Oath | Designer Diary 1: What's all this, then?

Designer/Developer Diary, Oath -

Oath | Designer Diary 1: What's all this, then?

Hi everyone.

A few days ago on Twitter we officially announced an upcoming game from Leder Games. It seemed about time to bring folks on BGG up to speed as well.

I've been working on Oath off-and-on since Root was in development. Like Root, the origins of the project are complex and go back several years. I'll be detailing the design as well as its thematic and mechanical antecedents (and arguments) in posts over the next few months. Today, I wanted to say a little about those origins, the intentions of the design, and what everyone should expect going forward.

Image with the title art for Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile, featuring a mounted archer ready to loose an arrow. Art by Kyle Ferrin

Oath's Origins

My games usually start with very specific historical subjects or geo-political postures that I find compelling and underrepresented in the hobby. Oath is a little different. I didn't have a particular period in mind. Instead, Oath was informed by what I can best describe as a bit of narrative dissatisfaction. I've never been wholly comfortable with how board games tell big, complex stories. The basic problem here is that games put a big burden on their players. If you want to tell a big story with a game, you usually need to either impose on players with a massive rule-set and playtime or rely on mechanisms that off-load complexity or narrative to keep the core gameplay clean. Something like an event deck is one way of doing this. Or, you could write a pre-scripted branching narrative with little rules modules that get added each game (like a Legacy game). I hate these little tricks. There's nothing wrong with them per se, but they are anathema my own design priorities. The best narrative games, in my mind, are those that offer a compelling prompt and provide players with the tools they need to create amazing, dynamic tales. The trouble with games like this is that they are exhausting. I love Pamir, but by the end of a 4 topple game I usually need a stiff drink. In practice, this means that I haven't been able to explore that epic storytelling space in my designs.

Then, a couple years back, I got it in my head that I wanted to make a game capable of telling stories that would span generations. I realize, of course, that a game like John Company has a massive scope. But, John Company has to keep it's focus on pretty high level concepts so that it doesn't get bogged down in details. This can leave certain systems (like the event system) feeling a little abstract. What I wanted was a game that could punch you in the gut. Not only did I want this game capable of telling a multi-generational story, I wanted it to do it with an intimate focus.

I've spent a portion of the past two years trying to solve this problem. This has been the trickiest project I have ever worked on. While my days were filled with Root or doing development on Vast: TMM and the Underworld Expansion, this project haunted my early mornings and late evenings. At this point I've discarded nine feature-complete games not because they were bad or unpromising, but because they didn't create a core system strong enough for me to deliver on my hopes for the game. Thank goodness Patrick has been so patient with me! Then, this past summer I had the good fortune to have a couple of good friends visit me in Saint Paul: my brother Drew and my good friend Chas (who also served as the developer for John Company). For the better part of a week we talked a lot about the fundamental problems the design was presenting, and what I wanted it to be able to do. The trip went a long way in clearing my head. When I sat down to design after they had left, a new approach snapped into focus. Without really meaning to, it freely borrowed on some of the best elements of the previous iterations, while creating a very different overall framework for the design. Pretty soon the design was coming together.

The basic outline of the game looks something like this. Each game players will take the role of some figure near the ruling class of a society. You might be an imperial functionary or an outsider looking shake things up. In either case players are ultimately attempting to guide the ruling class to their own ends or usurp the old order. This will be familiar thematic territory to anyone who has played a lot of Pax Porfiriana. But, that little setup is as much as the two games have in common. In Porfiriana (and really most strategy games), players rarely feel the consequences of their dastardly strategies. The game simply ends before the broader consequences of their choices can be felt. In Oath, the consequences of play and the way the game resolved essentially set the stage of the next game. A player might win a game by cloying your way to the top of the chain of command and then pushing the region into anarchy. Welp, the next game is going to start in that Anarchy and the strategies that led you to success may not be quite so useful anymore. Oath is all about consequences.

A pile of board games on a table. Titles include Tigris & Euphrates, Khronos, Kings & Castles, and more
A portion of the game's key influences that I snapped a photo August 2018. I'll be detailing some of the important ones, many not pictured here, in future posts.

How Oath Remembers

There's really nothing fancy about the solution Oath uses to address the problem of telling epic stories using a simple and dynamic framework. Essentially, the game uses a campaign system. But, there's a critical difference. Most campaign systems have carefully scripted branches or at least a definite end-point. Oath has neither. Instead, each game you play will alter the nature of the game. A single choice could have a consequence that ripples through dozens of matches.

Oath does this by remembering how players play the game and adapting to their choices. Of course, seeing as this is an analogue game, there are limits to what I can do with a game's memory. But, it's turned out that even the limited tools of tabletop designers are plenty responsive for this kind of storytelling. Essentially, at least three major things will change depending on how a game of Oath goes: the victory system, the draw deck, and the map (which also informs the available actions and player capabilities).

I'll spare you the details of how each of these elements of the game adapts for now and instead just offer a quick story of how they work in practice. In a recent game I played, players needed to compete for popular support to win the game. However, in the middle of the game one player had a vision of empire. They raised a massive army (and became deeply unpopular in the process) and began rampaging the countryside. The existing order wasn't able to react in time. They sent an army and were routed by his skilled mounted archers and nimble forces. In short order, the republic was toppled and an empire was declared.

If the players were to play again either in the same sitting on a later date, they would find the game much changed. The old ancestral capital would be in ruins, lost to time. A new capital build around conscription and warmongering would form the center of the map. In addition, there would be new capabilities relating to nomadic lifestyles and warfare. And, perhaps most important of all, the game's victory condition would be altered to reward players who command the largest share of the kingdom.

That empire might last several generations or it could fall into ruin almost as soon as it comes into existence. Its consequences could be incremental or dramatic. It's up to the players to decide what will happen next. My hope is players will think of their copies of the game as being full worlds, complete with dynamic and deepening histories. Oath is a game about how things change. It's about the things that get buried and the things that get remembered. It's a political game, but only insofar as political history serves a way of organizing the past and making sense of the choices that face the present.

Two cards from Oath the Board Game: Storyteller and The Old Oak. Art by Kyle Ferrin

What's Next

That's all mighty lofty stuff. Don't get me wrong, Oath still has a long way to go. But, here, at start of things, I wanted to state plainly my hopes for the game and offer my own chronicle of its making. To that end, I'll probably start editing and organizing the reams of design musing I've written over the past couple of years about this game and weave that through newer material about where the game is at this moment.

Though a lot of things about how I work have changed over the years, writing has remained the central part of my design process. Though this project is about as difficult and frustrating as any I've worked on, I am delighted to be at a place where I can share the design with you all and talk about the game more openly. This is an amazing community, and nothing pleases me more than having the opportunity to get into the weeds once more with you all.

To that end, I should wrap things up before I try your patience any longer! I'll close by just quoting from the game's description here on BGG, which should hopefully answer any general questions you might have about the design.

In Oath, one to five players guide the course of history in an ancient land. Players might take the role of agents bolstering the old order or scheme to bring the kingdom to ruin. The consequences of one game will ripple through those that follow, changing what resources and actions future players may have at their disposal and even altering the game's core victory condition.

If a player seizes control by courting anarchy and distrust, future players will have to contend with a land overrun by thieves and petty warlords. In a later game, a warlord might attempt to found a dynasty, creating a line of rulers that might last generations or be crushed by the rise of a terrible, arcane cult.

In Oath, there are no fancy production tricks, app-assisted mechanisms or production gimmicks. The game can be reset at any time and doesn't require the same play group from one game to the next. A player might use the fully-featured solo mode to play several generations during the week and then use that same copy of the game for Saturday game-night with friends. There are no scripted narratives or predetermined end points. The history embedded in each copy of Oath will grow to be as unique as the players who helped build it.


- Cole Wehrle


Catch all the comments and discussion on the original thread on BGG

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