The Wrestlers card from Oath the Board Game by Cole Wehrle, art by Kyle Ferrin

Designer/Developer Diary, Oath -

Oath | Designer Diary 9: The Long March to Oath's Combat System

I'm quite bad at building games around a single clever mechanism. I don't mean to present any false modesty here. I'm bad at it, and I wish I wasn't. While I'm working on a game, I tend generate a lot of little mechanical systems. Most of these are serviceable and will work just fine in whatever game I'm working on or will maybe work on some future project. But, every once in awhile I'll cook up something especially cute. That's when I know I'm in trouble.

Whenever I fall in love with a particular little system or mechanical flourish, I get the instinct to protect it. This is bad news for a game. I want my systems like putty until everything is in place. If something isn't working, I want to be able to grab the design in both hands and shift everything freely so that I can push the game further along. For this reason, a cute idea is less then useless. It can be threat to my whole development process.

I wanted to state that all plainly before I started talking about Oath's combat systems. I knew early on that the combat system in Oath was going to need to be quite robust and that I would need battles to resolve quickly. It was precisely the kind of design element that begged for a cute solution. And boy did I have cute solutions! Early Root testers might remember the days when a Root battle was a multi-step affair complete with it's own battle board:

An early Battle Board from the development of Root the Board Game

Okay, maybe "cute" isn't quite the right word for this misshapen bit of design work. This was just one of about a half dozen systems that I iterated through before arriving at Root's combat system. In the end, as is usual, the day was won not be any bit of cleverness, but by just being clear-eyed about what demands the game (and the strategic positions of the players) were placing on combat. Namely, in Root battles needed to assess damage done and the cost of that damage both as function of friendly casualties and actions spent. I figured out what averages and risks that needed to be baked into the system and then found out a probability range that closely mirrored that. The 2-die system of Root didn't hit me like a bolt of lightening, it was just the obvious choice after all of the tensions were layed out before me.

Oath has enjoyed a similar process. Eh, “enjoy” is too kind a verb. Perhaps it's better to say that all of the work I did on Root and subsequent games didn't make Oath any easier. The game's combat system has been by far the most volatile part of the design and the part where brute-force iteration has walked hand in hand with a deep study of what the game really demanded of its own combat system.

The Theater of Battle

Both Root and Oath are, fundamentally, war games. Though neither draws on a specific historical parallels or attempts to reenact anything in particular, both games feature armed conflict and both games have a variety of rules which build on wargame design. In their own small way, I hope they are abled to advance the state of the art too. To the extent to which games can have “parents” and exist in a kind of sprawling family tree, both games make far more sense as lesser limbs in the greater branch of wargames than anything else. Their lineage is quite different from something like John Company or Pax Pamir.

That is not to say that both games need conflict. It is possible to win either game without firing a shot. But such cases are rare, and, even if you don't start a battle at some point during a game of Oath, the threat of a looming army was likely a common pressure during the game. These are mean games about mean times.

Because of that centrality, it was clear early on that Oath needed a strong combat system. When I “strong” I really mean robust, responsive, and expressive. It should be able to handle a huge array of different engagements, from small unit fights (<10 combatants per side), large set piece battles, and broad campaigns composed of many engagements. The system should also be responsive. Oath is a game that changes and I need the combat system to be able to change along with the rest of the game as well as the more micro-changes between early/mid/late game fights. Finally, the combat system needs to be expressive: it should provide players with latitude to twist and pull on its fundamentals; players should be able to do clever things and surprise one another.

For those of you who have played Root, you'll likely quickly realize that the requirements of Oath's combat system is a lot more demanding than Root's. This demand forced me to do one of two things: it was potentially going to make combat longer (think Inis style rounds), it was going to make combat more complicated (think Empires in Arms), and likely it was going to push me in both directions at once (Starcraft: the Board Game).

I made the decision early on to make myself comfortable with complexity. This was partly because the game's pitch gave me a little cover. Oath is very replayable and very easy/quick to setup. It didn't matter if the game was a little more complicated if those things were true. After all, this isn't a game aimed at a general audience. And, if making things a little more complicated ultimately lowered the game's average duration, then that was an easy sacrifice in accessibility to make.

Box art from Twilight Imperium: Fourth Edition, Fantasy Flight Games, 2017

It may sound like a contradiction to say that complexity could lower play-time. Let me explain. Consider Twilight Imperium. Combat in TI occurs in rounds. Lots of die are rolled, hits assigned, and action cards are played (or kept delightfully secret). In general the decisions you make on any round in combat are very simple. What takes the hit? Do I play those Emergency Repairs now? Even if the overall complexity of the game is high, the cognitive load on players is pretty trivial in any given fight. But, the fights are long. Players might be rolling dice and shouting at each other four as much as five or even ten minutes.

Now imagine trying to rebuilt TI's combat system to resolve itself on a single roll. In order for that to work you might need different types of dice, a blind bid with cards or something that commit players to certain strategic priorities. Heck, maybe you end up with something like Dune's combat wheel. Dune's combat wheel is a heck of a lot more head-scratching than TI's combat. But, despite that complexity it resolves dramatically faster.

So with Oath, Dune was my role-model, not TI. Here, I should perhaps warn any aspiring designers out there that it's not always a good thing to model your design ethos after often silly (and wondrous) science fiction game with characters like this in it:

The Guild Eldrich from Dune the board game

Then again, there are worse places to get your inspiration. By all means, see what your publisher let's you get away with!

So complexity was okay, but I needed the combat to resolve quickly, ideally in a single roll. At most it could be three rounds. What else was important?

The biggest requirement I had was that I wanted the combat in Oath to tolerate an emergent set of Rock-Paper-Scissors style checks and balances. Instead of just three though, I wanted the counters to adjudicate relationships between the game's six suits.

My model here was two fold. First, I knew that if I could get an RPS style system to work for this game, it would give me a huge space to design in when it came to card powers. Heck, there were dozens of card combos that I could use out of the gate! Order Cards are strong against Beast Cards, but weak against Wizards, etc. Second, I knew that the world of blind bids and RPS style gameplay is both strategically and tactically quite rich. The vast majority of digital strategy games work in this space but, because of physical limitations, board games have a harder time operating in this area. If I could find a way to make something compelling that didn't just feel like a classic game of Rock-Paper-Scissors then I knew I would have a system that would be robust and expressive right from the get-go.

Thus I began a month-long design attempt that lead to three different combat systems, all good and interesting and clever in their own right but none of them were right for the design.

The best version looked something like this. Taking notes from Reef Encounter, players could manipulate a board of strengths and weakness. Armies were composed of units linked to the different suits in the game. So a blue player didn't have blue troops. Instead, the blue player would have a motley collection of order, discord, and nomad troops.

When a battle was started, it would be fought over as many as 3 days. Each day was essentially a bid. First players would roll a weather dice which would inform the number of troops that, if bid, would be “safe.” they were welcome to bid over that number but any excess would be lost. After both players secretly bid, they would compare totals and then move the advantage marker the difference. If a player got enough advantage they would win the battle outright. Otherwise you'd go another day.

The various strengths and weakness of each suit would play against each other in terms of figuring out the value for the bid. If a player sent a wizard with a rusting spell against your big horde of knights, that single wizard would be worth a ton of points and maybe you could win the battle out right. There was also plenty of room for cool timed effects, weather, and lots of other stuff.

Man, I loved that system. It was so expressive! I could build a whole game just around that system.

A lot of my play-testers liked it too. Though no one ever understood it within the first or second or even third battle, once they got the hang of it each match was a hilarious and tense matching of wits. It didn't matter that it was long. Or complicated. Or that it absolutely baffled new players. Man, I loved that system.

Actually, those demerits did matter, but they paled in comparison to the system's biggest sin: players had a hard time planning. It was difficult to know how big of an army you needed to do anything. There were just too many unknowns. Ultimately, that single fact killed the system more than anything else.

Prototype of Oath the Board Game on a white table with players engaged

Wages of War

After I tossed out that system, I wandered for a couple months through a variety of combat systems that were designed to be simple and bad on purpose. Sometimes, when I get stuck on a design problem, I try to build a stop-gap system that I know is ugly simply because it will allow me to play the game and get a better sense what demands the broader game is placing on the particular system. It's a little like putting up a poorly designed structural element on a temporary basis in a model so that you can get a better sense of the forces acting about that element.

During this process I noticed something very peculiar about the demands combat in Oath placed on the game's action economy that I had missed before. I'm quite sure I wouldn't have noticed it if I had kept building baroque combat systems, but, because we were playing with such a fast and stupid stopgap, it made a much bigger problem clear as day: Oath didn't have the actions to support multi-site campaigns. In the first and second acts of the game, this was hardly noticeable as most conflicts required only one or two engagements to resolve themselves. But, towards the end of the game, a player could smash an enemy's army, but still suffer a massive loss because there wasn't enough time in the game's action economy for them to claim their rightful spoils.

This warped the end game badly and set up a variety of trench-war style tactics where folks would hunker-down and bide their time, knowing that an insurgent player couldn't possibly topple their whole kingdom in a single turn. I hated this. Oath draws a lot of its tactical elements from a variety of eras that all featured climatic and consequential battles ranging from Alexander's campaigns to the early middle ages in Mesopotamia.

My first impulse was simply to have the amount of actions in the game scale so that, by the late game, folks had the spare actions to attempt big moves. But the combat system wasn't equipped to deal with action-rich players and the whole thing felt like wack-a-mole. It was not good.

Here it was clear that the Battle Action needed to be replaced by something like a Campaign Action. Because of my own background as a player, I tend to default to operational thinking when I work on a design. However, with the generational scope of Oath, I needed an entire military operation to be conducted in a single action.

The basic solution was obvious. Players needed to be able to make a kind of wager at the start of any Campaign Action. In addition to targeting a specific opponent, the active player would also have to chose how much they wanted to take from that player. In this way, the combat system could scale to the late game without messing with the game's core action economy. If one player wanted to attempt to topple an empire in a single action, they could—that is, the game could adjudicate the difficult of their attempt.

Originally, I tabulated this wager by adjusting a military advantage track. Every objective lowered the start point by one. Then players would roll a modifying die and could spend their own warbands to make up for the gap. There were two key thresholds: one for achieving a minor victory and getting half of what you wanted. The second threshold got you a total victory—which meant you took all of your spoils and increased the enemies losses.

Prototype Military Advantage track from Oath the Board Game

I liked this system quite a bit. In terms of the design, it was mostly producing the tensions and outcomes that I wanted. However, as I took the game from convention to convention I found that, once more, players were having trouble planning multi-stage campaigns or even tabulating how many warbands they needed for a simple engagement.

I decided to take this system through another round of development. Pretty quickly it became clear that the central problem had to do with the die. The battle die was essentially a standard die (though scaled to 0-5) with a few special faces which I'll talk about later. On the face of it, I didn't think that the system was very complicated. Players rolled a die and then added to it to see if they could arrive at a threshold. These kinds of rolls are used all of the time in roleplaying games, why wouldn't they work here?

Well, for one, roleplaying games are a bad model. The systems are (generally) far too open and a lot more dice get rolled in general. A single combat in Dungeons and Dragons might involve twenty or thirty die rolls. I wanted to simulate a much bigger fight with less. Because of this, I needed to be able to grant players the ability to assess their odds precisely. Here the flexbility of the system worked against me. In Dungeons and Dragons, a success on a 11+ means you've got a 50% chance of a success. But in Oath a bad roll could be mitigated by spending your warbands to boost your numbers. This mean that players couldn't think about results in the same binary way. Planning a campaign involved essentially doing a simplistic casually projection. In most scenarios the attacker always “wins” but the cost of the attack may be far more than can be shouldered by their forces.

The core obscuring thing was likely the bit of arithmetic players had to do after they rolled the die. Players would begin at say a -3 and then would roll a die that would add 0-5. If they got to a 3 they achieved a minor victory. A 5 got them a total victory. So, what are their odds? Well, achieving a minor victory might cost as much as 6 warbands or as little as a single warband. A major victory would then cost between 3 and 8 warbands depending on the roll. Even if I liked the overall numbers and the pressure they were putting on the game, I hated how obscure my little track made everything.

In redeveloping the system, the first thing I did was pull out the difference between minor and major victories. The granularity was simply not needed and it removed a lot of the goofy rounding optimizations that players could try to make that always feel gamey even when well-founded (cf. discussions around soaking hits in wargames).

The second thing I needed to do was change how the counting was presented. Having players start at 0 and lower their advantage for every spoil selected was cute but I disliked it's linearity and the cognitive load it put on the players. To that end, I flipped the system. Instead of using the number of spoils to determine a player's starting point, I used the force size differential (which had previously just been a modifier). It was now plain to a player that, with 2:1 odds, they would only need to sacrifice a single warband to win and at a 3:1 perhaps no sacrifice would be needed at all.

Prototype Military Advantage track from Oath the Board Game

Then I replaced the single die with the misfortune dice. For each spoil attempted, players must roll one misfortune die. The sides of the misfortune die look like this: x2, 0, 0, -1, -1, -2. The best result is the “0” though if only one die is rolled the “x2” functions as a “0.” So a player going in for one spoil at 2:1 odds knows that there's a 50% shot that they would need to lose just one warband. There's a 33% chance they might have to lose 2 warbands and a 17% chance that they might have to lose 3.

Prototype misfortune dice from Oath the Board Game

This system also scaled beautifully. Big campaigns no longer always meant massive losses. Instead, they meant massive uncertainty. A player could attempt to take 4 sites and roll four misfortune dice and have everything come up “0”s. Or they could get a “-2” and a bunch of nasty doublers that would quite literately multiply their problems.

Best of all, this system allowed me to maintain a lot of the granularity and expressiveness of the old combat systems with a fraction of the overhead. Consider this card:

The Wrestlers card from Oath the Board Game
I'll be talking more about the cards next week, but let me decode this one for you now. Wrestlers is a Order (suit) battle plan (card type). Battle plans are special abilities that can be activated during the campaign action by attackers or defenders, usually by spending either a favor or a magic. Most of the time, their effects translate to moving the military advantage marker either forward (to help the attacker) or backwards (to help the defender).

Wrestlers is a conditional battle plan. This means that in addition to its cost, it is only usable in certain circumstances. In this case the trigger is that your enemy must rule at least one Hearth card (the little house icon). If they do and you activate this card, you get to adjust the military advantage marker.

There are a bunch of conditions and effects that battle plans have, but basically this current system let's me replicate a lot of the card effects of previous iterations with a fraction of the cognitive overload. And, the system resolves quickly once players get the hang of it.

I'll be talking more about some of the combat effects in coming weeks when I go through the various powers associated with the different suits. But, before we get to that, I need to say a few things about the general scope of card powers in the game and how they work. More on that next time.

- Cole Wehrle


If you'd like to read the discussion, head to the original post on Board Game Geek.

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