Graft Company

I considered entitling this review "Auspicio Regis Et Senatus Anglia," but that seemed a tad too obscure.

In many ways, John Company feels like it might be Cole Wehrle’s magnum opus — which is one heck of a thing to say when you consider that it’s only his third published game. It certainly has the scope of a life’s work. Where Pax Pamir and its expansion Khyber Knives dealt with a British Empire willing to do anything to preserve their trading monopoly over India, and An Infamous Traffic got grimy up to its elbows with the business of the drug pushers who would collapse the Qing Dynasty for profit, both might pass as single-action blips in the course of John Company.

It’s appropriate, then, that Wehrle’s tale of the East India Company — the joint-stock enterprise that boasted an army twice as large as the British Army, grazed its grubby fingers over half the world’s trade, and still ultimately squandered its supremacy — should be one of accomplishment, failure, and biding your time. And often all three at once.

*taste the rainbow*

The mid-game Honourable East India Company.

The most immediate question about John Company is also one of the trickiest to answer. What is it that you do in this game?

Put blithely, you haggle. Negotiate. Make promises that you might not be able to make good on. Anything and everything you can to promote yourself, your interests, and ultimately your legacy.

Rather than controlling the East India Company outright, players in John Company are tasked with filling any number of company offices, ranging from the solemn chambers of the chairman all the way down to the lowly writers who keep minutes in meetings and double-check sums.

You’re a family man, or more accurately family men, spread across the course of up to ten rounds, each of which spans perhaps some fifteen years. As such, your fortunes are carried or collapsed by more than one set of shoulders. To elevate your family name, it will take a trade mogul here, a director of purchasing there, a pair of gallivanting officers or grim-faced ship’s captains, a few shipyards along the Thames or factories for pickling anything that hasn’t yet been pickled, and maybe even a sticky-fingered governor in Bombay. It isn’t just about shoving your thumb into multiple pies. It’s about doing so while juggling the pies.

That's one of Rudyard Kipling's early ghost stories, I believe.

That Damn Elephant.

Let me give you an example.

One of your family members is a company veteran, granted control of the Madras Presidency. This posting comes with a number of responsibilities, such as the security of certain trade partners in India, oversight over the ships and goods that will hopefully turn a profit there, and command over one of the company’s three armies.

For the past couple decades, this family member has been the sort of quiet, reliable president who raises neither controversy nor any particular interest. He doesn’t make the papers. Now, though, he wants permission to transfer some guns from another of the company’s presidencies, bring some new blood into his pool of military officers, and stage a military takeover of the region he’s responsible for administering.

To pull this off, our president is going to need to pull some strings. He’ll need the official in charge of Military Affairs to send him the necessary soldiers, and maybe grease some palms in order to ensure that his cousins get the job. He’ll need the approval of the Bengal Presidency to borrow those guns. And, most subtly, he’ll need to silence any opposition, those who feel that the army is better used defensively than exhausted on an offensive campaign, especially since there have been rumblings of discontent in Madras. In order to wage his splendid little war, our president may find himself indebted to nearly every other family at the table.

So why do it at all? There are a few reasons. The public reason is that conquering Madras would add a new office to the company, a governorship, which could work to stave off revolts and invasions, and generally promote the stability and prosperity of the region. Of course, our ambitious president has other ideas. He’s thinking about the plunder his soon-to-be officer cousins will bring home, the promotion of one of those cousins straight into the governorship, and the likelihood that they’ll be able to graft every last farthing of tax income that Madras generates for the next forty years.

He’s thinking of that Scottish island he’s been eyeing, and how when the time comes to retire, his family’s finances will be sufficient to buy it for him.

Over there on the left, you can see An Infamous Traffic going on.

Stockpiling guns, ships, and trade goods.

There are a handful of things going on here, each of which is central to John Company.

The first is the constant, even oppressive, negotiated space in which the game operates. Agreements and favors are traded as freely as coin, and are never formally enforced. To prompt players to behave more agreeably than, say, the firms in An Infamous Traffic, one of your main resources is the promise. These are represented by cubes, the very same ones you use as your family members, and can be traded freely between players. Need some quick cash? Offer somebody a promise or two. Just be careful not to hand out too many, because not only are you peddling your family’s freedom to expand thanks to the legal quagmire they’ve become mired in, but they’ll also subtract from your score when the game ends.

It’s an ingenious system with very little overhead. Having a promise returned is as easy as paying its “ransom,” promoting one of its holder’s family members over somebody else, or brokering some other form of exchange. But each of these options are contingent on something — your family’s coffers having spare cash, a position of authority within the company, or the ability to extort somebody else’s promises. Even the smallest of exchanges might prove to be devil’s bargains.

Meanwhile, our example president must also deal with very real challenges to his position. Events, like everything else in John Company, are conducted from a sky-high remove, but bear immediate and sometimes devastating consequences. Every round, the event elephant tramples through multiple of India’s regions, harbingering economic collapse, the invasion of a region by its belligerent neighbor, or outright revolt. There are ways to mitigate the elephant’s ravages — usually money — but not everything can be prevented. When you’re in a position of authority, it pays to be attentive.

Worse, every major task, ranging from military conquest to something as benign as selling sandalwood, might end in disaster. These testy moments are undertaken via a single fretful roll, with additional dice earned through a heftier investment of money or soldiers. The odds are easily managed but never certain, and any mission could explode in your official’s face and leave him no option but to resign in disgrace. This is such a harsh outcome that high-ranking company officers are often driven to paranoia, deploying too many soldiers or too much cash, and undermining their defenses or profits in the process. It’s a classic dilemma between security and profitability, and one that parallels the real-world East India Company’s compulsive investment (and eventual suffocation) in military overhead.

And on the other side of all these negotiations, crises, and potential missteps, lies that Scottish island.

They also offer a bunch of lilliputian pointing hands.

They may seem tiny, but family firms offer enormous opportunities.

Much like how the goal of An Infamous Traffic wasn’t really to peddle opium in Qing China, the goal in John Company isn’t to grow your wealth. That’s the ladder. The brass ring is respectability, whether through an ambassadorship, membership in a prestigious club, or perhaps some fashion-setting clothes. These are the reasons why a young man would sacrifice their eyesight to a clerk’s labor, learn the intricacies of ship-rope and topsails, and eventually launch a campaign into Madras.

The path from a lowly company writer to an executive afforded the luxury of retiring into a royal wedding is a fraught one. Yes, he might climb the ranks of the company, and yes, he might oversee all of his duties successfully. Even then, whether that member of your family will retire at the proper moment is a loaded question. It’s entirely possible that the stress of a Director of Trade’s career will see him retiring early, before you have the money to spare for his patronage of the arts. Or maybe he’ll never retire at all, becoming a dusty fixture of the office for the next ninety years.

Either way, the uncertainty of John Company weaves a generational tale of wealth, precarious respectability, and even total failure, all consumed by the fortunes of the company.

At least until the halfway point of campaign game. This slouching beast is an undertaking that can last five or six hours if people bring stamina to the game’s negotiations, but it injects a shift of attitude that rocks the foundations of everything that came before. Because while the early game is dominated by the company’s monopoly over India, eventually that dominance is challenged. With a snap of the fingers, Parliament deregulates the company — then it’s open season.

Poor little East India Company. Whatever will they do with only their massive profits?

Competition between the EIC and family firms for trade dominance.

It’s a bold move, pulling out the rug like that. The company still exists, and families may still seek their fortunes within it. But in addition to sending the odd nephew to ply his fortunes within the company’s crushing apparatus, families — or groups of families — can now establish private firms, staffed and stocked with their own boats, captains, and trade goods.

Such ventures are enormously risky, but they generate a strong sense of agency that contrasts with the company’s rigid stepladder of responsibilities. Now it’s possible to go adventuring on your own, opening up new trade opportunities or even beating the company to the juiciest trade contracts. Shares in these private firms can be bartered, rewarded, or even in rare cases stolen — though the opportunities for such chicanery are woefully slight, as any director worth their salt will retain control of at least half their company to stave off hostile takeover.

Still, while this portion of the game tends to feel slightly less developed than the first half, it offers a fresh dynamic, portraying the once-mighty East India Company as succumbing to internal decay and external competition. Its profit margins grow slenderer as independent families grow fatter, until all that remains at the table is the hollowed-out holiday turkey that was once the greatest company on the planet and everyone tallying their vast personal holdings.

For me, the beauty of a system like this is the initial crowdedness and confusion, then the dawning realization that you can actually understand everything that's going on. Just like that, you're a genius.

It’s fair to say that things can get a little crazy.

Like everything else in John Company, this transition from monopoly to brazenly free enterprise has the whiff of the profound about it, and there are plenty of historical and cultural insights to be drawn if you’re willing to squint. The game’s distance from its subject matter, necessary for it to span decades and even centuries within a few short hours, eliminates some of the social rawness of Wehrle’s earlier games, while still evoking the sense of accomplishing something grand at the expense of, well, nearly everything you are and everything around you.

Even without the social commentary, however, John Company stands out as a monumental achievement, letting players take hold of a sprawling enterprise at its joints, muscles, and mind, setting it loose on the world, and eventually permitting them to cannibalize the very creature that gave them life. All for the sake of fashion, an awed hush when they enter a room, and maybe a Scottish island. It’s demanding, punitive, and nearly as complicated as it looks, but it also shines as brilliantly as the jewel in the crown of the British Empire.

Posted on February 28, 2018, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. I understand you rate it high and you describe the thinking/strategies behind the mechanics. From your review I get the impression that the level of negotiation is much higher. How would you rate the enjoy and player interaction factors?

    To explain myself: it looks like a perfect game for me, something I can play around with, but I don’t know if I have friends who will enjoy it. The same question as above but a bit more direct: will it fit a group of players, where some at first struggled to get the backward thinking i Pax Pamir, but then really enjoyed it?

    • John Company generally benefits from more players, probably five or six is best. It’s complicated, but walking people through the first turn usually explains most of the important stuff, as long as you’re careful to describe new rules or edge cases as they appear. Like any game of this depth, go in with the understanding that you won’t be able to play competitively right away.

      As for enjoyment, my group sure likes it. I’m not sure what you’re referring to with Pax Pamir’s “backward thinking,” but if you came to terms with that game then John Company isn’t in another league or anything. Lots of interconnected rules, feedback from one portion of the game into another — it’s the same general concept.

      • Good, it sounds like yet another addition to the other Pax-games. And yes, the theme is less awkward than in “Infamous traffic”.

        “Backward thinking”: I was referring to the winning condition. The egoistic way of manipulating the side you are allied or switching side, with no real interest in what is going on, besides your own influence. By some described as “middleman strategy games”.

      • The Pax series is definitely known for placing you in the shoes of history’s middlemen, whether Pax Porfiriana’s landowners, Pax Pamir’s tribal rulers, or Pax Renaissance’s banking houses. And yes, that continues in John Company.

  2. Perhaps too complicated for my tastes, but I have to say I’m glad Sierra Madre started making games in bigger boxes. The self-imposed limit really hurt the games look – Pax Pamir looks brilliant with the board and Pax Renaissance would benefit from one as well.

  3. This is a intriguing read about an intriguing game – in which really everything can go to shambles. I remember all of our players happily buying shares of the Company in the first round which could be paid out due to a tremendously successful first turn, but then events struck and the Company capsized under its obligations.

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