Oath certainly fits into that pattern. At it's core, the game tells the story of a single state, which essentially functions like a single coalition that players might join or exit throughout the game. I had long wanted this to be a central element of the game play. At the same time, figuring out the precise platform for player-to-player collaboration and how internal power struggles would be vetted has been one of the hardest elements of this game to tackle. Even as other systems in the game matured, the Commonwealth and its exiles remained out-of-reach. Then, as is so often the case in design, several things snapped together seemingly all at once, and the answers to long-standing problems became plain.
Agents of Change
Oath is about continuity and consequences. It's a game about the ways things can stay the same and about how and why they can suddenly change. For this reason, I knew I needed some player or faction of players to represent the existing ruling class, and I knew that the objectives of those players would need to be informed heavily by conservative (lowercase “c”) priorities.
Originally, I had build this player position as a highly asymmetric role, something like the Cave/Manor in Vast or the Marquise in Root. Each game one player would take the role of the ruling class and would have to police the game. The other players would be exiles seeking to upset that order. I think the first four or five versions of the game that would become Oath used this asymmetric approach, and none of them ever quite worked.
The core problem was system complexity. Early in my design process I gave myself a complexity budget for the game of about two Root factions. What I mean by that is that I wanted learning Oath to be about as hard as learning two Root factions at once. Imagine sitting down and having someone teach you the Eyrie and the Woodland Alliance and the game's general core rules before you can play. That's a lot to hold in your head. And, while it's easier for the teacher than running four fresh players through all four factions in Root, it's still a lot to handle.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that when I was working on the card design, early in the project I drafted a list of cards that I wanted to exist within the system. Around the same time I was working on that list, I also wrote a few imagined session reports that sketched out the narrative scope of the game. These fake session reports weren't meant to be gospel. Instead, they just offered a general feeling and some of the broad dramatic turns that I wanted the game to be capable of producing.
These session reports went a long way in helping me understand the shape of the design. From there I started building systems to fill in that shape. However, once I had a design capable of handling these things, I found there was little space left in my complexity budget for the demands of radical asymmetry. Here the idea of a structured coalition seemed like an obvious path forward. After all, states are people (h/t to Mitt Romney). If I couldn't have radical asymmetry, perhaps just an asymmetry of goal would produce a great enough difference to give the game the character it needed.
In-Fights and Out-Fights
Oath contains two types of players, Citizens and Exiles. Each functions using basically the same set of rules, but they are each oriented towards a different end-goal. Exiles want to win the game one of two ways. Either they want to compete against the Commonwealth directly and score the most victory points or else they want to fulfill one of those vision cards I talked about in the previous entry. They are scrappy and disruptive by nature and their objectives will often force them to quickly pivoted their strategy as opportunities present themselves.
Citizens earn victory points collectively. That is, all citizens basically share pieces, and they qualify for the Oath condition (which generates victory points) as a team. However, if the Commonwealth wins the game, victory will be given to the player who has accumulated the most personal prestige. This means that citizens essentially have to win at two levels: they need the Commonwealth to have enough victory points by the end of the game to take the victory and they need to have won the prestige race among their fellow citizens. This dynamic should seem familiar to players of Pax Pamir.
In theory this system seemed to do everything I could ask of it. The Commonwealth would always have lots of bad actors, so I didn't need to worry to much about the exile players feeling outgunned by a collective player position. And, Commonwealth players were discouraged from building prestige engines to outpace their fellows because the moment they achieved and insurmountable lead their allies would abandon the Commonwealth outright and search for other paths to victory.
However this conceit came with a ton of design problems. First I tried having all of the players began as citizens, thinking that the prestige race was fundamentally easier to grasp and that players could better understand their options. The math here seemed simple: getting prestige points was more straightforward than having to juggle attempting to fulfill the oath condition with four other paths to victory found in the vision cards. I soon learned how wrong I was to think this. It turns out the prestige race was a lot more sophisticated than trying to knock the table over with a new vision card. The exile role was single minded: find a vision or oath and just do what it says as hard as you can. Citizens, in contrast, have to be more carefully attuned to the incentive structures within the game. A good citizen partner is one that is sure they can win via prestige points. It follows then that a good citizen player needs to make sure all of their partners think that. It's a delicate balance, even if the ways prestige points are gained tend to be quite straightforward.
As I hopped from one show this fall to another, I quickly discovered that the citizen/exile divide was vexing my players. It became a lot easier just to start everyone as an exile and then use the Commonwealth as a kind of catch-up vehicle for losing players to band together (like the Vagabond coalitions in Root). But this meant that sometimes it was never invoked at all, and it started to feel like a element that had been tacked on to the design rather than a central dynamic. By the end of BGG Con I didn't even teach the Commonwealth to new players. The game was already interesting enough with everyone as exiles. Maybe that was all I needed.
When I got back to the Twin Cities before thanksgiving, I did a careful design audit with Nick Brachmann, one of our staff graphic designers who doubles as an excellent developer in his own right. We went through the design and looked at the things that worked and those that didn't. It was clear the Commonwealth wasn't working. At one point Nick looked at me and told me plainly that, if he were giving feedback to this design as if it had been pitched to him from an external designer, he would have told me to cut the Commonwealth from the game. I agreed completely.
Though I agreed with Nick's assessment, I still felt some loyalty to the idea. The Commonwealth existed to produce a critical thematic and mechanical tension. The problem was that it simply wasn't providing those tensions. For that reason it couldn't help but seemed extraneous. I wanted another shot.
Over the two weeks between BGG Con and PAX I took Oath this element of the game into a hot development cycle, running through as many games as I could and making numerous tweaks to the game. At this point basically every system in the game had matured nicely and was reliably creating interesting matches.
During this period I decided to read through my design notes from over the past year or so and look for any unexplored paths that might yield the missing piece. I already had a basic sense of the problem. The Commonwealth system (as it had been at BGG Con and in San Diego) was simply too flexible. This meant that there was little strategic inertia built into the system. Players could turn on a dime if they needed. Players of Pax Pamir will know that much of that game's heart lies in controlling when and how other players can change their loyalties. This is probably my favorite element of that design and I think it's the part of the game that most closely maps onto the historic conditions that faced the players. I needed to find some limits for Oath.
Here I returned to the positional asymmetry that I had discarded earlier in the process. Instead of building a fully fledged role, I wondered if it was possible to start the game with one player stuck in the role of a citizen. Josh Yearsley had encouraged me along similar lines when he had shown the game off weeks before and had found generally that at least one citizen was needed to produce a good tension in the game and help players understand how the game worked.
Thematically, I thought this made a lot of sense. I had long wanted the player who won the previous game to be in charge of the next game. Perhaps requiring one player position to start as a citizen could help anchor the game. Of course, the same actual human player doesn't have to maintain this role. There's no forced player persistence in Oath from game to game, but have a little continuity isn't a bad thing and usually players want to defend their victories anyway. To compensate from the loss of choice given to that player (or the player that chooses to start in this role), I drafted a set of special powers that only they would have access to. The player would be called the Chancellor.
It's Good to be King
The Chancellor is the key to Oath. Though I didn't realize it at the time, I had been circling this idea for months. It may seem odd to arrive at something so central so late in the design process, but that's simply what happened. Sometimes you don't see a focal point until you've filled in all of the negative space around it. Here's how the role works:
At the start of the game one player is chosen to be the Chancellor. The Chancellor is essentially the continuation of the game's previous winner. They start owing all of the territory and assets of the game's previous winner and have garrisons stationed across the map. For this reason it usually makes thematic sense to let the game's previous winner take this role, but nothing in the design requires that level of continuity.
The Chancellor starts the game as a Citizen. The rest of the players are Exiles. All Citizens use the same color of warbands (probably purple). Exiles use their own color of warbands. Citizens get two actions per turn. Exiles get three. That's basically the only gameplay difference.
The Chancellor, however, is special. They have several unique powers. First, they have complete loyalty to the Commonwealth, and can never become an Exile. Second, they have the power to police the board are are essentially able to start fights with their garrisons (rather than having to move their pawn to initiate combat). They also inspire fear in the residents of the game's world, and so other players cannot muster warbands at sites with the Chancellor's pawn. Those powers are all important, but they pale in comparison to the Chancellor's biggest power: the power to enfranchise exiles.
On the Chancellor's turn, they can make offers of citizenship to any Exile player. These offers can include gifts of favor (with the local peoples), magic, and, most importantly, prestige. If the Exile accepts this offer, they will immediately flip their board over to it's citizen side and convert all of their war-bands to purple. From now on, like the chancellor, they will take only two actions, but they will have likely gained many new card abilities and access to new resources. Most critically, their VP marker will fall off the victory point track and now sit on the prestige track at whatever level of prestige the Chancellor offered. If the Chancellor had five prestige points and offered three, they would lower their prestige score to two and then give their new citizen three points. In terms of victory, the new citizen would now be on better footing than even the chancellor! Remember, if the Commonwealth wins, only the player with the most prestige will be the victor. Why would they ever do such a thing?
Well, for one, there are lots of ways to win prestige points. Citizens can always spend favor, cast magic, or garrison new sites to gain prestige. In addition, there are lots of cards in the deck which provide players with new ways of scoring prestige points. These card powers work like any other—a player alone might have access to them if played onto their personal cohort. Because the Chancellor is permanently wedded to the Commonwealth, it usually makes sense for him to make sure it wins the game, even if he has to make himself vulnerable to new rivals.
The Chancellor can also take comfort in knowing that he also has the power to expel citizens. All players have a popularity and the Chancellor can spend favor equal to a citizens popularity in order to kick them out of the Commonwealth, knocking their victory points back to zero and removing any immediate threat they posed. This can be a terrible blow to a former citizen, but players can usually protect against this by drafting their cohort carefully and not doing anything too unpopular.
Collectively, this system produces much of the diplomatic tension I love in structured political games while still feeling free form enough to allow the players quite a bit of agency. Next time, I'll round out this mini series on victory with a detailed discussion of the different paths to victory, popularity, and the game end trigger.
- Cole Wehrle
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