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.
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.
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.
For the first time ever, the Space-Biff! Space-Cast! is all about Dan Thurot’s uncertainty about Cole Wehrle’s paternity, the definitions of sandbox games, as well as a number of Great Games, from Pax Pamir to Pax Renaissance and An Infamous Traffic. Great Games: in these hands alone, that’s a pun intended only for the cleverest of humans. Perhaps you’re among them. Perhaps.