Session Report is a monthly series that explores the intersection of narrative and broader themes of game design by focusing on a specific tabletop game each month. This month’s game is:
For a young person hoping to pursue a college degree or a general path of self-betterment, I can think of no more important pastime than etymology: the inquiry into where words come from, how they relate and how they grow.
Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time helping high schoolers achieve their academic goals (or, more often, the goals set by their parents). I’ve witnessed firsthand how a limited vocabulary and lack of interest in the subtleties of language can cripple a student’s ability to read, write and think. I’ve learned that there are people out there who’ve survived 18 years without knowing the meaning of the word initiative, and I do mean that literally. Of course it affects reading skills, both speed and comprehension, and by extension interest in independent reading.
But it’s as much about breadth as it is about depth: the more closely you examine the way words interrelate, the more deeply you understand their nuances of use. This includes the ability to recognize tone and undertone, and it even extends to critical thinking: you can’t think about concepts you don’t have the language to describe, and the more nuanced your vocabulary, the more nuanced your thinking. Knowing the roots of the word philosophy–Greek words meaning love and knowledge or thought, or literally the love of thinking and acquiring wisdom for its own sake–tells you more about Plato and Aristotle than any survey course in philosophy could.
But did you know that etymology, when practiced recreationally, can also be fun? (At this point, a more evocative but less accurate term, following from the above example, would be philology.) That’s the premise, anyhow, of Roots, a card game designed and published in-house by creative design collective Predicate Group. Best described as reverse Balderdash, Roots is a social game for 3-5 linguaphiles in which players combine affixes–the general term for prefixes and suffixes–to form original words describe a common subject. Its intended audience is diverse–from strategy gamers to lit people to families–but I was immediately interested in its potential applications within the classroom. I’d seen an unmet need–teenagers weren’t getting nearly enough exposure to the richness and diversity of our national language–and I knew that I wasn’t going to fix the problem by forcing flash cards and recitation drills. Just as thinking was for the early philosophers, playing with words needed to be its own reward.
Over the summer, I led a weekly writing/speaking seminar for high school students. In addition to introducing concepts like audience, purpose, form, citation, and modes of discourse, I tried to find a way to incorporate the Roots cards into every lesson, but as a fun, topical exercise and as a sly way to speed them on their way toward a college-ready vocabulary.
The simplest, most effective and most popular exercise required only a slight modification of Roots‘ rules as written. According to the official rulebook, 3-5 players are each supposed to receive a secret goal card marked with 3 abstract symbols, such as a star, a square, and a circle. The players also receive a hand of cards of various types: prefixes, suffixes, and special powers. Each round begins with a one-word category being revealed and ends with a vote, with the players competing to combine and recombine the word parts depicted on their cards to form neologisms, then argue for why their made-up word fits the category better than any of the competing made-up words. The most persuasive player gains the subject card as reward, each subject bearing an abstract symbol–hopefully one of the 3 the player needs to win.
What makes this interesting is the collaborative nature of the word-building. The root cards are cleverly designed to form horizontal and vertical chains, like multi-letter Scrabble tiles. Following a few simple rules–you can only play 1 root at a time, all words formed by your play must have both a prefix and a suffix, and each word can have any number of prefixes but only one suffix–players construct their neologisms by adding on to one of 2 ever-expanding communal “trees.” This means that competing words can, and probably will, share at least one root.
Aside from reinforcing the root:meaning connection discreetly provided on the card, the overlapping nature of the ever-more-complicated words creates an interesting dialogue when it comes time to defend your play. If I expand an existing word by adding a prefix, I can use the previous definition as a springboard, explaining the nuances added by the new root…or I can contest the original definition entirely, re-interpreting the already placed string of affixes to serve my own needs. Again, Scrabble provides a useful comparison: think of the way out becomes rout, which turns to grout or route, scoring again each time a letter is added.
As a game, Roots works best with a large number of players, as do most games that relegate scoring to a democratic process. A larger group size also gives the word trees more time to spread and develop. When I played a 3-player game of Roots with my family, who enjoy traditional social and trivia games like Balderdash, Taboo and Trivial Pursuit, it was clear that we weren’t experiencing the best the game had to offer. We enjoyed it enough to play several games in a row–victory is reached quickly at 3 players–but probably would not bring it out again until more company shows up. It would probably replace Scrabble in their game closet, but not Balderdash.
There’s another potential restriction to Roots‘ audience. It belongs to a family of games, recently repopularized on Kickstarter and a mainstay at non-hobbyist stores that sell games, that rely on the players to make their own fun. This isn’t a fault in the game design–the cleverest of these games, like Snake Oil and Funemployed, are deservedly popular even among strategy gamers. Since the humorous and otherwise memorable moments are created spontaneously, the game will never “get old” in the way some humorous games do.
On the other hand, only the best of them can perform miracles, making an unfunny person funny or an uncreative person creative. Roots lacks that special spark, unfortunately, but if you have a group of friends who enjoy games of this style, it’s still a solid offering. It’s also ripe for expansion content exploring the more esoteric corners of our language and beyond. Roots auf Deutsch would be perfect.
The game has a hidden value, however, for families with children, who could imbue the dialogue with their unadulterated creativity while gaining early exposure to the building blocks of many advanced words.
Which brings me back to my summer experiment. Despite the smallish size of our class, Roots turned out to fit the curriculum perfectly. Of course, we had to strip out a few things for time considerations, but we got a great deal of utility out of the core of the game: inventing and describing words.
For the first session, covering persuasive writing, I chose to hold back on the shared word trees and simply have students form words from their personal hand of cards. I instructed the students to use whatever rhetorical devices they felt were necessary to sell their linguistic creations. Later, as we explored the concept of citation and writing as participation in an ongoing dialogue, the shared word trees and gradually evolving definitions provided the perfect illustration of that concept in action. On both occasions, the students had a great time and participated actively in the exercise.
Other experiments proved less appealing to the teenagers, such as when I gave them each a subject and a randomly generated word and asked them to use it as inspiration for a personal and persuasive narrative; nobody completed that assignment. The unit on expository writing had the students search the internet for interesting words containing their prefixes, then deliver a short, informative report on the subject matter they encountered. Overall, Roots achieved exactly what I had hoped to achieve educationally, and I was thrilled by the enthusiasm with which the teenage students embraced it, suggesting it might be equally popular outside of the classroom environment.
While it’s not the Holy Grail of social games, Roots is a solid offering in the genre, providing unexpected dialogue and a sly educational twist.