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.
Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with Cole and Drew Wehrle and Travis Hill for a (digital) play of the latest build of John Company’s second edition. I’m not prepared to discuss any details; the game isn’t finished, and anyway the version I played was a departure from the build Cole had shown before, even among playtesters. Drew and Travis were as unprepared as I was for what happened over the next two hours.
But with both John Company and An Infamous Traffic soon to receive new editions — and given Cole’s tendency to revisit the statements made by his work, as discussed in my examination of Pax Pamir’s two editions — this seems like a good time to sit down and crystallize a few thoughts about what his games argue and how they argue it.
I appreciate any game that makes an argument. Even — perhaps especially — if I don’t agree with that argument. Even rarer is a game that makes multiple arguments for the price of one. All the better if some of those arguments are at odds with its other arguments, like a hydra snapping at its own throats.
Cole Wehrle’s Pax Pamir is one such game.
Across two editions and an expansion, Pax Pamir makes three distinct arguments from two separate authors. Those arguments have been both criticized and applauded, sometimes fairly and sometimes reflexively. Because this is the internet, both the critiques and the celebrations have often been painfully simplified. It would require an essay apiece just to deconstruct them fully. Rather than doing so, I want to touch upon all three so as to examine something tangential to their specific stances on the subject of the Great Game in 1823-1845 Afghanistan — namely, how differences of framing prompt divergent readings of Pax Pamir as a cultural artifact and historical argument.
You’ve probably heard of Cole Wehrle. But have you heard Cole Wehrle arguing? On today’s episode of the Space-Biff! Space-Cast!, join Dan and Cole as we talk about argument and simulation in board games, explore a few deeply accusatory questions about second editions, and settle the conundrum of how Rome fell. Or did it?
History is a funny thing. Ask yourself, what era do you live in? The modern age? Postmodern? Information? The Holocene, more specifically the Meghalayan? Or will the historians of far-flung generations assign a designation that doesn’t capture any of the details you personally associate with this moment? Everything our culture has accomplished, compressed by distance and necessity, into the Aluminum Age. At long last, the dead of the Bronze Age will nod in satisfaction at our diminishment.
When I spoke to Cole Wehrle about Oath, he called it a “hate letter” to civilization games and legacy games. It’s easy to see why. Like digging the fragments of a lost civilization from the compacted mass of an ancient trash heap, there are fragments to be found, shards and sherds, enough to make out an unmistakable imprint or two. Oath is a civilization game, but not like any you’ve played before. And it’s also a legacy game, but even less familiar. This is what I think about it. This is also the story of my first six plays. I hope you’ll soon understand why they’re the same thing.
Pax Pamir is one of those historical games that doesn’t demand you perfectly understand its context before you play. The broad strokes will do. Here’s Afghanistan, its dynasty peeling at the edges. There’s Britain, looking to unite local warlords into a buffer state against its rivals. Speaking of which, here comes Russia: expanding rapidly, voraciously hungry, hoping to consolidate their frontier. Three sides, three agendas, one tract of land standing at their intersection.
The twist is that none of those competing agendas are your own. Instead, you’re a tribal chieftain, the local hotshot these empires must rely upon to achieve their aims. Scouting, navigation of local customs and courtly procedure, information and advice — the lay of the land, both literally and figuratively. But you have aspirations of your own. Perhaps even aspirations that might be realized by aiding the right empire at the right moment.
The Great Game, in other words, except played by its middlemen rather than its kings and queens. And although I’ve written about Pax Pamir three times before, Cole Wehrle’s official second edition is different enough that it warrants an entirely new treatment.
“For once, you should fight a land war in Asia.”
That’s how I concluded my review of the first edition of Pax Pamir, Cole Wehrle’s razor-loaded take on imperialism and the Great Game. It promoted Phil Eklund’s Pax Porfiriana into the Pax Series, boggled a fair number of minds with its interlocking spheres of influence and enigmatic victory conditions, and — at the forefront of everybody’s minds, surely — was my top game of 2015.
Now Wehrle is crafting a second edition, one he hopes will be more accessible without becoming divisive the way, say, the second edition of A Study in Emerald was. Little hope of that, I’m afraid. This new edition is indeed more approachable, while recapturing much of the bite, intelligence, and adventure of the original. But fans of the first edition may not want to sell their copies just yet.
Root is mighty cool. I wrote as much last week. But that was before trying my hand at everything offered by its first expansion, Riverfolk. What follows are my thoughts on every last additional ingredient it tosses into Root’s already-potent stew of factions. Like so:
Card Holders: These are card holders. If you don’t know how you feel about card holders, then you don’t know anything at all.
Got it? Great. Let’s do this.
The cats are in charge. The noble birds are swooping from their roosts. A gathering of woodland smallfolk agitate in their holes and burrows, whispering, whispering. And a winsome raccoon packs his rucksack and sets out for adventure.
Adorable and ferocious in equal measure, Cole Wehrle’s Root is Redwall by way of A Distant Plain. And it’s both a total delight and the most accessible asymmetric experience Leder Games has produced thus far.
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.