John Company: a board game inspired by the age of colonization

January 23, 2020 18:01
John Company is a difficult, if complicated, board game, but provides endless hours of fun and excitement.  Photo: Hiew Chok Sien

John Company is a board game designed by Cole Wehrle for Sierra Madre Games. In this game, players try to win points by raking in profits for their dynasties and the British Empire. Be forewarned: this is not your average, light-and-easy family game. 

The game takes inspiration from the British East India Company, a joint-stock entity that eventually colonized large parts of the Indian subcontinent, parts of Southeast Asia, and Hong Kong for the British Empire.

In the game, players become dynasties with members working for the company. Together, they help the company prosper. This is not a cooperative game, however.

Your ultimate goal is to become 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.

When a member of your family retires from the company, you may spend money to send them on new endeavors. It is mainly through these, called Prizes, that you score points.

You want the company to do well, because only then can you afford to divert funds to your family. If the company goes bankrupt, it's game over.

There are four phases in a round. In Phase 1, each 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, etc.

Phases 2 and 3 are related to company operations. Each department gets to do something. 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. What the department can do is limited by the amount of money (red and white chips) it has. After all the departments have done their stuff, the company, hopefully, makes money, and so do the families.

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

John Company is not an easy game to understand or play. There are many rules, and I think the rulebook could have been better written.

You have to be mentally prepared to play this game. I did a two-player game, but that's probably not the best way to play it. I did get to experience how precarious the company's situation is, but there is little negotiation between two players. It was a simple zero-sum game between the two of us.

I imagine in a four-player game (the game supports up to six players), the relationships among the players will be much more interesting. There will be more opportunities for collaborations and temporary alliances.

The game gave me a big shock. In the early game, I played with no sense of danger or urgency. 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 rolls of the dice could bankrupt the company. Indian politics was not stable at all. I should not have spent the company's money like it grew on trees.

Families must handle the company's finances much more carefully. They have to be prepared for bad events. They need to plan much more meticulously. 

I realized I had been a little sloppy. I learned it was possible to look ahead and prepare for eventualities.

In 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. In every round, you brace for a major HR shake-up.

Indeed, you should plan ahead if you want to play well. You need to think of what could happen following a 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 also have to figure out whether each department will have enough funds to act. You have to consider the interests of each of the department heads and anticipate how they might act.

John Company is a unique board game. It takes you through history, making it a highly educational game.

It also gives players a lot of excitement as they are given a virtual hands-on experience on how to run a powerful and historically important enterprise, the British East India Company.

It will probably be more exciting to play John Company with multiple players as the negotiations and interactions will be more complicated. And more difficult.

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The front and back of the family card with red and white chips used as  money in the game. Every department in the company has it own budget. Photo: Hiew Chok Sien
One of the company's procurement departments specializes in buying ships. When you invest in a shipyard, the money paid by the company goes to your pocket. Photo: Hiew Chok Sien

A boardgame enthusiast and blogger ( based in Kuala Lumpur.