How To Dice And Strategize Your Way To Learning History

Cole Wehrle dreams of someday making a board game about Reconstruction. The 38-year-old designer has tinkered with a number of different prototypes over the years, but invariably he finds himself stymied by the same obstacle. Sure, table games have simulated the Civil War for decades, but its catastrophic aftermath—where an apartheid state reconstituted itself from the remnants of slavery—is terrain far more layered than the traditional realms of cardboard and dice. Cannon fire is easy to gamify. Racial trauma, to nobody’s surprise, is not.

These are uncommon aspirations for a tabletop author. The board game industry is booming—the total market grew by 6.5 percent in 2022—but the hobby itself tends to be politically inert. By most mainstream audits, a good board game is quantified by the interesting ways it allows players to score points. The thematic resonance of the setting is usually pushed to the fringes. When a board game intersects with history—even harrowing history—it does so only to provide a one-dimensional backdrop for the card-playing and tile-laying. The lack of mindfulness can sometimes be baffling: One of the most acclaimed tabletop games of all time, Puerto Rico, takes place on the namesake island during the height of European imperial power, when merchant ships poured into the Caribbean. Performing well in the game requires you to develop plantations of coffee, tobacco, and sugar in the verdant interior, which, historically speaking, were worked by slaves. Puerto Rico, of course, never acknowledges those crimes against humanity—it’s only meant to be digested as a game, rather than a text. Nothing more, nothing less.

Wehrle has spent a career attempting to bridge that contradiction. He is of the opinion that those traditional conceptions about game design are misguided, and more generally, that the tabletop format can aim much higher in both ambition and scope. “I’m not interested in whether or not a game is fun,” he told me. “I think we want something to be compelling, and the things that compel us exist on a wide emotional spectrum.” That means if a quartet of players can feel the nuances of Reconstruction—if they can sink into its horror around a kitchen table, with a board game that truly possesses a point of view—then perhaps they will better understand where we came from.

Wehrle is an academic at heart. He studied journalism and English at the University of Indiana before entering the graduate school orbit at the University of Texas, where he completed a dissertation in 2017 titled “The Narrative Dimensions of Empire: Time and Space in the British Imperial Imaginary, 1819–1855.” It was in those dry, empty months of higher learning that he first dipped his toe into tabletop authorship. Wehrle was playing a board game called Pax Porfiriana, which simulates the 1910 Mexican Revolution. That inspired him to make a similar game about Afghanistan during the fall of the nation’s Indigenous Durrani Empire. Most of the scholarship on the topic focused on the British and Russian subjugation of Central Asia throughout the 19th century, and Wehrle wanted to turn that on its head.

“I couldn’t imagine telling that story and making it sound like James Bond garbage,” said Wehrle. “Suddenly it clicked for me: What if instead of centering the British perspective, I made a game about state formation, where the Brits and Russians are auxiliary actors? It’s the same kind of impulse that might inform an academic journal article for my graduate career, but a board game seemed like a good way to sort through those ideas.”

The resulting project, Pax Pamir, puts players in the role of Afghan warlords who jostle for influence through the inevitable partnership with the vulturous forces circling the region. It is an attempt to depict colonialism from the ground up—players must negotiate with the seemingly limitless manpower pouring through the borders, scoring pyrrhic victories as a more glacial sense of impending doom settles around the table. All this makes you think—have you truly won if you cross the finish line while cozying up to the British? The ambiguity you’re left with is the point. When Wehrle is at his best as a designer, he’s wielding all the typical ingredients of board gaming to articulate a much larger—and sometimes grimmer—truth.

“There is something dramatic about a board game,” explained Wehrle. “They’re theater exercises where the players are writing and performing for each other. That’s so intimate. And when you’re in those really intimate spaces, you can capture a little bit of sympathy for the past. To me, that’s at the same level of what a novel can do.”

It is an audacious raison d’être, one that has earned Wehrle a ton of admirers and a handful of critics along the way. In 2022, he published the second edition of his magnum opus, John Company, which unflinchingly examines the early gangsters of capitalism. Players take control of the aristocratic families underwriting the East India Company—the villainous trading cartel backed by the English crown that dominated global finance for more than two centuries. Points are scored by guaranteeing a lavish retirement for your clan members, which can only be achieved through the brutalization, subjugation, and extraction of the cartel’s colonial assets in India.

The subtext of the gameplay is unsurprisingly horrific. One player will be in charge of the East India Company’s vast standing army, and will marshal troops through the lingering bastions of resistance in the country in order to open up fresh pathways to greater plunder. (From there, they will grow and export opium to China, strengthening the company’s grip on the region.) Another player will serve as the prime minister, who will be passing draconian, game-altering laws to either maximize profits or undercut the others sitting around the board. (One of those laws references the conscripting of “Sepoys,” a colloquial term for native Indian recruits among British forces.) All the while, you’ll be lining each other’s pockets with bribes and favors, with a pettiness that can quickly destabilize the economy and plunge the company into financial ruin, ending the game prematurely. All told, John Company is a game about how dysfunctional and atavistic capitalistic systems can become in supposedly aureate high societies. Wehrle himself considers it a satire.

John Company was widely acclaimed when it was released. Smithsonian magazine named it one of the best board games of the year, and it was nominated for a prestigious Charles S. Roberts wargaming award. But due to the fraught nature of the subject matter, John Company is also a game that’s bound by an apt content warning printed on the first page of the rulebook. (“The game wrestles with many of the key themes of imperialism and globalization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and how those developments were felt domestically,” it reads. “As such, this game might not be suitable for all players. Please make sure everyone in your group consents to this exploration before playing.”) In practice, that means John Company has alienated many of the board gamers who have come into contact with it, most of whom are unable to make peace with its fundamental tension: Can I really stomach an afternoon embodying these bastards?

“Around 50 percent of the people I’ve played John Company with said they never wanted to play it again,” said Tom Brewster, a board game critic at Shut Up & Sit Down, in a video essay about the game (which he ultimately recommends). “To many people this game uses horror as its playground. It revels in a period of history so monstrously evil that to even represent it is an act of violence. No matter its intentions, it cannot escape the gravity of that terror.”

Brewster’s point is further interlaced with the fact that Wehrle is a white American man who simply does not possess the same connective tissue to the injustices of empire as those who were forced to build them. The vast majority of tabletop designers fall into the same demographic. Exactly one of the top 25 board games ever made, as computed by the community database, was developed by a woman. And board gamers have earned the right to be suspicious of designers who are fascinated by these questionable settings. (Phil Eklund, a notorious wingnut who published and co-designed the first edition of Pax Pamir in 2015, included in the box a short essay he wrote titled “A Defense of British Colonialism,” which has been removed in all subsequent printings.) But Wehrle has also maintained that John Company is an anti-colonial project made by someone who is vested in postcolonial theory. The game’s portrayal of the East India Company is deeply unflattering—and often powerful in its condemnation—which is spelled out in the multiple articles he’s penned about his design praxis.

In fact, Wehrle has learned to make peace with the fact that once a game leaves his hands, it’s no longer up to him how it is interpreted. Case in point: Wehrle told me that toward the end of John Company’s development, one of his testers asked him if a prominent British reactionary—like Boris Johnson or Niall Ferguson—would understand the game’s acid contempt, or worse, read it as a profane celebration of the company’s legacy. “Honestly, I don’t know,” he said. “Eventually I had to decide that that’s between them and their god. I can’t possibly stop a bad actor from misreading my game.”

For what it’s worth, John Company has found a massive international audience of fans—it’s not a niche project. When the game’s second edition launched its Kickstarter it reaped a ridiculous $787,000 in funding. This is business as usual for Wehrle. Root, his best-known game—which is far less political than John Company but still depicts a bloody cycle of insurgency and occupation, albeit with adorable woodland critters taking the place of the combatants—routinely generates millions of backer dollars for its various expansions. A second printing of Pax Pamir, meanwhile, took in around $400,000, and Oath, Wehrle’s game about feudal statecraft, earned $1.1 million. The windfalls all seem to buttress Wehrle’s thesis that there is plenty of commercial space for highly esoteric, and highly confrontational, tabletop designs, and Efka Bladukas, who runs the board game–centric media brand No Pun Included, believes this is rooted in a desire for validation. If you consider yourself an avid board gamer, you may often find yourself thirsting for reassurance that the hobby is not as juvenile as it may appear from the outside. Wehrle’s projects—with their big ideas and substantial assertions about the world we live in—provide that in spades.

“There is a negative feeling attached to tabletop games, and that feeling is shame,” said Bladukas. “How do you explain to your friends that board games can be serious? That they aren’t just for kids? So I think we’ve always wanted to have games that dealt with deeper themes, so we can present them to others as a serious medium.”

Wehrle is set to push the envelope even further later this year with the release of Molly House, which is a collaboration with first-time designer Jo Kelly. The game aims to conjure the cloistered queer culture of Georgian England. To win, one must thrive under the vigilant nose of the state—to live free, or die. (“Throw grand masquerades and cruise back alleys while evading moralistic constables who seek to destroy your community,” reads the description.
“Be careful, there may even be informers in your midst!”) The game was a finalist for 2021’s Zenobia Award—a board game design competition open to anyone with a nonwhite or nonmale background to encourage more diversity in the field. Wehrle is one of the founders of the award, which is how he first met Kelly, who is nonbinary. He thought their idea was brilliant. Shortly after the tournament concluded, he reached out to them and inquired about a potential partnership.

Two years later, after several more iterations and prototypes, Molly House launched with a $50,000 funding goal. By the end of the campaign, the game had crossed $280,000 in support. Tonally, Molly House is a game of subterfuge and self-actualization—”molly houses” was the name given to the underground salons and pubs where queer men could meet in relative privacy in London’s 18th-century nightlife. To win, players will need to accumulate as much “joy” as possible, which is counterbalanced by the ever-present threat of “guilt,” two vectors that defined queer identity through much of antiquity. Like John Company and Pax Pamir, the game is destined to create a provocative environment around the table. Kelly told me that Molly House also possesses a hidden traitor element—over the course of a game, a player might decide to sell out their comrades to the puritanical agents prowling the streets, which is in line with the era’s actual history. (Molly houses, and the folks who visited them, were frequent targets of prosecution from the local constabulary.) It is rare that a board game attempts to articulate the tenuousness of queer life in a cruel world, but that’s exactly what inspired Kelly.

“I think [the game] contains analogies that connect back to the queer community today,” they said. “Think of the queer people who have turned against the trans community. We are still sometimes throwing people under the bus. There’s still a point to be made about that.”

Kelly admitted that they were initially wary about bringing Wehrle into the fold. But Wehrle reassured them, many times, that they had final say on every decision that entered the Molly House box. “I was involved in every part of the process,” said Kelly. “Without those assurances, I don’t think I would’ve gone down this route.”

The teamwork has obviously paid off. Molly House is destined to be a hit, thanks in no small part to Wehrle’s brand. He considers the game to be the latest chapter in an informal series of ideas. Pax Pamir was about empire, and John Company was about institutions, while Molly House intends to be about society, or, as it is put on the game’s Kickstarter page, “an intimate game about the very idea of intimacy.” Wehrle is remarkably unperturbed about authoring these stories about other people’s pain. He is urgent, almost maniacal, about his creative endeavors.

“I really get the sense that if I don’t make these games, they aren’t going to be done by anybody,” he said. “If there was a robust world where a ton of people were sorting through the East India Company through board games, I’d be the first to step aside and say that I don’t need to be in this conversation. But there isn’t. We need more games about difficult subjects, not less.”

Molly House is rumbling toward a release date sometime in the fall. Afterward, Wehrle will likely continue to explore the radical outer reaches of board game design, coming up with fascinating new ways to rock the boat, for a growing network of fans. “I think players are mature enough to sort through their feelings about these difficult subjects,” said Wehrle.
The cardboard will only get heavier from here.

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