The Anarchy Comes Home
The thesis for John Company is drawn right onto the lid of the second edition box. Two worlds, starkly divided, seemingly incongruent. The first, drawn with affrontive rotundity, features genteel Englishmen and Englishwomen drinking and flirting, debauched in their plumpness, as without care as people ever were. The second, illustrated as angularly as the first image was curvaceous, reveals a fortified seaside factory, sternly defended and given scale only by the many ships gathering beneath the hem of its skirts. Despite their dissimilarity, it’s like the meme says: they are the same picture.
The first time I wrote about Cole Wehrle’s most ambitious title I called it his magnum opus. Later I discussed how it and its sister volume An Infamous Traffic put two dueling economic systems on trial. The third was a preview for this second edition, but the final product hasn’t changed enough to invalidate any of the praise I heaped on it at the time.
But a few things remains to be stated. What follows is less of a review than a statement on why games like John Company are the most essential ludic texts of our day.
John Company is a press-your-luck game.
It doesn’t look like one. Typically press-your-luck is a minor mechanism, the sort of thing that operates best in a brisk game. The brisker the better, at least for those who might find themselves on the bruising end of chance. John Company’s shorter scenarios require two to three hours. A full session, which spans from the beginning of the East India Company’s sharpest extraction of wealth from India all the way through the Company’s deregulation and the introduction of private trading firms to the country, might last four or five hours. This past weekend, one of our guests noted that a single round contains seventeen consecutive phases. That’s a bit misleading despite being factually true — if anything, by the end of the game there might be more — but it gives some sense of the game’s scope. John Company is not a morsel lightly digested.
Yet it remains a press-your-luck game. That’s evident in nearly every corner of its design. At the smallest level, it features an unrelenting broadside of success checks, rolls of the dice to determine whether a given activity has been successful. Whether we’re talking about the Company’s Army of Bombay attempting to shatter the Maratha Confederacy’s grip on the highlands, a regional president fulfilling trade obligations in Bengal, a director attempting to broach China to offload chests of opium, or a small-fry governor raking subaltern administrators for taxes, these use identical rolls to determine success. Identical odds, even. These odds are so ubiquitous that they’re printed directly onto the player boards. The more money you spend — or the more armies you dedicate to war, or the fresher your governorship is when it administrates, or the more ships dedicated to a testy enterprise — the more dice you roll.
Success rolls happen early and often, possibly even multiple times in the same activation, but as John Company grows outward it resorts to other forms of pressing luck. Take, for example, the Parliament phase. Here everybody votes on a law. The voting itself is an act of pressing your luck, potentially passing around the table multiple times and being susceptible to minor acts of brinkmanship and bribery. Before that even occurs, however, there’s the matter of which law will be voted on. Whichever player has the prime minister’s ear gets to choose, drawing up to three cards from a deck of laws, but slowly, so slowly, one at a time, drawing and reading and considering each one. It matters which law is put to the vote. Family fortunes may rise or fall, the Company may receive nick-of-time assistance or be dashed against the stones of history, English society as a whole may find itself radically transformed. The risk, though, lies in drawing a dilemma. These laws are more deadly, but they’re inescapable, forcing the prime minister to put them to a vote in lieu of anything else. Circle the drain too long, the message seems to say, and you’ll get sucked into the commode.
Another level. Sky-high this time. As with the original edition, John Company funnels through a bottleneck at the peak of the Company’s pyramid. Your goal, unlike the goals of most other games about colonization, isn’t merely to colonize. It’s to extract wealth — from India, from defeated empires, from the Company itself — and use that money to fuel your ambitions back in London. You aren’t a faceless avatar of empire. You’re the hands that steer the vessel, one of ten thousands. And you’d like to buy a nice house.
First, though, you must retire. Company officials make a roll, similar to other success rolls but more loaded because it’s more personal. This one is for retirement, and as chancy as it is — as unbearably chancy — it’s the essential last press in the game’s thesis, the connective tissue between those two worlds. When a member of your family retires, you take all that wealth, that stolen wealth, and you spend it on nice houses with lots of windows. Maybe you enter into a good marriage. Maybe you seize control of a rotten borough. Or you remain in the Company, pressing your luck at the highest level of them all, hoping to keep the vessel steady for another few years so you can afford to retire to the country estate you so richly deserve.
It’s no mistake that one of John Company’s two principal languages is spoken through the roll of the dice. There’s the mechanical advantage: can you imagine what this game would look like, how unbearably complicated it would be, if warfare and trade and administration all behaved according to their own logic rather than honing in on a single resolution? Instead, Wehrle resolves his game’s verbs via a roll. We’ve rolled dice before. Even if we don’t have the raw numbers in front of us, we understand the rough odds of rolling five dice versus rolling only two. And in the event that we don’t, John Company provides the raw numbers.
The more important advantage, however, is that it injects an immediate thrill into every one of those seventeen-plus phases. In a game about drawn-out processes, it’s what gets the heart pounding. Every action, no matter how assured, has the chance to fail. Every action, no matter how dangerous, has the chance to succeed. Momentarily we become the adventurer, the governor, the soldier, the merchant, the director. The English Romantic poet Robert Southey, probably best known for Goldilocks and the Three Bears, called it oikophobia — the fear of home and hearth — the driving force that swept the English out to sea and into places that were not theirs to claim. Two centuries later the drab conservative philosopher Roger Scruton would repurpose the term to mean the repudiation of inheritance. Unsurprisingly, Scruton didn’t think much of self-examination. He regarded cultural critique as a form of pathological self-loathing. To him, the examination of one’s heritage was dreary and upsetting, a wavering inversion of lionized tradition.
John Company puts the lie to that malapropism by imbuing it with a shade of the excitement felt by its undertakers. To some, this might count as a point in the game’s disfavor. Isn’t it wrong to enjoy this representation of something so horrific? An invasion that left tens of million dead from warfare and deprivation and manufactured famines? The deliberate dismantling of a nation’s infrastructure so that its raw goods could be refined in English factories? The creation of the world’s prototypical corporate-military complex?
Perhaps. I don’t disagree that something in the belly squirms to have a good time at the expense of history’s horrors. But John Company insists on being enjoyable for the same reason that historians insist on writing readable history, documentarians insist on making watchable documentaries, or educators insist on maintaining a particular atmosphere in their classrooms. There’s more horror tucked into the dark corners of the past than our stomachs can handle. John Company insists on enjoyment because the medicine goes down easier.
More than that, it insists on enjoyment because it speaks to the same reaching impulse that carried the English far from home and hearth. When we pillage this safer version of India, this cardboard India that will not become host to fifty million dead because of our actions, we are treated to a razz of the nerves, the thrill of embarking on a grand adventure that will transform the world beneath our grasping fingertips, and to the horror of seeing that adventure for the filigree that it is. Place the excuses on the shelf — the civilizing mission, the superiority of one culture over another, the white man’s burden — and the reason our writers and officers have embarked on this voyage is because it’s exciting and profitable, because they want to scramble to higher links of the food chain back home, because it’s a roll of the dice writ large. The upper image on John Company’s box echoes this message. It’s from Thomas Rowlandson’s A Gaming Table at Devonshire House, in which English notables get their thrills from a session of Hazard. Like John Company, a press-your-luck dice game. The antic of John Company isn’t that it makes colonizing fun. It’s that it shows why it was fun, stripped of pretense and ennobling phrases. It connects English balls to English pillage in a way that few others have bothered.
John Company is a negotiation game.
In its cruelest twist of irony, its negotiations are savage in a way that the pillage of faraway India cannot be. The first edition offered two currencies as its objects of trade: money and promises, the hard and soft sides of the English crown. This edition casts a wider net. Promises and money return intact, although the former are given much sharper distinction than their earlier counterparts, and they’re joined by various enterprises such as shipyards and manors and workshops, company shares, even blackmail information. These many currencies cast a shroud of ambiguity over the negotiating table. Where the first game’s wheedling was sharp and forthright, the second edition’s talks are diffuse and difficult to parse. Not least because over the course of the game the relative value of its currencies may shift. Early on, high society is defined by fancy houses. Later, thanks to the corroding influence of the Company on England’s legal system and thereby its culture, the highest complement to a gentleman’s standing might be his many shipyards. If the Company fails, and imported fabrics with it, homegrown workshops may suddenly be as valuable as ten mansions.
This impermanence at home is an essential reflection of the Company’s violence abroad. The original game, like An Infamous Traffic before it, was quick to note the jarring connection between opium wars in Canton and fashionable hats in London. The second edition of John Company takes this connection to its final conclusion. Adventurers like Robert Clive, the first British governor of the Bengal Presidency and establisher of Company rule over India thanks to his victory at the Battle of Plassey, raised controversy back home through his naked ambition and harsh policies. But more impactful than these adventurers’ infamy was their influence. While ten million people starved to death thanks to Clive’s handling of Bengal’s administration, reducing the province’s population by a third, Lord Macauley infamously contrasted Clive with Napoleon Bonaparte and crowed about how he had brought peace, security, and prosperity to India. For all the propagandizing, however, the violence would not remain distant. The Company soon touched a full half of the world’s trade only to never turn a profit. It bribed Parliament and twisted British politics and society to its own ends. It gleefully partook in the slave trade, extorted colonies, filled offices with corrupt bureaucrats, and deployed fleets and soldiers across the world. Eventually, it sparked rebellion and revolution.
This is the function of negotiation in John Company. It demonstrates that the violence of colonial endeavors cannot be held at arm’s length, but will eventually return home. Look into the faces of the people sitting at the table, extorting one another for a pound or a shred of gossip, and truthfully say that they’re engaged in a noble mission to uplift lesser societies, to extend liberty and compassion and true religion to foreigners who would otherwise languish in the ignorant dark. Such a statement would be a lie. Behind the veil of hagiography, behind the poetry and the songs and the philosophers who invent terms like “enlightened self-interest,” are pillaging brutes come home flush with wealth, like ticks already fat with blood digging into a second victim and reassuring it that this is for everybody’s benefit. They were sent far from here to satiate their bloodlust and greed. Who could have expected them to come back?
And they call it oikophobia when you hold a flame to the parasite. Not even that. When you note its proximity to your jugular.
Because Wehrle was a student of literature, not even our fiction goes untouched. Much like the inclusion of the accidental hero Harry Flashman in Pax Pamir, John Company nods at stories old and new. The Obra Dinn makes an appearance; so does the Indefatigable. I grew up watching Ioan Gruffud as Horatio Hornblower, and still treat myself to the series every few years. It’s a reminder that colonial enterprises were a cornerstone of our formative identity. My formative identity, alongside Swamp Fox and Davy Crockett and Haun’s Mill Massacre and the cavalry riding out to save the day. As a kid, my father popped in the 1993 film Gettysburg and we watched in awe as Colonel Chamberlain swept the Confederates from Little Round Top. Afterward, my father wondered aloud if the country wouldn’t be better off if the Confederates had completed their march to Washington.
The point isn’t to quaver at our heritage so much as to stare it down. My great-grandfather was a mine boss and union breaker. The other side of the family descends directly from the co-founder of a frontier religion. There are horrors aplenty out there in the dark. But there are also candles, lanterns, bonfires. There are doctors who fought to save lives, pilots who bombed fascists, abolitionists and caretakers and activists. Sometimes they were the same people who ushered in the horror. So it goes. The darkness gives tone to the light.
That, I think, is where John Company becomes its most playful and reverent in the same breath. If after ransacking the world colonialism came home to despoil its mother country and raise its offspring on tales of ennobled horror, then perhaps the best we can do is to confront it with our teeth showing. A grin, a grimace, a yell. It may not matter. Heritage is complicated. Maybe we don’t need to run from it. Because if English balls were inextricably bound to English pillage, then so were other English pastimes. Rugby and foxing and afternoon tea. Parlor games. Maybe even this game. John Company, another victim of a tangle from which nobody quite escapes. To look that in the eye is not to hate one’s inheritance. It’s to reveal the old goat for what it was all along. It’s to shake oneself loose of the fantasy and step into the day, still trailing the cords but no longer wholly thrall to them. To reenact a clearer perspective of the past, and to defy its grip by having one hell of a good time.
John Company asks for so much more than its peers. It asks its players to face the horrors of the past while still engaging in a polished and enjoyable game. These are not mutually exclusive aims, although some have argued that they are. Rather, this is the task of effective historical game-making. John Company reminds us that rough men voyaged to India with plunder on their thoughts. When they returned home, they brought the anarchy back with them. Their spoils corrupted half the world and demanded gratitude as payment.
It can be tamed.
Not made right. Not fixed. The stinger cannot be returned to its sheath. But it can be tamed. The past needs not be dreary or dangerous. Nor does it need to be whitewashed for the sake of anthems and tall tales. It can be whole and complex. It can be safely traversed. It can be a wellspring of learning about the forces and people who made the world what it is. It can, maybe, hopefully, expand our capacity to understand.
With John Company, Cole Wehrle has accomplished something marvelous and multilayered. It’s an audacious title, risking mightily to shine a light into the darkness. More than that, to turn the shining into a game, children swinging flashlights in the dark, delirious at how different the world looks with the sun down. That delirium is its greatest accomplishment. This is how we face the past: with equal parts curiosity, reflection, and joy.
A complimentary copy was provided.