Reviewed by Pevans

JOHN COMPANY (Sierra Madre Games, 1-6 players, aged 12+, 3 hours; $54)


A game about the British East India Company sounded fascinating, so I jumped at the chance to try John Company when Ralph Anderson suggested it at the Gathering. With Ralph leading the way, all four of us worked together to ensure the success of the Company and shared the (excellent) profits. Of course, the man who’d played before won the game, but it was a great experience. Since then, I’ve played the game several times and discovered that it doesn’t always work this way…

The game actually provides several scenarios. I’ve given the solo game a go, but otherwise have only played the “Early Company” game. This charts the company from the beginning and ends after six rounds (about 90 years). The “Campaign” game lasts for 10 rounds (at most) and includes the possibility that the company will have its monopoly (of trade east of Africa) revoked. This would bring in a whole section of the rules that I have not explored, with players running individual companies – the starting point for the “Post-Monopoly” scenario.

As designed by Cole Wehrle, John Company is a complex game so, even glossing over the details, my review is going to be lengthy. Please bear with me.

In most scenarios, the players represent families, whose members (wooden cubes in players’ colours) work for John Company. Ideally, they want to get into jobs that will let them share in the company’s wealth and then retire to take prestigious (read victory point-scoring) ‘prizes’. The small board is cleverly laid out, showing the different offices in the company with several strands running through them to show the sequence of play in different phases of the round.

However, the first thing that happens in a round is that players take a “Family” action. This allows them to add cubes to one of the boxes on the board that has an ornate blue border (the first strand). This may have a cost (the game has £1, £3 and £10 chips for money and players start with a little) or a limit to the number of cubes they can place. In the centre of the board is one of these blue-edged boxes: each cube in here is a share in the company and costs money (the amount depends on the current share price).

Like most things in the game, buying a share has all sorts of implications. To start with, it puts some cash into the Company’s coffers. Then, each share has a vote when electing a new Chairman. What’s more, each shareholding player may nominate and be nominated as Chairman. Finally, every time the Company pays a dividend, each share earns £1 – in good times this is a useful revenue, but will the Chairman pay out if someone else has more shares?

The round proper starts by filling any vacancies in the Company’s offices. This follows the blue ribbon that wiggles round the board (the second strand), starting with the Chairman. As I’ve already mentioned, the Chairman is elected from the shareholders. There is a slightly fiddly procedure for this which I won’t go into. A new Chairman’s first job (after dishing out any money that’s accrued from share purchases) is to appoint the ‘Executive’ offices, following that blue ribbon.

The “Director of Trade”, the first of the Executive offices, then fills the three “Purchasing” offices, which are “Senior” positions. This is the first reason why the Director of Trade is an influential position. Apart from the Chairman, the cubes that go into the Executive offices are promoted from the Senior offices. The Senior office-holders – and any remaining Executives – come from the pool of “Writers” (clerks, effectively). (The Writers box is one of the places players can add cubes as their Family action.)

Who gets promoted brings us to one of the neat features of the game: promises. If a player promotes their own cube in preference to other players, they owe them a favour. They give them one of their cubes as a “promise”. At the end of the game. any promises still held by other players cost you 2 points. However, you may always buy them back (for £2), swap them for another cube or do the holder a favour (such as promoting their cube ahead of others). In fact, the rules allow players to trade all sorts of things, but note that agreements are not binding.

Once vacancies have been filled, it’s time for each office holder to do their job, following the broad red stripe in a circuit of the board (third strand). The Purchasing Officers don’t have much leeway: they must carry out their “Purchase” action, buying as much as they can afford from their “Treasury” and buying the cheapest available. Players who’ve bought Shipyards and Factories (as their Family action) make Ships and Trade goods/Guns, respectively, cheaper for the Company and earn £1 for each if it’s used. Ships and goods purchased go to the Director of Trade to allocate (the second thing that makes this an influential position) while Guns go to the Military Affairs Office to assign.

As well as Guns, Military Affairs may have Officers (players’ cubes placed in the previous round’s Family action) available. Both go to any or all of the trading offices (Bengal, Bombay and Madras), forming the army available to the “President” of that office. The Director of Trade then distributes ships and trade goods to the Presidents. First, however, any players with Captains (players’ cubes placed in the previous round’s Family action) available, may buy ships. This is done in the same way as the Company’s purchases but paid from personal money. These ships, with a cube on top to show ownership, also go to the Director of Trade to assign. (Captains provide income for players each round, so they’re generally a good idea.)

This brings us to the big three: the Presidents, each of whom has the same options. To begin with, each position has the card for the appropriate Indian region in front of them. This signifies that the Company can trade with this region. (The cards for other regions are set to one side of the board as these regions are “closed” to trade.) A President has three actions available and may choose to do all, some or none of them, but must carry them out in a specific order. The key thing about these actions is that they are not certain. To succeed, the President must roll dice and take the lowest single result: 1 and 2 are success; 5 or 6 are failure (and the President is dismissed); 3 and 4 have no effect.

Clearly, to have a greater chance of success, players need to roll more dice. But, however many dice they roll, they cannot guarantee success, which is a nice touch. The general rule is that dice cost money – paid from the office’s Treasury. There may also be a defensive value to the action which reduces the number of dice. Thus, a President may “Campaign” – invade a region. They start with dice equal to the strength of their army (officers + guns) less the defence value printed on the region’s card. Then they may buy “mercenaries” to increase the number of dice. A successful campaign brings the target region under Company control and establishes a new (Senior) office to administer this – in the gift of the President.

A President’s second action is “Open Trade”. Success brings the target card to the Presidency so that the Company can trade with that region. Finally, the “Sail” action is actually trading. If successful, the President can use Ships and/or Trade goods to meet the demand shown on the region card, generating revenue for the Company (and themselves). This is the main way the Company makes money so it’s crucial for the Company that the Sail actions work and, longer term, that there are more trade opportunities.

I described the Presidents as “the big three” because these are the posts that earn the Company its money and expand its influence. However, any President can only do this if they have the money (provided by the Chairman), military (provided by Military Affairs) and ships (provided by the Director of Trade) hence the need for co-operation in the game if the Company is to thrive and expand. (Trade first, then conquer is clearly the way to go.) Unless, of course, members of your family hold all those jobs…

The Company’s revenue is marked on a central track and the Chairman must spend it. First, they must pay the Company’s costs: officers, guns and player Captains all cost money. (Building a large army gets very expensive.) If the share price has reached the bottom of its short track, the Company must pay a dividend, pushing up the share price and giving cash to shareholders. Any money left can be used for more dividends and/or shared out between the offices’ Treasuries. For the Company to survive longer term, money has to go to the Presidents to finance next round’s trade. Purchasing officers need cash to buy more ships, goods and guns to increase the trading and conquering opportunities. There’s never enough.

The final stage of the round is to work through some random events. An “Evening Post” card is turned over and this tells players how many regions of India have events. The region cards have a table and one event takes place according to a die roll. This can cause the region to revolt (bad news if it’s controlled by the Company), close it to trade or flip it into or out of Depression. These can have a big effect on the game though cash in the President’s Treasury can often be spent to mitigate this.

The next thing that happens is that Company officers may retire. This is crucial as this is the main way players can score victory points. When an officer retires, the cube can be placed on one of the “Prize” cards (a random selection laid out at the start of the game), for a price. In effect, players are using their money to buy points. However, this is not something players can choose to do, it’s all down to a die roll for each officer. This can be hugely frustrating. If you’ve got a pile of cash, as you should have in the last rounds, it does you no good if you don’t roll the right dice.

Finally, there’s an event in England. This can be a Bill in front of Parliament – effectively changing the rules (scoring points for factories and shipyards, for example). Players get to vote on this, using another fiddly mechanism. A little tidying up and it’s time for the next round. The game can end early if the Company’s reduced to trading with one region or none, then India rebels and the Company is driven out. Alternatively, the game ends if the Company goes bust (in effect, runs out of money at least two rounds in a row).

So, what have we got here? First, the Company needs to produce substantial income every round or it will collapse. Thus, the game really needs to start with co-operative play and even then, unlucky dice rolls can wreck things. With competitive players, whoever thinks they are in front (and it can be more than one player) can deliberately crash the Company to ensure they win; one of my games lasted just three rounds. Second, the luck element, particularly when office-holders retire, is huge. All of this stems, I think, from John Company being more of a simulation than a game. Much of what is in the game is there to reproduce what happened, or to show what could have happened, in history.

I should mention the solo game, since I have played this. The aim here is to conquer all eight Indian regions within 12 rounds (call me Clive). Most of the game’s mechanisms are irrelevant; it’s just about doing enough trade to finance an army and more trade to conquer regions and then hang on to them when they try to revolt. Essentially, the game becomes a long sequence of dice rolls. If enough of them go well, you win. If they don’t, you lose. 

The bottom line for me is that playing John Company is an experience, full of interesting events and incidents. However, it’s only fun if all players are prepared to work together (initially at least) – and the dice don’t let you down. It gets 7/10 on my highly subjective scale.- – – – – – – Pevans

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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