Foucault in the Woodland, Part One: The Small Folk

"Wait, Foucault is behind the whole thing?" "Always was." /.jpg of astronaut shooting another astronaut

Most people would agree that Cole Wehrle did something magnificent with Root. As a game, it’s no mean feat, a sandbox where any number of truly asymmetric factions can interact with surprising fluidity. But that sandbox only scratches the surface. Root is also the most Foucauldian examination of power dynamics ever put to cardboard.

Does that matter? Well, it depends. To somebody looking to ransack a few of the Marquise’s sawmills, maybe not. But as a historical and cultural artifact, Root speaks to so much more than its folksy anthropomorphs might lead you to believe. In this series, we’re going to talk about why.

He also won "biggest wiener," but the award was revoked when it turned out the wiener was his head. His other head.

Introducing Guinness World Records’ baldest man of all time.

Who’s This Foucault Guy, Anyway?

Michel Foucalt was a French scholar who lived from 1926 to 1984, although there’s some difficulty in pinning down what type of academic he was. The easiest answer is that he was a philosopher, since for a time he served as the head of a philosophy department. Then again, while his academic tenure was generally connected to philosophy, it wasn’t an exclusive relationship; he also taught psychology and history, and his interests ranged as far as anthropology, criminology, and critical theory. The broadest descriptor would be that he was a historian of ideas — just don’t tell that to any historians, because they generally consider Foucualt pesky and unrigorous even though two of his books are essential reading for every first-year history grad.

That’s the thing about Foucault: his ideas were so wide-ranging and so unanticipated that it’s hard to find a field in the humanities that went untouched by his work. Literary theory and textual criticism, sexual history, historiography, penal and education systems, feminism, Marxism (real Marxism, not “everything left of a tailgate party” American Marxism), the entire field of discourse analysis — it’s almost impossible to receive a higher degree in the humanities without at least a passing familiarity with Foucault. For all that, it would be a mistake to confuse him with a nebbish and quiet academic. Between his involvement with two Communist parties (and his eventual dissatisfaction with their behavior) and the vocal dispute over his appointment to the Collège de France, he was often controversial, right up to the end when he became one of the first public figures in France to die from complications with HIV/AIDS. And before somebody brings it up, yes, he lobbied in favor of pedophilia and has been accused of abusing underage boys in Tunisia. For all we know, the guy was a sex pest.

But we aren’t here to critique Foucault. We’re here to talk about how Root reflects a Foucauldian understanding of power dynamics. To that end, I’m going to spill the secret right away: The key to understanding Root is through examining the behavior and interactions of the most ubiquitous of the base game’s five protagonists.

That’s right. Five. I didn’t stutter. Five protagonists. Count them on your fingers. Marquise de Cat, Eyrie Dynasties, Woodland Alliance, the Vagabond, and…

I probably should have picked a card that didn't include one of the mean birds, but oh well.

These protagonists.

The Small Folk

Of the many groups represented in Root, there’s one you’ll never play. Or, more accurately, you’re always playing them. I’m speaking, of course, about the animals that populate the woodland’s clearings and appear on its cards: the bunnies, foxes, mice, and birds that are the game’s suits. The small folk.

These small folk constitute the majority inhabitants of the woodland. That’s obvious through their sheer diversity: herbivores large and small, diminutive predators, and birds are all represented. It’s also obvious through their universal presence, populating and defining the clearings you’re striving to control.

Why, then, aren’t the small folk grouped into a proper faction of their own? It’s possible to consider the Woodland Alliance a faction of, by, and for the small folk, although we’ll eventually discuss why that isn’t the case. The answer is that the small folk are stand-ins for the vast majority of people who aren’t politically “active,” in that they aren’t directly campaigning for one side or the other. This isn’t to paint them as passive. Anything but. As we’ll see, every faction relies on them for nearly everything they do. Production, governance, labor, political support, manpower — if something major occurs in the woodland, it’s the small folk who make it happen. This is often taken for granted. For example, the small folk are responsible for the game’s crafting system. They’re the woodland’s cottage craftsmen, toiling in obscurity behind the gauze of the greater factions’ manufactories.

For whatever reason, however, they’re motivated by any number of factors that place them beyond the comprehensive grasp of those same factions. Survival is the most popular example. Just as ordinary people are wary of losing their lives, careers, or social status, and will contribute to predatory systems as long as they feel sufficiently secure, the small folk aren’t endeavoring to rise to the top of the food chain. They’re trying to escape its bottom rungs. Of course, they likely have preferences, aspirations, and opinions of their own. But like most people, they’re geographically bound to particular clearings, easily cowed by shows of strength, and repeatedly coerced by whichever authority figure has set up camp in their area.

The small folk are us. And Root tells us about its various factions by how they engage with those small folk — and how the small folk sometimes engage back.

Spoiler: Not entirely.

The representatives of the people? We’ll find out!

A Brief Introduction to Biopower

One of Foucault’s most lasting contributions to our understanding of power dynamics is the concept of biopower. We’ll be discussing it throughout this series, but we might as well introduce the idea briefly before we jump into any examples.

In its crassest form, think of biopower as population control.

I call it crass because populations have always received some measure of control from states. To Foucault, however, that control was historically based on what he called “deductions” — the capacity of authorities to deprive individuals of their rights, liberties, and lives. If you pissed off your feudal lord, they could strip you of your land, lock you in a tower, and have you flogged or beheaded. The same went for larger sections of the population: particular ethnic groups or social classes might be enslaved or deprived the rights awarded to the privileged. In both cases, these deductions could serve as deterrents to undesirable behavior, but they were inherently corrective; they required the direct oversight of state authorities, and any behaviors that escaped notice effectively hadn’t occurred. In Foucault’s view, if a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around to hear it, who the hell cares about some stupid falling trees?

Then along comes the modern nation-state with its scientific thinking, psychological insights, disciplinary systems, and information-gathering potential. Rather than focusing on control only through deductive, corrective acts, these nation-states begin to create incentives to channel their population’s motivations. On the whole, these acts are positive — in the sense that they’re additive rather than deductive, not that they’re “good” — and operate by normalizing particular behaviors. There are countless examples. Lionization of the military and tuition assistance for those who serve. Penal programs that aim to reshape individuals rather than merely punishing them. The defining of proper and deviant sexual behaviors. For that matter, who the state encourages to reproduce and who it doesn’t. The formation of workplaces, schools, hospitals, prisons, and institutions as places of conformity and optimization. Formal delineation over what counts as heterodox, insane, unpatriotic, or unfit. The possibility of constant surveillance to encourage a population to self-police its norms. Regarding suicide as a catastrophe far worse than any other form of death.

These dynamics, both deductive and additive, are the realm of biopower. And next time, we’ll be establishing a framework for how that power reflects the values proffered by Root.


Part two, All That Power, is already up on Patreon for supporters! You can read it over here.

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

Posted on November 4, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.

  1. Thanks for an excellent post! Cuts to my thinking about some of my games on irregular conflicts too.

    Clausewitz’s famous dictum about war being a continuation of politics was flipped about 150 years later by Foucault, essentially arguing that within the walls of the state, politics is a continuation of war by other means:

    “It may be that war as strategy is a continuation of politics. But it must not be forgotten that ‘politics’ has been conceived as a continuation, if not exactly and directly of war, at least of the military model as a fundamental means of preventing civil disorder. Politics, as a technique of internal peace and order, sought to implement the mechanism of the perfect army …. It is strategy that makes it possible to understand warfare as a way of conducting politics between states; it is tactics that makes it possible to understand the army as a principle for maintaining the absence of warfare in civil society.”

    (Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (1986): 168)

    • Excellent quote, Brian! Discipline and Punish is functionally the assigned reading for part three of this series. I may nab that very same segment to describe some of the behaviors of the Woodland Alliance.

      (In other news, I’ve made up my mind to try District Commander. Just waiting on Amabel to send a copy my way.)

      • Thanks Dan.
        And I am sure you have read Cole Wehrle’s design diaries where he explicitly relates what he is doing to Foucault’s ideas.
        Interested to read your further thoughts (does Patreon take paypal? I’m leery of letting my credit card run around)

        If you want a free look at District Commander while you are waiting, the urban-conflict module “Maracas” is available for free PnP at my website. All files are there and you can see the system rules.

      • District Commander is really good. Would love a review of it by Dan.

        One thing I find interesting, is that I’ve always thought that Foucault was a much better philosopher of history than a good historian. That is to say, I think he is extremely important as a theorist, but I’m much less convinced by the historic content that he produced. I’d love to see stuff that ran with the theory more than ran with his historical analysis.

        That said Discipline and Punishment is a fantastic read, that introduction is perhaps one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever read. Great article. I may write a counterpoint when I can on BGG.

      • Aw gee, pressure’s on… Dan can’t like everything I’ve done!

      • I think you are safe Brian. DC is super fun and interesting. I’m going to order the titles I don’t have in the Hollandspiele sale. While different in scale, I prefer it to COIN, although it is more “wargame-y” so perhaps I’m likely to be biased on that basis.

      • Thanks, I am glad you enjoy it… I haven’t had a lot of comment from people though I have published four modules of the system through Amabel, and people are buying them.
        District Commander is a different approach from the COIN system, and even from my “4-box” system games like Algeria, Shining Path and Andartes which partly informed some of the aspects of the COIN system.
        It is an operational, campaign level game where these others are strategic in scale: the players represent mid-level commanders who have autonomy but their scale of relative rewards keeps changing on them, as directed by both Head Office and the enemy. I find this a really interesting level at which to examine the situation – it’s not often done.
        The diceless and hidden-information aspects of the game system keep it interesting too.

      • Brian — I recall reading Cole’s design diaries back when they first came out, which is probably where my Foucault-in-Root bug came from. I’m hesitant to read them again… I’m paranoid about letting his interpretation of his work color my own!

        As for PayPal and Patreon, I have no idea. I barely understand how the thing works as-is!

      • Trace — Oh, I agree. Foucault is required reading in my field, but that’s only after a battery of disclaimers. His “archaeology” and “genealogy” are important ideas; the history they generated, not quite so much.

        As for a counterpoint, please do!

  2. I feel like you missed an opportunity to create a Root-themed Foucault card/meme. I hope that applying Foucault to board game reviews continues to be a thing that spreads throughout the community. I also recommend looking at Modernity and the Holocaust which has some fascinating things to say about institutions, modernity, agency and the Holocaust that might be useful for future reviews.

  3. The only modern Foucault I know is Foucault’s Pendulum by Eco (different Foucault!), so I’m looking forward to this series and probably learning some interesting stuff! I’ll confess that Root fell disappointingly flat for our group, which surprised me because we have had great success with heavily interactive/asymmetric games like Dune and Cosmic in the past.

    In this article you talk about the little people, which show up in the game in the form of the cards and the clearings. And for me, I never got to the place where I could see the cards as anything other than cards. What I wanted was for Root’s thematic richness to come through in the interaction between the players, not so much from the interaction between a player and the cards he/she holds. But we found that the conversations we were having as players were kind of simplistic; “don’t attack me, attack him!”, “don’t let him get another sawmill!”, that sort of thing.

    I suspect the future installments will likely answer this question, but would you say these “Foucaultian” considerations drive the player-player interactions, or are they mostly confined to the player-card interactions? If the latter, that might explain why the game was a miss for our group.

    • That’s a good question. Root injects more negotiation with the Riverfolk Company, but it’s never as dense as Cole’s more talky games like John Company or An Infamous Traffic. Ironically, that “ludic conversation” I mentioned from Vast mostly uses the verbs you already pointed out rather than getting into deeper considerations. So while the entire game is “Foucauldian,” what I’m really examining is the factions themselves, where their methods of using the cards and scoring reveal different archetypes, and in some cases commentaries on those archetypes.

  4. Now this is the extremely niche content I come to this site for. For the next series let’s see Foucault’s notion of the episteme as it applies to the card market in Pax Renaissance. (Only half-joking.)

  5. Patreon works fine w/ PayPal 🙂

  6. Finally, that class on “What Is Cultural History?” I took as a freshman is paying off!
    Kidding aside, glad to see someone engage with Foucault seriously. Looking forward to the next posts!

  7. Wonderful post!

    Bit curious, though. You say: “even though two of his books are essential reading for every first-year history grad.”

    Which two did you have in mind?

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