A review and discussion of the educational use of John Company (second edition), designed by Cole Wehrle and released by Wehrlegig Games
The semester has already started, and I’m setting up a list of optional games that we can play with students, should they wish to join some additional activities outside the classes and seminars. They usually do, as it provides a more relaxed space (including regarding time constraints) to explore longer or more asymmetric games that do not fit well in the class format. Last year, Root was a very well received choice. For this year, I am thinking about introducing John Company (second edition). I know that this game can be quite divisive, but even if it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I think it can create value for students. A lot has been written about the game, so this is not to be a full review, but rather a look at it from a teaching perspective. So, how can it be used in class?
Running a business 101
To briefly summarise the idea of the game, the players take the roles of families involved in controlling East India Company (EIC). On the one hand, they should be working together to make the company profitable and shareholders happy. Since these player-controlled families are mostly also shareholders, you could expect that players cooperate. In the end, what’s good for one, is good for everyone! On the other hand, the family members occupy different positions in the company and, well, just want to lavishly retire to some prestigious estate. And to get there, family interests often matter more than those of the enterprise.
The game includes a lot of business meetings (i.e. bargaining over positions, actions, and whether to allow nepotism or not). It does involve a significant amount of luck, where players usually need to spend money to increase their chances of success (i.e. the number of dice rolled). Outside of the intricacies of running a company, two more factors must be considered. First, it is politics. One family always whispers into the ear of the prime minister, but each can cast votes to influence government’s decisions. This influence can come from a number of sources, such as workshops or, of course, money. The second important aspect that is more outside the control of families is the events in India, where the company value comes from (i.e. is extracted). Here, anything from windfall to rebellions and foreign invasions can happen, affecting the fortunes of EIC, often for the worse.
In the end, the winner is the player who accumulates the most victory points. You can’t take your wealth to the grave, but you can build a reputation behind that can outlive. The game reflects this through power (which can come from luxuries, workshops, passed laws, military trophies etc.), family-owned shares in the company, and some other sources. That is, unless the company fails, which is, admittedly, quite likely. With strong incentives for a player to prioritise their own family interests over those of the firm, there is always a risk that someone will actively work towards bringing company standing down. Then, shares in company become harmful and the angry British society decides (randomly in the game) whom to blame.
This is the gist of the game. Of course, there are way more specifics, such as trading, fitting ships, deregulation, and other aspects, but that would require a more mechanics-focused review than the one you are reading. So, what makes a game relevant for my course?
The regulatory framework
The students taking the class are enrolled in the Economics and Politics bachelor’s programme, and it is their sixth semester. Therefore:
They already have had courses on business, management, decision making, and principles of finance. Therefore, they can connect the business simulation aspects of John Company to their studies.
The students have had courses in political science and economics. This is relevant, since John Company is political/political economy game at its heart, asking questions that are broader than just the relationship between the interests of a firm and its shareholders.
Therefore, discussion of the game could focus on these two axes. First, business and corporate governance. Second, the political economy. Framing the game in this way will allow the players to connect the content clearly with their studies. More specifically, the following elements can be highlighted to inform the discussions:
shareholder value and externalities
link between business and politics
dealing with uncertainties
Shareholder value and corporate social responsibility
In my view, this is likely to be one of the more interesting discussions. The game puts a very clear distinction between shareholder value maximization (that they can then try and translate to reputation) and the extractive regime that this means for India. While the events in India are determined externally, and players have at least somewhat limited control over it, leading a discussion can put focus on the nature of business activities and their externalities. An issue that sadly remains too critical and broad, ranging from labour and living conditions to climate. Victory conditions in the game are structured in a way that these externalities can be only in a background of strategizing (i.e. assessing the likelihood of a rebellion), but leaves this important aspect in clear display on the physical map, with empires rising, the British armies being overrun, and trade orders closing
The players’ interests will also quickly diverge. Since in the end, they only care about their family reputation, the governance becomes complicated. The Chairman (or the CEO in modern parlance) has some control over firm’s financial decisions, but if they want to take on a lot of debt, shareholders step in. Then, after setting the financials, it’s out of Chairman’s hands. It is the other C-level and mid-level managers that must make decisions in their domains. The interdependencies between these different roles in the company in terms of who can directly affect whose decisions and who can appoint whom make the simulation of the corporate governance aspect another issue to be discussed. Comparisons can be drawn to other companies, modern structures, etc. Again, raising questions of difference but also of similarity.
Politics as the continuation business with other means
Another aspect of the game that should resonate well with the students is its Parliament Meets phase. Here, the legislation is being passed, and the influence of business on laws. The player controlling the Prime Minister has the most agency over selecting what law to put to vote in the parliament, but each other player can then influence the vote. You have a workshop? Well, you can influence the vote through that. You have money? Say no more, one pound is one vote! Then, of course, you can make a deal with the others to either support the government or to come out of the situation as the leader of the opposition.
Newly adopted policies can also affect taxation, so if you have many shipyards, you certainly do not want to pay for them. And sometimes a window tax can really hurt. Since players are likely to have different constellations of assets, each will be affected by policies differently. This leads to a coalition building exercise through exchanges, promises (or threats). Counting those votes can uncannily resemble discussions in modern parliaments, where the power between the government and the opposition is relatively balanced.
I expect that the way the game simulates the relationship between business and politics will also open room for discussion on the nature of democracy. We touch upon this issue in my Comparative Politics class when we discuss the class distribution in modern societies and the policy outcomes. First, how does distribution of industries affect the vote (especially through presence and control of shipyards, workshops, and luxuries). Then, what role do the concentrated wealth and power play? While it can take many forms, the game distills it to one in the form of EIC, making the players experience and, crucially, enable it. It is not the most comfortable game, when you look beyond the mechanics, is it?
Charting those uncertain waters
Throughout the game, the players are consistently exposed to risk through many dice rolls. Most of them can be mitigated by investment (i.e. spending money to get more dice), but there always remains a chance that an action will result in failure. Or that your family members will keep their positions for ages, limiting you to only a handful of pensioners (and if you give them nice prizes, they can help you secure your reputation). Or maybe, they will all need to retire, when you are out of money… All of this requires players to actively engage and manage risks. You cannot rely on calculating the path to victory, as there are always tradeoffs, and each pound invested in additional dice is taken from elsewhere, such as your ‘retirement fund’.
In addition to risk management through resources, players must make decisions under uncertainty of what is going to happen in India. While discs and the elephant can provide some indication, there is no certainty by any means. Therefore, a player is put in a position where they have to consider how risk averse they are. Does their family (and sometimes company) focused greed take precedence over the risk of company failure? How do they assess expected utilities of different actions under this uncertainty? Since expected utility is a concept the students know quite well from their economics and game theory classes, this provides a one more avenue for exploration, leading to a discussion on games as a modelling platform and its differences from other, more standard ways to build models in social sciences.
Challenges in classroom use
John Company is a complex game. When I first played it in its first edition form, I had no proper idea what I was doing till the very end. So, how could it be made to work in a university environment?
First, due to the complexity and length I will not use it within the core class/seminar hours. At most, I would have three for everything starting with the rules, going to the game, and most importantly ending with a discussion. More flexibility is needed. Therefore, the game will have to take place outside of the scheduled hours, where whether we finish faster or take longer will matter less.
Second, this format of playing a game outside of the scheduled classes is not mandatory, and those who come will have the strongest interest in playing the game. Due to its complexity and the type of engagement that it requires, with significant debating among the players, this no pressure on attendance is important. Since the total number of students in this class will be ten this semester, it’s fine if not everyone comes and it’s fine if everyone comes. The latter scenario is of course more challenging, as the game fits up to six players, but some families could be controlled by pairs of players, each responsible for different offices controlled by that family.
Third, complex rules are a challenge. Based on past experience, an assumption is that most of the students are playing board games, but not at this complexity level. This is a likely challenge, but it can be mitigated in three ways:
Not running John Company at the start of the semester, introducing other, increasingly complex games before it.
Using the procedural nature of the game to explain its rules and warning in advance that this is how the game will be taught.
Limiting rules exposure through running events in India phase with just key takeaways explained and not including Deregulation rules (also not discussed in this piece).
Fourth, helping along with the strategies and discussions to make sure that participants have opportunities to catch up and do not feel left out. Noting that contributing to company failure can also be a good strategy for a particular player.
Fifth, discussing the topic of the game beforehand and outlining key points of discussions that will follow. This should help immerse players in the game and help them better understand the actors involved and their own position within it.
I am sure, there will be plenty more challenges that will emerge before and during the game. The course kicks off tomorrow. Let’s see how it goes!