Designer Cole Wehrle lives a dual life. By day he designs and develops games for Leder Games with candy sweet fantasy themes that have serious depth and teeth hiding just below the surface. Root for example is an adorable woodland war game that has cats that represent the German war machine, birds that capture old monarchies and the Woodland Alliance that captures revolt and guerilla warfare. But sure enough most people see the adorable wooden cats and are eager to sign up for a complex war game with considerable rules overhead.
By night however Wehrle runs Wherlegig Games with his brother Drew. In these games the themes are deeply rooted in real world events in history. In particular Wehrle’s historical focus is the various messes created by colonialism, and more importantly the “why” behind how those historical situations evolved. There are no cute meeples here, and none of the peanuts-esque art of Kyle Ferrin to lure folks in. I can tell you that it is much harder to sell someone on playing Pax Pamir 2nd edition about The Great Game in Afghanistan than pulling them into Root. My partner keeps asking to learn the latter and has expressed negative interest in ever trying the former.
But these games are worth playing, even if the theme sounds like a college history class you didn’t sign up for. For one thing, they expose parts of world history that are barely a footnote in most folks’ education. The most exposure I ever had to The Great Game, where Great Britain and Russia used Afghanistan as a site for a proxy war between enormous imperial powers, was in reading the novel Kim by Rudyard Kipling. You might know him as the guy who wrote The Jungle Book. But here in Pax Pamir 2nd edition is a literal simulation of what happened, and more importantly, why. Unlike reading a dry textbook in that aforementioned college class, you play a game and see the strategic reasons why historical events occurred.
While the theme is not exciting the production of these games is no slouch. For what it lacks in enticing woodland meeples Pax Pamir makes up in spades with a cloth map and beautiful resin coalition markers. Wherlegig has found an audience for these niche games on kickstarter that has enabled them to produce top of the line games for a relatively small market.
The next on the docket for Wehrle’s night operation is John Company 2nd Edition which is on Kickstarter now. It is a game about collectively running the British East India Company together with up to 6 players. Here again is a dive into a topic I know almost nothing about. I mostly remember the British East India company as a footnote to the Boston Tea Party that everyone in the U.S. learns about during class on The Revolutionary War. But it was a major force and is responsible for a lot of the terrible toll of colonialism in India in the service of prestige in London and turning a profit. It’s an uncomfortable role ultimately to put players into. In Pax Pamir you were somewhat empowered as tribes who are manipulating the imperial powers, but here, while you do have power, you are definitely not the good guy. However, in order to win the game you have to wheel and deal and exploit the various nations in India. In order to win you will need to understand the actual why of what happened during history.
John Company is first and foremost a negotiation game. Players are working together to run one company, but only one player wins. In this way it is a sort of semi-cooperative game. The lens that the game sees this through is family. Each player takes on the role of a prominent family and your individual playing pieces are little unique wooden portrait tokens. The game plays with all the other suspects of empire and trade games: power, money, stocks, ships and armies. But it’s approach to focus on the families that drove all of those other aspects is fascinating. And in fact, you use those family members as the main way to win the game. Each turn a family has children which are then invested into various aspects of the company. Yes it’s weird to talk about investing children, but as a game built around family, your children are literally a resource to use to gain the upper hand in the company. You may have them become investors holding shares in the company or send them of to India as trade clerks hoping for a promotion, or have them join the military as an officer hoping to become a general. Everything is about using your family members effectively to make sure you run certain aspects of the company or are at least in a position to benefit the most from its success. And everything on the table is up for negotiation, including your family’s children who you can trade as wards to other players.
In recent history there have been some monumental blunders by publishers in the board game industry that have kind of swept away the negative impacts of colonialism. GMT’s debacle with The Scramble for Africa highlighted the focus on power fantasy first without consideration of the consequences of those actions. Shifting the focus from empire to the human element that drove the East India Company gives the game a more insightful view of the machinations of colonialism. This human element also gives the game an almost satirical slant as well, if not a cynical view of the affair. All of the hell caused in India boils down to prestige and retiring well in London, true to the actual historical actors. You may give your son Nathaniel as a ward to another family for a vote that will keep you in control of the prime minister in order to set your other family member up to retire to a castle from his director of trade position. There is no purity at winning this game as it invites you to roleplay the corruption in its very mechanics. All of Cole’s historical moonlighting shares this commonality of placing the player in the morass of very messy history. And I personally cannot wait to sink in and learn more about the East India Company than I ever knew before. The game is pricey at $80 on the Kickstarter campaign, but it costs less than a college course or text book on the same subject and could possibly teach you more if you are someone who learns by doing. If such a dry theme is not for you, then Wehrle’s day fair may be much more up your alley, although each game hides depth for days; cute woodland animal or not.