On Cole Wehrle and John Company

Cole Wehrle’s John Company knocked the wind out of me in 2017. It’s remained one of my favorite games since. I’ve never written about it. I have written about Wehrle’s other recent efforts, including Root, Pax Pamir, and the mighty Oath. His work is brilliant, all the way down.

My challenges of writing about John Company are ones of trepidation and intimidation. The former is representative of the design’s complex historical setting, the loathsome nature of its subject matter, and my inability to eloquently address these issues at the heart of it all. The matter of intimidation is a broad concern that I can’t deliver justice to this opus and rise to the occasion. I’m not the voice it deserves.

Then, last week, my friend Dan Thurot wrote about this game again.

It’s now better and worse. His expertly crafted literary contribution handled the game’s subject matter so precisely and with such care that I’m astonished. But now I’m faced with the consideration that there may not be anything left to say about John Company and its second edition.

Here’s the unshackled truth – this is 2022’s best game, and it would be inappropriate to make this claim without a proper article for context. So, let’s violently spit into the wind.

Despite being a zealous fan of the original edition, I was shocked when I opened this new title. The number of components struck me as ridiculous. John Company was a complex game, but it was somewhat austere in composition. Everything in this revision has been expanded as if it’s been shot out of a cannon. India is no longer a set of cards, but instead a board with large plastic towers and metal flags. Events are now their own deck of coasters that are kind of obnoxious but also kind of fascinating. There are more positions of influence, such as the Prime Minister and the Governor General. Prestige, Company Standing, the London Season – it’s beginning to feel elephantine.

The first game was a little rough. It was certainly enjoyable, and I saw the merits of Wehrle’s iteration, but I was more fascinated than wholly convinced. The second play was revelatory. All of the divergent vectors coalesced and it was edifying. I realized that all of this exposition is in service of more vividly capturing the collision between autonomous system and external observer.

I think about Wehrle’s design philosophy often. The experiences he crafts feel intentional and conscious in a way few do. He operates in this cranny, one where the historical wargame ontology intersects with contemporary design ideologies. This is most obvious in Root and Oath where classic power dynamics and historicity are smuggled in with a ludic aesthetic.

I want to stick with this notion that Wehrle is a historical wargame designer, at least in some sense. He uses this historical stance to provide a certain perspective. It’s not quite identical to something Mark Hermann or Chad Jensen would adopt, but it’s akin. What I’m talking about is that there are times when playing Cole’s games that I feel outside the goings on and processes I’m participating in. Instead, it’s as if I’m a conscious observer of what’s occurring and its significance within the narrative being woven.

I alluded to this detached posture in my Pax Pamir review when I stated, “all you can do is nudge the whirring contraption in your direction and ride the situation like a hapless stooge atop a thrashing bull.” There’s a complex relationship here with agency and influence as it pertains to institutional strength and a divestiture of power.

This disconnected feeling is existential and freeing. It provides a unique model of enjoying the experience as both an active participant – a shaper of the company – as well as an enlightened outsider who can only sit by and watch the ship capsize in real-time. This position retains the sanctity of competition while allowing for a vast basin of satisfaction, one that is suffused from engaging with play as if it was a piece of art, such as a sophisticated drama or bewitching poem. Despite feeling like I’m viewing something alien and outside myself, I have a deeper appreciation as I’ve manipulated the work and changed it ever so slightly.

This quality of philosophical externalism is evident in the entirety of Wehrle’s ouvre. It’s the commonality that’s gripped me since my first experience in 2017 and has only been farther expanded and informed as he continues to evolve and mature as a designer.

The particular approach used to evoke historical themes and present coherent principles is rich in a categorical way. While the topic and subjects are the critical article, each Wehrle design feels its own self-governing topic. That is to say, the game itself can be viewed as a course or individual subject that sits atop its historical setting as a distinct layer. The design unveils itself over multiple plays, offering higher yield the more honestly it is engaged. There’s an intellectual component in this that is stimulating and influential.

Here is also where Wehrle’s work loses many. A large number of hobbyists don’t want to perform the amount of labor required when the return on that effort is difficult to qualify as ‘fun’. I’m sure many will even view my outlook on his creations as unreasonably charitable and appealing to a sentiment of ‘games as art’ that is ludicrous.

It’s easy to take the angle that all of this is inappropriate. These things should be overtly fun; they shouldn’t be morally or philosophically complex. They shouldn’t require study. But I think that’s a point of view that undermines the potential achievement of play and the extent to which games can provide cultural influence. Games such as Oath may not suit a segment of the hobby, but they certainly suit me.

In the case of John Company, Wehrle has stimulated a complex emotional involvement with the game by building an abundant strategic simulation that feels alive. It’s dense and opaque at times due to the segregation of roles and duties while still maintaining a rather strong through line from the head of the company down to the lowliest conscript. There’s a beautiful almost musical flow present in the acquisition and squandering of monies, as well as in the natural ebb of office hierarchy. The undulations and jamming of gears through various points of friction and chance are what drives the drama, creating historical footnotes in your company’s ledge.

At the end of the day, I sought John Company Second Edition because I expected magnificence. And magnificence was delivered.

 

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