Topic of the Week: Cole Wehrle

With @Acacia 's permission:

The designer most notable for designing Root: A Game of Woodland Might and Right - currently at Rank 30 in BGG. Wehrle got a limited number of unique titles but he releases a game every 1 or 2 years. He first designed Pax Pamir 1st ed in 2015, and went on to design other games. Currently, his latest outputs, Arcs and Molly House, are still in production.

What are your thoughts?

Pax Pamir 1e (2015)
An Infamous Traffic (2016)
John Company 1e (2017)
Root (2018)
Pax Pamir 2e (2019)
Oath (2021)
John Company 2e (2022)
Arcs (2024)
Molly House (2024)

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I’ve not played one of those. :eyes:

I nearly backed arcs but backed out before they announced the 2 players mode.

My intuition is that he probably has small truck with one player stuff and the root one exists just to serve a market.

He did a fun talk on king making which sort of feeds into this.

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I’m a fan. I like what he does, and I like how he thinks and writes about games, and game design.

I have this ill-defined idea that I don’t particularly like the influence of Leder games’ development on his designs, so I seem to prefer the games he’s published himself (Pax Pamir 2e, John Company 2e), to the games published by Leder (Root), but Oath seems to sit in the middle somewhere. Anyway, it’s partly for that reason that I’m waiting to see how Arcs turns out instead of backing it.

I haven’t sought out his earlier games, and Molly House wasn’t his design and didn’t sound particularly mechanically interesting to me, despite the intriguing theme.

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I have played Root physically once at a con, so it was a learning game where I learned how to suck at being the Aerie. I have the app, though, so have played a number of games on it with different factions, but just against the AI. It is fine, and would probably be better with real people.

I played two or three games of Oath via PbF here, which probably isn’t the ideal way to play it. Unfortunately, I did not care for it, finding it too reliant on the card suits you draw, and it felt very easy to get locked out of doing much with just a modicum of bad draws. And somehow, while I liked the art for Root, the same style in Oath just didn’t work for me.

Have not played any others, though interested in trying Pax Pamir 2nd.

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I’m glad Cole exists. I think his games are interesting thoughtful and very clever.

However, they’re not for me. I find them all quite fragile and each player has to balance another player or the game can fall apart.

Pax Pamir is my favourite and it plays much quicker than I expected. I wanted to love Root, but the fragility was an issue and we couldn’t commit to playing it 10-15 times with the same group.

I admit, JoCo and Oath baffled me.

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Root

So my first encounter with his games was the SUSD Root review which convinced me to not buy Root.
I am unclear why despite that I now own Root and several expansions and the only multiplayer game I ever played was a 2 player with a bot and my partner.

I’ve tried grokking Root from playing the (very good) app and failed. I lost every single game to the computer.
I played a few of the Clockwork Automatons and that went better. It was actually fun. I have an appreciation for the design even if I fail to grok how to play the game.

Pax Pamir 2

The next thing that came along for me was Pax Pamir 2nd. My first game of this was here on the forums and it was very memorable. I found it stressful to plan my moves but also very satisfying. It was a 3 player game with @Benkyo and I think @chrislear (I am not sure but I think this was on the old forums, so I cant go look). I love the card play with the map, the changing of the suits the bonus actions. But same as Root the game and how to play well is opaque. It is a game I play from turn to turn because the gamestate can change so much.

I managed to get this to the virtual table with my local group twice and if we all had more time together in that particular configuration, it might be played more often. It is fragile and I still love it.

The Wakhan Bot though is everything I hate about automas. I can’t for the live of me figure out how to anticipate anything it is doing. And I have a difficult time reading the cards right and taking the bot actions, so much so that I spend more time on the bot turns than on mine sometimes. I recently tried again on BGA where the bot is run by the server… and it was horrible. This game comes alive only from the human interaction.

Oath

Next came Oath. Now Oath is weird. I agree that it has its flaws that come through quickly. I also played in that forum campaign and while I seem to have enjoyed it more than some of the other players, I understand why it fell flat for some.

My best experience with Oath was playing 3 handed solos. It’s been a while since I did that because it takes a lot of time and brainspace that I rarely have available. But I feel that Oath as a purely competitive game is not living up to its potential. When I played 3 handed, I instinctively went for some “cooperation” (or maybe intrigue among the players, imagined alliances etc) to tell a better story. And story the game was telling was not unlike Earthborne Rangers, except more emergent, more ephemeral… and that is an awesome achievement. I wish the regular multiplayer could be like that but unless people agree to play semi-cooperatively “for the drama” this is never going to work out on a table with different people. My current computer is still named after one of the cards from the game “The Great Spire” which it took me several games to get into play :slight_smile: I really want to have the time to play a lengthy campaign of this one on my local table…

I think it was @lalunaverde who recently sent me a link to a variant that allowed for competitive longterm play by tracking who won which games with which dominant suits and ending the campaign if the archive for 1 suit was empty… and declaring the overall winner the person who “most pushed” that suit.

As for the Clockwork Prince automa… there is a reason I’d rather play 3 handed solo. It is a nightmare of a flowchart. I don’t know where Wehrle comes up with these solo modes… but it has to be a very dark place.

John Company 2

John Company 2 is on my shelves. More as a collector’s item. It took forever to get the German version… I studied the rules, played a multihanded solo and think it is yet another immensely fascinating studie in history and human interaction and I could get this to the table with the same people I played Pax Pamir 2 with–but it requires me to know the rules well enough for teaching and compared to JoCo2, Pax Pamir 2 feels like a “simple game”.

So if I could keep only one of his games, it would definitely be Pax Pamir 2 because it is the most “playable” and “most likely to get to a table”. Next up is definitely Oath. Root is almost to the sell pile. JoCo is almost ready to be marked as a “collector’s item” (aka won’t sell but will likely never play)

All of Wehrle’s games need people to get away from pure mechanics and invest something more into the game. And I feel that this “something” is very hard to grasp for many people who play purely mechanical Euros most of the time (aka my locals). To get the most out of these games you need to interact with the other players in ways that is often closer to RPGs than to boardgames. This also makes for some potentially very stressful games. And so however much I appreciate all these designs, I can rarely play them.

PS: I backed Arcs. But not Molly House. The latter seemed to be yet another one for the unplayed stack. And these days I think I would have waited for Arcs to hit retail.

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The only one of these I’ve played is John Company 1e, in 2 player mode - and even when we tried explicitly cooperating the whole thing came apart in a death spiral.

Many of the subjects interest me but every time I read a review I get a feeling of “oh, right, I’m really not going to get on with this”.

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I agree that there is a notable difference between designs he is doing for Leder and his own.

But I can only speculate what makes it so.

Root was probably made with conventional commercial success in mind with a broad appeal through cute animals, an intriguing tagline and an “fantasy” world as opposed to history.

I have not played any of his first edition designs of PaxP/JoCo/Infamous Traffic. But seeing how the two 2nd editions apparently changed substantially, I feel like working with Leder may have been a catalyst? If only for providing the financial means to revisit those older designs.

I thought it might be interesting to check who edited the games and what else they have worked on.

Editor for Pax Pamir 2 & both JoCos

Editor for Root:

Publishers are also interesting

  • Pax P 1 + JoCo 1 are Sierra Madre (now ION, PP1 also lists Phil Eklund as co-designer, probably because he invented the Pax series and likely acted as editor on this one)
  • Infamous Traffic is Hollandspiele (weirdly he has artist credits on “This Guilty Land” also Hollandspiele)
  • Pax P 2 + JoCo 2 os Wehrlegig
  • The rest ist Leder

There seems to be a whole gang of boardgame-people interested in games with ambitious games in historic settings that are more often than not a hefty part “experience” (Amabel Holland and Spacebiff seem to belong to this gang as well)

I haven’t played any yet, but:

I’m very grateful that something as beautiful and thoughtful as Pax Pamir 2nd exists and I’d probably love it.

Same for John Company 2e - the art, the maybe uncomfortable role of playing the baddies, great. I am absolutely not paying £90-£100 for it but it’s good that someone made it.

Every review or mention of Root says that it’s totally unbalanced, often not fun and just very difficult. Nice concept, but it’s not enough to make asymmetric armies: they have to be asymmetric and balanced, and in Root they’re not. (I mean, 1979 Dune isn’t balanced either but everyone knows they’re in for a crazy mean time, it’s not marketed the same way as Root).

So overall I think it’s brilliant that a designer is out there taking big risks but also working very hard on production values. It means that anything from them in the future is at least going to be exciting and worth investigating.

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Where we diverge seems to be that I don’t think playing his games requires you buy into story telling as a motivation. Rather, they exercise different skills from Euros. If you expect the game to bail you out, or optimization to win the day, you probably won’t have a great time. Negotiation, even (especially) from a position of weakness is a significant way you can play better, and thereby increase your chances of actually winning, and not just a way to inject drama into the experience.

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I would like to disagree with the notion that we disagree. My wording just failed me and “story” was the closest thing I could come up with to differentiate from “purely mechanical”. You put that much better.

My local friends just have trouble with what you describe sometimes. Even if it is a bad example because it is once again story telling I have a friend who plays all kinds of complex Euros but ask her to come up with a prompt for Dixit and she fails. She hates Detective Club with a passion.

Most of these games require the player to look beyond what is on the paper. One can’t think these through from turn one because people are people. Which is why I hate the Wakhan so much. I can anticipate people–especially on a table where I can watch their expressions. I cannot anticipate the bot.

I find these games prioritize the human player in a way that is both very enjoyable and very difficult at times. The games provide a framework, a backdrop for the interaction–and most modern Euros have so little of it these days (and I often enjoy that!), that it is so rare and unusual that to me it always feels like there is a story to tell after the game–maybe not one like Earhtborne Rangers but one of intrigue, and alliances… and cool moves that win the day.

These games make for good conversation :slight_smile:

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I suppose emphasizing the story isn’t entirely wrong either: creating an interesting narrative is a great way to negotiate and secure cooperation. No-one is going to help you come from behind if you just whine that you are losing, and sometimes no-one will even lift a finger if you whine that some other player is winning. But if you can craft a narrative that sounds interesting, perhaps with you as the underdog, then you might just be able to seal the deal you are looking for to get back into the game.

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I have played Root once. It was an ok game. I have no strong desire to play again but wouldn’t sit out if that was the only game on offer. In my play of it, I announced after one of my turns that I would win on my next turn or my husband would win on his next turn and I thought the other two players could only stop one of us. They had to pick who they wanted to win or prove me wrong by finding a way to stop both of us. They picked for me to win, which I was sure they would do when I made my announcement. This is a big part of the game and I was fine with it. I can see why other people would hate it.

I own Oath and have played it some. I think I like it but am never quite sure. One problem is that most of my plays have been my husband and I each controlling two players. My husband has a tendency to treat his two players as basically one and do what he can to use the resources of one to make the other win while I see mine as two separate entities, so my husband basically always wins and often shuts me out completely. We haven’t played in awhile. Maybe if we could play a 3-player game with another actual person it would help.

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I love his approach to games and the way he thinks about games.

I have a love/hate relationship with Root. It’s a fun experience, but really needs everyone to be experienced in the game. A player not fully understanding their faction or their role in the game makes the game super janky (which is still fun for a time, but the novelty soon wears off). I’ve certainly had games when playing a new faction that I realised I messed up a part of how my faction works and correcting my mistake completely wiped me out for the rest of the game. Plus the need for everyone to keep everyone else in check can do weird things for new players who have more of a “why should I harm someone else’s progress when I can optimise my own engine?” approach. The social contracts involved are interesting in themselves and there really is nothing quite like it - Spirit Island is probably the closest in that assymetrical engine feeling.

Johns Company, Pax Pamir and Oath are in my “to play when the time is right :smiling_face_with_tear:” pile. Difficulty getting to the table is the biggest issue with these games. Played Pax Pamir many moons ago and enjoyed it, but can’t remember enough to comment beyond that.

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I’ve never played a Wehrle game. Initially I was put off by the association with Phil Eklund. Objectivism + Racism :face_vomiting:. While I can interact with negative topics and find it important to do so I think playing a game by someone who explicitly wants to use that game to show a very negative view point as maybe a step too far for me. This is maybe odd as I’m ok engaging with problematic art in other ways. My go to example is Dirty Harry, great film, hideous explicit political proselytising. Going his separate way I think we can see Cole Wehrle doesn’t share those views but I was suspicious early on so that kept me disengaged for a while.

Now I think I assess purely on game play and the games sound interesting. Two things hold me back. First one of my gaming friends really struggles with navigating tons of random effects and changing positions. He can’t stand any Chudyk Games, threw a strop at German Railways and countless other examples so I don’t want to go through that again. Secondly I really dislike negotiation games. I do not find it a fun way to spend my down/social time. So I think I respect them but it’s in a space where I’ll just let them be.

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I have played Pax Pamir 2e, John Company, Oath, and Root. Of those Pax Pamir was the clear standout so far. When playing his designs I have often found the conclusion to the games to be somewhat unsatisfying, although that may be a function of the people I play with and insufficient repeat plays. Perhaps sometimes the primacy of interaction leads to a paucity of interesting decisions in other fields. (Dune mentioned upthread probably has a good balance in this regard for me.)

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I haven’t played a Wehrle game. It usually follows the same pattern: Get interested, check rulebook, check reality, check out.

The only game of his that I thought I might want to try (and that others may want to try with me) after reading the rulebook was Oath. There was a lot of talk online about it was a vehicle for generating stories, which would appeal to me and the people I play with. So I watched a playthrough… and there was no story. I watched a few more… still no real stories emerging. I then watch a playthrough with Cole Wehrle himself in which he talked about the importance of storytelling through mechanics in Oath… and there was no story!

I get the feeling that ‘some cards get played that you can sort-of imagine a story from’ is the Oath community’s idea of storytelling. That seems a low bar.

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I think it really depends on where you are coming from story-telling wise. From a beige Euro-game or from Sleeping Gods or even a pen&paper RPG… (I would be interested to hear which boardgames fit that bill of telling stories)

My thinking is that all of his games are complex games–both strategically and rules-wise–and unless you really want to focus on telling a story you will totally be focussed on the rules and making your move. And you really need to internalize all the rules and strategy first before there is room for a story. In asynchronous games there is more time to muse on the meaning of your move as part of an on-going story but even then… rules will probably be more on your mind than anything else.

My experience playing Oath 3 handed was very much focussed on “landscaping” the place like I wanted to. Because in that case it didn’t matter who was winning.

Maybe we are so unused to complex and yet thematic games these days, that we have no better vocabulary than calling what we feel while playing “emergent stories”.

But overall, if you are mostly interested in telling stories… no matter who thematic Wehrle’s games are, I still don’t think these are the games that would fit that bill. The “story” is just one small by-product of the strategy game.

I’ve played Root a couple of times, only because a good friend was keen. The second game was more enjoyable than the first, so I could imagine maybe getting to enjoy it in time if I played it more, but evidentially I’m not particularly eager to put that to the test as I very recently avoided making myself available for a potential game of Root with some other folks.

IIRC it had three different rule books and every faction was a pile of unique rules, and I’m just not the audience for that. I’ve heard good things about some of his other games, but Root put me off ever looking at them seriously.

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I quite liked it when it was Vast: the Crystal Caverns (Patrick Leder and David Somerville), but alas even then it didn’t make it onto my shelves. And that’s a much simpler game overall.