Oath | Designer Diary 6: Oaths and Visions (Victory Part 1)

Designer/Developer Diary, Oath -

Oath | Designer Diary 6: Oaths and Visions (Victory Part 1)

Programming Note: Here in the United States we've entered the holiday season. This includes a fair amount of travel for both work and family. For this reason, these posts will become a little more infrequent, appearing once every two weeks or so.

Back when I was working on Root, I was often asked what victory meant in terms of the game. Partly this was the design's fault. Root uses generic victory points. The first player to 30 points wins. This metric is pretty convenient and also allows players to easily understand the current game state at a glance. But, it also hid some of the game's thematic framework. What was a victory point supposed to actually mean?

The answer I gave then (and that I still give now) is that 30 points in Root represents a kind of legitimacy threshold. At this point, the creatures of the woodland throw up their hands—or paws—and decide that the first faction to achieve that goal is probably the best ruler they are going to get.

This seems simple enough, but it hides some careful thinking about what legitimacy means in the context of Root. For instance, each factions victory point distribution exists at the point of comprise between (1) the faction's priorities and (2) the hopes and dreams and fears of the woodland creatures. For the Marquise, control and exploitation might be the primary aim of her conquest of the forest. But, the population of the forest want more. They want to see that she can build and protect a robust economic system. That's why she gets points primarily for building (and rebuilding) buildings. The universal victory points for the destruction of building and tokens is meant to speak to the intersection of legitimacy and fear. It is a game of Might and Right after all.

Unfortunately, this victory schema also creates a bit of a narrative problem for Root. Don't get me wrong, I love Root. We play it a lot in the office, and I don't see any reason to stop. But, sometimes the game behaves strangely at the end. A player might craft a boot to cinch a victory. Or, an Eyrie player might eek out a victory by scoring the last point from a single Roost on the board.

What's happening here is that the game emotional and narrative climax sometimes arrives a turn or two before the end game. Heck, sometimes the first turn is the one loaded with emotional and strategic force and the rest of the game is just spent sorting through that trauma. This is, I think, a great strength of the design, but it also can lead to players occasionally feeling like the ending didn't quite match up with the rest of the game.

When I started working on Oath, I wanted to seriously grapple with the subject of endings. This is a tricky topic in games generally and, in particular, becomes extra tricky when trying to approach this subject with a game that, by some metrics, doesn't really end at all. Over the next few entries in these series, I'll be talking about Oath's victory condition, the perspectives of the players, how the game deals with the endings of all shapes and sizes.

Morality and Game Design

Every victory condition is a statement of morality. Eh, that might be a little melodramatic. Perhaps it's better to say that every victory condition is a value statement. That value statement might reflect the personal values of the designer, the values of a marketing team (or the audience they wish to connect with), or perhaps the imagined values of a particular group of people.

Victory conditions also orient the players within the game system. I think that the two most critical decisions a designer makes when working on a game is figuring out who the players are within the space of the game and what their goals are. I'll be writing a lot more about the scale of Oath and the player position in a future entry. For now, let's stick with goals.

A game is always about it's victory condition. When I teach games, it's the very first thing I tell players and the last thing I remind them of before we start to play. In my own work, I do my best to create victory conditions that feel appropriate to the stories I want to tell. This can lead to mechanisms which produce unfashionable results (such as the attrition die in John Company) or else lead to intense stand-offs that sometimes overstay their welcome.

I like these conditions because I feel like they recognize the limits of the game while pushing players to understand some of the forces that pressured their historical counterparts. Sometimes this can generate sympathy for their counterparts—as I hope Pamir does—but more often I want players to feel a more general sympathy for the many lives that were caught in the swirl of history and how a series of reasoned decisions can lead to total moral collapse.

In-game shot of the London Season game board.

When I first started working on Oath, long before it was a game, I had it's victory condition more-or-less set. This is primarily because victory in Oath was tied directly to some of the game's most central arguments about the passage of time and the shifting demands of legitimacy over generations.

The vast majority of games out there—including most of my own—revolve around a single victory condition. Sure, there might be other fail-states and curious asymmetries, but mostly players are all trying to accomplish a single goal. The goal might be global or it might be individual, it doesn't matter to much. They can mostly rely on that goal remaining in place through the many trials a game might put them through.

Legitimacy has always felt like a fair way to describe what a victory condition represents. Whether you are playing Greed Incorporated or Modern Art, at the end of the day, legitimacy is probably the best term I have for describing what the players are after. At the same time, I recognize the vague character of this definition. At HistoriCon a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of chatting with Volko Ruhnke about this. He told me about a game design exercise he had run with some some military and intelligence planners. At the start of the exercise, he asked participants to figure out who the principal actors were and what their goals were. While they didn't have much trouble coming up with the players, they quickly became deadlocked on the subject of victory. It turns out half thought the victory condition should be related to “power” and the other half thought “legitimacy” was a better metric. But, in both camps there was wide disagreement as to what those two terms actually mean.

Oath leans into this uncertainty. Legitimacy can mean different things at different times and to different people. Here's how I boiled it down. Each game has a single Oath card which establishes the game's core victory condition. Unlike the regime's in Pax Porfiriana, an Oath will not change over the course of the game. However, they can change in-between games, depending on how victory shakes out. This is one reason why they are called Oaths rather than the prescriptive climates or regimes described in Pax games. Oaths are the promises the people of the game's world want you to make with them, it's up to the players to imagine how such a promise might be fulfilled. It's my little nod to social contract theory.

Prototype cards for the Oath of Supremacy and the Oath of Protection
Excuse the many prototype cards in this post. They are a long way from final layout!

There are four Oath cards in the game, each representing a different flavor of legitimacy: the Oath of Supremacy (empire, conquest), the Oath of the People (popular support, democracy), the Oath of Protection (dynasty, conservation), and the Oath of Devotion (knowledge, secret-keeping). This means that there are four paths to victory within the game's core design. The Oath of Supremacy rewards the player that controls the most territory. The Oath of the People rewards the player who has the most popular support, which is measured as a function of a players portfolio of supporters and their relative power. The last two Oaths both depend on holding special privilege which can be bought and fought over during the course of game: the Royal Blessing (for the Oath of Protection) and the Darkest Secret (for the Oath of Devotion).

Each of these Oaths is essentially a fully-featured aspect of the core game, complete with strategies and counter-strategies. This sounds overwhelming. Thankfully, only one is active each game, so new players are only marginally overwhelmed—at least, until the moment they draw their first vision card.

White playing card with a very fancy "v"

In the last entry I mentioned five special cards that were mixed into the top half of the deck. These are the vision cards. When a player draws a vision they must announce it to the table (bonus points for declaring loudly that they've “seen a vision!”). The penalty track is then adjusted which will make future draws from the main deck more expensive, which limits the number of cards flowing around in the game.

But, they are more than just friction points. Vision cards grant players access to the inactive oaths. When a player draws a vision, they could play it face up and declare their attempt to fulfill their new victory condition, or they can keep their intentions secret by playing it face down (essentially holding it in their hand). Unfortunately for the scheming player, the vision cards have different backs, so they will be marked by their rivals as a potential revolutionary as long as they hold onto their vision.

Four the five vision cards are essentially mirrors of the four Oath cards, but reworded as to be instant victory conditions. For instance, with the Vision of Rebellion, the player who reveals this card will win if three visions have been seen this game and they have the most popular support at the start of their turn.

The fifth vision, The Conspiracy, is not really a vision at all. Instead, it is the only one-time instant in the game. When played, it allows a player to steal either the Darkest Secret or the Royal Blessing from any player that shares a location with them. Then this card is placed in the box for the remainder of the game. Both privileges have other uses which encourage players to try to secure them earlier so they tend to get contested every game, regardless of whether or not they are tied to a path to victory.

Prototype cards for Oath the Board Game

In fact, there are organic advantages to pursuing all of the different victory paths during the game, even if it's not the path you think will help you win the game. Each system is woven into the others so that players get familiar blocking each other and trying to expand their power base.

The visions also set the stage for a classic policing problem. The leader must bat off potential rivals while also attempting to protect their flanks from alternative victory conditions. As the game goes on, the vulnerabilities increase as more visions are seen and players begin to seek for more desperate paths to victory. This is a familiar space to Marquise players in Root, but players will find that the role of the police person may shift over the course of the game. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

Victory's Consequences

The system of Oath and Visions creates a pretty expressive endgame, which is a useful thing to have if you want to build a game that adapts to the choices of its players. Essentially, games of Oath end three ways. Each of these ways will inform how the Oath might change in the next game.

One, a player might fulfill a Vision card. While Dominance cards only make up about 15% of wins in Root, Vision wins will be more likely, especially at certain player counts. If a player wins with a vision, the next game will be played using the Oath corresponding to that vision. The thematic logic here is pretty simple. If you win by starting a death cult out on the steppe, the next game will be played within the logic of that death cult, that is, under the Oath of Devotion. It's also worth noting that all visions are used in every game, so the victory condition could remain stable from one game to the next just because a player used a Vision to win on a condition that happened to mirror the current Oath.

Second, a player might fulfilling the Oath card. When this happens, the Oath will “age out” and be replaced by the next Oath card in a set progression (Protection to People to Supremacy to Devotion and then back to Protection). This represents a common ideological drift.

Finally, if the Commonwealth manages to keep the ruling class united and win on the Oath condition, the Oath will remain the same. This represents the conservative faction of the Commonwealth succeeding in keeping the state and the state's ambitions stable. Keeping that ruling class united is quite the trick. I'll talk more about how the commonwealth works and some of the headaches that its Chancellor faces in the next post.

Prototype cards for Royal Blessing and Darkest Secret
- Cole Wehrle
To see the full discussion, visit the original post on Board Game Geek.