The Mere Anarchy of John Company

Like the purple of Pax Pamir 2e, I can't help but wonder at the significance of this red. Is it just... attractive? Please don't be only that.

It’s easy to imagine the East India Company as a cabal: an instrument of villains, territory marked by the plunging of daggers into nautical maps, shareholder meetings held by candlelight, masks mandatory. How else to explain the company that became leviathan — that touched half the world’s trade, employed twice the fighting men fielded by the British army, and ruled India for a century? Surely it was sinister. Perhaps even occult.

Except that’s far too tidy. As is always the case with sweeping evils, it’s easier to tuck a mastermind behind the curtain than to acknowledge that reality is so much more banal. That the Company’s ascent was the work of clerks and captains, common soldiers and administrative functionaries, merchants selling on commission and thousands struggling to earn their daily bread. Absent a villain, there’s more blame to go around. An uncomfortable degree of blame. Maybe even the sort of blame that might implicate us.

More than any game I’ve played, John Company is about culpability. And Cole Wehrle’s second edition accomplishes the improbable by making that message more articulate and more playable at the same time.

In practice, I tend to deploy the women as often as possible. No idea why.

Playing the family man. Or family woman.

In game design, small changes often beget big differences. This is an aphorism Wehrle knows well. In my essay on the arguments made by Pax Pamir, I noted how something as subtle as one altered noun helped frame Wehrle’s thesis in a new light. “Empire” became “coalition.” Like that, the game’s focus on the local clans of Afghanistan became apparent. The empires in question were faraway things. Their coalitions were offshoots, here to cooperate with the locals to achieve foreign objectives before retracting like burnt fingertips. Your goal was to work with them only as long as they served your ends. By decentering the game’s imperial forces, the native populations stepped readily into the spotlight. They were no longer a protagonist adrift in someone else’s story.

Something similar happens in John Company’s second edition, although the culprit is not a noun, but a face. A whole series of faces, really. As before, players command a mercantile family across the decades of the East India Company’s ascent, possible collapse, and competition against smaller firms once their trade monopoly has been revoked. Big history, in other words. In the first edition, this largeness was partially accomplished through abstraction. The members of your family were cogs in the machine of the Company — or cubes in the machine, rather. These cubes were versatile components, representing not only the company’s officials, but also tangible enterprises such as shipyards and factories, and even intangible “promises” between families, used to sweeten deals and offer ambiguous leverage in exchange for favors or money.

The second edition still trucks in these currencies, and more besides. Before we dive into the particulars, it’s important to note that in place of cubes, the members of your family are represented by faces. Cameos, of the sort an adventurer might carry inside a pocket watch or a brooch. The smiling matriarch, certain of her position. The scowling clerk, too often overlooked. The ruffled sailor, looking uncannily like Horatio Hornblower. Abstraction has its advantages, but there’s something about seeing a face that draws attention to the subject being depicted. In this case, it’s a reminder. Of your role: you’re the head of a family, not some disembodied interest in India. Of your goals: you’re here to support your dynasty, and the Company may loom large in those considerations or become one opportunity of many. Of the game’s thesis: that a world-spanning company isn’t directed by one villain, but by many hands turning many helms.

Not only is everything subject to change, but things *have* changed. The entire legal system was taped onto this copy at some point.

A look at the whole (prototype) board.

The ship being sailed by all those helms is the East India Company. It strives in many directions, but at its core it’s a creature of procedure and accounting. Banal tasks for a banal conqueror. Not that John Company is tedious. Instead, it invests those moments with the same spikes of adrenaline that arise when you receive a holiday check from a relative or find a twenty in the pocket of your winter coat. Unless, of course, those windfalls prevent the bankruptcy you were longing for.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Procedure. With all the reliability of a notary marching a meeting through its allotted tasks, a single turn of John Company revolves around a number of steps, anywhere from eighteen to quite a few more. It would be possible to call these “phases,” although I prefer to think of them as spheres of intent. Most of the time, these steps appear to revolve around various roles within the Company. The Chairman takes loans and allots money to various offices. The Director of Trade retasks a few of the Company’s vessels to surer waters. A Commander opts to lead regiments and officers into battle for plunder. The President of the Bengal office launches a trade mission. And so forth.

As nothing but job descriptions, these tasks are minor. Each office receives its own card, which helpfully outlines what that office does, and soon becomes one of the second edition’s many aids to legibility and ease of play. These descriptions, however, are only the first taste. There isn’t a single office that can’t be leveraged to personal benefit. Indeed, this soon becomes their entire function. A more noble head of Military Affairs might, for example, take care to place officers where they’re most needed, whether to launch offensives against vulnerable regions or defend against uprisings. But why do that when you can take bribes? Now, you might be wondering what those bribes could possibly be for. How about placing an ambitious officer in a cushy posting, where she’ll ride out her time until she can be promoted to a more serious role? Or perhaps slipping feisty soldiers into a region on the verge of war so they can bring home vast amounts of plunder? Or — and this is the sort of deal that only becomes apparent after a few times around the track — why don’t you threaten that gluttonous governor that you’ll withdraw his protective garrison unless you get a taste of all those plantations he’s been profiting from?

Points is, the Company’s very nature is rapacious. That greed either taints you or it ruins you. If you aren’t always on the lookout for ways to get ahead, you can be certain that somebody is already profiting from your lack of hustle.

taped on

Even the legal system is more fully expressed.

Facilitating these negotiations are a range of currencies, from actual money to tangible assets to abstract prestige. Nearly everything can be traded. Cash, of course. Factories and shipyards and manors, albeit rarely. The first edition’s “promises” are more defined this time as promissory notes. One promises cash on return. Another gives blanket permission for another family to engage in nepotism when promoting a favored child in the Company. There’s even one that guarantees somebody’s votes in Parliament.

Crucially, every one of these currencies loops back to the family. Consider the second edition’s expanded approach to the legal system. At any given time, one family holds sway over the Prime Minister. This is a useful perk in its own right, letting you select which law to put before Parliament at the conclusion of each round. For example, a family with interests in India’s various governorships might want to pass the Zamindar Taxes to increase local tax revenues, while opposing the Reform Act that will do away with the Rotten Boroughs they’ve been using to inflate their voter turnout. If they control the government’s ability to propose or ignore potential laws, all the better for them.

But that’s only the first degree of consideration. Laws also affect broader policies, including those that might impact a family’s standing. When a law is proposed, the Prime Minister shifts the policy track to a new position, which informs the table of the law’s more abstract consequences. The issue itself might be a Ship Subsidy for decreasing the cost of fitting ships. Perfect for those who own shipyards! Except the Prime Minister also indicates that the policy outcome will be a one-time tax on shipyards. With cash low and a family member’s retirement fast approaching, one must consider their options with utmost care.

And then there’s prestige. This comes in two forms. First there are cards, acquired when one buys a posh retirement for a family member. Some of these represent known assets, such as the aforementioned Rotten Boroughs, a good marriage, or a Scottish island. Others are hidden, permitting blackmail against other players or offering secret goals for more points or prestige. Prestige itself ranks where you stand relative to the other families. The higher one’s prestige, the better they score at the end of the game. Too low and you might even lose points. Meanwhile, certain policies impact which assets are considered prestigious by society back home — factories, manors, shipyards, or cards — adding an extra layer to consider whenever a law is proposed. These promote uncomfortable entanglements, moments when your interests are pitted against themselves and surprising shifts of allegiance become possible.

I suppose that's a rather tactical "but."

Events in India are troubling, but also clearer than before.

These details help focus John Company on its intended topic, but while the game’s families posture back home, it’s impossible to go without mentioning the more tarnished side of the coin.

In the first edition, India was deeply abstracted by a handful of event cards. These were functional but often difficult to decode, especially for those still learning the Company’s ropes. The second edition’s most visible addition is a map of India, latticed with trade routes and divided into regions with their own political interests. Like everything else in this new edition, the result is technically more complex, but is vastly more legible, making it easier to understand what’s going on. The event elephant returns, and its declaration of intent is imminently clear. When positioned between regions, it announces that polity hopes to attack another. When positioned within a region — especially one conquered by the Company — it announces the brewing of a rebellion.

This clarity informs nearly everything about the design. Which regions to trade with, which must be opened by force or the Chairman’s special envoy, where to shore up defenses or prepare an invasion, even how far a Company official can go to extort his fellows for particular favors. In one case, as the President of Bengal, I announced that I would decline to launch a trade mission, a move that would likely scuttle the Company. This would have far-reaching implications, including a lost point for every share of the Company. At the time, I fortunately held very few of the things. I agreed to acquiesce for duty’s sake, but only if I received a hefty payout — one my rivals dithered over but ultimately paid. The trade mission was successful, I was newly rich, and the families invested in the Company remained afloat a little longer.

More even than clarity, however, the presence of India accomplishes something similar to the cameos of your family members. Where once it was absent, now it’s given a shape. This lends an immediacy to the actions that were formerly as distant as the lines of income in an accountant’s ledger. As I said before, John Company is about culpability. Your culprits are given a face. So is your victim, after a fashion. Its presence is still remote. I suspect that’s the point. But now India balances halfway between too distant and too present, a foreign place that to the members of your ambitious family exists for the extraction of profit and little else.

This is how the Chairman always feels on turn 3.

This isn’t how you mark company debt, but the sentiment is there.

The first edition of John Company was an achievement. The second edition refines it in nearly every way. As a plaything, every detail has been given a fuller expression, yet its procedures have also been clarified in a dozen little ways that make it easier and faster to comprehend. More importantly, its tale of peculiar English virtues, patronage, and prestige is both heightened and more harshly contrasted with the victims of its monopoly.

As both history and a game, John Company’s second edition strikes that balance with precision. It adds a rotten nail to that finger niggling at the back of your brain. Here is the legacy of the East India Company to go with its means of operation. A thousand sets of hands turned the ship’s many helms. But the ship still came here, to this place, plunder on its thoughts, and unleashed its sulfurous broadside.


(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.)

A prototype copy was provided.

Posted on March 29, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Do Cole Wehrle and William Dalrymple have some kind of mutual appreciation society I wonder? It’s rare a board game can commit me to imbibing a dense historical treatise just to enhance thematic coherence and yet these two have managed it twice now.

  2. Christian van Someren

    Looks fascinating.

  3. Alexandre Limoges

    Dan, as always, this is a fascinating review to read, full of insights on this design. I still have a question though: It’s clearly a clever design, and one that improves upon the original in your view. But did your group have fun playing it? I might sound like a silly question, but I do wonder reading you if the appreciation for this brilliant design is more intellectual than emotional.

    • Not a silly question at all! Yes, I would say I had fun. I would wager most members of my group had fun. The time went by quickly. My attention was stimulated. I was invested in the game’s conclusion. After six plays, I still want to play more.

      But here’s the question I can’t answer for anybody but myself: what is fun?

      • Alexandre Limoges

        Indeed. The reason why I asked is that everyone I questioned about this game among those who played it replied how “brilliant a design it is” – which somehow feels both like a great praise from an intellectual standpoint and a cautious distanciation from an emotional one. I’ve got a few games that I find truly brilliant, yet, for some reason, they don’t get me excited to play them. That’s the only reason why I asked if your group, at least, actually enjoyed playing the game (apart from admiring it).

  4. I’m curious about the thought process yourself and your play group after this; did anyone have pro-colonialism attitudes that were changed after playing? Did anyone go the opposite way, after ‘experiencing’ the dirty machinations that reduced such evils to necessity for profits sake?

    My concern is that this walks too fine a line on humanising the colonials – in PP2e you are the locals trying to make the best of a bad situation, by pulling the strings for your own position. In JC it seems that you are THE bad situation itself, and greed pulls your strings to justify the means. Would one come away having learned the lesson that Cole is trying to convey?

    • I can only speak for myself, but in play this does evoke truly rotten behavior from the players. My first play of the first edition saw a hard-fought battle over consolidating India under a Governor General. The Chairman managed to hang on to his seat for the last turn and plow through that legislation through Parliament. He merrily paid the price for nepotism to install his son as Governor General (and thereby the only one who’d profit from India’s trade). He stuffed that office with cash like an old mattress and left everyone else with nothing. He glared at me as he took a loan to stuff it more. He rolled ELEVEN dice to to conduct trade.

      And he BOTCHED it. All those people stepped on, crushed under-heel to line his pockets, WASTED on a roll that should have been impossible to fail. He made nothing, the Company made nothing, the Executives were all sacked, and the table ROARED. His invincible plan blew up in his dumb face.

      In the end, we totaled up the points, and the win went to none of us that went adventuring in India. Instead she had quietly bought up real estate the entire game and had beat me by a single point.

      I regret not taking an exit survey on the player’s opinions of colonialism before and after. But after a first game like that I doubt the irony was lost on anyone.

      • Ha, go big or go home moment results in the latter. It’s good to hear the game creates those epic moments that gets everyone invested on the outcome!

    • I suppose it depends on what one anticipates such a moment of clarity would look like. Did anybody in my group launch to their feet and cry out in horror at their inherited generational culpability? Of course not. Did someone who’s usually a bit of a colonial apologist talk about the game and what it was saying, and speak more clearly about the failings and moral dangers of such endeavors? Yes.

      Expecting any work of art to be entirely persuasive on its own, without the benefit of time and support, is unrealistic. But insofar as games can be didactic tools, John Company accomplishes its goals.

      • Glad to hear about the latter of your scenarios! I think the former might be a touch too dramatical for my own taste.

        It’s my hope that games that take a post-colonial perspective nudge individuals in the right direction, and I know Cole is very good at citing sources and further reading to delve into. I’m still working my way through PP2e’s!

  5. Everyone assumes the moral lesson is the inescapable outcome of the game. However, it’s also possible that a player could put the critical satire aside and explore the same game as ambitious families and upwardly mobile middling adventurers bring down existing Indian Empires.
    A game, once published, is used for whatever purpose the player chooses. Many disagree with Phil Eklund’s footnotes, yet go on to enjoy his games free from libertarian market driven messaging. Likewise here, there may be persons who see the Imperial venture in India and Canada 300 years ago as a great national accomplishment.
    If one wishes to argue against this endeavour, I suggest that to experience this from another’s perspective (an East India Co family) is to educate and better understand and be better armed to counter. Either way, I wouldn’t shy away from diving in.

    • Jesús Couto Fandiño

      Well, thats a risk always. I mean, Norman Spinrad tried a heavy handed satire about the far-right aspects of science fiction in the Iron Dream and people complained about why adding the Hitler part to a “nice” SF tale…

      But I really think anybody can learn at least that there is a more realistic viewpoint than the one Dan mentions at the beginning. That its not a history of a secretive cabal of people with a detailed plan for evil, or even a national plan for evil, but the joint effort of a bunch of people are looking for #1. And that a lot of the nice, prestige things the upper crust enjoy and show as marks of distinction are the result of this process of distributed greed.

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