Review of Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile

  • Designed by Cole Wehrle
  • Published by Leder Games (artwork below from the Kickstarter edition)
  • 1-6 Players
  • Playing time: 45-120 minutes (or more …)

Oath is an ambitious and deeply philosophical design, so when I call it “Fabled Fruit: The Boardgame” or “Oath: Gamifying the Meta-Game”, it may be a little underwhelming. Oath takes the “legacy-lite” concept of Fabled Fruit, adds in a board, a healthy dose of kingmaking, and some deep thoughts on the meaning of player interaction to produce a unique design. As a statement on the meaning of history or the meaning of player interaction, it works well. Whether it will be remembered as a classic or simply as an interesting statement piece is an open question.

The Basic Idea

I will not try and list out all the rules for Oath here, because there are plenty of other sites to walk through that level of detail. Essentially, Oath is a worker-placement/action-point allowance game with area control mechanics in which the end conditions determine the set-up of the next game. It incorporates multiple win conditions and encourages heavy player interaction, both within and between games, along with heavy meta-gaming aspects related to who will ally with who, for how long, and with what consequences in future games.

Mechanically, Oath is relatively simple to explain, although the precise rules for how everything relates to each other can be complex and a bit fiddly. The board contains three “areas”, the Cradle (representing the center of civilization), the Provinces (representing supporting areas), and the Hinterlands (representing the outskirts). Each of these locations will have a number of Sites (essentially spaces to play a pawn to take actions), with actions determined by Denizens (cards placed by the sites). Each game will have a different configuration of Sites, and different Denizens associated with the Sites. Players can take control of these sites with warbands, which allows access to the Denizen abilities, or they can move their pawn to the site for the same access or to attack other players. Site abilities are generally accessible through use of two in-game currencies: Favor (money), or Secrets (represented by books, which act as an action-point allowance system). Each Denizen has one of a number of suits, to which Favor is drawn and returned, creating a mini economy within the game.

Players themselves take on one of three roles. One player is the Chancellor, representing the current power in the land. The Chancellor rules by virtue of satisfying an “oath” with the people (hence the name of the game). The particular oath varies from game to game, based on how the last game ended, but essentially amounts to controlling more of some resource (such as Sites, or relics and banners) than the other players. The Chancellor allies with players called Citizens, who share their warbands, and who come into conflict with Exiles, players representing the marginal or outcast members of society. Citizens can become Exiles, and Exiles can become Citizens through various game mechanics.

There are a variety of win conditions, based on whether the player is the Chancellor, a Citizen, or an Exile. The Chancellor wins by essentially stopping others from doing so for long enough, preserving the current power structure in the land. Exiles can win by stealing the Oathkeeper title (satisfying whatever condition the current Oath is in a greater way than the Chancellor), and hanging on to the title for long enough. They can also win by finding a Vision and fulfilling it for a round, essentially one of a series of alternative win conditions. Citizens can win by satisfying an alternative condition related to the current Oath. It’s a bit complicated.

When a player wins, the board is reset based on the end-game conditions, with the potential for the Hinterland to become the new Cradle in the next game, structures at Sites to be built or go to ruin, and so on. Player boards who ended the game as Citizens will be Citizen boards in the next game, and so on.

Thoughts!

Oath is definitely a statement game, a design made with strong points of view, created to bring a specific kind of experience to the table. I love this–despite the hundreds of games released each year, it often feels difficult to find a game bringing something quite new to the table. Oath, quite curiously, feels like it does this, but it’s hard to put a finger on why. Mechanically there’s nothing terribly new here–we’ve seen worker placement games with changing placement areas before, as well as multiple win conditions, and legacy-style mechanics. Yet, Oath feels fresh, and the best explanation I can give is that Oath attempts to gamify the inherent meta-game between players.

Let me explain. Cole Wehrle has spoken publicly about thoughts on kingmaking as a means of creating narrative and drama in games, and he doesn’t shy away from it in this design. In fact, I don’t recall ever playing a game with as strong a possibility of someone being out of contention who must essentially choose the winner among the other players, with the results of that decision flowing through the meta-game to the next play. In the first game we played I was essentially forced to choose who would win, and the player on the losing side brought it up in the next game when it was their turn to play kingmaker. They ensured the same person did not win twice in a row, specifically referencing the events of the last game. Then, in the third game, that first player brought up the results of the second game! To paraphrase an actual in-game conversation: one player said “I want to win for once,” to which another player said “I’ll support you. If I have to play kingmaker, I’ll choose you.”

The strong king-making ability as feature rather than bug, combined with the multi-session legacy-style aspects of the game, make the meta-game between players here much deeper and more important than other games in my collection. In a strong sense, the meta-game is the game once you strip away the routine mechanics of moving pawns around the board, converting resources into others, and so on. Now I haven’t seen all the cards in the various decks, but so far at least, once you get the flow of the mechanics down, the essence of the game is (1) what are the feelings around the table based on what happened last time? Will so-and-so favor so-and-so winning over someone else? (2) What kind of deal can I make with other players to set up the possibility of me winning, and what effect will that have in future games? And, (3) how can I navigate the various potential roles (Citizen, Exile, Chancellor), to accomplish something that sets me up for victory now or the ability to garner favor with a player in a future game. 

As far as Oath brings meta-gaming drama into play sessions based on heavy player interaction, it is a fascinating experience. The mechanics of the game sessions themselves are set up to encourage that kind of swingy-metagame-drama, and to me are not as particularly satisfying as other heavy games or legacy games on the market. For instance, when I play a heavy design I like development aspects which are hard to control here, and I enjoy the structured story-telling of other full legacy designs more than the new set-up conditions in the legacy-lite design of Oath. I also tend to shy away from games with the potential for potentially harsh player interaction, and Oath definitely has that capacity. (At the risk of the other players uniting against you in future games. Again, the meta-game  …) That said, Oath is a gorgeous, fascinating, statement piece on what it means to play a game, and particularly what it means to play a game with the same people over multiple sessions. 

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

§ I love it! 

§ I like it.  Jeff Lingwall 

§ Neutral.  

§ Not for me…

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