Oath | Designer Diary 2: Origins, Expanded

Designer/Developer Diary, Oath -

Oath | Designer Diary 2: Origins, Expanded

Last week I mentioned how the origins of Oath were complicated, spanning many years and many influences. In fact, for a long time it wasn't clear that my work on this material would even coalesce into a game.

Well, it turned into a game, alright. So, I want to do my best to gather up those various origins and arrange them for you all here. As I said, these things are complicated, and over the next few months I'll be giving you all a huge bibliography and ludography for the game. For today, I thought I'd just sketch a simple genealogy of my looser inspirations for the design and the broader inquiry that led to start working on it seriously.

When I was a kid, most of the games I played were second-hand. Often they were found in garage sales or stacked in a lonely closet at a friend's house. Most of these games were old and incomplete, but they were enough to spark the imagination. One of my favorite things about these old games was that they usually came with little booklets featuring ads for other games. It was through one of these ads that I discovered a game called 
Imperium: Empires in Conflict – Worlds in the Balance.

I can't remember the exact wording of the marketing copy. A lot of it was the usual pulp sci-fi fluff about cruel space empires and fearless rebellions that you can find on any number of games published in the Star Wars era. But, outside of that, I remember two very specific claims the game made. The first was that it was asymmetric, offering two radically different factions. The second thing was even more compelling: the asymmetry was emergent and adaptive. Games were linked together in an epic campaign that informed how the factions behaved and their objectives. I was in love.

At that time, I had just started playing Dungeons and Dragons and was eager to turn everything I played into a campaign-style game. I built a little campaign game framework for my battered copy of Tactics II, and, when Battle Cry arrived the next year, an operational campaign system was one of the first variants I put together for the game club hosted at my middle school.

When I tried my hand at proper design in college, this subject was the first one I wanted to tackle. The very first game that I built and played was called Scion (2008-9). The whole game was designed around a concept quite similar to Oath. Players would take the roles of the disaffected youth of a failing kingdom and strike out for their own fortune, eventually building up a new empire. That empire would then set the stage for the next game. It was a nice idea but woefully overambitious and under-researched. Though I convinced several friends to play it with me, I don't know that we ever actually finished a game. After a few sessions I gave up and that was more-or-less the end of the project. As a design, it was largely a failure. I didn't leave that project thinking that I wanted to make a career out of game design.

Cover for Scion: the rebuilding of Empires board game
The only copy of this game is buried somewhere in my parent's garage. Don't upload it to the Board Game Geek database, please.

Still, the ideas behind of big games were infectious. I hunted for copies of Blood Royale and was always on the lookout for local groups running big, multi-session games. Then, in 2012 I became obsessed with a big game about Mexican history in a very small box. Pax Porfiriana was the the first in Phil's sequence of small box titles that helped transform Sierra Madre Games. Though often lampooned for inscrutable rules, the design itself represents significant restraint compared to other Eklund titles. The game's chief excess was in its card list. The game has over 200 unique cards, representing personalities, innovations, and establishments from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This variety was owed in part to the fact that the game was a distillation of Phil Eklund's Lords of the Sierra Madre. So, while the box was small, it contained a mountain of content. In fact, there was so much content that its components often spilled over the sides of its small box.

Oddly the game did not require such a deep card list at all. In fact, only a small fraction of cards are used in each game. I certainly didn't mind the variety, but I was becoming tired of the fact that the game would flap open in my bike bag on the way to a game store, and I would arrive to find my pannier bursting with cards. At some point when playing Porfiriana I stopped taking all of the cards with me. I could leave most of the cards at home which both sped up setup and allowed me to safely close the box. Every once in awhile I would swap out some of the cards in the deck but mostly the card list stayed stable.

This choice had a curious effect that I did not realize until years later when I began to talk to others about the game. Many praised the design but found the high variance of the deck off-putting. Players could play an entire game without a single money-making enterprise showing up (usually these are the bedrock of the game's economy). This had not been my experience at all. After a play or two, players would familiarize themselves with the quirks of any additional deck cards and adjust their strategies. Then, right as things were beginning to level off, a few new cards would be added to the mix. The resulting metagame was delicious. There was enough stability that the deck was worth thinking about but with enough variance that kept players wanting another play. The stability also created something like standard cast of characters who could be fleshed out over several rounds of game. Hey look, it's Ida B. Welles again. Last game she ran a Marxist newspaper. What might she be up to this game? As someone used to one-and-done sessions of big historical games, this was a very new way of thinking about games.

That year was also the first time I came into contact with Risk: Legacy. I adored its ambition. The idea that players could create a world over several games of play seemed wondrous. I wondered if those ideas could be built into a Pax-style game. But, the game didn't quite live up to my expectation. Even with all of it's dramatic turns, Risk remained Risk. And, while I quite like vanilla Risk, I can't say it was always improved by the surprises of the Legacy format. I felt much the same way about Pandemic Legacy, which is a fine game with a good story, but ultimately didn't feel like a very interesting game. That's perhaps a little unfair. The game is quite wicked and clever, but I often felt like the actual play of the game was less interesting than the story bits. If I had to choose, I'd rather just play regular Pandemic.

Don't get me wrong, I admire these projects, they are just not the kinds of games that I'm interested in. I love the idea of legacy games, but just not how they are implemented. What I wanted was something closer to a free-form campaign game, where one match informed the next, but where the players were ultimately the ones driving the narrative of the game.

Roving Terror card art from Oath the Board Game; a monster picks up a cute but scared cow. Art by Kyle Ferrin

When I came to work for Leder Games in 2017, one of the first games I talked to Patrick about was a game he had been working on called Path. I was so excited by his outline for the game and the fact that it seemed to be tackling some of the areas I had been interested in for so long. He wanted to build an open-world adventure game where one game could inform the next. I eagerly gushed a dozen (mostly) nonsense ideas that had been pent-up in me from years past. We had a great conversation, but as Path was still a long way away, we both had to put the conversation on hold. Soon we were both caught up in Root and then TMM.

Early the next year, while I was finishing the development of Root, we had another meeting where we talked about future games. One idea was a (slight) adaptation of simplistic Root into a legacy format where players fought to either keep the governing regime intact or to usurp that regime. Patrick liked the pitch and urged me to work on as a side project while we finished Root and prepared to jump into then next Vast game. Later that year, while driving back from Origins together, we spent a good potion of the drive hashing out ideas and making sure this project was distinct enough from his work on Path to give games both room to breath and grow.

As work on Vast: The Mysterious Manor wound down, I started giving the game that would become Oath more and more of my time. By this point I had my pitch down, and I had a clear vision of what I wanted the game to feel like. But, I didn't have an idea what I wanted the game's arguments to be or even what mechanical systems the game needed to be built around.

To sort through my thoughts, I started a formal design log to help record my process. Usually, I find the process of writing to clarify my thinking, but that wasn't the case here. The first entry was a massive catalog of frustration and anxiety. I was terrified of this project.

I took a coupled days off, preferring to help out with Root: Underworld. When I resumed my log, scanned my previous frenzied entry and I began it with a simple summation: “The key problem I'm running into here is one of scope.” It would be months before I would figure out even how to begin approaching that problem--let alone a solution!

More on that next week.


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