An early iteration of Oath: Chronicles of Empires and Exile by Cole Wehrle on Tabletop Simulator

Designer/Developer Diary, Oath -

Oath | Designer Diary 10: The Political Economies of Oath

I love closed and semi-closed economic systems in games. It's one reason why I was thrilled to see The Estates get wide distribution last year and one reason why Container beats out most other economic games on the market. A closed economic system is usually symptomatic of a interactive system. It's one of the few design elements that will almost always get me to give something a try, even if I have no other interest in the game.

So, it's no surprise then that a bunch of my games have economic systems like this. Pamir's closed system tried to take the gene pool play of Bios: Megafauna (1e) and stretch it out to cover the vagaries of political will. In Root, the Riverfolk Company created a closed economy out of unplaced warriors in the stocks of the other players. Even An Infamous Traffic has it's share of zero-sum calculations as suppliers and manufacturers try to push to get a fatter share of the profit.

When I first started working on Oath properly, I had originally hoped to build out a robust economic system. I wanted supply chains and marketplaces and I wanted all of those things to intersect with the games political and military frameworks. Of course most of these systems would be closed and player-driven. As you might guess, I was biting off more than I could chew.

Big Market Dreams

In the interview I did with Edward over at Heavy Cardboard last spring I talked at some length about these intentions. On top of everything else I wanted Oath to do, I wanted the game to have a rich economic framework that could adapt to the shifting conditions of the game. Sadly, I just couldn't quite get them to work. The basic problem was (again) one of scope. If I wanted to make those economic systems work in the context of my design, they would need to be both fairly simple. In addition, they needed many guardrails to keep players from making their copies of Oath unplayable.

A playtest board from the 3rd iteration of Oath Cole ultimately threw away
A playtest board from the 3rd design iteration I ultimately threw away. Oath would become recognizable around iteration 9 or 10. This game had production chains not unlike King Chocolate or Neuland.

Imagine, for instance, you need food to feed your troops. In one game, some player destroys all of the granaries in the game. Existing troops starve, and new ones cannot be mustered. Now imagine that because of the luck of a draw a farm is never added to the game. That might be a perfectly interesting game in theory, but in practice a minimal number of design elements need to be in tension in order for a game to work.

There are basically two ways out of this problem. One way is to provide safeguards that will keep the game state under control. Maybe you can always buy grain from abroad. I dislike these sorts of systems because I think they devalue the expressive range of the game's core economic logic. The second way out of this problem is to increase the number of game systems in play. With enough systems, even when there are no troops on the board, players still have plenty to do to differentiate their positions. Maybe you can add a courtship system and a family management system and a system of land cultivation and climate, and whatnot. With all of these systems in play, there still plenty to do and think about and fight over even when the fields are bare.

That second path is a lot more appealing to me in general but it's a horrible design practice. If I pushed Oath that way I'd ultimately end up with something closer to a roleplaying game. RPGs are fine things, but they are outside of my skillset and weren't right for the kind of intervention I hoped to make with Oath.

Really this was the problem of Oath in general. I wanted to get some of the payoff of RPGs without their rules overhead and without resorting to a more free-form structure for the game. To do this I essentially needed to figure out the maximum number of systems I could put in the game with the fewest number of guardrails. To this end, I gave myself something like a a loose “complexity budget” and tried to keep the game's rules to something like the overhead of two factions of Root plus or minus some odds and ends.

For a long time I tried to make room in the design for a simple market and supply system with some pretty basic economic loops, but I could never quite get it right. Things either became sprawling messes or became so simplistic that they felt abstract. That was really the killer for me. All games rely fundamentally on abstractions, but the general systems should map on to some kind of narrative logic. If players struggle to explain that logic in the game, it can pull players out of their engagement with the game's story (the fun term for this is “ludonarrative dissonance”). Economic games, especially mid-weight euros are the absolute worst in this regard.

Usually I'm wary of conversations around ludonarrative dissonance. (Gil Hova's excellent talk at Tabletop Network this year is a big exception.) My problem with these conversations is that we usually have a pretty fuzzy rubric when it comes to decided what counts as a thematic system and what counts as an abstract system. All games are abstractions! Why do we tolerate some abstractions but not others?

I think the key to understanding the difference is perspective. The various abstractions in a game system should make sense when viewed from the lens of the perspective that the player is being asked to inhabit. If a system asks us to break from that perspective, then it's a lot more likely for the players to feel ludonarrative dissonance. This means that a game with a bunch of thematic systems can fall totally flat if those systems are out-of-step with the player positions. Accordingly, a game with just a few lightweight systems that capture the essential tensions of a conflict will feel perfectly thematic. Something like Kinzia's En Garde comes to mind as a good example of how much can be accomplished in terms of narrative and theme with a slim ruleset.

The Flow of Favor

Awhile back I mentioned that a key breakthrough in this design occurred when I realized that I needed to approach the project from a political perspective. If i wanted to engage with other economic elements, they needed to be viewed through that lens. So, rather than money or raw resources, I needed a different set of resources to form the game's political economy.

I arrived at three resources: favor, warbands, and magic. Each resources (except perhaps warbands) was flexible enough to capture a variety of arguments, but still had enough specifity that I could differentiate it from the other resources.

Favor is close to a zero sum economy where all political capital is held by either players or the game's six supplies (one for each of the six suits of cards). At the start of the game, this is an inequal distribution. You can see these banks in most photos I've taken of the game.

An early iteration of Oath: Chronicles of Empires and Exile on Tabletop Simulator

Players gain favor during the Influence phase of their turn. Basically they will pick one card at their pawn's site and take a favor from that suit's supply. If the player has one or more matching cards in their cohort, they can take two favor if they wish.

Thus, where you end your turn is critically important. If you wind up in a desolate territory, without population or a site card that only has disenfranchised folks for occupants, you are going to have trouble building up your political capital.

Favor is spent in a variety of ways. The most common use of it is to buy services from a card. When you do that, you place the needed favor directly on the card you interact with. Then, at the end of your turn, players perform a cleanup phase where they return any favor paid to cards to that suit's corresponding supply.

No matter a card's power, any card on a site can be used to muster warbands with favor. A player may spend any amount of favor and place that favor on a single card and then will take two warbands for each favor spent. Essentially, a warband is worth a favor, but it's a little more complicated than that in practice. For one, the shift in favor from a personal bank to a suit supply can have huge ramifications. Second, war-bands are not liquid assets. They are good for taking over stuff and, to a lesser extent, guarding stuff. Worse of all, they can be a drag on resources. Maintaining a big strike-ready army will slow you down, forcing you to take the rest action more frequently.

(You can probably get a sense here of of how I'm hiding some of the other economic elements into Oath's fundamentally political systems!)

The final resource-driven economy is magic. Like favor, magic is usually earned during the influence phase. Basically, when a player has a matching card in their cohort to the one on the site that they are influencing, they have an option of taking two favor or a single magic.

Dark Secrets and How to Find Them

Here you might be tempted to set up a simple ratio of value between these resources: four warbands equals two favor equals one magic. Such a valuation is misleading at best. For one thing, magic can't do everything that favor can and vice versa. Most of the games most critical abilities require favor alone.

Magic also is used a little differently. During cleanup, magic will be either “spent” or, more commonly, “cast.” If it was spent, it is returned from the general supply. If it was cast, the player takes it back into their personal supply. Magic is essentially like a battery that you can spend and that automatically recharges each round.

Thematically, I hope to evoke a much older understanding of “magic.” I'm not talking about fireballs, I'm talking about secrets, intimation, lost lore. Magic is a cultural resource—a kind of knowing. Sure it can be used to summon the occasional horrible monster, but I'm doing my best to eschew the magic-as-fully-known resource that is so common to fantasy rpgs today.

A screen shot from King of Dragon Pass video game
My chief inspiration for the magic system in Oath comes from King of Dragon Pass and Glorantha more generally as well as a variety of mid-20th century fantasy novels like the Prydain Chronicles.

One way this happens is simply through the game's card system. Whereas favor has several baked-in uses right from the start of the game, players don't really know what sorts of things their magic will get them and the scope of different abilities that use magic is very wide.

Magic only has two stable uses that always remain in play. First, on the Chancellor's or a Citizen's two magic can be cast to score a prestige (this can be repeated). Second, players may spend magic to purchase the Darkest Secret. You might remember the Darkest Secret from the diary on victory conditions.

The Darkest Secret is one of the game's two privileges. The privileges in Oath are essentially the nexus of the whole game. It's the place in the design where you can see all of the disparate elements dovetail together.

Players purchase the Darkest Secret by spending magic greater than it's current value. The value is then adjusted to reflect the amount spent. The holder of the Darkest Secret then gains an additional benefit: The Power to Corrupt. At the start of their turn they can shift up to two favor from one suit supply to another suit supply. This free shifting is a big deal. With it, you can manipulate a player's popularity or income opportunities. You'll also win the game if you are an Exile and happen to get your hands on to the vision of Faith.

But privileges like the Darkest Secret have vulnerabilities as well. During campaign they can be targeted like territory and for each spoil placed on the privileged, it's value will deteriorate if the attacker is successful. In this way the resource valuation is actually quite misleading! A single warband could be worth several magic if it's used to attack the value of the Darkest Secret.

And, of course, these are just the baseline interactions. The powers on the cards essentially plug these three resource economies into the other systems of the game (such as the card economy, the action economy, etc). I'll be saying a lot more about that next time when I talk about some of the basics of the game's card design.


- Cole Wehrle

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