Asymmetry in the board game space has existed since Eon Games’ 1977 and ’79 releases of Cosmic Encounter and Dune. It continued being a thing through Chaos in the Old World, Space Cadets, and Vast, among many others.
Root really changed everything.
Root traversed traditional boundaries, slyly pulling a new segment of players into a cute wargame like a pit of quicksand swallowing flesh, inch-by-inch.
It found this success partly due to its incredibly inviting persona, but more significantly through its willingness to provide wholly isolated mechanical dimensions for each participant to engage with. Asymmetry is arguably about making players feel special and exceptional, and Root provides this at a fundamental level. Vast may have done it first, but Root formalized and perfected the notion of a player partaking in their own unique off-board puzzle. The Eyrie for instance requires a player to program their decree, a set of strict actions one must follow in sequence. The Marquise de Cat manage resources and build infrastructure. The enterprising Riverfolk sell their soldiers and cards to the warring groups, profiteering on calamity. And so on with each of the various groups.
Learning Root is a bit of a chore. Picking up a new faction requires you take a board containing its own processes and puzzling out how it all works. There’s a whole layer of cognition before you can even begin interacting with a deeper concept of strategy. While a heady endeavor, it’s also incredibly satisfying to explore and conquer.
Nathan Woll’s Free Radicals is a post-Root work. Just like 2021’s Merchant’s Cove, this is an entirely asymmetric Euro-style design where each player is doing their own special thing. And in many ways, it’s novel.
I spent a couple hundred words discussing Root because that title so strongly provides the conceptual framework of Free Radicals. It’s necessary to critique this design within that context. Like its predecessor, each faction operates under an entirely unique set of constraints, and each has a double-sided sheet containing their rules.
Play involves participants first taking that scripture and studying it in silence, or at least that’s the ideal. If your cast is anything like mine, half the table will be studying their paperwork trying to sort out what’s what, while the other half will be cracking jokes, or still discussing that last play of Oath back in October. Maybe the Olympics are on in the background, or a Morbid Angel album is blasting at an indecent volume. None of this is good. You must dedicate yourself to Free Radicals for it all to work.
Worse than Root, there are 10 factions in the game. I say worse because this means, even after several plays, the host and likely rules expert won’t have a firm grasp on how every faction works. With only four subsets in the base game of Root, after a few sessions I could reasonably teach every single option. Even one I hadn’t played because through shared experience I understood their interactions and influence on the game state. After five plays of Free Radicals, I still can’t adequately explain to you how the Paladins or Couriers work.
Free Radicals is also more isolationist in design. It’s a game where interaction occurs mostly through intermediaries such as profiting off another player activating a building that you constructed, or by manipulating an abstract track everyone is competing over. This will appeal to those wanting to engage their own little slice of the system, playing their personalized activity of mancala or polyominoes. It’s impossible to wreck each other or dominate your foes, as this is a very systems-first design with little above the table action.
This essentially shifts the framing of Free Radicals. It’s responsible for both the highs and lows of the experience, a manic state of oscillation that ultimately will appeal to a specific type of individual.
The attraction is in mechanical exploration. There’s a technical artistry here, one of designing balanced and unique systems that are effectively racing for points over a surprisingly brief 12 turn game. There’s a sense of joy in sitting down at the table and receiving a fresh new challenge, one no other player will be interacting with. While you’re exploring new tiles and juggling your adventuring party of standees, the punk sitting across from you is managing multi-use cards and action efficiency. Your rules of the game are entirely different than theirs – you’re special.
People will be leaning over the table, wanting to know how you gain influence cubes from other players or visit the monuments at the bottom of the central board. There’s a warm mysticism in just rowing with your own flow.
And every play will, once again, capture that mystique, at least for a solid 10 outings. There is of course utility in revisiting a faction you’ve already played. Each session unearths subtleties in how to better prepare for the end game and position the various pieces more effectively. There are multiple dimensions to the mini games on offer and some will tug at your brain, demanding another pass.
But this is also the source of struggle.
Root offers tremendous depth. Some of this is the sturdiness of its various systems, but a large portion is owed to the output of process resulting in a highly dynamic and interactive conflict on the shared board. There are fleeting alliances, dramatic maneuvers, and large shifts in the vibrant energy flowing between attendants. Free Radicals has none of that.
Instead of interaction and dynamism, the offering here is in novelty and system exploration as I said. But what this means is that each unique mechanical vector is ultimately a puzzle. The challenge comes from efficiency and dealing with randomized inputs, such as managing a hand of cards or slew of pieces you’ve been granted. That limitation, combined with the constraints of a 90-minute game and a single double-sided sheet of rules, necessarily limits the richness of the experience.
You will likely reach the zenith of your enjoyment on your second or third session as the Hoteliers for instance. At that point you will never want to play that particular faction again. Not because you can’t better your play and continue to evolve your strategy, but the overriding joy of Free Radicals is exploration, an aspect which diminishes as soon as you stop experimenting with new factions and playstyles. It’s effectively a limited proposition due to the structure of mostly solitaire play and its inability to offer dramatic reveals over time.
Furthermore, some factions are simply more interesting than others. For example, the Underground has you upgrading action potency over the course of the game. It’s simple, and quite mundane compared to the mancala-based Executives. I wouldn’t expect all 10 factions to offer a similarly satisfying payout due to the sheer volume of options, and that is indeed the case here.
The most fascinating quality is that Free Radicals is a product of its time. Beyond the influence of games like Root, it touches upon a trend in board-gaming that leans toward consumption and valuing new experiences over repeated play. It appeals to that demeanor of wanting to pick up a new set of components and rules every week, hitting something that is fresh and hopeful as opposed to robust and established.
This is a game that could not have been crafted 20 years ago. It simply couldn’t. There is too much modern currency and inclination in its genetic material.
It reminds me strongly of Friedemann Friese’s 504, an astonishingly experimental design that offered 504 different games inside the confines of a single box. Much like that work, I find Free Radicals to be more interesting philosophically than practically. There is definitely an appeal to exploring such a game, sitting down and having a new challenge, a new set of components and processes to fumble about with. There’s a cost there of course, as it suffers from a slow first half of each participant working to understand their slice of the game, but inevitably, each session picks up and turns start flying by as competency increases.
From a perspective of awareness, it’s also worth mentioning that the average consumer will not play this game 10-20 times. That’s the reality of the average hobbyist spending this kind of money. This segment, people desiring a constant influx of fresh experiences and mechanisms to fiddle with, are precisely those who will welcome what Free Radicals offers. In that sense, its limited scope is only a weakness in an abstract sense.
This is a thought-provoking effort. I imagine some will find it a burning heap of wreckage that shuns the classic appeal of tabletop games, others will find it a fascinating glimpse into the approach of modern design. I applaud its experimental approach.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.