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.
Except I’ve been making a significant omission. Because Foucault didn’t write only about power. That would have been too clear-cut. He always rendered it as “power-knowledge.” Two intertwined concepts that, once assembled, approximate what he meant when he talked about power. Pardon me, power-knowledge.
Today, we’re delving into why that distinction matters.
Where last week’s examination of Arcs, the upcoming title from Cole Wehrle and Leder Games, focused on Arcs as an experience meant to be completed within a single session, today we’re delving into the “arcs” of Arcs. That’s right: I’ve completed two full campaigns. That’s six plays, a few branching narratives, and two galaxies brought under the reign of a single power.
I have some thoughts.
Whenever I mention Arcs, the upcoming four-letter title from Cole Wehrle and Leder Games, everybody wants to know about the campaign, the three-session “arc” that will chart the ascent of four players amid the decline of a stellar empire. It’s a fascinating premise, and not only because it formalizes the playful and open-ended concept of a non-legacy board game that rolls over from one session to the next that Wehrle introduced in Oath.
This preview is not about that. At some point in development, Arcs was split in two. To mitigate costs and the danger of tossing a gaming group out the airlock before they’ve had a chance to suit up, the campaign is now a day-one expansion. Arcs, the core game anyway, is now a single-session board game. Which up until very recently was just called “a board game.”
How is Arcs sans arc? Let’s take a look.
May I never repeat the awkwardness of my first DTR.
DTR. “Define the Relationship.” My friends, most of whom were older and more experienced, spoke the acronym in ominous tones. It was an essential step of middle school dating, as serious as your first hand-holding or first footsies or first furtive kiss. To a ninth-grader, it was the equivalent of proposing marriage without knowing the answer beforehand. We’d gone on a few dates. School dances. Group hikes. Now we crouched together in a treehouse (oh no), as good a time as any to pop the question: “Are you my girlfriend?”
Over the past three parts of this series, we’ve examined how Root reflects a Foucauldian understanding of power and politics. Today, we’re looking at how that extends into the realm of sex and relationships — and how governments transform sexuality into an extended DTR that will not end no matter how vigorously we try to flee the treehouse.
It was the Genevan journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan who wrote the famous phrase, “Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.” Writing in 1793, the year of King Louis XVI’s execution and the establishment of the First French Republic, du Pan was a proponent of the juste milieu, a “middle way” between autocratic and republican impulses. Considered both hopelessly naïve and tragically Cassandran, he died in exile in 1800, having watched his adoptive country pass through the Reign of Terror and into the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Over the past two installments, we’ve investigated how Cole Wehrle’s Root leverages the philosophies of Michel Foucault to tell a fable about power and control. Today, we’re putting those tools to use.
Right when he thought he was out, Michel Foucault wandered straight back into the woodland. Silly Foucault. Something tells me it won’t be the last time.
Speaking of last times, in the first part of our series on the Foucauldian assumptions behind Cole Wehrle’s Root, we introduced the concept of biopower. The very short version is that the suits on the game’s cards and clearings might feel like mere components, but they really represent the majority population that’s the font of all power in the woodland. In order to win, every faction must use different methods to control and expend them.
But that’s going to have to wait. Today we’re talking about the big picture. What is the central conflict in Root, and what can we learn from it?
Most people would agree that Cole Wehrle did something magnificent with Root. As a game, it’s no mean feat, a sandbox where any number of truly asymmetric factions can interact with surprising fluidity. But that sandbox only scratches the surface. Root is also the most Foucauldian examination of power dynamics ever put to cardboard.
Does that matter? Well, it depends. To somebody looking to ransack a few of the Marquise’s sawmills, maybe not. But as a historical and cultural artifact, Root speaks to so much more than its folksy anthropomorphs might lead you to believe. In this series, we’re going to talk about why.
Oath is Cole Wehrle’s most off-putting game yet. I mean that affectionately. I also don’t anticipate everybody will feel the same way. Riding high on the goodwill generated by Root and Pax Pamir — and dressed up in Kyle Ferrin’s affable illustrative style — this sure is a beaut for something Wehrle called a “hate letter” to the civilization genre. Would it be rude to accuse such an attractive package of false advertising? Because Oath is so determined to make its audience reconsider their assumptions that it sometimes feels like it’s asking too much.
Sometimes. The rest of the time, I’m glad it asks so much.
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.