Foucault in the Woodland, Part Two: All That Power
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.