Stuck in An Infamous Traffic
Every time I’ve taught a group of friends how to play An Infamous Traffic, Cole Wehrle’s sophomore design and a sort of thematic follow-up to his astounding Pax Pamir, we reach a point where someone lets a nervous chuckle slip out. After explaining our role as British opium sellers, forcing our product on a nation whose authorities would very much rather we leave them alone, I begin describing the game’s take on supply and demand. We’re the supply, crates of dried poppy latex from India bumping around the holds of our ships. And the demand? Well, we’re that too. By inserting smugglers and missionaries into the workings of the Qing Dynasty, we spread the word and create an enthusiastic population of buyers.
It’s the missionaries that do it. Where I live in the heart of Zion — Mormon country to outsiders — a large quantity of young men and women serve eighteen-month to two-year church missions. For the most part, these are well-meaning acts of service and devotion. Those obnoxious pairs who knock on your door and smile a little too wide? That’s them. They’re also the ones mending fences, working in care centers, and going caroling in August. To that service-oriented mindset, the idea of peddling an addictive substance — other than the opiate of the masses, depending on your perspective on the matter — is nothing short of appalling.
An Infamous Traffic is a game with a lot on its mind. And one of those things is that certain trades pollute everything they touch, no matter how well-intentioned the people engaged in it.
Let me give you another example.
An Infamous Traffic sees you working alongside your fellows, at least some of the time. The British East India Company has been stripped of its trade monopoly by Parliament, letting a flood of new companies try their hand at peddling opium. It’s a grand opportunity, though that doesn’t mean the task will be easy. The local government is sometimes hostile, for one thing, and might arrest those smugglers or missionaries. Also, a trade chain is a tough thing to maintain. You’ve got to cultivate the local demand for your product, haul the crates from India, secretly ship them inland, and then use greedy local bureaucrats or merchants to actually sell the stuff. And that’s if you have an opening into a particular region in the first place.
The point is, it’s a many-step process before you’ll see so much as two shaved pence to rub together. Amassing every component of a successful route, from opium crates to ships to merchants, is nearly impossible in the early stages. So you’ll collaborate. Your company will guarantee safe shipping if another risks their necks inland, for instance, or perhaps you’ll send diplomatic envoys to open new regions if you’re guaranteed a slice of the pie there later on. It’s a gentleman’s game.
Until it isn’t. Because after a while, the easily-claimed routes are claimed and certain companies will be ascendant. Then everything shifts, and the game becomes about underselling your opponent, bribing the police to crack down on your enemies, and maybe even nudging your countrymen back home into declaring war so you can force additional Chinese ports to open themselves to your wares. This isn’t to say that your enterprises won’t be hopelessly entwined with your rivals. They almost undoubtedly will. But the result is a game where you might merrily have one of your merchants kicked out of the country, if only because it stings another company a bit more.
It’s mean, is what I’m saying. Terribly, brutishly mean. Selling opium isn’t about sharing.
To put this into the perspective of game terms, assembling a merchant fleet costs one pip of “revenue,” your primary measure of wealth. And in one game, I employed a bit of bribery to bring the police down on a rival firm’s trade line. As fast as you can snap your fingers, he’d lost eleven revenue. When the rulebook warns that it’s possible to conclude the game with an income that isn’t much greater than what you started with, that isn’t a tease. Every game I’ve played has wrapped up with some unlucky soul trapped in a spiral of crippling debt.
Okay, so An Infamous Traffic has plenty to say about this opium business’s disregard for cultural autonomy, the inhumanity of unregulated industry, the seedy underbelly of imperialism, and so forth. Fine, fine. But in service of what, raw wealth?
Nope. The correct answer is fancy hats.
It’s easy to get lost amidst the conspiracies, price-setting, opium smuggling, and ruining your commercial rivals, but success in An Infamous Traffic is ultimately about the challenge of breaking into London’s high society. See, your company men understand that money isn’t everything. It’s what you can buy with money that matters. So, in the game’s most audacious act of tugging the tablecloth out from beneath all that fancy porcelain, it isn’t the player with the most complete trade routes that wins. Sure, being a leader of industry certainly cultivates some measure of prestige, so assembling a specialized set of enterprises can still matter. But it’s ultimately the one who has the most social success when they return to London in between fattening their wallets in Asia.
Hilariously, life in London is even more rife with danger than overseas adventuring. When a player passes on further action in China, they have the option of sending a scion back home, with that scion’s social standing determined by how much wealth they’ve accumulated. Head off for London too soon and your trade chains will be cheerily dismantled by your opponents; go too late and your scion might not hold much appeal against any of his peers who got a head start. Worse, not everything back home holds equal value. While the highest-ranked scion might find themselves earning a peerage or an Oxford degree (or one of those fancy hats), you’re just as likely to wind up getting humiliated by a fox hunting accident or bad marriage.
At first glance this is An Infamous Traffic’s most incongruous element. After all the effort in the world, your accumulated prestige is as much about dumb chance as it is about being a successful businessman. Sure, each round opens with each company sifting through rumors of that decade’s potential prizes, and it’s vaguely possible to gauge the strength of those prizes on how your opponents behave. If someone doesn’t bother sending a scion to London, perhaps your efforts there will only result in disaster? Better stay home this decade. Even so, it can be disheartening to position yourself the shrewdest accountant at the table, with the English Navy’s tiller in hand and the Qing police in your pocket, only to watch as someone else’s social climbing escalates them to greater heights while you go slumming.
Then again, this works because An Infamous Traffic is a game with things to say. This system cuts to the heart of the matter, that the motivations of these men weren’t simply to expand their enterprises, but to achieve something grand and permanent back home. A legacy. Respectability. Having their opinions heard and acted upon. Reaching that point not only demands clever business, but watchfulness in the halls and balls of London.
Not that this is going to be a game for everyone. At times, it’s as frustrating as it is captivating. You might find yourself in debt and unable to undercut any of your rivals, or locked into an interdependent game state that feels cruel and limits your activities, or simply lost in this morass of symbols, systems, and ambitions. For some, it will simply be too nasty, an emotionally abusive friend who builds you up only to tear you back down again.
The thing is, I’ve always preferred flawed-but-compelling to polished-but-silent. And when you get right down to it, An Infamous Traffic is illuminating, capturing a particular trade in a particular time, commenting on the methods and motivations of the company men who dominated it, and doing so with uncommon self-assurance.