Foucault in the Woodland, Part Three: Devouring Your Children

Famous nudist Michel Foucault.

It was the Genevan journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan who wrote the famous phrase, “Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.” Writing in 1793, the year of King Louis XVI’s execution and the establishment of the First French Republic, du Pan was a proponent of the juste milieu, a “middle way” between autocratic and republican impulses. Considered both hopelessly naïve and tragically Cassandran, he died in exile in 1800, having watched his adoptive country pass through the Reign of Terror and into the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Over the past two installments, we’ve investigated how Cole Wehrle’s Root leverages the philosophies of Michel Foucault to tell a fable about power and control. Today, we’re putting those tools to use.

I played Root a handful of times specifically for this article, but forgetting to snap enough images does not mean I'm going to play it MORE.

Yes, this is posed.

Industry and Opportunity: The Marquise de Cat

When Root opens, the Marquise de Cat is the closest thing the woodland has to a ruler. Unlike the spotty presence of the other factions, her cats are spread across nearly the entire map. Their outward appearance is sinister, with glowering eyes and knowing smirks. But appearances can be deceiving, and our first test is to avoid assuming that they’re the story’s villains.

Last time, I argued that the Marquise may represent a Napoleonic tyrant: self-interested and jealous of competition, but also obsessed with fulfilling the modernizing promise of the revolution that enabled her rise to power. Remember, each faction’s “values” are reflected by their approach to victory. In addition to the game’s shared methods (craftsmanship/commerce and the destruction of opposing tokens), the Marquise’s goals are industrial. Her long shadow is not only a sign of her oppressive tendencies, but also an economic necessity: she requires empty building sites and large supplies of timber to continue her expansion.

From a pastoral perspective, the Marquise’s sawmills, workshops, and recruiters are an encroachment. For a country with a developing middle class, they’re signs of economic stability. The first two structures aren’t inherently oppressive; they’re the prospect of “honest work” for the woodland’s populace, although given the early history of industrial development in Europe one shudders to consider the working hours and scant labor rights of the small folk ushered from their farms to the mills.

The interactions between the Marquise and her subjects are depicted, as we discussed in the first part, by how she deploys the cards that represent the small folk of the woodland. Historically, the appearance of a middle class is a double-edged sword, both offering economic opportunities and beginning to demand limits on the actions of its government. As any Marquise player can tell you, her principal limitation is that she can only take three actions per round. She increases these actions by playing bird cards, the game’s wild suit. This “middle class” extends what she can accomplish each turn, but it must be cultivated.

No, the other kind.


How does she cultivate a middle class? Through biopower! Like every other faction, the Marquise wants to draw as many cards as possible. In more thematic terms, she’s vying for the support of the woodland’s population. Without that support, she’ll crumble. Her army may be staffed by fellow cats, but they’re supported by the small folk in field hospitals, as guides for ambushes, sources of labor and extra actions, and for the many opportunities offered by each of the game’s cards.

Except this is where things get dark. To keep the cards coming in, the Marquise’s most reliable tool is recruiting stations. These aren’t directly violent; at no point is the Marquise required to actually recruit troops. Discursively, however, the threat of potential violence is enough to prompt some of the population to collaborate with her regime. For a lucky few, that will be as the middle class — those action-giving wild cards. Some will be used as auxiliaries or craftsmen. For many more, they’ll be churned through the Marquise’s sawmills via the overwork action, discarded, both in gameplay terms and as the organic components of the mills, to generate extra wood for construction.

I’ll spell it out. Through the Marquise, Wehrle has codified the rise of the capitalist bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie would prefer to believe they accomplished their bootstrapping on their own, but their economic desirability to the ruling regime led that regime to use incentives — in this case, the dual incentives of protection and reprisal — to encourage participation and to shut out the sources of labor who are doing the actual day-to-day work in the mills. From a distance, it’s a clean process. Opportunity! Mobility! Productivity! Only upon closer inspection do you notice the thousands of hands supporting the hundreds who moved up in the woodland.

What happens when enough people notice? Surely a whole bunch of good.

They are forever.

I promised they’d be back.

A Great Change: The Woodland Alliance

Hey, I guess we were right for once, because surely the Woodland Alliance is the good team. Just look at those adorable faces. Aww!

For much of its appearance, the Woodland Alliance exists to prove Foucault’s maxims about how power is everywhere and that it’s discursive rather than coercive. When the game begins, they aren’t even on the map. Not formally, anyway. On a certain level, perhaps they’re present through the icons that identify which breed of small folk inhabits any given clearing. Because the Woodland Alliance is of the people, by the people, for the people!

That’s what they’d like you to believe, anyway. One of the limitations of any fable is that in the real world the wolves in sheep’s clothing aren’t literal wolves stitched into woolen costumes. This makes it especially tempting to take the Woodland Alliance at face value. Every other faction is comprised of cats and moles and lizards. Only the Woodland Alliance is staffed by the same species that get pushed around by everyone else.

Unless we’re talking about the small folk working in the sawmills when they get burned to cinders by an Alliance revolt. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For now, let’s accept that the Woodland Alliance believes they’re “of the people,” but like every other faction warring over these clearings, the reality is significantly more complicated.

Okay, discursive power. As I wrote earlier, the Woodland Alliance doesn’t even begin on the map, and it’ll be a while before they appear in force at all. They aren’t exactly punching their oppressors in the snouts. In their earliest incarnation, they’re limited to sympathy tokens. These are broad representations: laborers muttering grievances, cheap leaflets fluttering through a clearing, political cartoons of the Marquise picking her teeth with a mouse’s femur, women gossiping about not having enough bread to feed their children. They might seem like a small thing, but these tokens are pesky. Whenever another faction marches into a sympathetic clearing, it only seems to confirm what everybody is muttering about, regardless of whether the troops are here to suppress dissent or passing through on their way to somewhere else. This forces a card from the marching player’s hand into the Alliance’s pool of supporters. Like forbidding assembly or trashing an independent press, attacking a sympathy token is possible, but in the moment before it’s squelched it also steals a card. That’s the thing about Foucauldian notions of power: it’s slippery stuff, and you’re liable to lose it whenever you tighten your grasp.

Also posed. Yeah, I know. Sellout. Weakling. Soy child.

It’s cold outside.

Of course, this is limiting of the Woodland Alliance as well. It wants supporters, so it thrives on intrusion and abuse, but the cards in its supporter pool can’t be used for their usual bonuses or crafting. There’s a gulf between sharing a grievance with the population and holding actual political sway over them. Even trickier, the Alliance’s supporter pool is severely limited unless it has a base on the map.

In theory it’s possible for the Alliance to go on like this indefinitely, living on outrage and pamphleteering. But if its oppressors have any wits about them, they’ll be proactive enough about removing sympathy that the Alliance won’t be able to place the tokens that earn the big points; it will forever remain one more student revolutionary cell that never makes the leap from the dormitory to the public square. That’s where revolt comes in. If the Alliance has a sympathy token in a clearing and enough matching supporters, it can unleash a great change. All its enemies are removed in a single stroke. The Alliance sets up a base of operations and equips troops for battle — and to export the revolution. This latter option transforms the Woodland Alliance from a theoretical threat to a clear and present danger to its neighbors. In clearings where sympathy has struggled to take root, the Alliance can now march a warrior into enemy territory and organize a sympathy token outright.

That’s the faction’s prescribed arc, an extended illustration of how discursive power becomes tangible. The Woodland Alliance is about controlling a conversation until its words become a fist. Without someone to stitch the disparate threads together, that’s all they would stay — threads. Some bellyaching. Sore tummies. Halfhearted talk about how things should be better. If the Marquise has her way, she might even persuade one group that they’re better than the others. All the better for letting them forget that they both labor under the same taskmaster. Narrating a shared cause is the first work of the revolutionary.

Entering the third calendar year of a pandemic, am I supposed to feel bad when I say that getting together in a public square looks like a good time?

Pierre-Antoine Demachy, 1793.

Oppressor and Oppressed

Today’s study has been limited to these two factions because they’re Root’s most archetypal. The Marquise de Cat plays the role of oppressor, the Woodland Alliance the organized oppressed. Their interplay illustrates a Foucauldian understanding of power. Rather than functioning as two equivalent factions trading geography, à la Risk and its many descendants, their approach to power is depicted as a conversation held across two different languages. The Marquise’s language is class division, the threat of violence, and eventually real violence. The Woodland Alliance’s language is class unification, curated outrage, and eventually an unstoppable uprising.

Every so often I’ll meet somebody who can’t or won’t overlook the ugliness that takes place beneath a wargame’s resolution; say, the atrocities that appear on every single card in Twilight Struggle or one of the volumes of the COIN Series. By rewriting these atrocities in the language and imagery of fable, Wehrle degausses that resolution even further. One can make-believe that the inhabitants of the Marquise’s sawmills and workshops aren’t staffed with children, or that they’re safely evacuated before the Woodland Alliance puts them to the torch. That despite the blood frenzy of the moment, the line between forced laborer, reluctant collaborator, and enthusiastic participant is clearly drawn.

A shot from the interior of the Marquise's lumber mills. You monster.

Lewis W. Hine, 1909.

Root doesn’t insist on a confrontation with reality. That’s one of its strengths. But we should note Wehrle’s ludic commentary on the factions at hand. For all her abuses, the Marquise is concerned with expansion, construction, and even, to some degree, prosperity. Her actions are focused on making. By contrast, the ideal outcome of the Woodland Alliance’s actions is unmaking.

This competition between making and unmaking forces shouldn’t be mistaken for “good” versus “bad.” Recall our discussion of biopower, and how it uses “additive” rather than “deductive” control. The Woodland Alliance likely isn’t as pure as it would like us to think, and periodically produces its own Reigns of Terror. But its destructive tendencies are also characterized as destructive of injustice and inequality. While the Marquise is busy creating new industries and opportunities, her use of biopower illustrates the wariness Foucault felt toward government incentives and oversight. Her efforts are as persuasive in nature as the Alliance’s. But they rely on persuading one class that they deserve to benefit at the expense of all others — and keeping her claws visibly sharpened if they don’t go along.

In other words, the political situation in Root isn’t as simple as “Marquise bad, Alliance good,” but neither is it as solipsistic as “everyone is as bad as everyone else.” Rather, Wehrle presents a textured portrayal, one where oppressive regimes may produce good outcomes for a portion of their citizenry and violent uprisings run the risk of devouring their children in the pursuit of liberty. In both cases, by looking at how the game’s factions interact with the broader population, we see how Wehrle’s understanding of power is Foucauldian in nature: it’s volatile, discursive, and defies simple characterization.

Thank goodness, then, that next time we’ll be tackling a much more straightforward topic: sex.


Part Four will be releasing on Patreon soon. In the meantime, supporters can read about what Unfathomable, Battlestar Galactica, and Homeland tell us about the War on Terror 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 January 25, 2022, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. This is the finest piece of board game journalism I have ever read.

  2. I’m enjoying this series very very much!

  3. This is a really eloquent and engaging essay!  I have two thoughts/comments/questions.

    First, I agree with you that there is presumably bad stuff happening off camera, e.g. workers in a burning sawmill, etc.  You echo something Cole has said, that placing that stuff off camera is a strength, in that you can think about it, or not, as you prefer.  Do you think this is similar, or different, to stuff that happens off-camera in “controversial” games like Puerto Rico?

    Second, I appreciate your point about how easy black hat/white hat dichotomies aren’t always so clear-cut and that an archetypical entity like “a rebellion” or “a tyrant” may seem to be wearing one color hat in one incarnation and a different one in a different incarnation.

    So.  Say we’re going to play two games back-to-back, and I’m going to be the Alliance both times.  In the first game, I’m going to play them as a sort of Robin Hood/T.E. Lawrence/Luke&Leia group of noble freedom fighters.  In the next game, I’m going to play them as a Castro/Mao/Mugabe type who is going to cynically exploit the goodwill of the people to put myself and my friends in power and then oppress the people with the power of the State that I now wield.  

    My question is, in what way would I operate /the levers of the actual game/ to adopt these distinctive approaches?  How, through the actions I take in the game, can I be seen to simulate a virtuous crusader on one hand and a nefarious opportunist in the other? I agree that a rebellion, for example, can encompass a broad range of motivations; but I don’t see how to bring it about through the gameplay of Root, except maybe on a metagame level.  

    • Good questions, Jeff.

      (1) Every game has a limited resolution; some things will be “beneath” the resolution of a particular title. But in many cases, I’m very interested in what a designer chose to include or exclude. Puerto Rico is largely about using labor to generate resources, but it chooses to soft-pedal how it expresses that labor. Is that beneath the game’s resolution or is it a problem? Obviously, opinions vary.

      (2) My point isn’t that you can role-play a faction according to whether you’d like it to wear a particular hat. My point is that Wehrle’s understanding of Foucauldian philosophy and revolutionary history is coded into the game. The Marquise de Cat uses the small folk of the woodland as labor, and the way she does that is through the threat of force. The Woodland Alliance gains support when their pieces are intruded upon or attacked. These are philosophical and political statements despite being concealed behind the game’s setting within a fable.

      • FWIW I think in regards to point 2, the way the original four root factions ‘read’ changes as more factions are released.

        In the original four, the WA are the only rebellion, and so they exist mostly at a granularity above the details of that type of ‘roleplay’ or (one might argue) ‘simulation play’ allow. You are playing with the mechanisms of rebellion common to the spectrum. You utilize outrage as a core element of your engine regardless of your motivations or character.

        You can within that framing, play very slightly with it. When you revolt and destroy the buildings of the Marquise, everyone around the table understands. You might imagine innocent mice working in the back kitchen. A bird officer having a drink. They may be casualties, but incidental. Below the resolution of power dynamics. Should that clearing include a roost as well… now how justifiable and ‘noble’ is this attack? (The inverse is also true should the WA start closer to bird territory). It’s there, but I’ll grant is a very mild expression and interaction with modes and archetypes of rebellion.

        However, add on additional expansions, specifically some Crows and some Rats, and now you have a more clear cut mechanical exploration of some different archetypes of rebellion and populism.

        The Crows explicitly extort and profit in the process analogous to the WA’s outrage. They also take the self contained character of revolts and migrate closer to the chaotic threat of terrorists attacks. Note how in contrast to the WA’s threat of revolt which diminishes as the three species gain physical power bases, the Crows remain a constant threat!

        The Rats likewise will raze infrastructure with their mobs, but this is again a different facet of the spectrum and characters of revolutions. This is no secret sleeper cells and explosive vests revolt. This is storming the halls of power arm in arm and setting up a guillotine.

        To my mind that’s what’s so lovely about Root as a sandbox. You can ‘load’ content that is broadly a theory about meta dynamics in ‘rebellion’ and play with a little of the nuance and meta game. Or you can ‘load’ content that is about a more specific theory of a character of an class of insurrection and play with that as well and the framework holds up to both.

      • Exactly. My notes on the later factions reach a similar conclusion. The “original” six factions are very archetypal. The later factions begin to gain resolution on particular facets of those previous.

        One of the big questions I’m asking myself as the author of this series is whether I want to dive into that or quit once I’m done with the original six.

      • Re. 2, to clarify I’m not talking about meta-game roleplaying, I’m talking about in-game /playing/, i.e. strategy, and my point here is that your essay depicts the breadth of power dynamics of revolution and despotism, but if the game doesn’t give the player the tools to express that breadth through play, are they actually “coded in” in a meaningful way?

        Here’s a different way of expressing this  In Sands of Time, as you know, one of the scoring categories is “empire size”, which I can pursue in many different ways: I can use advances to make my warriors technologically superior, or I can muster a big army; I can use a road network to shuttle my armies around, or I can disperse my forces and fight small battles locally; I can use my army as raiders to plunder; or I can build colosseums to keep unrest (and costs) low.  Or a bunch of other things, or combos of these.

        The point being, within the broad archetype of “the conqueror”, the game’s mechanics let me express, through play, the horde, the liberator, the warrior poet, and so on.  But I didn’t ever see how Root gave me the gameplay tools to now be Robin Hood, now be Pol Pot.

        Sure, it’s clever how the WA get a supporter card when you remove them from a clearing, and sure, that’s a model of how insurgencies are notoriously hard to stamp out, but to me, I didn’t feel the theme emerge in the decisions I was making, which I think is one of the reasons it didn’t land, for me.

  4. In regards to Jeff’s second point: I think that the game tries to present the WA as an insurgency of the people (a “Sons of the Soil” movement) and the insurgency starts when when one the more powerful factions oppresses them. My issue is that the game does not give the other players any meaningful way of dealing with them other than military oppression. Which is the one thing that will make sure they actually become an insurgency.
    So the choice of “Noble Freedom Fighters” or “Violent Conflict Entrepreneurs” is purely a role-playing choice. In a way the game has already decided that they will start an insurgency. It’s up to the player to make sure it succeeds as an insurgency. Root is more a game about power in a civil war than a game about the causes of the civil war. And Dan’s comment that “Wehrle’s understanding of power is Foucauldian in nature: it’s volatile, discursive, and defies simple characterisation” is partly true. In the game you only get the volatile and discursive aspects, the complex characterisations are (for me) left out of the game.

    • I imagine it’s going to come up whenever we discuss the Vagabond, but one of the key arguments that I think Root is making is that the only way large organizations of people can interact with individuals that aren’t interested in participating within them (Someone that doesn’t want to rebel or work in the sawmills) is violence. Power to hurt, no power to help.

  5. I feel educated – and entertained at the same time. This is a rare treat. Thank you!

  6. I’ve with pleasure read your “Foucault in the Woodland”. As already stated by others, both entertaining and enlightening!

    I’ve not read Foucault. From that perspective it appears as an intentional puristic sandbox, or am I missing something? Maybe Root is showcasing some few aspects of Foucault’s ideas, simplified to the scope of distinct factions for game play reasons?

    I’ll probably during play introduce doses of your analysis to some of my friends. Could become interesting and probably add another dimension to the game.

    My interest will mainly fall into international relations, and I’m inclined to view the school of realism as a better module of how bigger powers act. From that perspective few revolutions nowadays may be represented by one faction alone. Recently we had a might-have-been a revolution scenario. A clumsy Rootish description:

    – Eyrie engage thugs within the Corvid Conspiracy to overrun the growing protests of Woodland Alliances by what seemed to be purposeless riots.
    – Woodland Alliance was badly damaged left with no bases, and without a base there was no leader to be heard. Instead the Woodland Alliance became busy denouncing any affiliation with those thugs… whoever they were.
    – Outsiders were debating whether there actually had been any protests by the Woodland Alliances, or whether this chaos all along had been created by the Corvid Conspiracy. Some though suspected that the old Eyrie leader and his family were behind this mayhem.
    – However, Eyrie state apparatus lost control and the woodlands fell into chaos. It was enough to topple the seemly strong old Eyrie leader.
    – The new Eyrie leader had already been negotiation with one of the Vagabonds, much to the dismay of a competing Vagabond who on the contrary had tried to empower the Woodland Alliances.
    – With the help of the Vagabond and his tricks and weapons Eyrie could clear the woodlands from Corvid Conspiracy and the few Woodland Alliances left. The Vagabond was pleased to share the victory and even more so to have humiliated the other Vagabond, but as it seemed left the woodlands. He and the other Vagabonds were anyway already mighty rulers in their own woodlands.
    – To be continued…

    But that doesn’t translate very well to how Root is supposed to be played.

  7. Great read; thank you! Typo: “violet uprising”

  1. Pingback: Foucault in the Woodland, Part 3 | brtrain

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