Your Favorite Designers' Favorite Board Games: Cole Wehrle
We gamers are lucky — thanks to the rich resource that is BoardGameGeek and the niche, interactive nature of this hobby, many of the best-known designers have BGG accounts. This allows us to interact with them in a way that's rather unlike most other artistic mediums, and allows for something else, as well: Access to their public BGG rankings. It's like if Martin Scorsese went onto IMDB and started making must-watch lists of his favorite films.
Welcome to Your Favorite Designers' Favorite Board Games, an occasional series chronicling how well-known board game designers rate and rank other games. For this edition, we’ll take a look at Cole Wehrle, a rising star in the designer sphere.
The Designer: Cole Wehrle
BGG Username: Cole Wehrle
Member since: May 2003
Number of games rated: 363
Average rating: 7.54
Cole Wehrle’s first game, Pax Pamir, didn’t come out until 2015, but he’s quickly made a name for himself in board gaming circles. By releasing a game per year — An Infamous Traffic in 2016, John Company in 2017, and Root this year — and a knack for in-depth analysis of gaming mechanics, he’s become a bit of a cult favorite for many gamers.
Wehrle has been a BGG member since 2003. BGG only started tracking the dates of specific ratings around 2010, so any ratings prior to that on the site are “estimated.” Based on those dates, the first game he ever rated — and the rating he gave it — is unassailable: a perfect “10” score for the ancient abstract Go.
Wehrle’s other ratings (or at least some of them) are sure to raise some eyebrows. I’ll hop right into what I think is his most interesting rating: Without comment, he gave Vlaada Chvatil’s highly regarded Galaxy Trucker a 4.
This stands in sharp contrast to the BGG consensus rating of 7.5 — good enough to put it just a little outside the top 100 — and even to one of Wehrle’s own comments on another Chvatil game; in giving a 7.5 rating to Mage Knight, Wehrle describes himself as “someone who has affectionately played many games of Galaxy Trucker…”
I asked him about this seeming contradiction, and he said Galaxy Trucker is a game that has “a couple of fun ideas” but doesn’t add up to much more than that.
“I play games in lots of different situations and tend to float between many different game groups,” Wehrle said. “So, I end up playing things like Galaxy Trucker quite a bit. Even if I don't care for the design, I can still take it for what it is and have a good time. But, on the other hand, Galaxy Trucker is not a game that I would ever suggest at a game night. I sold my copy years ago.”
The Galaxy Trucker grade is hardly Wehrle’s only contrarian rating: He gave Cosmic Encounter a 5 (BGG rating: 7.6; BGG rank: 89) and Terraforming Mars a 6 (BGG rating: 8.4; BGG rank: 6).
“Seems to have found its audience, but the game is not for me,” he said in his comments for Terraforming Mars. “I think Race for the Galaxy asks many of the same questions in a fraction of the design space (or table space).”
Okay, so Wehrle has differing opinions about some pretty popular games. So what? For some fans of the hobby, bashing popular games is their favorite pastime, and a point of pride. Wehrle, though, does not seem to be one of those people.
As evidence, take a look at his 8 rating for Catan. Yes, that Catan, the one that draws derision every time someone mentions it here on /r/boardgames. He also gave scores of 8 to two of its expansions: Cities and Knights and Seafarers.
This is interesting, because if you’ve read much of Wehrle’s game designer diaries or his reviews/criticism, you know that he thinks deeply about games. He sometimes focuses so much on the design element and the things that make a game interesting/worthwhile that he rarely mentions if it’s actually any fun.
“I don't think about fun too much,” Wehrle said. “Mostly I think it's not a great lens for describing a game. A good game for me should do more than just be entertaining. I want to experience a whole range of feelings when I play … As I've designed more and grown as a player, my own standards for what is "good" have loosened considerably. If a game is doing something really compelling, I'm inclined to rate it highly even if the game itself might have a critical flaw.”
So in terms of expertise, the armchair designers prevalent on internet forums are at a disadvantage to Wehrle, but they’re the ones often shouting loudest about Catan’s perceived shortcomings. “Too much luck!” they holler. “Too much take-that! Too many runaway leaders!”
And yet here’s Wehrle, ranking a game dismissed by most “serious” gamers more favorably than many games considered “new classics.”
So what gives? Well, like many of us, Catan was Wehrle’s gateway game. As he said in a BGG Geek of the Week profile in 2014:
“...I was ready for my exit from miniatures when, one day, a friend showed up at the local gaming club at school with two games under his arm: Battle Cry and the Settlers of Catan.
“Those two games had a huge impact on my game playing. Battle Cry showed me that Warhammer was a bloated mess of a wargame but that the genre could do amazing things that were outside the scope of Stratego/Risk (I realize this is an absurd comparison). And Catan did something even bigger. It showed me that competitive games didn’t need to be imagined military romps. We didn’t need to fight in order to compete. In fact, in some ways, Catan’s battles were much more interesting than the sometimes rote play of a wargame.”
Wehrle’s opinion on Catan hasn’t changed much since that interview — last week, he told me that the game still holds up for him.
“Catan remains amazing and difficult,” he said. “I prefer it with Cities and Knights and with a table of four very aggressive sharks. It suffers a lot when played with players of uneven skill. If it's fallen out of fashion at the moment that's a shame only for the players entering the hobby who might now miss it.”
Other ratings from Wehrle are less surprising. He’s a fan of heavy games, so it’s not a shock that of the 13 games he’s given a perfect 10 rating, two of them are 18xx titles: 1817 and 1830 (Uwe Rosenberg, the first designer profiled in this series, also gave 1830 a perfect score). He’s ranked 12 18xx games in total.
Among Wehrle’s other perfect 10s: Duel of Ages II, and Phil Eklund’s Pax Renaissance and High Frontier (3rd Edition). Wehrle is an unapologetic Eklund fan (he’s even given Phil’s games a special designation: Eklundia), and the latter game, he says, seems like the designer’s “masterpiece.”
What speaks to him about Eklund?
“I encountered Phil Eklund's games at a moment when I thought my own tasks had completely stabilized,” Wehrle said. “I was playing a lot of wargames and a lot of 18xx. Eklund's game's reminded me of how much expressive power was possible in the game form. These are games bristling with arguments and that want you to argue with them.”
Wehrle said he loves all of Eklund’s games, with Pax Porfiriana also ranked near the top of his list. “But, even when you explore his more uneven designs like Origins or Bios: Megafauna (1e), there is so much to like that it's easy to forgive them for their faults,” he said.
On the other end of the rating scale, Wehrle hasn’t rated any games at 1; a bit of disappointment, since it’s always nice to see someone make full use of the scoring spectrum. His only 2 score comes on 2005’s tile-layer Hidden Conflict, accompanied by a single question: “How was this ever printed?”
From there, his scores jump up into the 4s (where Galaxy Trucker sits), and then make their way solidly into middle-of-the-pack territory.
Wehrle gave a good note to keep in mind when reading this or any other designer profiles: “I've been on the site a long time and my tastes have shifted and a lot of that shift is reflected in my comments.”
Indeed, Wehrle regularly updates his ratings with comments spurred by additional plays. In giving the well-regarded Terra Mystica a 7.9 rating, Wehrle initially called it a “wonderful” game with “lots of delicious blocking and cool interaction.”
But after many other plays, his view of the game had cooled, and he lamented the lack of interaction among skilled players.
“There is little sense of a "game" and very few ways to manage incentives,” he wrote. “In short, it's a conversion puzzle performed in proximity — but at least it's a mildly enjoyable puzzle.”
Terra Mystica comes up numerous times in his other comments, usually not in the glowing terms from his original impression of the game, but as a less-favorable point of comparison.
That may be a result of better understanding the mechanics of a game, or it may be a change in tastes over time. Wehrle admits his method of rating games has changed, especially as he’s become more involved in the design and creation aspects, and developed an appreciation for the underlying pathos of a game.
“As I've designed more and grown as a player, my own standards for what is "good" have loosened considerably,” he said. “If a game is doing something really compelling, I'm inclined to rate it highly even if the game itself might have a critical flaw. I'm also a bit of a capital ‘R’ Romantic and am inclined to give designers a lot of slack for pursuing deeply personal passion projects. As an example, Nate Hayden's game The Mushroom Eaters is one of the most beautiful games about loss and moving on that I've ever played.”
Once again, I feel like I’ve already gone on too long with this post, but I highly recommend checking out Wehrle’s ratings and accompanying comments; they’re interesting and enlightening. I also recommend his reviews — his review for Sol: Last Days of a Star made me instantly want the game, though he curiously never gave it a rating.
If you’d like to learn more about Wehrle’s own games, he’s been a regular poster of designer diaries (he did a fascinating series of them for Root), which offer lots of insight into that game’s development and the difficulty of balancing four very different in-game factions. You can also hear a lot more about Wehrle’s Pax Pamir and An Infamous Traffic on this episode (warning: autoplay audio) of the board gaming podcast “The Long View.”