MOVING PARTS (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

We spent this past weekend in Dallas - more on that in a future blog-thing - and I got the chance to play two games that I had been very keen to play. One of these was God's Playground, Martin Wallace's 2009 three-hander about the history of Poland, and the other was Cole Wehrle's John Company, released last year by Sierra Madre Games. They had more in common than my desire to play them; both games are very procedural (lots of phases, lots of little steps) and both are fairly intricate, ornate objects with lots of moving parts. Both games I would posit are likely equally complicated, but only one of them felt complicated.

That was God's Playground. It wasn't just that there were sixteen phases, and that two of the phases depended on each player choosing one of ten actions. It was that all the enemies of Poland acted in this way, except the Hapsburgs who act in that way for the first three turns, and the Ottomans who act differently in the fourth turn, and on the second turn only the Cossacks do something differently, and these armies do this in this phase and that army does that in that phase, and from turn three on there's a new action available that, if we read it correctly, would triple the end-game score of two of the three players, which, wait, what? It seemed like there was one exception after another after another, and there wasn't a turn that we finished without discovering we had done something wrong.

I didn't necessarily think it was a bad game - I know it certainly has its adherents - just that it wasn't the game for me. Probably if I had played it six or seven years ago, I would've been quite taken with it. When we first got into the hobby, Martin Wallace loomed quite large - not just his reputation and his relative celebrity within the confines of the hobby, but also his ability to make a living by making games on obscure historical topics. That's something I wanted to do - heck, these days it's what we are doing - and part of the reason why I wanted to work with Winsome was because Wallace had.

A game like God's Playground would have very much been my jam back in the day. Now? I have much less patience for complicated, intricate games. My tastes as both a designer and a player lean more toward concise, simple abstraction.

But then there's John Company. And on its surface, it looks just as complicated, perhaps more-so. There are lots of little steps as you place cubes for your family members, hire and make decisions for the eight or more offices, resolve events in India and attempt passage of laws at home, and hope to retire with enough cash to grab some big victory points. There are things that are easy to overlook (Mark, did you remember to take your money for your family's special power this turn?) and it seemed every time that I bought some dice for a check, I forgot to put the money back into the supply.

But I was quite surprised at just how smooth the whole thing was, how briskly it played, and how easy it was to grasp how the various moving parts fed into one another. Partially this was because I was playing with two very experienced players, and instead of doing a full from-top-to-bottom teach they explained concepts as needed. But each piece of new information also built seamlessly and effortlessly on what came before it: it all made sense. If John Company is a machine with a lot of moving parts, all those parts are entirely necessary; if its shape is intricate and ornate, it is entirely functional and reasonable. There's no better example of this than the game's board. At first (or even second) glance, it looks a bit of a mess - a pretty mess, but a mess still - but in play it absolutely drives the action and is surprisingly intuitive.

It also helps, of course, that it's more than the sum of its parts. The biggest problem with complicated, heavily-procedural games it that it becomes difficult to see the forest for the trees, hard to conjure up any kind of big picture that will help you sketch out the geography of the game's decision space. You do this, and this, and that, and sixteen other things, but what do you do in the game - what is the thread running through it, where is its soul? I have trouble locating it in games like God's Playground or Tresham's Revolution. I often despair of finding it in some game submissions that we receive.

But John Company is, first and foremost, a negotiation game, and all the game's swiftly-turning gears, ringing bells, and screaming whistles are there to give us something to negotiate for and with. Sometimes these negotiations are for measurable, material things - votes, promise cubes, offices, money - and sometimes it's about intangibles, about whether or not we should act in the company's best interest or against it. It never loses sight of this, never hides what the game is really about, and every mechanism, every decision, supports, emphasizes, and reveals this spine.

In the introduction to her translation of Swann's Way, Lydia Davis wrote that Proust "felt that a long sentence contained a whole, complex thought. The shape of the sentence was the shape of the thought, and every word was necessary to the thought." That I think is the difference that sets John Company apart for me: the game's complexity and mechanical verbosity doesn't stem from it wanting to talk about twenty different things, but from it saying one thing, and saying it well.

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