Drinking the Cole-Aid

After several years of intense focus on Go, studying, reviewing games, playing almost daily, I’m burned out. I barely play any more, and I expect the upcoming European Go Congress in Toulouse to be my last tournament for the foreseeable. I’m extricating myself from the affairs of the Association, winding down as tournament director.

In compensation, I’ve developed a raging thirst for other boardgames. After several years of intense focus on the classical, highly abstract, literally black-and-white world of Go, emerging into the densely crowded, richly varied ecosystem of modern boardgames feels almost hallucinatory. Despite the rival attraction of videogames, boardgames continue to sustain a community large enough to support development of complex, demanding, richly involving games.

In particular, I’m fascinated by the work of designer Cole Wehrle. Perhaps because his background is in wargaming rather than the eurogames I usually play, his games feel very fresh to me, a whole new world to explore. On the one hand, his work for Leder Games (Root, Oath, ARCS) conceals surprisingly vicious fantasy/SF conflict beneath the wonderful artwork of Kyle Ferrin (comparable to the most flamboyant of Bill Watterson’s Sunday pages for Calvin & Hobbes). On the other, the games from the company Cole runs with brother Drew, Wehrlegig (Pax Pamir, John Company), are alive with historical flavour and detail.

If I were to pick one, it would be John Company, in which players take the part of families jockeying for position within the East India Company, negotiating and scheming for prestige while the Company pillages India. It has the sense of historical sweep and development of the legendary (but unplayable) Republic of Rome, compressed into something you can finish in an afternoon. The gameplay is multilayered, offering several avenues to explore en route to the Company’s nigh inevitable collapse amid the corruption and self-interest of those who run it. The implicit critique of the imperialist project is underscored by the artwork, which draws heavily on period caricaturists such as Cruikshank and Gillray.

It doesn’t hurt that Cole is deeply embedded in the community, publishing extensive design diaries for each of his games on BoardGameGeek, actively participating in discussion and responding to questions online. His academic grounding in literature studies perhaps accounts for his interest in narrative and the stories players tell through the games they play, his games explicitly providing the hooks on which stories can hang without imposing a set storyline. And he’s not embarrassed to slip into theory mode, once memorably describing Root (a Game of Woodland Might and Right) as an exploration of Foucauldian biopolitics…which maybe it is, as depicted by Walt Kelly.

His current project is Molly House, in which players will “throw grand masquerades and cruise back alleys as a gender-defying molly in early eighteenth century London.” I foresee a few problems getting that one to the table, but I backed it anyway…it’ll be worth it just to see where he goes next.

Thoughts, hopes, exhortations?