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.
The Mere Anarchy of John Company
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.
Talking About Games: Pax Pamirs and Framing
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.
Space-Cast! #5. Arguments with Cole
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?
Listen over here or download here. Timestamps can be found after the jump.
The Greatest Graveyard of Empires
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.