Foucault in the Woodland, Part Two: All That Power

Foucault's theories about the power of the typically powerless are really about the stunning beauty of baldness.

Right when he thought he was out, Michel Foucault wandered straight back into the woodland. Silly Foucault. Something tells me it won’t be the last time.

Speaking of last times, in the first part of our series on the Foucauldian assumptions behind Cole Wehrle’s Root, we introduced the concept of biopower. The very short version is that the suits on the game’s cards and clearings might feel like mere components, but they really represent the majority population that’s the font of all power in the woodland. In order to win, every faction must use different methods to control and expend them.

But that’s going to have to wait. Today we’re talking about the big picture. What is the central conflict in Root, and what can we learn from it?

I love Fouc-Owlt.

Pictured: Foucault in the Woodland.

By Their Victory Conditions Ye Shall Know Them

Every board game depicts a set of values.

How’s that for an opening line? But I mean it. Every game depicts values. Whether deliberately or unconsciously, carefully or haphazardly, fantastical or non-fictional, every game makes a call about what you’re supposed to value within the embrace of its magic circle. We couch those values behind terms like “victory points” and “win conditions.”

I’ll give a few examples. In chess, the king isn’t noteworthy in terms of battlefield prowess, but he’s still the most important piece on the board. That’s feudalism for you, right down to the euphemistic “capturing” that reflects the hostage-taking and ransom-gathering of the period. (I say “euphemistic” because if you think pawns are getting captured and ransomed, you’re outside your mind.) Economic games often focus on the careful positioning of many small levers to achieve optimal production. You know, much like industrial capitalism. In recent years, wargames have come under greater scrutiny for their wide range of sometimes questionable victory conditions. In some cases, this has led to criticism that struggles to delineate between portrayal and endorsement. When a game like Andean Abyss or An Infamous Traffic includes terror attacks or opium peddling, it’s necessary to understand that although victory often hinges on such actions, the designers aren’t advocating them. More often, they’re trying to enter into a particular worldview. What’s the outcome of the USA and USSR’s brinkmanship and domino theory? All the myriad sufferings of Twilight Struggle.

So let’s look at the victory conditions of Root. There are two ways to win. The less common method requires you to play a card with an alternate win state printed on it. Say, you need to control three fox clearings at the beginning of your next turn. Unsurprisingly, these are almost impossible to achieve, largely because you’ve just stuck a target to your back and everybody else in the game will now be working overtime to deprive you of the bare minimum needed to win.

As a win condition, this is a bit of a fumble. Being generous, we might call it a dig at utopianism. In theory, by using an alternate victory card, a losing player can make a last-ditch effort at victory through the establishment of their own polity. Rather than commanding the woodland outright, they’ve staked a claim on some small corner and hope they’ll be left alone to rule it in peace. Like most of history’s losers making last-ditch efforts to carve out a political enclave, this is almost certainly doomed to failure.

Still, there’s a salient Foucauldian point to be gleaned: utopianism is always wrong. Hold that thought. It’s going to come in handy later.

Much more often, winning Root is a question of earning thirty victory points before anybody else. Victory points are always abstractions. In Root, they’re such abstractions that they often mean different things to different people. In all cases, however, they can be summed up as “power.” Accumulate enough of it and the woodland is yours.

We’ll talk specifics next time. For now, it’s more important to note that there are two shared features that anybody can access: craftsmanship and destruction. In the first case, items can be found on the same cards that portray the woodland’s population. To craft these items, one requires the proper capacity; usually workshops of some kind, although every faction has its own means of production. These acts of craftsmanship award points immediately. The second shared method of gaining points is the direct inverse: as structures and goods begin to fill up the woodland’s clearings, you can destroy them. Like crafting, these points are awarded the instant the building is torched.

In other words, making and unmaking are codified as values that apply to every faction in the game. They’re inescapable. Even if you go out of your way to avoid crafting or battle — a counterproductive idea, but stay with me — even if you did such a thing, the possibility of other factions marching into your territory or building a bunch of workshops would be foremost on your mind. Before long, you’d be forced to guard your own structures. Unless you’re willing to concede defeat early, you might even think about putting the torch to some buildings. At all times, things made and unmade are central considerations.

Wait a minute… aren’t we describing materialism? Doesn’t that make Root a bit Marxist? Or maybe even capitalist?

Let’s get into that.

Me singing Power: "Living in the 21st century, doing something mean to it, wugga wugga wugga wugga wugga wugga wugga it."

The third type of power: Kanye West.

Living in the 21st Century, Doing Something Mean to It

For a very long time, “power” meant a particular thing. This model tended to be top-down: at the apex you had a sovereign, who could exert compulsion on the people below him, who in turn exerted compulsion on the people below them. It’s like a pyramid scheme. And like pyramid schemes, it sucked, both because the vast majority of people were struts supporting the people above them, and because it didn’t adequately describe how power actually functions.

Then something big happened in the middle of the 18th century that made a bunch of leaders and philosophers realize they’d been thinking about power all wrong. All at once, everybody caught the revolution bug. There were as many reasons as there were countries. Sometimes more. Tariffs in America, bread in France, slavery in Haiti — we could write this essay ten times over and only scratch the surface. The Age of Revolution lasted a little under a century, but it gave that old top-down conception of power a swift kick in the softies. If the world didn’t function like a very grim pyramid, everybody began wondering how power should function. Or perhaps how it functioned all along.

The most famous model to grow out of this period belonged to none other than one Karl Marx. Called “historical materialism,” Marx envisioned a cycle of struggles that were defined by material considerations. Agriculture and slavery, feudalism, mercantilism, eventually capitalism: all gave rose to haves and have-nots, which sparked revolutions when the former lorded all their stuff over the latter. In this model, materialism is so all-encompassing that it’s inescapable, and will continue to dominate human affairs until — well, let’s not spoil it. The point is, Marx conceived as power as a function of class and material. Namely, the class that controls a society’s material is dominant, while the classes that don’t suffer under them. Ideals exist, but they’re secondary.

That doesn’t exactly sound like Root, either. Although materialism is central to Root, with its focus on making and unmaking material things, its factions also embrace divergent ideologies. Materialism is present, but it isn’t the game’s only –ism.

Enter Foucault. His idea is that power is very, very complicated. So complicated that it can’t be expressed by a single model. So let’s reach an approximation by examining two models, both found in titles published by Leder Games. No, they are not Root. Also, they aren’t Oath. I’m talking about Vast: The Crystal Caverns and Fort.


My image editing skills at the height of their power.

Is Patrick Leder John Bohrer-ing Michel Foucault?

What’s the defining characteristic of Leder Games? Bzzzt — “four-letter titles” is incorrect. The defining characteristic of Leder Games is that they unintentionally (?) publish very Foucauldian games.

Back when I wrote about Vast: The Crystal Caverns, David Somerville’s design that became Leder’s breakout first publication, I created the above image to explain something important about how the game works. Players are given control of five completely different protagonists: a knight, some goblins, a slumbering dragon, a malevolent cave, and a mustachioed thief. Each protagonist wants something different. (And yes, you snarks, this reflects their values.)

What makes Vast so intriguing is that your personal goal tends to shift fluidly as the game progresses. This isn’t to say your win condition changes. The knight wins by killing the dragon. That means a dead dragon. She’ll never win by climbing onto the dragon’s back, waxing poetic about the beauty of newfound friendship, and silhouetting against the moon as they soar toward more tolerant pastures. But as the knight seeks a sharp conjuncture of steel and dragon flesh, the goblins might ambush her. Now her goal is to survive, prompting her to stick to the light and preemptively stab any goblins she comes across. Or the cavern plops a treasure chest nearby. Now she wants that treasure because it will make her ultimate goal easier to accomplish. Or the thief is on the verge of escaping with some treasure of his own. That simply won’t do. Now she has to stab the thief a few times to delay his victory.

The result is a ludic conversation between players. Everybody’s goal intersects with everybody else at some juncture. This gives Vast the tone of a negotiation game even though nothing explicit calls upon players to discuss their needs. It also highlights one of two major points about Foucault’s perspective on power:

Power is discursive rather than coercive.

Coincidence. Like, duh.

I call my kid Bug. Coincidence? Or power?

The second game is Grant Rodiek’s Fort, for one simple reason: your cards can leave you. As you assemble a gang of neighborhood kids, the cards you don’t play on your turn get placed at the front of your board where any other player can recruit them. Neglect your friends and they might wander off to somebody who’ll pay attention to them.

Why does that matter? Well, a useful parallel word for “power” is “agency.” Hence that old top-down formulation. Who has all the agency in a relationship between a lord and his subjects? Pretty much the lord.

Except remember that we’re talking about power in the post-Age of Revolution sense. While feudal lords may have wielded an outsized proportion of their society’s power, their subjects were never as powerless as those lords wanted them to appear. In fact, a closer look reveals that their power was always checked, if only partially, by peasant uprisings, noble feuding, other lords, a distant pope, the great equalizer of consuming under-cooked pork and shitting yourself to death, and so forth. Come the 18th century, when all those underlings realized their lord’s head separates from his shoulders as easily as anybody’s, power starts to look more nebulous.

Sort of like how your cards might abandon you in a board game. I mean, talk about a top-down power dynamic. How many soldiers have you flung to their deaths with nary a complaint? How many factories have you optimized without having to worry about union-busting? Crud, consider the entire genre of worker placement. When have your workers ever had a say? They do in Fort, if only partially. It’s an illustration on the second of Foucault’s aphorisms about power:

Power is everywhere.

because they've got the POWAH

Don’t worry, these guys will be in every installment.

An Age of Madness

Foucault was fascinated by revolutions. Not only because as a Frenchman he was the inheritor of what Karl Marx considered the prototypical revolution, but also because revolution is Foucault’s conception of power given its most democratic expression. This shouldn’t be confused for “good,” by the way. When he documented the ongoing Iranian Revolution in 1978, he was criticized by his peers for arguing that the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamism should be treated with respect. This wasn’t because he agreed with it. His writing reflects a wariness of utopian thinking, and he reckoned there was plenty of that happening in Tehran. But as he wrote in his essay “What Are the Iranians Dreaming About?”:

“I do not feel comfortable speaking of Islamic government as an ‘idea’ or even as an ‘ideal.’ Rather, it impressed me as a form of ‘political will.’ It impressed me in its effort to politicize structures that are inseparably social and religious in response to current problems. It also impressed me in its attempt to open a spiritual dimension in politics.”

In other words, the forces of the Iranian Revolution should be handled with respect because they represent an outpouring of power, a discursive sentence in a lengthy dialogue, and ignoring that sentence would cause more harm than good. He extended that view to nearly everything. Because power is discursive, power is about whatever we’re talking about. If we talk about materialism — economics, technology, production, who owns things and who doesn’t — then our discourse will be material. What is power? It’s so many things that even board games count. Maybe even an unassuming board game called Root.

Sometimes you’ll see a random college professor mistaking Foucault for a historical materialist. Their error lies in reading his appeals to materialism as all-encompassing. To Foucault, historical materialism isn’t the model that encapsulates all of history. It’s the model that encapsulates how we think about history right now. As one of my professors succinctly put it, it’s a theory in history rather than a theory of history.

Why is this important to Root? Because Root is a game about a revolution. Or, to put it in more Foucauldian terms, it’s a game with revolutionary discourse caught in its throat.

Wehrle doesn’t spill much ink describing the sequence of events behind the initial setup. In the base game, there are three predominant factions vying for control of the woodland: the Eyrie Dynasties, the Marquise de Cat, and the Woodland Alliance. We’ll discuss two of them in individual detail next time. For now, I want to conclude by putting them into a temporal context by proposing two contrasting timelines.

Kyle Ferrin sent me these head images. He's the best.

Power begets other types of power.

Everybody knows the Eyrie Dynasties are the old guard. Once upon a time they ruled the woodland from their roosts, secure in their authority. Now their armies are on the march again. Who deposed them? According to the blurb on their faction board, In a moment of weakness the Marquise descended. If we adopt the simplest interpretation of this statement, the Eyrie were deposed by the Marquise, whose brutality has since sparked the Woodland Alliance’s uprising.

It’s a tidy tale. Very progressive. Old money giving way to new money, which eventually prepares the woodland for Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat.

I suspect Foucault would roll his eyes.

Kyle Ferrin has power.

Or, sometimes, very similar forms of power.

A modified timeline strikes me as more appropriate to the story Root is telling. This one goes like this: The Eyrie Dynasties ruled for a long time. They grew fat oppressing the small folk of the woodland, which eventually fomented dissent in the form of the Woodland Alliance. While these two factions grappled for control, a charismatic leader was able to seize power by leveraging the dissatisfaction of the small folk. And change she brought — in the form of industry and repression. Now all three factions struggle to determine what new day will break over the woodland.

In this telling, the Marquise is Napoleon. Part revolutionary, part reactionary, wholly self-interested. This is the Napoleon who apocryphally boasted to Metternich at their 1813 meeting in Dresden, “You cannot stop me. I spend 30,000 men a month.” Whether Napoleon uttered those exact words is beside the point. The point is that it’s so easy to believe he might have.

The weakness with progressivism as a historical model is the same as the problem with Marxism as a historical model: it rests on utopian assumptions. It believes there’s a direction to history. Maybe even a destiny. And, as we know from sad experience, anything endowed with too much destiny to fail is probably going to.

Foucault’s model is more fraught, but also less prone to complacency. Because power is discursive and everywhere, the trajectory of history can step backward as well as forward. It can produce the Paris Commune, then a Reign of Terror, then Napoleon, then the Bourbon Restoration. Dictators and republics, intertwined. Sometimes at the same time. Power is a big mess. Good thing we understand how to regulate it through biopower, right?


Speaking of which, next time we’ll be discussing how Root’s dictators and republics interact with their subjects — and why we should be very concerned about biopower.


Part three, Devouring Your Children, 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 December 2, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. I like this piece very much, and I particularly like how your alt-history of Root makes sense of what is (to me) the game’s most unappealing feature, the “hit the birds, they can win!” form that interaction takes. Your interpretation would say that this is the nature of the conversation about power that we’re all having, and that by pursuing your own ambition you may fail to guard against a tyrant slipping through and seizing the reins of power.

    This interpretation also includes the meta-commentary that ALL of the factions in Root aspire to tyranny: tyranny of the aristocracy, tyranny of the actual tyrant, tyranny of the mob, tyranny of the crafty beaver. I think that’s a basically correct interpretation of Root but I’ve not heard it talked about that way.

    But I think I disagree with the overall thesis that VPs represent power. To me (and I’m going off of things Cole has said), victory in Root represents “legitimacy”, i.e. the woodland creatures acknowledge that you are the rightful ruler of the realm. (Again, implicit here is the idea that /the woodland creatures feel they need a ruler/, that they are incapable of governing themselves in a republic!) This is the other reason why Root fell flat, for me, because I don’t think the VP system makes much sense viewed as a measurement of perceived legitimacy. First, because “I made a tea pot!” is a weird way of seeking to assert one’s dominance over the populace!

    But second, and more importantly, because with the exception of the Eyrie it’s irrevocable. I won a game as the cats by building a sawmill, baiting the alliance into burning it down and then building it right back up again, for a total of 9 points over 2 turns (or something like that). Hooray, I had 30 points! But there are still many armed warriors running around the woodland, including the same alliance operatives that burned my sawmill down, but we’re supposed to accept that this time, /this/ time, it’s different, /now/ they see that I’m the rightful ruler because I built it back up, and /now/ they freely bend the knee (explicitly in the online implementation!) and hail me as their rightful ruler. To me this was a huge clang.

    (Third complaint is that the coupling between “the people”, who are the cards, and “the support of the people” that VPs represent, is fairly weak, but it sounds like maybe there’s more coming on that subject in the third installment.)

    • In my eyes legitimacy in this type of society is usually, but not exclusively expressed as coercive destructive power.

      However, the ability to produce economic goods and maintain the flow of luxuries (teapots, etc) to the upper classes despite the raging conflict, or the ability to placidly rebuild no matter how many times the rebellion strikes at you, these are both expressions of constructive power. Likewise the Otter’s successful trade and outposts.

      Both forms of power can confer legitimacy. As the period of active warfare exhausts itself, at least for me, I feel it’s very natural that the majority of the populace would accept one authority over another.

      However, I’m not sure this implies that the population yearns for a ruler, so much as they year for stability and prosperity. When a popular revolution fails to overthrow it’s ruler, or a democracy descends into tyranny, they accept the autocracy due to the power imposed, not due to an innate servile need. Historically we don’t speak of the French or Germans as inherently incapable of self government when we see the rise of a Napoleon or Hitler. Likewise if the American Revolution had failed due to an influx of British forces, it would not have reflected upon the American people’s capacity for self government.

      • Foucault tended to discuss power as “power/knowledge,” a detail that will come up in a future installment. Given his diffusive approach to power, legitimacy might fit under that umbrella, although I agree with your perspective that legitimacy tends to be an outcome of properly navigated power rather than power in and of itself. Your example of rebuilding and manufacturing is spot-on. If a faction can rebound from an attack, they demonstrate to the inhabitants of the woodland that even invasion and arson cannot deter them. That communicates power, and therefore legitimacy.

      • Well, but legitimacy is evaluative, whereas power is what you have the actual ability to do. Not the same thing. Yes, I get it that the tag line wears the “might makes right” interpretation on its sleeve, but the reason this falls flat is that included in the evaluation of the legitimacy are /the others factions themselves/, your opponents, who voluntarily stand down, not because they’re beaten, but because you hit 30VP before them, making you the legitimate ruler. Which, to me, is silly. If I burn down your mill and you build it up again, if I have the means to burn it down again, I will, and then you’ll just build it back, and on and on we will go.

        If VP are the metric of legitimacy, I do think it’s telling, in a meta- sort of way, that there’s no outcome in which the woodland inhabitants form a self-governing republic. I.e., they can’t confer VP upon themselves, only upon one of the player factions.

      • The way I see the 30VP limit is similar to the relationship of hand cards, to clearing populations, to VPs. In all these cases Cole is designing for effect rather than designing an explicit simulation.

        When you hit 30 VP you have an abstracted clock that says you have expended a certain amount of resources, including the patience of all involved that simulates the uniform effect of all the different ways conflict can exhaust itself. Rather than having tracks to measure recruitment efficiency of the rebellion, logistics trains from out of the woodlands for the Marquise, interest and willing noble princes among the Eyrie, plus all the shared resources of the woodlands roads too tramples to support operations at scale, granaries lootable by your marching armies, etc. Root recognizes that all conflict is to a certain degree ‘on the clock’ and, like it’s many other systems, abstracts this into a race for VP.

        For what it’s worth this is an eminently accepted design practice in the wargame/consim community. Only the most monster games have more nuance than a single ‘exhaustion’ or ‘morale’ track, and the overwhelming majority work with a single VP race or VP teeter totter. Likewise nearly every wargame ends long before every unit is defeated and every possibility of counterpunch to the deciding punch is eliminated, because in reality armies and nations and polities break rather than cling stubbornly to the field like the black knight claiming ‘it’s only a flesh wound’.

      • Right, I tend to think of the VP limit as “exhaustion,” in a sense. There are probably more thematic ways to express it, but none that would necessarily offer a worthwhile weight/benefit payoff.

    • I suspect the permanent VPs are motivated more by game design and trying to make the game take less time than anything thematic. As Dan mentions, the state based victory conditions are nigh-impossible to make happen in Root.

  2. Great post as always and I gotta say I love this focus on the ideas behind the game and game dynamics. Please keep it up!

    I love the insight that Root is mechanically focused on the thematic implications of biopower. I know Cole says so explicitly when talking about the suits and clearing as representing the people. However this series really casts a stark light on it and makes me yearn for that kind of underlying dynamic in other games. I know it’s influencing my own design thinking for sure!

    • You know, whenever somebody voices the opinion that I’m reading too much into Root, I have to chuckle to myself. Cole was thinking about biopower fairly explicitly when he designed the card system. I haven’t reread his diaries in a while — I want to get my own thoughts out there first, without risk of cross-contamination — but that part was stated outright.

      • While I completely agree that the reading too much into something is always a bad argument, I can’t see what difference it makes, really, that Cole intended something or not. in terms of whether one is reading too much into it. Cole isn’t the sole arbiter of the text, even if we take his thoughts as important in terms of meta-text.

  3. Marius van der Merwe

    Interesting analysis. Thanks for the delightful insights!

    I am no expert on Foucault and have not read any of his writings, but I do read about him frequently enough in other people’s writings. The one thing that keeps popping into my mind when I read about him, is that through a Foucauldian lens just about everything in the world, or at least anything that we may care about, is about power/agency and thus politics. While I can see some of the utility of this line of thinking taken too far it also looks to me like a slippery slope to a rather crass worldview. A worldview of eternal power dynamics where every aspect of life turns political. For people caught in this trap challenging or defending political power (depending on your political sympathies) becomes all-consuming.

    I guess my problem with this worldview is that it does not match my lived experience (for what that’s worth), which seems to be about much more than just politics. I don’t believe that injecting power dynamics into every act or goal and into every corner of society is healthy for society.

    • There’s certainly something dismal about the prospect of always being bombarded with the political implications of every action.

      As I understand it, Foucault tended toward two beliefs on the matter. (1) Every action is political, but that doesn’t mean every action is equivalently political or has identical access to the political. Most people won’t be thinking about every action as political. That would be paralyzing. (2) The role of intellectuals is to observe the political in order to advise ordinary people on which actions matter. Insofar as this isn’t happening, it’s probably the fault of intellectuals for not streamlining their highfalutin’ “discourse” into the common tongue

      The “everything is political” crowd can be both right and wrong at the same time.

      • I agree here. The fact every act is political doesn’t mean that there is no substantive ethics or difference in value, it merely means we should have the intellectual honesty to admit as much. Basically, this is an extension of various existentialist views, applying it more generally (not just as a matter of personal ethics and authenticity). Or at least that is how I see it.

  4. Huh. Maybe I should read some Foucault, a lot of this rings very true to me.

    • Best of luck if you decide to take the plunge. Foucault is challenging, and academics who specialize in discourse analysis sometimes disagree on his finer points. But he holds such an outsized measure of influence on our current paradigm that it’s useful to have some familiarity with his work.

      • Given the framework of this discussion (Roots’ factions), maybe you should be cautious about recommending such reading to a self professed Avian Overlord who suspiciously finds that this discussion rings true…

      • Honestly, from how you’ve described him he sounds like the opposite of current discourse. “Everyone has power, no one is a powerless victim” seems very different from a lot of political theorizing we have today.

      • @Jepp — Ha!

        @Avian — Both seem likely to be true. It probably depends on how one approaches “victimhood.” Where some folks view their victimhood as license to never accomplish anything, I’m often impressed with those who are able to acknowledge their victimhood as a source of power. Elizabeth Smart springs to mind, probably because she’s local to me and I’ve been able to hear her speak on a few occasions. Her activism wouldn’t exist without the horrors she endured as a fourteen-year-old. Regarding my own “abuses” as fonts of power rather than things that permanently stripped me of agency strikes me as a Foucauldian endeavor.

      • I think Foucault is the easiest to understand and best written of most of the structuralists and post structuralists (and yes I know Foucault had problems being called that, but still…). I don’t agree with Dan that his work is especially challenging for a more casual reader. You can kind of read Foucault and get a real sense of it, without close reading every single line. In a way that I don’t think you can with existentialists or other structuralists/post-structuralists. That isn’t to say there isn’t much to learn from close reading, but I think something like Discipline and Punishment or History of Sexuality both are quite good and easy reads, relatively, for such works.

        There is a lot of course to understand and maybe conceptually his ideas are difficult, but that is true of most French philosophy really.

        Also the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy has stuff on Foucault that is probably helpful for people wanting more information. That is freely available online and is a fantastic resource for anything philosophical (it is peer reviewed and there are excellent academics that write for it).

  5. Just to be clear I’m not saying that I wish Root required you to root out every last Japanese soldier from every minor Pacific island to win, rather I’m saying that it can (and often seems to) end with George W. Bush proclaiming “Mission Accomplished” from a carrier. You can win by brewing a cup of tea while 10 cat warriors are bearing down on you just one clearing over. I just don’t think that works, mechanically, thematically, or narratively. As to the narrative point, I have a blog post I’ve rewritten about a dozen times and may eventually post sometime next year.

    • In a way that’s a narrative point in itself, one refined and brought into better focus in Oath. Even though a faction declares “victory” and goes home the struggle is far from over, and it reignites the next time you open the box and set things up.

    • I think that both crafting, VP and even warriors are an abstraction. When you craft you’re not actually making a teapot, it’s just an abstraction of your ability (or even ability of people under your rule) to produce goods. People aren’t keen on supporting revolutions and upheavals if they have their needs met, and local elites also see that they’re better off supporting you.

      VP also abstracts exhaustion, morale and stuff like that. Yes, marquise has some forces left in a woodland when Alliance reaches 30 VP. But supplies lines are strained, exhausted soldiers go AWOL like it’s nobody’s business, people flee her lands en mass, sabotage is almost daily occurrence etc. It’s not that strange that she may decide to cut her losses and retreat. The same goes for other factions.

      And victory itself is an abstraction: it’s not that everyone bends the knee and accepts the authority of the winner, is that no other factions poses much of a threat to the winner anymore. Some of the bird nobility go to the exile (just like real royalty tends to do after revolution) or find some place in the new bureaucracy, failed revolutionaries are executed, or flee somewhere else to write memoirs, marquise forces just retreat to where they came from etc.

      • Yeah it’s very much this!
        “VP also abstracts exhaustion, morale and stuff like that. Yes, marquise has some forces left in a woodland when Alliance reaches 30 VP. But supplies lines are strained, exhausted soldiers go AWOL like it’s nobody’s business, people flee her lands en mass, sabotage is almost daily occurrence etc.”

        When you say “You can win by brewing a cup of tea while 10 cat warriors are bearing down on you just one clearing over. I just don’t think that works, mechanically, thematically, or narratively.” I think it’s useful to recognize that several decades of wargame best practice nearly all do precisely that.

        These systems work mechnically, thematically, and narratively, I think for anyone who understands, or is curious about why one game should end in “overwhelming victory for the Soviets” in 1942 (three years before VE Day), when the Soviets barely held the gates of Moscow and the Wermacht still stands poised in a massive salient at Kursk with overwhelming technical and expertise superiority. Or why another game should end in “decisive victory” for the Americans when the Japanese haven’t even brought their super battleship into battle yet. Or why a third game should end in victory for the Rebels, when they lost every battle and all they have accomplished is ‘signing a treaty with the French’ and the British have 10 units just one port over in Nova Scotia.

        Without a willingness to interrogate and see the nuances of the systems of power behind the chits, counters, and blocks, no wargame – or even much history – will make sense.

  6. Excellent article. I can’t believe I didn’t see this until now. Thank you so much!!!

    For my own 2c, I think Cole is doing what all wargame designers do. Taking a (or several) historian(s) (or in this case philosopher of history perhaps) and making a game that plays out their theories.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, my real problem is that this isn’t really a demonstration of foucault’s ideas, it is didactic regurgitation of them. That is still cool of course, but in some ways what is cool is that he chose Foucault rather than some other historian (say Stahel for Eastern Front games or whatever)

    • Hecc… now I’m coming off as a Cole apologist (and I really want to take him to task for the failures of Oath, and I think Patrick and crew get too little cried for Root)…


      I think it’s unfair to call Root a Focaultian regurgitation!

      I think Root starts from the place of aspiring to be a modular COIN game, and stumbles onto a generally (not perfect but good enuff) sandbox for an extremely wide range of conflicts. The factions and framework for that sandbox embody a Focaultian worldview because the authors were immersed in it (one generation’s innovation is the next’s instinct as they say), and also because it provides workable depth beyond ‘units on the map’ (see above discourse about 10 cat warriors one clearing over) to have game dynamics work out.

      Is it correct, original, or complete? Irrelevant IMHO.

      It works, and it embodies both the Focaultian precedent and the practical needs of the type of wargame that fascinated Cole and happily was commercially viable.

      The Focaultian view of that latter happy fact is a different topic taken up by Colin:

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