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Written by taogaming

April 19, 2018 at 10:57 pm

Posted in Convention Reports

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Good God, Man! — A review of John Company

with 3 comments

At this year’s Gathering, the big game for me was John Company, which I played four times.

Containing a descriptive taxonomy of the gameplay

John Company is the latest title from Sierra Madre Games, but not by Phil Eklund. (Cole Wehrle is the author). The game focuses on a single company but it is definitely not cooperative … there’s a winner and many, many losers … but the player’s all have an interest and multiple positions inside the British East India Company (EIC). The board depicts the positions in the EIC and players will move cubes (representing family members), ships, barrels (representing guns or goods) and the cards that depict the eight Indian regions around the board to indicate the situation in India and “The Company.” At it’s heart, John Company is the Principal Agent problem distilled into a few hours: Each player controls one extended family. The families run the company, but not necessarily for the company’s benefit.

John Company is not particularly complex, certainly nowhere near the difficulty of other SMG titles, and its also shorter, but that doesn’t mean the game is easy. Part of the difficulty comes from the vague rulebook — which does look beautifully like a 1700s tract but doesn’t exactly show how to layout some aspects and may be ambiguous, but the game is not difficult. You have four phases:

  1. The Family Phase — Player’s send their latest generation into the company in a variety of positions (shipbuilder, factory owner, back office writer, captain, officer, shareholder). These have a variety of costs and limitations. A player may also buy a manor, which is simply 2 Victory Points (VP).
  2. The Company Phase — Each position has a function and the family currently in control of that position makes it. For example, the Chairman fills any vacant executive position(s) (and the China Office, if it is open) and controls the budget. The Director of trade fills non-executive positions from the writers and assigns ships and goods to the Presidencies. Purchasing officers spend the company’s money according to reasonable rules — they must buy cheaper goods first — but can direct money towards the family of their choice when all else is equal (and it usually is). The various presidents can try to subjugate regions, send out trade shipments, or open new regions to trade and appoint regional governors, who in turn can invest in regions to improve them.
  3. The Trade Phase — Players generate their family revenue through what I refer to as “honest graft,” (the game does not use that term). Governors can divert tax money towards themselves, Presidents get bonuses for successful trading, Captains earn a steady income. (Officers do not get money during trade, but a successful offensive campaign earns plunder). Each player’s family has a special power and some of them generate revenue for certain conditions. The company will have (hopefully) collected money from trade routes, and now it has to pay its expenses — guns, captains, debts. If there’s not enough money, the Company can take out emergency loans granting £5 but costing £1/turn for the remainder of the game (the Chairman can take out one non-emergency loan each company phase, as well). Assuming there is money left over, the chairman can pay out dividends — which go to the family members in the shareholder box. If no dividends are paid, the share price falls. If they are paid, it rises. If it falls too low, the company collapses and is bailed out. (A bailout removes all but one of each family’s shareholders, or one if they only had one).
  4. The Event Phase — Those pesky locals have their own agendas, which include things like “not being British Subjects” and “settling centuries-old feuds.” Regions improve or depress, revolt or conquer each other. Parliament is also pesky, and may hold a vote on a relevant law. Or there may be a shortage of goods, or the China office may open (or close) based on their own strange customs. Also during the event phase, executives may retire (“attrition”). That’s when you earn VPs — during retirement a family may buy a position, turning family money into VPs. The exact positions (“Prizes”) are dealt out randomly during setup. Some convert a few pounds into a VP or two, while maneuvering into a Royal Marriage costs £17 for 7 VP. Some may also give a special ability (like extra votes in Parliament). Also, some positions that can be purchased in the family phase are worth 1-2 VP, but the bulk will come from retirement.

There are two other main rules.

First, there’s an anti-nepotism rule. If you are assigning a position then if you assign it to another of your family members then you owe every person you passed over a “promise cube.” (These are taken from your limited stock of family members). If you don’t get it back by the end of the game, its worth -2 VP (but nothing to the holder). You can always buy such cubes back for £2, or force a swap if you hold one of their promises. Or if you promote one of their cubes, then that’s a repayment as well. And you are free to trade money and promise cubes at any time you like. The Walsh family is short a pound to buying young Jonathon a Captaincy? Maybe they’ll accept your help for a promise.

Finally, some actions take a die roll, (called a “Check”). A check has a strength, which is the number of dice you roll (less any ‘penalty’, which subtracts dice). Roll a 1-2 on any die, you succeed. Failing that, if you have a 3 or 4 you fail, but take no personal blame. But roll only 5s or 6s and you fail catastrophically and are cashiered without the chance to earn any VPs.

Why this reviewer finds John Company enchanting

John Company is an experience game, which is well within my preferred genre. And economic engines are a favorite. As I’ve mentioned before, I find the Agency Dilemma a delightful topic in gaming and while I am not particularly well informed about the EIC, I have done some readings on the Golden Age of Sail, which is tangential to this topic. Long, complex games where you can later described what happened without referencing any rules and where anyone (even a non-gamer) can understand, are my particular friends. Here’s how my last game went (although I’m just randomly picking names I can’t remember)

Four families vied for control of the EIC and got off to a good start, with the Presidency of Bombay opening up Hyderabad to trade and with the company conquering Madras and Bengal. I, as the Paxton family, sent out our scion into the fleet as a Captain, earning solid income. The Company was flush with early success and one Paxton and a hated Hastings both managed a Royal Wedding to help secure our family fortunes, with the Walsh and Jones having neither Capital nor Connections to secure the future for their posterity. But the company floundered as those incompetent Walsh failed trade mission after trade mission and the debts piled up. Parliament bailed out the company. I offered some promises to take control of military affairs and used it to force out some officers for my own relatives but disaster struck when our boys failed to subjugate Maratha (meaning no plunder) and Walsh failed a trade mission that even the hated French could manage. This would have seen me promoted to an executive position right at the time to take the blame, but fortunately before that could happen the company collapsed. However, my unfulfilled promises meant that there was some murmuring about Paxton reliability, leaving Hastings as the most prominent family.

So, John Company is an experience. (Of course I’m eliding over many details, but in the end you often only remember broad brush stories). What stories can I tell about Azul? Not many. (And I like Azul). There may be beautiful plays, but they have a technical beauty only. No abstract ever caused a belly chortle.

John Company excels in giving opportunities to chortle or proclaim in an English accent — “Good God, Man” was said after every failed die roll (often followed by “Just like a Walsh. Typical.”)

“Capital idea, Hastings. I mean that literally. Take out debt and capitalize us, post-haste!” You get the idea. I rather like my accent, and few games give me such opportunity to listen to my own voice and chortle happily.

And for an experience game, I’m used to investing 3+ hours. Games like 7 Ages or Magic Realm or Here I Stand or High Frontier are all chockablock with complexity and take a full afternoon (or 8 hours). A full narrative story in 2-3? That’s efficiency. So far I’ve only played the Early Company, but one game had a nice steady build, another had a successful EIC bloat but struggle on with only one bailout around turn 9 or 10, and the last game had a full blown collapse on turn five or six.  But each game had an arc. And there are other scenarios (later scenarios add rules to deal with dissolving the Company into competing interests).

A digression concerning negatives as posted in other broadsheets

I suspect much John Company’s divisiveness revolves around the intersection of negotiation and dice. Perhaps control vs randomness. John Company is a negotiation game, and often players are trying to “do right” by the Company (because it improves their own position). But all of the negotiation in the world is for naught if you fail a few 4 die (or 5 die) rolls, and your position crumbles. Additionally, the attrition roles swing many VP because you got out at the right time (when you were flush with cash) or didn’t and you were forced out in disgrace when the company got bailed out (you can still gain VP during a bailout, but at a £2 premium, and money is tight).

Let me be perfectly clear — you can play well and get crushed by fate. You can build up a warchest and have your octogenarian chairman stick around until the game end, never earning any VP. You can catastrophically fail a 5d6 role (<1% chance). You can retire when you are a pound short of a Royal Wedding and have to settle for 2 VP instead of 7 VP because nobody has money to loan you, even if you were willing to offer a Usurious amount of promises.

You can also spend an hour with not much to do. Many office holders make few decisions, even the most powerful office will do nothing if the Chairman doesn’t include them in the budget. Or you don’t climb the greasy pole and get passed over for negotiations and don’t have much control of the company. Both of these complains (randomness, and long periods of time with little control) are true of most of SMG’s games. (Ask TauCeti about the solar flare that nailed him near Ganymede in our game).

I’m not sure why some people who like SMG games seem to complain about this one. My gut feeling is that this randomness is particularly galling in a game which is primarily about negotiation.

The other complaint I’m seeing (in forums) is about the rules complexity. That complaint I find laughable. The rules could be written better, but in terms of complexity John Company is nowhere near as difficult as any other SMG title. There’s practically no chrome, many rules are on the board and cards, the back of the rule book has a summary of “Who Hires Whom?”, “What’s Happening in India?” (how to resolve events), and an odds chart (both for the dice, and for how the events engine will play out for each region). (The events took us a few turns to get out, and there’s a lot of hidden order in how each region’s event chart works, but at its heart there are only 5 events that occur and one of them is “nothing.”) Compared to any experience game I’ve mentioned above, the rules are simple.

Here I suspect that the nice board is lulling people into a false sense of simplicity. Nobody would look at Bios:Megafauna or 1830 and expect to understand it in a few minutes. John Company is easier than either, but it looks much, much easier. Just a few cubes and cards around a (relatively) inviting board. It’s one thing to walk into a concert knowing the composer is an atonalist (or minimalist or other “challenging” style) but I suspect that if Miley Cyrus decided to ditch her normal playlist for an avant-garde atonal 3 hour jam, there would be a riot.

Still, I can’t quite point the finger at that. Sierra Madre Games is famous for complex, sandbox games with broken victory conditions and downtime. Everyone just shrugs and decides who did best based on common sense. Surely not all of the complaints can be unaware of what they were getting into.

But for those of us who do play other SMG games, the expectations may be biasing us in the other direction, because John Company actually has working victory conditions. It’s still a sandbox, but its an actual game. It may not grant the level of control you’d find in a Euro (or even an Ameritrash game), it may give you little to work with even if you play well, but I honestly do not understand the criticisms of it (from reviewers I respect) calling it “not a game.”

It’s in the experience game genre, but by the standards of that it is one of the most game-like. Given that it needs 3+ players, I doubt I’ll get in 4 games over the remainder of the year, but I will try, and I encourage others to try.

Rating — Enthusiastic (at least, for now)

Written by taogaming

April 19, 2018 at 10:55 pm

Posted in Reviews

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Catching up on ‘Advance on Hannukah’

Got in another two games of Mimsy Harmonica (the East Expansion), over the last week, which is good. First of all I’m moving towards 50 games, but also because I’ve been rethinking strategy. I still think the nerfing of tokens to “1 VP per” is reasonable (and not as big as I expected) but I think we’re seeing our groupthink adjust. (Also, see this strategy thread for details). Both games were 5 player.

I am convinced the East Expansion open more options than the base game … but both of our games saw the winner end the game with the 7 point connection. But I think that just means that players are undervaluing that. No, what interests me is that the second game saw two players going for diametrically opposite strategies. One player went tech and got to 5 Actions before anyone else got to 4 (in fact, nobody else did). He then maxed out bags, movement and privileges for 16 points of tech. However, the game ended too fast for that to matter, as I had (after I got my first action and the orange privilege) completely ignored tech.

(Link to BGG Map image, to help follow along).

I did do a “grab two sides of the token and slap a few down” trick until blocked, but I use the special ability of the Malmo/Visby(?) route to place in a green city to slap a dude in Warren (the action city). As my token ends were in Stettin (adjacent to Warren, the action/bag city) Rulm(?) this got me about 1/2 way to connecting the Reds without needing a second disk, and guaranteed a reasonable steady stream of points. (I also took one of the cities next to the Magdeburg (the privilege city) and another side of Warren. All told by the time I made the Red city connection I had ~16 city points. In fact, I was almost unable to make the final connection,  as I only had 3 cubes + 1 disk left. But it would have required a concerted effort to block all my options, and it didn’t happen (and I could have simply scored points between my doubled cities).

So — apart from my first game — I’ve still never seen someone win with only two actions, but this means you can go quite light on technologies even against an action fiend. May only be true in 5 player, but its another nice option. I’ll admit that H.T. could reasonably be called JASE, but the “get in someone’s way to cost them a little and gain a little” intrigues me, even after 40 games.

I do need to play the UK map more. Only played that twice.

Also played — Sagrada. Meh.

Written by taogaming

March 27, 2018 at 9:19 pm

Posted in Session Reports

Tagged with ,

Dammit, Trader Joe’s….

Driving into work I hear an ad “This program supported by Trader Joe’s. Buy our wonderful dough and make a nice ‘za for dinner.”

As someone who railed against the inclusion of ZA in the OSPD, this felt like a personal attack from T.J. I’m assuming that T.J. put the apostrophe (or maybe airquotes) and the announcer didn’t pronounce them…

Written by taogaming

March 21, 2018 at 7:06 pm

Posted in Ramblings

Tagged with ,

March Madness

In January and February I played Mage Knight (with the TaoLing), Sentinels (with the TaoLing), Bridge and Factorio. Now that March is nearly halfway over, I’ve finally managed to play a few multi-player games. The most interesting of which is Sidereal Confluence. I’m not likely to play that often — I suspect I will be going to game nights a bit more often, but we’ll see. And I’ll try to get a game or two at the Gathering. Random thoughts after one game:

  • Kudos for the word “Adhocracy.” I’ve used this word a few times in the last decade (to discuss politics or the organizational structure at my job) and I enjoy it. I suspect TauCeti and I came up with it independently, but maybe one of us caught it from the other (or both from a common source I’ve forgotten).
  • But … offsetting that are Anti-Kudos for the colon in the game title (and sub-title). That bane of book titles must perish from the face of gaming.
  • For a simple game it felt daunting to learn, but I think I got it after about 30 minutes.  Even when you grok the rules players face the “Race Tableau” problem — you are staring at your own stuff and can’t work out what other people are doing. That will (like Race) probably take a few games to overcome.
  • My initial reaction to the number of trading goods was like the Emperor’s reaction in Amadeus. “Too many notes.” But as most of the items are just chaff for industrial processes (ships and VPs excepted) I don’t think its a problem. And I suspect that when playing with more than 4-5 it feels a bit looser.
  • I do like the trading mechanisms of “Trades continue until all players but one are done.”
  • I’m not proud. I picked the Caylion (a low difficulty race) that (I now see in the rules) has “no particular direction” so I could take what was offered. I won. Coincidence? You be the judge.

Anyway, I expected to be intrigued by this, and I was. Will play a few more times before rating, probably suggest (but not buy).

Werewords — Fine. I’m not in the Werewolf target audience, but One Night Werewolf (etc) is fine. Indifferent.

Meltdown 2020 — I had actually played this before. We played with a rule or two wrong, but this was fine. Indifferent.

Written by taogaming

March 12, 2018 at 11:01 pm

Posted in Session Reports

Never in a million years…

We are doing reasonably well in a Swiss teams, event. Earlier I held something like:

S:Kxx H:T8 D:Qx C:Jxxxxx

and partner opens 1 Heart. I could bid 1 NT (Semi-forcing) but since I’m playing Polish 1H is capped at 17 HCP (and rarely that strong). So, best to pass right away and prevent partner from jumping with his 15 points or (more likely) bidding 2 Diamonds and then I have to bid 2 hearts. If I’m lucky LHO will double back in and I can bid clubs over 1 Spade.

But LHO passes. Partner wins the opening lead and plays a small heart towards dummy …. Jack … small, pitch.

A 6-0 heart break. Sad trombone.

But we won that match and are sitting down against a Grand Life Master with multiple national championships and his partner (no slouch, either).

I pick up S:9xxxx H:Q D:xxx C:AJ92

Partner opens 1NT. I could pass, but I think I’ll transfer into spades.  If partner super-accepts then I’ll chance the game. If not, I’ll pass and hope that spades is OK. A bit weaker and I’d pass. (Passing 1N isn’t wrong, by any means, but this gives me chance to get into a borderline game and even if there isn’t game 2 Spades is probably as reasonable as 1NT).

I bid 2 Hearts and my LHO (the Grand Life Master) is in there with 3 Diamonds. This gets passed to me. I still don’t want to force to game, but partner doesn’t know if I have any values and may be wishing he could double 3 Diamonds. I double. Partner will likely sit with two spades. LHO passes and partner passes and now RHO goes in the tank. Eventually, he passes.

My partner leads the heart king and RHO says “Never in a million years will you guess my hand” and tables the AKQ8xx of spades. His full hand is

S:AKQ8xx H:xx D:x C:KTxx

The play is brutal and fast. Heart king, heart ruff, diamond to partners king, heart ace (I pitch the deuce of clubs encouraging), club 8 (conventionally, either a singleton or promising one higher card which must be the queen, as I can see the rest), king ace, small club back to partner’s queen, heart ruffed, club jack at which point declarer ruffs high and concedes another high trump.

The full hand


          S: xx H:AKxxx D:AKx C:Qxx

S:-- H:JT9xx D:QJTxxx C:xx    S:AKQ8xx H:xx D:x C:KTxx

         S:97xxx H:Q D:xxx C:AJ9x

The really impressive thing is that everything is so reasonable. East could have overcalled 2 Spades, but decided to wait and see, and must have been shocked beyond belief to hear my transfer into spades. West …. fearing that opponents may be off to the races got in a space eating lead-directing overcall. You can argue that any bid is pushy or poor judgement, but its not totally out of left field. East considered pulling 3D-X to 3 Spades or 3NT, but those have their own problems.

(At the other table East bid 2 Spades, off four undoubled, which is also beyond my ken).

And in the category of “poor opponents” we have the other weird hand of the day.

I pick up S:8xxx H:K D:AQJ98 C:Qxx

Partner opens 1 Heart, I bid 2 Diamonds (not necessarily game forcing), partner bids 2 Hearts, which could be a sixth heart or just waiting without extras. I bid 2 Spades, showing my shape and confirming a game force. (Yes, we might go down in game, but I have an opening hand, so I’m forcing).

Partner bids 4 Diamonds.

I think this is a splinter showing 4 spades and a stiff diamond, (since 3 Diamonds would be totally forcing and set diamonds) but delayed jumps are not alertable, so I don’t alert. I was just a mere game force and I have all my values in diamonds, so I signoff in 4 Spades. Partner thinks for a bit and jumps to 6 Diamonds.

(Now I think partner misbid and was slammish in diamonds). I pass. Thankfully nobody can be accused of “waking up” due to an alert.

LHO leads a club and I am surprised to find myself in a non-hopeless contract.

Dummy has S:KJx H:AQJxxx D:T7xx C:–

Wishing that dummy had my nine of diamonds, I ruff and lead a small diamond to my queen. Perhaps I should lead the diamond Ten, but I think I need a stiff king or Kx onside, since I’ve already ruffed a club. The DT wins against Kxx onside and 3-3 hearts, but losses against stiff King onside (unless hearts are 3-3). I’d really like hearts to be 3-3. I can’t figure out the odds and anyway that’s what I did at the table.

It goes small diamond, jack (keeping my 98 so I can overtake) and LHO wins the diamond king.

But … she starts to think. That’s good. Very good.  She doesn’t have the spade ace and (for her point of view) leading a spade into the spade bidder (who was willing to play in the four spade game) looks like a good way to solve the suit. She may be looking at the spade queen or afraid of finding partner’s spade queen.

She eventually returns a trump and I win in my hand (they break two-two) cash the heart king, ruff a club in dummy and claim when hearts break no worse than 4-2.

Looking at all four hands, LHO could have led her doubleton spade to her partner’s AQ and gotten a ruff and possibly picked up her stiff DK.

Sometimes there is no justice in Bridge.

         S:KJx H:AQJxxx D:T7xx C:--

S:xx H:???? D:Kx C:?????   S:AQxx H:xx D:xx C:A???? (E-W hands approximate)

        S:xxxx H:K C:AQJ98 C:Qxx

Written by taogaming

March 4, 2018 at 7:50 pm

Posted in Bridge

Damn, wish declarer was a point stronger

Played in a swiss, terribly. Got trump squeezed when I could have seen it coming, but I’m not terribly upset by missing it. Later on I’m defending 3N and declarer has had to concede her fourth trick to me (setting up her diamonds).

I have actually been paying attention, and the auction helped. I know the following cards:

           Dummy: S:AJ8xx H:x

Partner S:?? H:Jxx C:x    Me: S:T9xx H:x D:x

           Declarer S:? H:AQ9 D:2 winners

I’m giving partner the HJ, because if he doesn’t have it nothing matters (or if he’s stronger). He can’t have more than that (left) on the auction (one of his spades must be an honor as well, the KQ are still out, but declarer needs an honor for her bid). It’s clear to me that if I return a heart or diamond declarer will run her winners and end up in this position

        Dummy:  S:AJx

Partner: S:(K/Q)x H:J

        Declarer: S:(K/Q) H:9 D:Winner 

No matter what spades are, on the diamond partner is squeezed. If he pitches a heart, that’s it. If he pitches a spade declarer can lead her honor and overtake when partner plays the other honor and the jack is good. (Even if partner had both KQ of spades, he’s squeezed).

Well, nothing to it. Lead a spade. Break communication between the hands and when declarer runs her diamonds partner just pitches his spades.

I lead a spade and declarer plays her stiff Queen and …. partner thinks and plays the king. Hand is over. Declarer wins the ace, pitches her little heart on the spade jack, and claims.

As mistakes go, its a forgivable. (In fact, I made a terrible one just the hand earlier, so partner may have been fuming at that ….)

Only … I wish declarer had been a touch stronger.

If declarer held the spade KING, partner would have had no chance to go wrong.

Written by taogaming

February 25, 2018 at 10:40 pm

Posted in Bridge