Oath | Designer Diary 8: Destinations and Paths (Victory Part 3)
As you might have guessed from the fact that I'm spending three diaries on victory, I'm a little preoccupied with how games end. Victory conditions matter. They really matter. I mean that to apply generally, to pretty much any game design out there, and I also mean to apply it doubly to Oath, a game where the ending of one game creates the seed for the next game.
I realize that all of this rumination can make Oath's victory conditions seem pretty opaque. While it is true that many new players of Oath begin the game a little bewildered as to how to win, the various paths to victory a lot easier to grasp. This is mostly because the game's general rules are fairly simple and because the four paths are more tightly integrated into different elements of the game system. For this reason, when I'm teaching the game, I usually only bother to explain the current Oath's victory condition and then nod at the four visions when teaching the parts of the game that interact with those visions.
Broadly speaking, a game of Oath ends one of two ways: either “naturally” or by Vision. I've talked about the Visions pretty extensively in previous entries. Basically, if an Exile qualifies for Vision they previously played and three visions have been drawn from the deck, that Exile will win the game outright at the start of their turn. While this happens a lot more frequently than dominance wins in Root, it's just as likely that the game will end “naturally.”
When a game ends “naturally” players will check to see which player has the most victory points. That player wins the game. If there's a tie, then the newcomer (the player whose VP token is on top of the stack) will win. If the Commonwealth has the most victory points, then players will refer to the prestige track to determine the winner.
A “natural” ending is triggered randomly. After the fifth round of play, players will throw a die to see if the game is over. The odds of it ending increase with each additional round of play. It' starts as a 1/6th chance, then the odds double, then they double again. The game always ends after the eight round of play.
This is, to put it bluntly, a pretty old-fashioned way of ending a game. But Oath is a game filled these kinds of retro design sensibilities. I took quite a bit of inspiration here from one of my favorite games, The Napoleonic Wars.
Well, for starters, the payoff is incredible. More than any other Napoleonic game, I feel like Mark McLaughlin's The Napoleonic Wars captures the absolute the terrifying sense of political uncertainty that I associate with the Romantic Era and Napoleon in general. The whole game is bursting with wild, ahistorical possibilities that nonetheless seem to capture the period perfectly. The end-game condition is an important part of this too. Players simply cannot play conservatively and must throw caution to the wind at every opportunity.
With Oath I wanted to capture the better elements of this system without some of the liabilities. I did this a few ways. First, Oath is shorter. A game of The Napoleonic Wars can stretch from 90 minutes to 8 hours. Games of Oath tend to be from 45 minutes to two hours. In general, this shorter playtime better supports the random endgame because the total game-time variance is dramatically smaller. Second, Oath's legacy-style game-play lends itself to double headers. If a game ends quickly, players can roll right into a second round. Finally, Oath is exceptionally fast to setup (usually taking 3 minutes or so), which helps players get to the game faster.
I realize that the kinds of games that I make can take awhile to learn. And, while I can reliably get folks playing Oath about 15 minutes after we setup, I know that most first-time groups will have a longer teach. For this reason I wanted to make sure that, even if the game ended on the earlier side, it would be easy for them to continue playing so they didn't feel shortchanged.
And the payoffs are well-worth the uncertainty. By not knowing precisely when the game will end, players close to victory and encouraged to stretch out to achieve it. If you know that there's a 1/6 chance that you will win the game outright if you play recklessly, it's probably worth your time to do it. If the die falls in your favor, then it creates an appropriately climatic ending to the game. And, if the game continues, the resulting game state is usually more interesting. Essentially, the uncertainty punishes conservative play.
This is counterbalanced by scaling the victory points over the course of the game. The amount of victory points players earn each turn for qualifying for the Oath condition increases as the game goes on. You can see that track here:
What this means in practice is that a player who has won points for the Oath for the past two turns is usually in strong enough position to win the game, but latecomers have the advantage both in the sense that they will win any ties in victory points during the end game and that their late-game scoring opportunities will be quite a bit more lucrative. Of course, it also tends to be a lot harder to achieve an Oath condition in the late game. A few Citizens working together can have a lot more reach than any Exile player. Granted, usually Citizens start bickering the moment the Commonwealth gets ahead of the pack!
The Four Oaths
In the first piece in these series, I alluded to the four victory conditions. Now I'm going to talk about those victory conditions in depth. Laying them all out in one place can be a little overwhelming, but take heart! Only one of these four conditions will be active as the Oath condition each game. The rest of the victory conditions will be relegated to Visions and only a couple will likely enter play.
The Oath of Supremacy is the simplest. To qualify a player must control more sites than any other single player. Players earn this condition by campaigning (we'll talk more about battles soon) and defending their territory from invasion.
The Oath of the People is a little more complicated. Every player has a Popular Support value that is a function of their personal cohort. Each faceup card in a players personal cohort is worth Popular Support equal to the amount of favor in that suit's bank. I haven't talked too much about the game's economies yet, but know that basically every suit as it's own little bank. When you pay cards belonging to that suit, the money will eventually end up in that suit's bank. That bank is also used to pay out the allies of that suit. By having cards in your cohort that match the richest suits, you can boost your popularity. The player with the most total Popular Support qualifies for this Oath.
Note: Popular Support is used for a few things in the game, including determining the price that the Chancellor must pay to expel a citizen. Popular citizens will be all but impossible to expel!
The last two Oaths (of Devotion and of Protection) both rely on holding a privilege. There are two privileges in each game of Oath: the Royal Blessing and the Darkest Secret. On a players turn they can essentially bid on these by spending favor (for the Royal Blessing) or magic (for the Darkest Secret). When a player takes a privilege, it's value is adjusted to reflect the most recent bid.
To qualify for the Oath of Devotion, a player must hold the Darkest Secret. To Qualify for the Oath of Protection, a player must hold the Royal Blessing. Easy peasy.
Even if their corresponding Oath or Vision isn't in play, these two privileges are always useful, This is because each privilege has a special power linked to it. The Darkest Secret grants the power to corrupt: at the start of your turn, you can manipulate the wealth of the suits. The Royal Blessing grants the power to banish: when you play cards you have the ability to discard cards first, effectively allowing you to kick cards off the map!
In general the value of these cards will gradually increase over the course of the game. However, those values can be eroded by the campaign action, which I'll be talking about in my next entry.
Endings and Consequences
Oath's victory condition is one of my favorite parts of the design and one of the parts of the design that has been the most stable over the course of its development. I mean the condition to be an affectionate critique of Root's victory condition and of the victory calculus associated with regime control in Pax games.
In both cases my intervention was made possible because of Oath's ability to tell stories over the course of many games. Essentially, the four visions in Oath are a little like the four regimes of Pax Porfiriana or the four victory conditions in Pax Renaissance. However, because only one is the primary goal each game, the ground for determining victory is dramatically more stable. Essentially, Oath is attempting to make these bigger narratives more accessible by allowing their action to unfold over several games.
At the same time, Oath is not a slow game or a simple one. While it's possible for players to occasionally coast to a win in Root, in Oath you need to be aggressive. Games often end with one player snatching the brass ring.
In order to structure victory in this way, the design has had to court interaction, interdependence, and risk more forcefully than many of my previous games. But here again these elements gelled well with Oath's multi-generational structure. Most games of Oath are won through skill. There's a lot of texture to every decision you make in the game and the game has surprisingly long strategic horizon that rewards planning. At the same time, sometimes a lucky player wins. Opportunities for kingmaking abound.
I've found players are far more tolerant of those interdependencies in Oath compared to any game I've worked on. The reason for this is simple. Though a single player wins, every player helps determine the shape of the game as it grows and changes. Like most games, the ending of a game of Oath is certainly judgmental, but it's not only judgmental. Endings in Oath are consequential as well, and those consequences are informed by the decisions of all of the players.
The winner may get to write the history, but not every legacy can be erased.
Visit the original post on Board Game Geek for additional discussion.