabond, which now allows them to score even more through Infamy should they Battle or Strike you. As it turns out, our “weak by himself” Vagabond is actually pretty amazing at combat. Let's list out their combat strengths and notice how many of them are unique to the Vagabond:

Let's say the Vagabond wipes out your clearing. Do you counterattack? Battles are in nature pricey actions; not only do you need to spend actions to move warriors and actually do Battle, you also open yourself up to counter-hits as well as Ambush and Sappers cards. We already established that attacking the Vagabond is a prisoner's dilemma. So if you dump your actions into battling the Vagabond, I'm sure the other players would be very appreciative of that because now they don't have deal with it. They get all the benefits of having the Vagabond beat down, but without shouldering any of the costs or risks to do it.

Before the 2018-12-21 rules changed fighting the Vagabond was 10x worse since any counter-hits they landed would actually get the Vagabond points. This created a Catch-22 scenario where the Vagabond could not lose as the only way to stop them would be to attack them which in turn pushed them closer to victory.

The first iteration of this analysis I put on Reddit was met with some people saying “But the Vagabond is a balancing force. They're supposed to help out the underdog with good Aid and fighting for them.” The question I'd pose back is, why would they ever do that? Once the game progresses past the Vagabond's supposedly “weak” early-game, by the time they have 10-13 items, they end up being enough of a threat that they simply do not need an ally to do well. They don't need to help the underdog, give anyone good Aid cards, or stick their neck out in a tussle because the Vagabond can win without the help of anyone else. So much so that in over a dozen games I've played with the Vagabond present, not a single time did the Vagabond even try to pursue a Coalition victory. It just doesn't make sense for them. The Vagabond is already a scoring powerhouse, difficult to fight, and extremely mobile. In its current form, the Vagabond is much more a bully in the game than a balancing force.

Besides being an antithesis of a “balancing-force,” the Vagabond's current design, to push it harshly, if fundamentally broken. To iterate my point from the start of this post, the only reason they remain playable in their current state is because they have no competition for resources (items, quests). The moment you throw in a competitor (i.e., a second Vagabond), the “solo” gameplay for both Vagabonds completely fall apart. Once you remove the option of having a private pool of Quests and resources only one player has access to, you end up with a Vagabond experience that is much more in line with the original intentions.

There are plenty of threads on BGG complaining about how the Vagabond isn't as fun or strong in two Vagabond games. That's because they do not get a 5 card draw at the end of their turns, they do not get to single-handedly wipe out clearings with 4+ enemy warriors like they're Rambo, they do not get to consistently get 5-7 action turns round after round. Only in 2 Vagabond games is Relationship and having Allies important; you know, the things that were meant to be the core mechanics for the faction. I would even go so far as to say that the Vagabond should only be allowed if both of them are in play.

Conceptually, I love the Vagabond. In much the same way that Tzeentch in Chaos in the Old World is sort of an heavy interaction-based god, the Vagabond should have played that same part in Root. On paper, per Cole's design diaries, the Vagabond is a vastly interesting character, with lots of available scoring opportunities predicated on Relationships. In reality, the Relationships scoring doesn't hold a candle when compared to the zero player interaction Quests or the Infamy you get from Battles. This isn't to say that the Vagabond has no place in the narrative of Root, only that its role as the “networking middleman” is pulled off with much more finesse by the Riverfolk.