The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Posts Tagged ‘John Company

Good God, Man, Revisited

After nearly two years, I’ve finally played John Company in my home town.

It was a six player game, and ended on a Mutiny at turn three (the earliest possible moment). And my last game (at the Gathering) was a T3 mutiny. It seems …. surprisingly common. You don’t have any officers (or guns, really) to prepare for a roll and the revolt event isn’t a roll, just a “buh-bye” so when it hits that region is gone baby gone. Of the four players who had never played before, only the TaoLing expressed any desire to repeat the experience.  (Again we missed an early sail roll and then had one of the three presidencies close, which starts the death spiral right away).

And after another T3 mutiny, I’m not sure I disagree. I have the vague feeling that we’re doing something wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it. And certainly I cannot argue with the belief that that John Company’s randomness is too much. You don’t control when your family members retire … too soon and you don’t have enough money, too late and you can’t buy VPs before the game ends. And the fact that failing in disgrace may be preferable to not retiring at all is … odd. I wouldn’t say ahistorical, but odd.

Is this too much simulation, not enough game? I wouldn’t go that far, yet.

Written by taogaming

October 23, 2019 at 7:24 pm

Posted in Session Reports

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Good God, Man! — A review of John Company

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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