Cole Wehrle is one of the more interesting game designers at the moment. After his debut design Pax Pamir (Sierra Madre Games) in 2015, he has published just few designs – he has a total of three published titles at the moment – but those are all very interesting.
While all his other games are based on historical themes, his latest work is Root, a fantastical and purely fictional game that takes the asymmetrical guerrilla warfare of the COIN games and distills it all into a more accessible package. This game is currently on Kickstarter collecting funding.
Long-winded design process
I was interested in hearing about Cole’s design process. It seems to be a long process. There’s some proof on BGG: Heaven’s Mandate has been listed on BGG for six years, but it’s still a work in progress, and may remain so indefinitely. Getting John Company, his 2017 game for Sierra Madre Games, right also took many years.
So how does it all work out, Cole?
– When I was a young student, I often used games as a way to trick myself into learning about a specific topic, Cole tells me. – If I needed to learn about the American Civil War, I would start by digging up some old Avalon Hill game on the subject and trying to teach myself through the game. This often was not a great way to learn history or literature or science, but it worked for me, Cole says.
– As I got older, I didn’t have time to learn a whole game for each and every subject in school, so I found myself jotting down little games in the margins of my notebooks. Game design was a way that I tried to make sense of the world, Cole explains.
– Of course, none of these games were good in the traditional sense. I rarely bothered to write down rules. Mostly they were just tables and charts and maps and diagrams. I suppose I was making little models, though it would have never occurred to me at the time to describe them that way, Cole says.
As Cole got older, lessons at school got more complicated and so did the games. Once he started playing more games, he realized some of those ideas might make for interesting games to actually play, and might offer something already published games don’t:
– Mostly, as a player, I was just trying to build the games that explored the ideas that I wasn’t seeing out there, Cole says. – Years ago, when my dissertation advisor asked me why I decided to spend my extra month of fellowship time working on Pax Pamir rather than taking a vacation or (preferably!) publishing an academic article, I replied that I had the feeling that if I didn’t make a game on 1820’s Afghanistan, no one would, Cole tells.
But even if the pre-process can take a long time, his actual design process is pretty regular in length and effort.
A rich variety of themes
Cole’s games have interesting themes: 1820’s Afghanistan, Chinese Opium trade, the ups and downs of the East Indian Company. Is it easy to find interesting themes?
– My goodness, there is no shortage of interesting subjects for games, Cole exclaims. – I have more topics than I know what to do with at the moment. A lot of these themes I borrow from my own reading. If a topic is intriguing enough to deserve a good book, there’s probably some ideas worth considering.
However, not all theme ideas lend themselves to interesting games.
– My own process seems to contain two separate conversations. One is a big wheel of ideas, topics, and dissatisfactions with the kinds of stories folks tell. The second wheel contains formal dissatisfactions in how games are designed. When those two wheels line up I know I’ve got a game worth exploring, Cole says.
Sometimes it takes playing another game to get the spark for creating something new.
– So, for instance, with Pax Pamir, I was thinking a lot about the theme and sorting through mountains of good material. But, it wasn’t until I was seriously playing Splotter’s The Great Zimbabwe and having a lot of arguments in person and online about engine builder games that I had the mechanical frame that I could use to think about Afghanistan at that time, Cole explains.
For a designer focused on historical themes, jumping into a fictional theme may be a big leap. Is it liberating, not having to worry about historical details, or difficult?
– It allows me to be more philosophical. Without the messiness of history, I can cut off a lot of the complexity of the moment and focus on what I see as the abstract core of a particular problem, Cole says. – At the same time, that cleanness can be incredibly frustrating. Sometimes I wished I had a straight historical allegory so I could go back to it for guidance.
As for the games he plays, Cole prefers historical themes.
– Looking at my shelf now, I’d guess that about 70% of what I own is historical in some way or another. If a game is interesting and obtuse, I’m liable to want to explore it, regardless of theme. Both historical and fictional themes can suffer from the constraints of their theme: history games can become reenactments; fictional games get stuck in clichés, Cole explains.
Who should be interested in Root? What makes the game stand out from the flood of miniatures and mediocrities in Kickstarter?
– Root is the kind of game that I wish I would have had growing up, Cole says. – And it’s the kind of game I wish I could have taken to college with me. It’s my attempt to offer something compelling to folks stuck with time constraints or with a group that don’t often explore interactive games. Make no mistake, it’s a tricky game with some sharp edges, but it’s also by far the most accessible game I’ve built.
– In short, if you want to explore interactive, asymmetric strategy games, Root is a great place to start, Cole summarizes.
Different approaches for different publishers
For his short career, Cole has worked with several publishers. He has published two games with Sierra Madre Games, one with Hollandspiele and now he’s employed at Leder Games. What kind of thinking goes into choosing a suitable publisher?
– So far the decisions have been quite easy. Usually I have a publisher in mind the moment I start a design. I suppose that’s an academic habit, Cole explains.
– While you don’t want to wholly become subject to a particular conversation or a particular publication, there comes a time when you need to communicate what you’ve done, and part of that “communication” means thinking about the different forms it could take and the venues where it might live. So, for Pamir, I had the argument and a lot of the ideas of the game pretty well set. Then I played Pax Porfiriana and instantly knew exactly where I should publish it, Cole explains.
– The story is a little different with Hollandspiele but that was only because they weren’t yet a company when Tom and Mary asked me to design An Infamous Traffic. Right now I’m working on a design for them (slowly), that I’m sure will be a good fit, Cole says.
There are many sides to having a game fit a publisher.
– First, I’m talking about the ethos and audience of the company. Phil has a unique customer base that will like certain games and hate others. That’s true of any publisher, Cole says.
– Second, I’m talking about production constraints or expectations. Every publisher from little Sierra Madre Games to Fantasy Flight Games has different production capabilities. Those limits are critical factors for a game design and I take them seriously when I think about pitching a game, Cole says.
– My work at Leder is similar in this way. Vast: the Crystal Caverns is the foundational title for Leder Games. It’s why the company exists. They’ve built a lovely audience around that title. For this reason, with Root, I am attempting to do a design in that style that I think advances their particular style of asymmetric games. I’m grateful that I happened to have ideas that fit well within that form, Cole says.
I’m pretty sure Phil Eklund is high on your list of designers you admire. But who else?
– I love Phil for his willingness to use games as a platform for thinking through complicated subjects, Cole explains. –He makes games you can argue with (and I often do argue with them!).
– I adore Tom Russell for his ability to create incredibly expressive games with very few rules. I love how Reiner Knizia explores the friction between different player positions (Tigris & Euphrates, Modern Art, and Stephenson’s Rocket are favorites). Lastly, I should also mention Nate Hayden who I admire for his deeply personal, uncompromising design ethos.
A great eye for graphic design
Cole is not just a talented game designer, but he also has great eye for graphic design. His work on John Company got me attracted to the game in the first place: the cover is splendid and the first page of the rulebook pretty much sealed the deal for me. How important is the graphic design for game design?
– I spend a lot of time on the graphic design for my own games. In fact, I more-or-less learned graphic design by doing redraws for games. So, I owe a lot of my skills directly to this hobby, Cole says.
– During the design process, I tend to think through my problems with geometry, so I make a lot of shapes. Now, that isn’t to say things are “pretty” at the start. All of that comes later. But, I work through my design problems visually which means that by the time I get to the final game, I am pretty certain of how a particular game should look. I think An Infamous Traffic was uniquely successful in this regard. I’m very happy with the rules of John Company as well, Cole agrees.
– I think graphic design is very important, but it should always serve gameplay. Some of my favorite visual designs for games are things like Food Chain Magnate, Winsome Games, and GMT’s The US Civil War.
– I wish more companies had aesthetics half as bold or as thought through as Splotter, Cole says. – I think my favorite visual design of theirs is probably The Great Zimbabwe, but Cannes is a close second. I just love how that game looks like a film zine from the 1980’s. It’s perfect.
Side interests in Victorian literature
According to your BGG profile, your PhD was about “how the experience of empire altered the way British writers imagined distances of time and space during the early and mid 19th century.” Care to elaborate a bit? What did you find out?
– By training I’m a scholar specializing in Victorian literature. I look at books and the context that shaped them. Over the past few years I’ve been thinking a lot about time and space and the Empire, Cole explains.
– The short answer to your question is that a lot of the “space-collapsing” anxiety you seen in narrative in the early nineteenth century that is often associated with technologies like the railroad and the telegraph has a lot more to do with the British Empire’s imperial growth. Empires need to make the argument that they can project power across their domains and to do that they need to tell little lies about how closely things are connected, Cole says.
– Literature of the period provides a record of those lies. Long before the submarine cables stretched across the oceans, people were finding ways through storytelling to make the world seem smaller than it actually was, Cole says.
Your designer diaries suggest that you read a lot: all your games seem to be influenced by lots of literature. Any book suggestions?
– After I get home from work and after the kids go to bed, I get to reading. I don’t consider myself a particularly fast reader, but I do make time to read and am protective of that time, Cole says.
– For the past few years I always recommend two books: Philipp Meyer’s The Son and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora. The first is one of the best historical novels I’ve ever read. It’s a multi-generational yarn about the history of Texas that isn’t afraid to tackle some tough subjects. The second is an utterly compelling science fiction novel that reminded me how much I could love the genre after about a decade of not touching the stuff.
– Right now, I’m reading Ron Chernow’s Grant, a new biography of US Grant. It’s wonderful. I also just finished Dexter Palmer’s mind-bending Version Control, which is a very different kind of time travel narrative. On my shelf I’ve got Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend which I’ve been meaning to give a second read so that I can properly finish the sequence.
– I’m also about half way through a couple books on Minnesota state history (half the fun of moving to a new place is digging into local history!). And, each night I’ve been reading a few entries out of TH White’s England Have My Bones and then a poem or two from a collection of poems called the Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay. Okay, okay, I’ll stop there.
Root is on Kickstarter now until 22.11.2017, and has already reached more than $170,000 of funding, surpassing the $24,000 goal many times. I’m a backer; I’ve found the game idea very intriguing.