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Subject: Designer Diary - John Riverfolk Company rss

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Cole Wehrle
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Welp, it's been awhile since I've been able to sit down and write about the design and development of Root. Mostly, I've just been busy on the game. These days my time has been split pretty evenly between three things. First, we've entered the stage of development where I've had to sort through dozens of small decisions that nonetheless have big ripple effects on the design. Balance is the order of the day, and I'm doing my best to make sure my decisions now don't undo the good work from months past. Like the writing process, there's a point where it's as easy to make something worse as to make it better, and sometimes it's hard to know which way is up.

The second thing I've been doing is preparing the files for print. The game's look continues to get just a little more polished each day. Our editor Josh Yearsley has been running amazing usability tests which have allowed us to collect tons of good data on how to make the game more approachable. I wasn't lying about our commitment to accessibility. To that end, I've been starting each day by going through Josh's excellent suggestions from the previous night's trials, and knocking off a couple pages of the game's official learn-to-play rulebook. Hopefully I'll be able to share it with y'all soon.

The last thing I've been doing is trying to finish the design work for the game's expansion. While the core game has been largely set for months (outside of the usual tinkering), the expansion has been in a wonderful state of flux. After spending my morning in a world of details, it's been nice to take a break each afternoon and hash out how the expansion materials work.

Today, I wanted to use this diary to talk a little about one of the expansion factions, The Riverfolk Company.


The Riverfolk date back to the origins of Root. When Patrick first asked me to work on the concept for the game, my mind immediately leapt to additional factions I wanted to build. One of them, I insisted, should be a merchant faction. I might have done this because the Hacan were my favorite Twilight Imperium race, or maybe it's because I just came off of the design of a game entirely about merchant princes, but I had it in my mind that I wanted to interject some interesting business negotiations in what was otherwise supposed to be a game about adventure and war.

The first problem that presented itself was establishing a currency for transactions. Some older gamers may remember that there was a time, back in the late 90s and early 00s, when it seemed like every expansion to a euro-game just added a currencies and came with a little punch-board of gold coins that could be spent in one way or another. I didn't want an expansion like this. Nor did I want the expansion to just give players a bunch of options without bothering to curate them (FFG style). Instead, I wanted the expansion to be a seamless extension of the base game. This was the great benefit of designing the expansion at the same time as the base game! The factions and scenarios would be a little more advanced, but they wouldn't be more complicated to learn. Additionally, I wanted each of the two new factions to play with elements of the system that I hadn't had room to explore in the base game.

In that respect, I had a currency problem. I wanted a commercial faction that could buy and sell things, but I didn't have a medium of exchange. Most of Root is built around an economy of cards. As I outlined in my other diaries, this was primarily a political economy. That is, a player's hand represented those creatures to which had some loyalty to them. This system was at odds with what I wanted to do with the Riverfolk.

Here's how I wanted the Riverfolk to work. The Riverfolk had a series of services which they could offer to the other players. They could rent the use of their warriors, transportation along the river, which snaked through the map, or cards from their "hand." See, rather than have a standard hand of cards, the Riverfolk played with a public hand. They used this hand like any other player. They could ambush from it or craft cards from it. But, critically, other players could also purchase cards from that hand.

Despite those capabilities I didn't want Root to be a negotiation game. Some groups are certainly liable to play it as one (and that's fine), but I had hoped that the game space was rich enough to allow players to speak through their play. What's more, throughout the design I tried my best to make the game easily adapted to asynchronous play. With the exception of Ambush cards, there are no interrupts. I didn't want to break my rule with the expansion. In short, I had yet another problem with the Riverfolk. How could they offer their services without explicit negotiations?

To fix that problem I took a page from one of my favorite games, Container. In Container, players are responsible for setting their prices on their turn. This means there's a little delay between the price setting and the purchase. The Riverfolk could work the same way. After their turn, they could set the prices on each one of their services. It seems simple enough.

That realization made the question of currency much more urgent. Cards couldn't possibly serve as as a currency because they were so valuable. I needed a smaller unit.

This problem stumped me for months. I went through about a half dozen different versions of the Riverfolk and none of them made it past the concept stage. The core system was similar for each design, but I couldn't settle on a currency. Then, while looking through my design notebook, I realized that this was a problem I had already solved back when I was working on John Company.

While John Company does have a single currency that facilitates explicit negotiations, I also needed a way to allow players to negotiate when they were out of cash. As players are often broke, this was a pressing problem. One way through this problem is just to make promises about future actions binding, but such rules can create far more problems than they are worth (sidenote: Sidereal Confluence: Trading and Negotiation in the Elysian Quadrant only sort of gets around this problem only because those rules are so rarely invoked). Anyway, during development my playtesters and I stumbled upon the idea of the promise cube. It was one of those ideas that seemed to hit everyone in the conversation at the same time. The basic idea is this. Say you are penniless and want a favor from another player. You don't have any money, so instead you offer her some of your cubes from your stock of pieces. Those cubes aren't worth anything to her at the moment, but if she doesn't give them back by the end of the game, you lose points for every piece you are missing in this way. That other player has just bought leverage over you.

When I looked at Root, I realized that I could use this idea when it came to a player's stock of warriors. If players wanted to purchase a service from the Riverfolk company, they could pay in unused warriors. When these warriors were on the Riverfolk board, they would serve as action chips, called “Funds” and be committed or spent for various purposes. Not only did this not add any additional components in play, it created a nice guns vs butter style spending problem for the players to sort through.

Like most solutions, this answer created two connected problems: warrior flow and overspending. Players could have all their warriors trapped on the Riverfolk board and enter the late game completely tied up in the Riverfolk. Related to that, the Riverfolk gave a huge advantage to high warrior count factions like the Cats (who have 25 warriors) compared to the Alliance (who only have 10).

The solution to the second problem came with placing a limit on transactions through trade posts tokens. Each player can only have one transaction per turn plus one for each trade post where they have a piece. At the start of the game, there are no trade posts on the map. This put the Alliance on the same footing as the Cats.

Trade posts also provided me with a way to get the Riverfolk to softly prioritize warriors they were accumulating from other players. Building trade posts is a major way to gain victory points. They are also revenue generating because they allow players to make more than one transaction per turn. The Riverfolk will usually want to get them on the board, so I decided to use this desire to build Trade Posts to help me with the warrior flow problem.

Each trade post costs two funds to build, but those funds must match the player who rules the clearing where you want to build. This created a nice virtuous cycle, with players giving warriors to the Riverfolk for services and then the Riverfolk giving those warriors right back to build trade posts in their territory, which, in turn, allows the other player to give even more warriors.

All of these co dependencies begged a question though, what happens when players boycott the Riverfolk? Root isn't a Sierra Madre Game and it isn't a Hollandspiele game, so I wanted to build a safety net that would allow the player to survive such a boycott. To that end, I included a rule (“Protectionism”) that would provide income if they failed to sell their services. In addition, the Riverfolk can export crafted cards for additional income and can use their warriors to create a little micro merchant kingdom without the woodland. In longer games, it's possible for an isolated Riverfolk company to win the game—though making the game longer usually takes some aggressive Riverfolk play.



There's a lot more I could say about this faction, but I'm afraid this post is already eating up more of my morning than I had hoped. With any luck, soon I'll be able to say a few things about the design of the Lizards—and, perhaps, reveal the new map!
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Ivor Bolakov
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Quote:
and can use their warriors to create a little micro merchant kingdom without the woodland.


I'm already looking forward to doing this. They sound like a versatile faction that's even more different than any of the base factions.
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Ethan Furman
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This game just keeps getting better and better. Can hardly wait for the next PnP!!
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Will Beckley
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Cole Wehrle wrote:
What's more, throughout the design I tried my best to make the game easily adapted to asynchronous play.

Is this a hint that Patrick has aims on an app implementation?

Loved this writeup and love the ideas within. A merchant faction in an otherwise political/military game appeals to me greatly, and the otter is my single favorite of all of Kyle's character designs that we've seen so far.

Edit: Otter, not beaver
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Patrick Leder
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I would love to and I have several bids from local firms for adapting Vast and Root. If anyone wants to throw their hat into the ring I am all ears. I think Root would be easier to adapt but I would like to start with Vast.

For Vast I'd like to start with the Knight's solo game and add the content I developed for the solo campaign that hasn't be published. If we like where that is going start to build in the other roles.
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John Rogers
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I think I just discovered my favorite faction. I love the “green” factions of early COIN games. So the Riverfolk seem right up my alley.
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Patrick Leder
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John Rogers wrote:
I think I just discovered my favorite faction. I love the “green” factions of early COIN games. So the Riverfolk seem right up my alley.


I have to admit I really enjoy playing them too. Them and the Vagabond. I like the Vagabond, I feel like I am playing an RPG character with this interesting backdrop of a war going on. I seem able to win as the Cats so I like them too.

Edit: Smiley face, I love all of the factions.
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Tom Russell
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GreenM wrote:
John Rogers wrote:
I think I just discovered my favorite faction. I love the “green” factions of early COIN games. So the Riverfolk seem right up my alley.


I have to admit I really enjoy playing them too. Them and the Vagabond. I like the Vagabond, I feel like I am playing an RPG character with this interesting backdrop of a war going on. I seem able to win as the Cats so I like them too.


I haven't played the game yet, but I like the Cats because they're cats.
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Henry Thompson
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This is so brilliant! I love how you keep finding ways to use the same board, pieces and cards to create brand new mechanics. Everything just ties together!
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Clayton Capra
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I got chance to play the Riverfolk yesterday and ohh boy it was fun. I managed to raise the cost of my Mercenaries right when I sensed they were needed most and profited nicely. A tough gameplay decision was to keep funds to score dividends or commit those funds to do stuff each turn.
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David Kline
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Cole - I'm curious if you considered use of the VP as currency, and if so how did it fall short?

I really like where you ended up -- use of warriors seems like a dynamic and interesting economy -- but VP also seems like an obvious choice as a currency given its a numerical "resource" also already in the game.

Just trying to tease out your thought process a little more
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adam wilson

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This is interesting because this is exactly what happened where I live in Eastern Oklahoma. They call it the Three Rivers area because the Verdigris and Neosho Rivers fed into the Arkansas River which in turn feeds into the Mississippi. The Port of Catoosa in Tulsa is the northernmost inland port in the Midwest with access to the Gulf of Mexico. There were huge populations of wildlife that lived here during the 18th century and hunters and trappers would come from miles around to trap and ship their furs down the rivers to New Orleans.

French fur traders set up a series of outposts along the rivers and would trade and negotiate with the Natives. They would also intermarry with them and some of the ruling families in the tribes were of French descent. Some became extremely wealthy and wars were fought between the tribes for control of the area.
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Cole Wehrle
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spaff_ wrote:
Cole - I'm curious if you considered use of the VP as currency, and if so how did it fall short?

I really like where you ended up -- use of warriors seems like a dynamic and interesting economy -- but VP also seems like an obvious choice as a currency given its a numerical "resource" also already in the game.

Just trying to tease out your thought process a little more


They couldn't work for the same reason that the cards didn't work--they are just too valuable to make any of the transactions worthwhile. And, because I wanted the otters to have some pricing decisions, I needed a resources that was cheap enough to allow for a range of values.
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Henry Thompson
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On the topic of the previously mentioned Vagabond, can he purchase anything from the company? And in that case, does he battle using the mercenaries just like he uses an ally's warriors?
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Patrick Leder
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The Vagabond can. He exhausts items in his inventory and the Riverfolk use their own cube in the paybox.
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Henry Thompson
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GreenM wrote:
The Vagabond can. He exhausts items in his inventory and the Riverfolk use their own cube in the paybox.

Awesome, thanks for the quick reply!
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Patrick Leder
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And by cubes (which we use in the office), I mean meeples.
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Will Beckley
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tomrussell wrote:
GreenM wrote:
John Rogers wrote:
I think I just discovered my favorite faction. I love the “green” factions of early COIN games. So the Riverfolk seem right up my alley.


I have to admit I really enjoy playing them too. Them and the Vagabond. I like the Vagabond, I feel like I am playing an RPG character with this interesting backdrop of a war going on. I seem able to win as the Cats so I like them too.


I haven't played the game yet, but I like the Cats because they're cats.


Funny, I haven't played and hate the Cats because they're Cats.

I have a severe allergy. I have good reason to worry that letting my copy of Root live in my closet is a considerable risk to my health.
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Jefferson Freitas
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What is the cube count per faction? I thought the woodland alliance had 25 cubes like the cats... (However it is true that some of the cubes will be used as military actions).

Riverfolk services seem to be expensive for the vagabond, that begins with only a few items...

Riverboat service mean players can move without ruling the initial clearing? Does Riverboat service mean Extra Move actions? I'm in!
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Ethan Furman
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GreenM wrote:
I would love to and I have several bids from local firms for adapting Vast and Root. If anyone wants to throw their hat into the ring I am all ears. I think Root would be easier to adapt but I would like to start with Vast.

For Vast I'd like to start with the Knight's solo game and add the content I developed for the solo campaign that hasn't be published. If we like where that is going start to build in the other roles.


Do you mean "be able to play the Knight solo game ON the app (no board game needed)?
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Patrick Leder
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stoneleaf wrote:
GreenM wrote:
I would love to and I have several bids from local firms for adapting Vast and Root. If anyone wants to throw their hat into the ring I am all ears. I think Root would be easier to adapt but I would like to start with Vast.

For Vast I'd like to start with the Knight's solo game and add the content I developed for the solo campaign that hasn't be published. If we like where that is going start to build in the other roles.


Do you mean "be able to play the Knight solo game ON the app (no board game needed)?


To start yes, versus the scenario and each scenario getting harder as the campaign goes on.
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Patrick Leder
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Kouhan wrote:
What is the cube count per faction? I thought the woodland alliance had 25 cubes like the cats... (However it is true that some of the cubes will be used as military actions).

Riverfolk services seem to be expensive for the vagabond, that begins with only a few items...

Riverboat service mean players can move without ruling the initial clearing? Does Riverboat service mean Extra Move actions? I'm in!


Cole can comment on the count per faction. It has been adjusted as testing goes on.

The Vagabond engages the Riverfolk more late in the game but I haven't noticed the cost being too high.

The Riverboat service lets you move along the River as if it were a path.
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Brian Ries
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So how do mercenaries work exactly? Are you borrowing one for a turn? does it become a "permanent" warrior with your group of meeples until its killed? I take it you are using a riverfolk meeple on the board to represent it?

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Patrick Leder
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You get to use the Riverfolk troops as your own for that turn. You can't move them just use them in battles. When dividing losses the attacker takes the first loss otherwise its every other.
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Jefferson Freitas
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GreenM wrote:

Cole can comment on the count per faction. It has been adjusted as testing goes on.

The Vagabond engages the Riverfolk more late in the game but I haven't noticed the cost being too high.

The Riverboat service lets you move along the River as if it were a path.


I presume the map has changed a bit to show the river paths then...

Thanks for the quick answers! The game is shaping up to be awesome and you guys are amazing.
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