Oath | Designer Diary 11: The Roguish Cards of Oath

Designer/Developer Diary, Oath -

Oath | Designer Diary 11: The Roguish Cards of Oath

Before we get into today's entry, I wanted to say a little something about what's happening tomorrow. Sometime in the morning, we'll be launching the Kickstarter campaign for Oath. It will be a simple campaign and I think it looks a lot nicer than any campaign we've ever built, chiefly the brilliant efforts of our marketing team (Gates and Pati especially) and also because of expertise many of the other staff members and company friends have let the campaign (Marshall for a little 3D work, Caryl and Ed for the video). I cannot wait to show you all what this game is going to look like.

Oath Board Game Box Cover Kickstarter 2020Bigger boxes need bigger covers.

I also wanted to reflect for a moment on how different this campaign is than our previous efforts. On the front-end, it will seem a lot like previous campaigns we've run. But, on the back-end it was built completely differently. For one, I didn't have to split my time a million ways to help organize it. While we were prepping the campaign, Nick and Kyle effectively finished Fort (which is at the factory now), Patrick was able to keep working on his new secret designs (!), the ops team continued working on fulfilling Root: Underworld and launching a retailer portal, and somehow I was able to continue working on Oath's development. In the past, the month before each Kickstarter has been an “all hands on deck” event for the company. That simply wasn't necessary for this project, and that's a good thing.

When I was working on Root I would often tell folks that, though John Company had taken many years to design, I put in far more hours on Root. This happened chiefly because I was working on the game full-time for nearly ten months. Well, in terms of hours of design labor, Oath puts Root to shame. My first serious notes on this game come from January 2018. And, after over a year of concept design and rumination, Oath has gotten many months of full-on development. Even though there are elements that remain to be realized and plenty of work to do over the coming months, I cannot express the degree to which this design feels like it's firing on all cylinders.

I mention this not to pat myself on my back but because this effort simply would not have been possible without the success of Root. And it wouldn't have been possible without Patrick's ability to navigate us through the growth that followed that success. Of course, it follows that none of that would have been possible without Kickstarter. The folks who back our projects make it possible for us to take on extremely ambitious and risky projects. They make it possible for us to punch far outside our weight class.

All of this is to say, I hope you'll see in the Oath campaign a reason to keep trusting us.

Let's get into Oath!

The Cards of Oath

From the very first entry in these series, I hope it's been clear that Oath was always a game that was going to need cards. When I look back on very early proto-Oath designs from many years ago, it's clear to me that the roadblocks I encountered in that game's design existed mostly because I didn't have the proper tools to build the game. Or, to put it another way, in the years before Pax Porfiriana, I was unsure how it was possible to fold so much history within a board game without creating a monstrous design on the scale of Twilight Imperium. That changed with Porfiriana and I feel like I'm still exploring the space that Phil and Matt and Jim's game first opened up.

When I first started working on Oath seriously a couple years back, I had a list of things that I wanted to exist in the game. The list wasn't meant to be comprehensive. Instead it was meant to be a little sample of what was possible. As the game's core system began to take shape, it was clear that the system itself could account for many of these things, but many things remained nonetheless. These items were a natural starting place for the cards.

I take card design very seriously. Or, at least I try. My hope is to create a card list that is flexible and expressive. I'd rather the cards offer players tools that could be used in a variety of different contexts and sometimes in unexpected ways. For this reason I try to avoid creating a series of combo chains and then just working backwards to atomize those chains.

My touchstones, when it comes to good design, came from a genre of digital games called rogues. I've been playing these games almost since I started gaming. In high school and college I played Ancient Domains of Mystery regularly and then started exploring newer variants on the genre like Caves of Qud and the games of Michael Brough in graduate school. And, like everyone playing indie games in the early 2010s, I was playing the tons of genre-adjacent games as well.

I could gush for quite a long time about all of the things I admire about this genre. But, for the sake of this diary, I want to just draw out two elements: their economy of design an the flexibility of their systems.

When it comes to economy of design, you cannot do better than Michael Brough's 868-HACK.

Screen shot from Michael Brough's 868-HACK video game

Players have few buttons and the game is essentially perfect information outside of the spawn of new enemies and the uncertainty of new power-ups. Though there are relatively few powers and enemies, Brough's design capitalizes on the elemental simplicity of their powers and how those powers can interact. For instance, one enemy might move two steps each turn instead of one. Another enemy takes two hits to kill instead of one. These may sounds like pretty coarse differences, but those are the only differences that are needed to create incredibly rich tactical situations.

The second important principle that I wanted was to create powers that were flexible. Players of games like Caves of Qud (or even things like Divinity: Original Sin 1 or 2) will know that much of the charm of those games comes from seeing the systems interact in different ways. In a game of Caves of Qud, I might kill a gigantic amoeba, which erupts into a pool of slim. Suddenly all of the little snapjaw warriors running towards me start slipping through it, perhaps even careering into the violent thorny plants clinging to the cave wall. The game play of Qud is built around allowing the game's various systems to interact with one another. And when that interaction happens the emergent stories the game produces can be as resonate and organic as the game's wonderfully hand-crafted narratives.

Now a board game isn't a computer game, and there's a lot I can't do. The biggest barrier here actually has less to do with an analogue/digital divide and more to do with a cooperative/competitive divide. When you stumble onto a new culture in Dungeons and Dragons, your party can take awhile to acquaint themselves with the discovery. The pace of the game is organic, and a GM can easily speed things up or slow things down according to the interest of the players. But, in a competitive game, time is far more uniform and pacing must be handled by managing things like information bandwidth and turn structure rather than relying on a GM.

So, while I want big expressive systems with lots of funny interactions like Qud, I know that the world that my design lives in is a lot closer to the work of Brough.

When it came to the design for the cards, I tried hard to integrate them into the game's core systems. As you've hopefully been able to gather from previous posts, cards do a lot of work in this game before you even bother to talk about the powers actually written on the cards. Every card at a site is a potential node for recruiting and for influence. And every card on a cohort represents your affiliation with one of the six suits of denizens in the game—indicating both your popular support and where you can draw political favor or learn precious secrets. If the card were just suited, a game of Oath would work just fine. But fine is not good enough.

A Small Favor card from Oath the Board Game
The cards of Oath provide players with a secondary set of tools that they can use to navigate through the game's core system. In what remains of today's post, I'm going to talk you through four of the different types of cards in Oath and offer an example of each.

When Played

The simplest cards in Oath are the “When Played” type. These cards have only a single effect, which occurs the moment they are played.

As an example, check out “A Small Favor.” This card will give you a burst of military power when it is played. The diamond around the suit simple in the top right indicates that this card can only be played on to your cohort. Rectangles can only be played onto sites and circles can be played to either space.

Critically, after this card is played on our cohort, it cannot be removed. This was my little allusion to the sticky alliances of Pax Pamir and the love/hate players often have with their own courts in that game. Remember too that the suit of the cards in your personal cohort are exceptionally important since they will determine the depth of your influence and your popularity.

Cards from Oath the Board Game: Errand Boy and Magician's Code; art by Kyle Ferrin

Modifiers (Rules/Actions)

These cards alter one of the game's five core actions or impact the phases of a turn. One of my favorites here is the card Errand Boy. During the play action, you can opt to draw from discard piles outside of your zone. The cost box (on the left) indicates that you'll need to pay a single favor to do this. That favor will be routed back to the suit supply associated with this card at the end of the turn.

Another Modifier card that I love is the Magician's Code. This card will let you purchase the Darkest Secret as if it's value were two less. It's an expensive card to use, but often players will gladly exchange their favor for magic. However, such exchanges will empower the Arcane suit and likely weaken a player when it comes to other action efficiencies and their ability to raise warbands.

Cards from Oath the Board Game: Pressgangs and Elders; art by Kyle Ferrin

Minor Actions

Minor actions make up the largest chunk of cards in the deck by far. These little actions rarely take effort and don't count against your action limit on your turn. They are a little like free or bonus actions.

Some of them provide players access to main actions, such as “Pressgangs” which let's players essentially exchange a single favor for a free recruit action.

Others, like Elders alter the game's natural economy by providing players new ways of getting resources.

Battle Plan

The last category of cards are the Battle Plans. These cards are essentially action modifiers, but they occur at a specific timing window during the Campaign Action. If you plan on fighting a lot of campaigns in your game, using Battle Plans well is critical to your success.

One of the things that usually takes new players a game or two to get their head around is the hefty price of victory during a Campaign. Because the attacker can sacrifice warbands in order to secure a win, even after a horrible die roll, new players tend to feel like the attacker has a huge advantage and that the sacrifice is always worth it. While it's true that attackers do have a big advantage in Oath, engaging in a series of costly campaigns is very likely a recipe for disaster.

Card from Oath the Board Game: Bear Traps; art by Kyle Ferrin
All games are essentially auctions and Oath is no different. The only thing that changes are the types of currencies used and the nature of the things you purchase. Oath's campaign system is it's clearinghouse auction. Players can basically “pay” with any of the game's many currencies. Favor converts to warbands which are essentially worth a military advantage each. The defender can also discard cohort cards to get additional advantage, essentially sacrificing past turns to gain an edge. These kinds of sacrifices are very, very expensive.

Players can get around this cycle by using battle plans. Let's take a look at how one works.

“Bear Traps” is a conditional battle plan. Basically, it means that it's effect will only happen if a particular triggering event occurs. Here's how to read this card. To activate the battle plan the player needs to spend either a favor or a magic. Then, if fighting against a player with at least one beast card in their domain, you'll gain 2 military advantage. Conditional Battle Plans like this essentially establish a kind of rock-paper-scissors dynamic between the suits over the course of the game.

And, as you might imagine, not all battle plans are conditional. I'll be saying a lot more about the different types of battle plans as I get into the full suit review.

Over the next three weeks I'll be posting a short piece on each of the game's six suits. Then, after the campaign is over, I'll return to longer pieces to cover a few system elements that I haven't talked about yet and chronicle the game's journey through development.



- Cole Wehrle


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