Foucault in the Woodland, Part Five: Parasites in the Panopticon

It looks like he's trying to sell newspapers.

Recap: Across the past four installments, we’ve been talking about power. Specifically, how Cole Wehrle’s Root demonstrates an understanding of power in line with the writings of Michel Foucault.

Except I’ve been making a significant omission. Because Foucault didn’t write only about power. That would have been too clear-cut. He always rendered it as “power-knowledge.” Two intertwined concepts that, once assembled, approximate what he meant when he talked about power. Pardon me, power-knowledge.

Today, we’re delving into why that distinction matters.

Did he buy those glass eyes in advance or what

Jeremy Bentham has bigger problems than a panopticon.

Jeremy Sees Paris, Jeremy Sees France, Jeremy Sees Your Underpants

Jeremy Bentham was his own worst enemy. It’s hard to remember now that he was a serious reformer in a period that needed serious reforming. Born in 1748, he grew to adulthood in a Great Britain drunk on power but short on conscience. At eleven, Bentham was already upset at the legally unequal state of women; his concern soon expanded to slavery, capital and physical punishments, and poverty. After the Thirteen Colonies won their independence, he began opposing imperialism, writing that the entire endeavor was so costly both financially and in lost life, not to mention based on some very dorky ideas about manhood and national glory, that the French and Spanish should consider emancipating their New World colonies. He argued for law codification, hoping to detangle the thicket of laws that made it impossible for common folk to understand their rights as citizens, drafted the first conceptualization of welfare economics, wrote the earliest known essay arguing against the criminalization of homosexuality — a piece he got away with by not publishing — and argued for animal rights. Apart from his belief that everybody’s pleasure would be maximized by staring at his severed head, the guy had a lot of good ideas long before they became popular.

He also laid some essential groundwork for totalitarianism.

The common thread lay in how Bentham conceptualized right and wrong. As Bentham put it, the goal of society should be to produce “the greatest good for the greatest number.” John Stuart Mill, the son of Bentham’s secretary, applied the axiom to individual behaviors in his 1861 essays on utilitarianism: “Actions are right in the proportion as they tend to promote happiness, [and] wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” In the early 1900s, conservationist politician Gifford Pinchot apparently added “…in the long run” to the back end of the statement.

Tellingly, each of these voices were interested in promoting very different things. Bentham developed an algorithm called the felicific calculus, which counterbalanced questions like “How strong is the pleasure?” and “How likely is the pleasure to occur?” against “How many people will be affected?” and “Will the pleasure be followed by displeasure?” Everything was evaluated according to this hedonistic rubric. While everybody else was arguing that animals weren’t entitled to rights because they weren’t reasoning beings, Bentham concluded that the essential point was that they could suffer. To him, “good” was pleasure. To Mill, “good” became the general wellbeing of a country’s populace. To Pinchot, “good” meant sacrifice in the present to enable the wellbeing of the future.

In all cases, some niggling questions remained: Good for whom? What about the people who got rounded out of the “greatest number”? What if our idea of “good” changes?

To his credit, Bentham wasn’t unaware of these questions. In his time, gaols (pronounced “jails,” for everybody who’s been playing Elden Ring) were inhumane in the extreme. In most cases, they were temporary solutions, either housing those awaiting trial and probably life in a penal colony or those working off debts — and at the turn of the 18th century, a full half of England’s prisoners were debtors. Gaols were not centralized or built to purpose. In many cases they were little more than repurposed dungeons. Heat, running water, and light were rare, iron fetters were still used, disease was rampant, and prisoners were required to pay for their own bedding, clothing, and food. The task of developing a national prison system fell to Parliament, but nobody knew quite what that would look like.

Not pictured: Suffering.

Diagrams of the panopticon.

Enter Jeremy Bentham and his most abiding obsession: the panopticon.

So you’re sitting in Parliament in the mid-18th century. Here’s the problem as you see it. Everybody agrees that gaol reform is direly needed. You need a prison that’s more humane — in the sense that fewer prisoners are dying, not that it has, like, HBO or whatever — but the reality is that nobody wants to pay for it.

Then Bentham struts in with one big claim after another. His panopticon will be humane. In fact, everyone will follow the rules at all times. It will be profitable, because all those debtors will work their assigned hours with hardly any oversight. You won’t even need to even pay the gaoler very much. Most of the time, he won’t even need to be on-site. How will Bentham accomplish this? By designing a circular prison with stacks of cells facing inward. In the center, the gaoler will occupy a raised observation booth, but — and this is key — thanks to “shutters and other contrivances,” the prisoners won’t be able to tell when the gaoler is observing them. As far as they’re concerned, there’s always a significant risk that their actions are being watched.

Bentham’s obsession with the panopticon never fully took off. Despite angling for the position of contractor-governor of the national penitentiary for sixteen years, even offering to build and operate a prison at his own expense, and fielding home runs like “have the prisoners walk on treadle spinning machines or water wheels for hours each day,” the prime minister most interested in his ideas resigned before they could be realized. Bentham was devastated. But his blueprints and proposals didn’t disappear. It wasn’t long before prisons were built according to his model. Results were mixed. Some structures failed to provide total surveillance, making them ineffective. Others, like the Cuban Presidio Modelo, functioned as a license for the government and prison guards to pack as many prisoners as possible into any available space and leave them to their own devices. Today, the experiment is ongoing, with the first digital panopticons coming online only over the past few years. And that’s before we even open the discussion of how social media, states, and corporations gather and handle private information.

Closed in 1967. Is that a long time? Probably feels like it if you're incarcerated there.

Presidio Modelo, Cuba, finished in 1928.

For Foucault, the panopticon was a perfect metaphor for the mass surveillance of modern states and the leveraging of power-knowledge against the state’s citizenry. Even in his lifetime, Bentham wrote that the principles behind his panopticon might be expanded to sanitariums, hospitals, factories, and schools. From there, the genie would not be rebottled. Remember, Foucault was principally interested in examining how our institutions reflect our thinking and vice versa. As his peer Henri Lefebvre pointed out, the architecture of the panopticon revealed the relationship between the state, its citizens, and those it had opted to discard. Bentham’s felicific calculus rated pleasure over pain; Mill’s calculus evaluated social wellbeing; Pinchot weighed diminished pleasure against future survival. In all cases, privacy was an essential sacrifice to keep a populace docile and well-behaved.

But what might happen when an institution decided to bend their newfound surveillance to their own ends? An inevitable side effect of making a populace more governable was that they became more governable in all senses, not only under the particular circumstances of the prison, school, and workplace. The populace became easier to sort and file, to divide, even to oppress. Through the panopticon, Bentham sought to solve Juvenal’s conundrum, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Instead, he gave the watchman a promotion. Even if one panopticon could be staffed with righteous guards, what about the others? Even if the entire state was filled with righteous policymakers, what about the parasites who now had access to the entire population? It’s not much of a surprise that Bentham’s experiment has been traced as the modern world’s totalitarian regimes taking advantage of mass-gathered private information.

Root’s first expansion examines what happens to the Small Folk discarded by the great powers. And the answer has everything to do with how power-knowledge can be used for activities that have very little to do with anybody’s wellbeing.

They'd like you to think so, anyway.

The Lizard Cult is everywhere.

God Loves Those Who Give More Money to the Rich

On very rare occasions, a game makes you care about its discard pile. Usually it’s thanks to one of those annoying “draw any card from the discard” effects, which have a pesky way of weaseling into the hand of whichever player takes ten minutes to reach a decision. Or maybe it’s the rare open discard pile, which everybody in polite society understands is not an invitation to stop the game while you peruse a hundred cards.

And then there’s the Lizard Cult. They care about what’s in the discard pile. They care so hard.

It’s tempting to call the Lizard Cult Wehlre’s take on religion. Growing up in a religious community, we were often informed that atheists considered all religions weedy, abusive, and obnoxious. These all happen to be traits that apply to the Cult. Lizard scripture probably lists “weedy, abusive, and obnoxious” as its three foremost articles of faith. The Cult can appear almost anywhere on the map. They deploy the power of public grievance to strengthen their zeal. Worst of all, they send their acolytes to convert rival pieces to their own side. On Saturday. At nine o’clock in the morning.

On the surface, though, the Lizard Cult is concerned with the plight of the Small Folk. Their closest analogue is the Woodland Alliance, and even the Alliance’s compassion is limited to the cards “on the table” rather than those who’ve been outright dispossessed. The Cult is willing to think outside the box. Whenever a card is used, it gets deposited in the Lost Souls pile. Whether that’s because they’ve been worn out crafting, injured during an ambush, or overworked in the Marquise’s mills. When the Small Folk fail to find a niche within the woodland’s ecosystem — or worse, when they find a niche only to discover that their newfound position is only as permanent as their endurance — the Lost Souls pile is their layover. Then, when the Cult’s turn rolls around, the most common suit among the Lost Souls becomes “outcast,” a favored group that will be the focus of their ministrations for the duration of the turn. Squint hard enough and the Cult seems to be doing benevolent work. They score by planting gardens. They don’t scrabble for territory quite as jealously as their opponents. They don’t even have a regular action for attacking. Put all that together and they seem downright monkish.

Even a warrior monk can enjoy a garden.

Warrior monks, maybe.

Except much like a real-world cult asking for your social security number the instant you arrive at the compound, the lizards go out of their way to hoist red flags almost immediately.

The first hint is the Cult’s blatant bigotry toward birdfolk. It’s right there on their list of special abilities: Hatred of Birds: Bird cards are not wild for your rituals. Scratch the surface a little deeper and their theology seems to preclude birds from qualifying as Lost Souls — perhaps because they don’t regard birds as capable of housing a soul in the first place? Hmm. Morality may be the working hand of faith, but rather than taking a stand against the myriad aggressions that are the woodland’s norm, the Cult instead chooses to demonize one of the four classes of Small Folk. True, the birds are often considered the most desirable by the woodland’s great powers. Also true, the birds bear common resemblance with the stuffy aristocrats of the Eyrie Dynasties. (Not that they think so.) But their role as a desirable underclass makes them first among the oppressed, a handy scapegoat for the Small Folk’s ills rather than, say, the Marquise, who presumably burps out the occasional mouse bone during meetings of state.

It doesn’t get much better from there. As the Cult spreads across the map, their gardens lose that sanctified glow and start to look more and more like a real estate scheme, accruing points rather than handing out self-help tracts or guiding meditation sessions or whatever else a holy garden ought to be used for. Although they’re quick to accept the dispossessed, their treatment seems more like using than helping. Upon first joining, a pawn is a simple warrior. Perhaps the title is even ironic, a repurposing of their former title in service of a more devout way of life. Soon, however, they’re initiated into the inner circle, by sacrifice if necessary, where they become acolytes who take part in conspiracies to unleash crusades and conversions. These clandestine activities breed further radicalization; whenever anybody pushes back on having their soldiery or structures repurposed for the Cult, the lizards sputter and initiate further acolytes.

The roughest gut punch of them all is the realization that the Cult wants its members victimized. When a suit remains outcast two rounds in sequence, they become “hated,” decreasing that suit’s conspiracy cost. Usually the Cult reveals and reclaims cards rather than discarding them, but every so often they throw someone out. In those moments, they’re not above stoking the fires. It’s the old totalitarian paradox brought to life: their people must simultaneously become oppressor and oppressed, victim-maker and victimized, strong and weak.

As I noted earlier, it’s tempting to regard the Lizard Cult as a critique of religion. Perhaps. I suspect Wehrle is casting a broader net. The Lizard Cult isn’t only a religion; it’s a cult. A cult of personality. A cult of national myth. A cult of victimization. Even a cult of surveillance. Because crucially, none of this would be possible without the Cult’s access to some truly impressive demographic work. Mastering the Cult requires players to devote much of their attention to straight-up biopower. Which of the Small Folk are favored by the greater powers? Who’s this month’s favorite whipping squirrel? Can you use that to your advantage? Or is it necessary to massage the woodland’s resentments? Root isn’t a perfect information game, but the Lizard Cult likes to pretend it is. The entire woodland is their panopticon, and they couldn’t be happier to peek into everybody’s private business.

Speaking of private business…



Otter a Company Bear Some Responsibility to Its Workers?

Who’s the most adorable faction in the woodland? That would be the pumpkin-headed Vagabond. But a close second place is the Riverfolk Company, the band of otters who just want to open a bunch of trade posts and sell some cards and be the best of friends, pinkie promise.

It likely hasn’t escaped anybody’s notice that the Riverfolk Company shares some deep parallels with the East India Trade Company, itself the topic of multiple of Wehrle’s games, most notably the brutal John Company. In most cases, the furry Company winds up behaving much like the historical Company. Initially, they ingratiate themselves with low prices and the occasional mercenary army supplied to a local underdog. Before you know it, they have trade posts up and down the entire map, they control most of the table’s wealth, and there’s not much anyone can do but watch as the entire woodland falls under their sway.

The way they accomplish this is especially telling and, with some examination, a murky reflection of the chilly depths plumbed by the more historical titles in Wehrle’s oeuvre. Because there is no “currency” in Root. So what does the Riverfolk Company trade?

Lives. It trades lives.

I don't remember a single other lyric.

Poor unfortunate souls.

It works like this. Every turn, the Riverfolk Company sets the cost for its services. There are three: cards, riverboats for transit along the map’s waterways, and its own manpower as mercenaries. Other factions may purchase one service by default, plus another for every clearing where there’s a trade post. Like the Mughal Empire inviting the East India Company into their fold to help stave off the encroaching Maratha Confederacy, there’s an incentive to bringing the Riverfolk into your territory.

The price for these services is paid in warriors. Early on, this isn’t a big deal. Chances are that everybody has more spare warriors than they can actually field, and a slightly diminished cap is a small price to pay for an extra card or a much-needed move behind enemy lines. These services can provide real lifelines, especially for factions like the Eyrie Dynasties who need to fulfill pledges to their constituency. Once, I watched the Riverfolk set the price for riverboats at four warriors — the highest they can go — just so the Eyrie would be forced to loan them four warriors in order to fight a battle that would normally be out of reach. That’s capitalism, baby. Nobody forced you to partake. Go hungry if you don’t like it.

It gets more sinister from there. The Riverfolk Company puts its “funds” to work. Most actions don’t even return the funds to their original status as individual creatures fighting for a cause. Instead, they’re made to enable crafting, permitting movement and battle, furnishing additional cards for sale, or even just sitting around generating interest — sorry, victory points — by merely existing in a captive state. There are two essential actions that permit a fund’s release: recruiting and establishing a trade post. The latter is very nearly undertaken by force, exchanging two funds for a garrisoned trade post in a clearing ruled by those funds’ owner. You could call it an exchange of hostages. The Riverfolk Company prefers to call it liability mitigation.

Of Root’s initial factions, the Riverfolk Company is the most devious. The Cult takes advantage of the dispossessed; the Company exposes the lengths the great powers will go to as they strive to get ahead. The otters hide behind adorable faces, but their entire goal is to observe the fractures that dominate the woodland and take advantage of them for maximal profit. In the process, they transform life itself into another form of extraction. The entire woodland is their panopticon, and their prisoners are their fellow players. It’s almost poetic justice, watching the manpower of a major faction get pressganged. Then you remember: the warriors themselves are only marginally less small than the Small Folk. It’s the fat cats and old owls who somehow always dodge a true reckoning.

Unless the Woodland Alliance lops off their noggins, anyway.

I'm not comfortable.


That’s the joy of Root. Every faction is its own critique, but by hiding the ugliness of ideological violence behind a cuddly face, Wehrle makes the medicine go down with a smile. Ideologies, revolutions, industries, and gadflies all have their moment. So, too, do religious institutions and runaway sovereign corporations.

Here’s the good news. Behind it all, there’s a ray of hope to be had. By framing Root’s dynamics around a Foucauldian understanding of power-knowledge, Wehrle expresses the possibility of transformation in all its valencies. Even though the Small Folk are bandied about by the major factions, subjected to surveillance and abuse, used and discarded and then used again, they have glimmers of agency that may one day be more fully realized. Their own power is very real. If only they can learn how to harness it.

After all, the woodland is never still. Not for a moment.


Another exclusive article is available on Patreon right now! It’s about Sniper Elite: The Board Game and adaptation. Supporters can read it right 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 August 2, 2022, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. I feel educated. Thank you!

  2. One reason I’ve been much less interested in the later factions, is that I don’t see them continuing with this sort of thematic depth. My impression is that the original 6 factions were rooted in a thematic inspiration and developed from there, whereas the next 4 started by looking for mechanical branches to explore, with flavor backfilled. Possibly this is just me giving too little credit to people who aren’t Cole Wherle?

    • I think that’s probably the case for the Underground Duchy and the Corvid Conspiracy. Both of Wehrle’s new factions, the Keepers in Iron and the Lord of the Hundreds, are a little clearer.

      But I’m still debating whether to continue this series from here.

      • 八斋不死薬

        For me the Underground Duchy still seems to grow from an interesting theme – if Eyrie Dynasties are the old aristocracy that based on insisting on their rigid grant imperial promises (Decrees), then the Underground Duchy is an expansionist foreign (from the Woodland viewpoint) oligarchy in which the oligarchs (Lords) behaves like crabs in a bucket.

        If certain oligarchs become the first(s) among equals, they could leverage their power and push the Duchy forward by expansion. If these elected oligarchs keeps winning the expansionist campaigns, they will always stay in power. But if these oligarchs lose any progress (transport infrastructures or buildings) in the expansion, one of them will immediately be forced out of the office forever and take all the blame for the failure.

        In a way, the Duchy is similar to the Eyries – the leader of the faction will lose power if things do not work out in the leader’s favor – just the Duchy leaders are from an equal group and could work together instead of being hereditary autocrats, and they share one common agenda (expansion into the Woodland) instead of different agendas.

        This combination of “crab mentality officials” and “empire that needs to keep a promise of winning” fits many historical regimes – many of the expansionist/imperialist empires looked like the Duchy during their heyday. Their entire imperial promise was based on being aggressive and keeping winning; if they could not do that, heads would roll. Napoleon III’s Second French Empire is the closest example I can think of.

        If the Marquis and the Alliance are playing COIN Series while the Eyries are playing Oath, then the Duchy is playing the Republic of Rome (or John Company 2nd Edition, but we do have a company already).

      • Right. I do think there are archetypes there. In particular, both the Duchy and the Conspiracy strike me as “external” forces. The Duchy is a colonizer and the Conspiracy behaves like a non-native insurgency in the sense that they’re not quite as interested in preserving any local infrastructure, very much unlike the Alliance.

        The big question is whether I can string that out into a whole piece, let alone a piece that intersects with Foucault at all. I think I can do that for the Hundreds and the Keepers via populism and museum culture. I’ll give it some more thought.

      • I hate to Well Actually, but Patrick Leder was lead designer for the factions in both Underworld and Marauder, with other members of the studio (Cole included obviously) contributing to them to varying degrees. Of course it’s not like the original six sprang forth fully-formed from Cole’s forehead either, Leder seems to be a very collaborative environment, but Marauder is still mostly Patrick while Cole worked on Arcs

      • Interesting! Thanks for the clarification. I’ll look into that.

      • Please do! I love this series.

  3. Please do consider continuing the series. I find the essays potent blends of gaming, philosophy/ideology and history. Plus, they are a sheer pleasure to read.

    • That’s useful to know, Cliff! At this point, I’m happy to continue if there’s enough interest. Realistically it could only go for another one or two entries anyway.

  4. Very nice essay, my favorite of the series so far! To date I’ve only played the base factions but the Lizards interest me in two respects.

    First, the Lizard’s ways and means certainly seem consistent with a sinister interpretation (and I agree that it sounds like a critique of cult-like behavior, not religious institutions per se), but what I wonder is what the mechanics would have looked like to support a more positive interpretation? In other words, it seems that sinister/benevolent could just be a matter of perception, if the mechanics aren’t sufficiently fine-grained to really distinguish between them.

    Second thought is that, while I know nothing of Foucault, it doesn’t seem like in-group/out-group stuff has come up yet. And interestingly, in a somewhat silly ‘review’ I wrote about the game (before I had even played!), I mentioned that the idea of kinship and social groups seemed absent from the game. If social groups aren’t a key ingredient of Foucault’s thought, and Foucault was the key influence on the game’s arguments, it would make sense that those considerations wouldn’t find their way in.

    But the Lizards seem like the place best suited for commentary on social groups. Cults form insular social groups that cut their adherents off from contact with the outside world and their other group affiliations (family, etc), and this is one of the ways the exert power/control over them. Does this dynamic come through at all in the Lizard mechanics?

  5. Given the eclecticism of historical allusions in this game you could throw any number of conflicting theoretical frameworks at it and find something that stuck. You could just as well impose Deleuze’s rhizome,Heidegger’s techné or Lenin’s Imperialism and see something fit. But what’s the point, except to learn that Wehrle and Thurot went to college and go oooh?

  6. Really cool stuff! It’s interesting to think about how the knowledge that each player has of the cards in their hand can also manifest as a sort of power-knowledge with respect to controlling the populace.

    Also had the thought, reading through the first half of the post, about how the choice to see morality in terms of pleasure and pain has some very strong implications when it swings back around to the concept of biopower!

  7. If you do requests, I would like to see the Phenomenology of Spirit applied to Bohnanza or the marquis de Sade applied to patchwork. Thanks!

  8. Dominic Crapuchettes

    Wonderful work Daniel! Pieces like this give me hope for the future of our industry. I’ve always considered games to be fantastic form of artistic expression. It’s one of my favorite mediums. It takes dedicated writers like you to help others understand what’s being done.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: