Interview: The player habits of Cole Wehrle, designer of Root

“It’s not that I’m overly influenced by conflict games. It’s that they have a seat at my table and, for other designers, they don’t”. Across the screen with a sly smile, sits Cole Wehrle, designer of Root. As we talk about his passion for wargames, the influence of Dune and the obscure Early Railways Series one thought crosses my mind: How do his habits as a player shape him as a designer?

Who are you as a player? What makes you different?

The main difference is how early I got started. I had a few Avalon Hill titles when I was a little kid. I was given a copy of Battle Cry by the wargame-loving uncle of one of my friends and dabbled into Warhammer. By High School I started playing what we call eurogames – Catan, Puerto Rico, Power Grid. Three days a week, me and my friends left school halfway through the day and we would play A Game of Thrones, which had just come out.

By then, gaming had become identified with the culture that loves Marvel movies and The Big Bang Theory. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the people I played with didn’t share that interest. I’ve always been lucky to have a group who didn’t play video games, for instance. My group in College was half professional classical musicians. For them, a game like Container was fascinating. While, if I put Talisman on the table, they would look at me as if I was crazy.

The themes my group found most compelling were a little academic, a little off-kilter, a little too close to the pages of The Economist and I think that has impacted my designs. Other designers are completely embedded within a single community. They love Dominion and, hence, make games that look like Dominion. It’s always surprising to see how little they have been playing or reading about from places outside the area they work on.

I think one of the most brilliant designs of this year is Atlantic Chase, which covers the Atlantic front during World War 2. Yet, when I’ve talked with other professional designers about games that had left an impression on us, nobody knew what I was talking about. And these are professional designers, not people who just like Root.

Much of the design conversation is insular. When I start working on a project I look up all games I can find on the subject, regardless of genre. So now that I’m working on a space game, I’ve been playing Tiny Epic Galaxies, Eclipse and thinking about Twilight Imperium a lot. I must have read the rules for Freedom in the Galaxy two or three times even though I’ve never played it.

That makes me think of John Company and how it’s both the game most like The Republic of Rome and also the least similar.

(Laughs) I come from an academic background. One of the ways that expresses through my designs is how I partake in this “big conversation”. Every game is a little statement. When designing one, I listen to what people were saying before me. I look for places where someone said something interesting but nobody responded. That might really be the central element to my design practice.

One of the most shocking aspects of The Republic of Rome is the radio silence that followed it. It’s such a fascinating statement, yet it sparked nothing. People like Rick Heli have responded with The Republic of Carthage and Founding Fathers so there’s some engagement but, for comparison, We the People came around the same time and sparked a revolution in gaming.Look at Phil [Eklund] (High Frontier, Pax Series). His games are very interesting, very imperfect. And he’s an imperfect person, of course, like we all are. A lot of my own work is a direct response to his. And so, people who respond to me are also, in some way, responding to him. It’s a lovely thing. Whenever I see a game that looks like a knockoff of Root that makes me happy. It means folks are still thinking about whatever question I thought was interesting back in 2017.

How do commercial concerns impact your contributions to this conversation?

Right now I’m sitting in my office at Leder Games. We are almost 15 people here, selling games is not just “hooray we can buy a boat”. It means we can feed our families and pay for health insurance. That puts me into a framework where I am interested in the commercial elements of the industry. Like any professional designer, I want to sell games so I can keep doing this line of work.

I would have never produced Root without Leder. Nothing even remotely like it would have happened. Much of what I find exciting about games are different forms of interaction. That’s a turn off for players more used to the mainstream line. So we wondered “Is there a way to design this game that would allow a wider range of players to engage with it?”

Kyle [Ferrin]’s art was a key piece of the puzzle. He made the initial suggestion of a fantasy theme. We found that Root could get a lot grimmer and interactive because it was closer to a Saturday Morning Cartoon. All work we’ve done at Leder Games is focused on how to use aesthetics to take players to spaces they would not explore otherwise. I don’t try to focus group, though. That’s a big difference.

In a company like Prospero Hall they are interested in tuning games to a specific audience. They really try to be a little Hasbro. And according to an employee who used to work with the latter, they say “most players don’t even read the rules, they just play”. So what’s gonna happen? Sometimes in design we see conversations about “feel bad moments”. I hate that term.Ah, the infamous “negative player experiences”?

Indeed! And I don’t care. That line of thinking is too limited. It’s too focused on the moment to moment. They ask “forget all about the experience, focus on this one moment, are you feeling good or bad?”. Were someone to put me in a movie theater and ask me that question, I don’t even know how it would turn out. I want to be thinking a little bit more holistically.

When I see people play, I don’t even ask them what mood they are in. I just watch them. What I want to see is emotional range. Where they felt low and where they felt high. That’s a lot more important than optimizing for what one person perceives as too random. That doesn’t mean I don’t worry about those sorts of folks, too, but I deal with it outside the design stage.

With Oath we knew we were making a title that was heavier and highly interactive. So we knew players who don’t like conflict, don’t play games more than five times and don’t like longer matches were going to hate it. And I said “Fine, I don’t care”. At the studio we are trying to make someone’s favourite game. Oath might not be for you and that’s ok. We are not trying to be inclusive here.

When it comes to the practice of art, I don’t think it can be for everybody. If you wanted it to be for you, it probably could. What happens with some designers is that, as they get a larger audience, their primary aim becomes satisfying it. But a larger audience has less commonalities. And so, their designs get watered down. We are working on a pirate game called Ahoy! which I really love and the people who played Oath a lot are not gonna like it.

You seem to be working on several new designs. What’s next for you?

I’m coming off doing two massive projects. The second edition of John Company has been in development for more than 2 years and Oath was in design for a similar time as well. Looking at future projects, I’m going to take a break. I’ll be helping with development for some stuff I didn’t design. Hopefully that will recharge my batteries for another historical game, including a new version of An Infamous Traffic.

For Leder, I’m working on a science fiction game provisionally called Arcs which is as different from Root and Oath as both are to each other. I’ve been working on it for a year without saying anything about it. Normally my development process is very open and I just wanted to have the experience of working alone for a while. It needs a lot of work but the core engine is extremely close to being finished.

I also have a murder mystery game I’ve been working on. I love the genre but I’ve never played a game that really got it right. I think it’s because Clue has an outsized influence. What often happens when someone wants to do a murder mystery game is that they do a better version of Clue. I want to do a narrative title instead, which is how you get Detective: City of Angels and Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective.

Some designers have a list of games they want to make. Their career in the field takes them from game to game on their list. I’m not really like that. I like working on the projects I have and, when I’m done, I take a breather, look around and decide what I want to do next. Arcs is not a game I’ve been dreaming of since I was a child. It’s a game that responds to the conversation around Root and Oath.

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