Friday, 26 July 2019

John Company

Plays: 2Px1 (but we botched the promotion rules, and we didn't touch the deregulation rules).

The Game

John Company is from Sierra Madre Games, and is designed by Cole Wehrle (Root, Pax Pamir). Anyone with any familiarity with these names will know this means this is not a light-and-easy family game. The East India Company was an important business and political entity during the age of colonisation. It captured India for the British Empire. In John Company, you play important dynasties with many family members working for the company. Together you help the company prosper, but this is not a cooperative game. Your ultimate goal is to be the most respected family. So you funnel profits to your family. You use the funds to compete with other families, and ultimately to score points. Whenever your kinsmen retire from the company, you may spend money to send them on new endeavours. It is mainly through these, called Prizes, that you score points. You want the company to do well, because only then you can afford to divert funds to your family. If the company goes bankrupt, the game ends prematurely.

This is the game board. The section on the left lists the four phases of a round. In Phase 1, every player (i.e. family) gets to do a family action, e.g. getting the company to recruit cousin Damien, buying shares in the company, investing in suppliers which will benefit from ongoing business with the company. The cubes are family members. I did a two-player game. Han was orange, I was green. Blue was the neutral player colour. A neutral player is used when playing with fewer than four.

Phases 2 and 3 of a round are related to company operations. Each department gets to do something. You execute this following the thick red line. Every department head comes from one of the great families. If it's your relative running the department, you get to decide what the department does. Every department has its own budget. The red and white discs are money. What the department can do is limited by its money. After all departments do their stuff, the company (hopefully) makes money, and the families too.

Phase 4 is current events, e.g. political turmoil in India, economic boom. Sometimes war breaks out between the Indian states. China may start trading.

These are the front and back of the family card. Every family has a unique ability. The card back shows a company. It is only used if Deregulation happens, and the family decides to start its own company which competes with the East India Company. If Deregulation happens, the EIC loses its monopoly over trade in India. The rules suggest that first timers not play this, so we didn't.

There are three Presidencies in the top section of the board. These are subsidiary companies operating in India. They establish contact with the Indian states, trade with them, and may even attack and conquer them, making them colonies. The red pieces are ships, and are used for trading. The cylinders are goods, also mostly used for trading. However if they are placed in the box in the upper right, they are specifically weapons. Weapons are needed for warfare, and incur a maintenance cost.

The green cube being here means the president (equivalent to a department head) is from the green player's family. So the green players controls this Presidency. The card with grey diagonal lines is a region card, i.e. it is one of the 8 Indian states in the game. The card is double sided. This side with diagonal lines means that the state is suffering from poor economy. Under this condition, trading with this state yields a smaller profit.

When a game scenario is set up, each Presidency will have contact with specific states. The relationships between the states are also specified, e.g. some may be vassals of others. Presidencies may establish relationships with specific states and then start trading with them.

The state of Bengal is having an economic boom (coloured side up). The two columns of icons on the right side of the region card indicate what happens when you roll the event die. Sometimes the state attacks another state. Sometimes it rebels. Sometimes the economic situation changes. In this photo you can see the brown cylinders in two different places. Those in the main box of the Presidency are goods, and those in the army box to the upper right are weapons. Weapons are a dangerous thing, not just because they hurt your enemies, but also because they are costly to maintain and can bring down the company.

When trading with the Indian states, even if you have the required goods (or ships), success is not guaranteed. You need to roll a die to see if the trade happens.

These are shipyards, and they are suppliers of the company. One of the procurement departments at the company specialises in buying ships. When you invest in a shipyard, money paid by the company goes to your pocket. If your brother Francis is running the procurement department, naturally he'd be buying from your cousin Martin. But that's assuming the CEO has allocated enough budget to him. So hopefully your Uncle Jeffery is able to keep his CEO position. It may not be easy for the stars to be aligned - CEO being family, procurement head being family, shipyard being owned by family, and the company having enough cashflow to buy ships. Sometimes you will need to negotiate with other players who have their family members in the right places to help you get what you want, for a price of course. Ships become cheaper to the company if a player has invested in the shipyard the company is buying from. In this photo, ships from the green player's shipyard cost only $4 each (well, I should say £4 but I don't have that on my keyboard and it's a pain to insert), compared to the rightmost shipyard which sells at $6. So sometimes the procurement head should buy from an opponent's shipyard for the sake of the company.

If one of the Presidencies attack an Indian state and conquers it, the Indian state becomes a colony and a governorship is set up, like in this photo above. This is equivalent to starting a new department. The governor is the department head. The colony has its own budget and performs actions using this budget. The space with an S is the position for the governor. The S means a Senior position, as opposed to an E which means an Executive position. Executive positions are higher than Senior positions.

These are the Prizes and they are the main way you score points. Whenever a family member retires or gets fired, you may pay money to put him on a Prize card, and he will score points at game end. Some Prize cards give you special abilities during the game. Some Prize cards only admit Executives (gold), some allow both Executives and Seniors (silver). The placement costs (numbers in circles) are different by retiree type. The numbers in the hexagons are the point values.

The box on the left is the board of directors. If you invest in the company, you get to place one family member here. Whenever the CEO (well, chairman actually) is fired, the new CEO is elected from the board of directors. Every round there is a 50% chance that the CEO will retire (it's a stressful job I imagine), so things are volatile. Every round it is the CEO who decides whether the company issues dividends. Dividends is one way the shareholders make money. Whether the company issues dividends affects the share price.

These region cards being on the left side of the board means the company has not yet established relationships with them. These region cards are moved to the top side of the board when the Presidencies manage to establish contact. The Indian states have their own politics. They fight. Sometimes one conquers another and forms a bigger state. After the third round, the company must maintain contact with at least two states. Otherwise the company fails and the game ends early. This is something to watch out for. If a Presidency loses contact with its last state, it is dissolved and the president is fired. The company will lose one third of its ability to operate in India.

In the game I played with Han, we lost one Presidency because its last state was triggered by an event and decided to cut all diplomatic relations and bugger off. All pieces were removed from this Presidency, and a black disc was placed to indicate that this area was now off limits.

The region cards specify the kinds of goods they trade in, but the names of the goods are just flavour text. In game terms, you just need to know how many goods (brown cylinders) you need to supply to complete a transaction and earn the corresponding amount of money. Goods which are traded are exhausted. Ships can stand in for goods, but they must not outnumber goods in each transaction. Ships are not exhausted and can be used again next round. That's why ships are more expensive. The black discs here indicate completed transactions. Each transaction can only be completed once per round.

In the scenario we played, Sindh and Maratha were vassals of Punjab. The three of them combined to form a mighty nation, so it was not easy to conquer them.

The game is normally played over 10 rounds. The short scenario takes 6 rounds.

The Play

John Company is not an easy game to digest. There are many rules, and I think the rulebook could have been better written. If you are going to attempt this, do be mentally prepared. I did a two-player game, and I think that's probably not the best way to play. I did get to experience how precarious the company's situation is, but there is little negotiation between Han and I. It was a simple zero-sum game between us. I imagine in a four player game (the game supports up to 6), the relationships between the players will be much more interesting. There will be more opportunities for collaborations and temporary alliances.

The game gave me a bad shock. In the early game, I played like I was a government servant, with no sense of danger or urgency at all. Whenever I could siphon money to my family bank account, I would. I found out the hard way that the company was quite fragile. Just a few bad die rolls or events could bankrupt the company. Indian politics was not stable at all. We should not be spending the company's money like it grew on trees. It was the closure of one of our Presidencies that jolted me awake. The closure was irreversible. One third of the company's operations in India gone, just like that. I realised we had to handle company financials much more carefully. We had to be prepared for bad events. We needed to plan much more meticulously. I realised we had been a little sloppy. It was possible to look ahead for possible events and prepare for them somewhat. After that brush with bankruptcy, both Han and I suddenly became very conscientious and selfless, putting company welfare first. Only later on we had a better grasp of how to balance company welfare and personal gain.

Every round some of the company staff will retire. This is a nail-biting phase. You can never be sure how many of your family members will decide to quit. Every round you brace for a major HR shake-up. It can be frustrating when that idiot nephew you have painstakingly positioned to become CEO decides he's had enough after just one round. One thing which Han and I messed up was the promotion rules. There are specific rules about who decides how to fill which vacancies. Also, Executive positions must be filled by people from Senior positions, and not any junior officer. We missed these. As a result I gained an unfair advantage over Han. I had people becoming Executives without being promoted to Seniors first. He was much richer than I was and played a better game, so I was surprised I outscored him by a little at game end. Later we realised it was because of this error. I had more Executives than I should, and Executives usually earned more victory points.

You should plan ahead if you want to play well. You need to think of the possible situations after the next round of retirements. Who would be the next CEO? Who would be in charge of which department? Events in India are not exactly predictable, but at least you'll know where things will likely happen. You need to think ahead whether each department will have enough funds to act. You need to think ahead about the interests of each of the department heads and how they might act.

The Thoughts

The subject matter of John Company is certainly an unusual one. It is a historical game, and it is educational. What I appreciate most about it is being able to immerse myself in that period of history and to imagine what it is like running the British East India Company. I did not get to fully experience the negotiations and complex interactions when there are more players. I imagine it will make things trickier and also more interesting.

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