Oath: New Foundations | Design Diary 1 - What's All This Then?

Designer/Developer Diary, Oath -

Oath: New Foundations | Design Diary 1 - What's All This Then?

Over the past year, we’ve been quietly working on an expansion for Oath.

Well, that’s not exactly the right way to put it, and I’d hate to start the first designer diary for a new project with a pair of lies. In the first place, I haven’t been that quiet about it. Towards the end of 2022, I mentioned to the Oath backers that I was starting to think about what it would mean to expand Oath. And, if you’ve watched any of our monthly studio chats, you’ve probably caught the occasional reference to an expansion.

In addition, it’s not really fair to say that I’ve been consistently working on this project. In the first place, Oath was designed without any intention of making an expansion. If you would have asked me in the months after the game’s release how it might be expanded, I wouldn’t have had a good answer. Partly this is just because that’s not how I tend to think about games. After Oath wrapped up, I found myself preoccupied with questions about how games tell their stories and especially how a game’s narrative tempo is informed by its core mechanisms. These thoughts led me pretty directly to the design of Arcs, which, from the very start, was both a follow up to Root and Oath as well as a reaction against both of those games. I tend to be a designer that needs to develop a healthy dislike of some other game in order to do my best work, and, in the case of Arcs, the target of that negative attention just so happened to be some of my previous projects.

But, as I got deeper into the design of Arcs, I noticed a few design elements that didn’t quite fit with the new game. This led to a curious kind of cycle. Arcs was essentially built from things that I wanted to put in Oath, but were bad fits for that game. Now, I began to realize that there were ideas in Arcs that wouldn’t work there, but might, oddly, be well-suited to Oath. As these ideas bubbled up, I took note of them, but mostly tried to keep my attention fixed on Arcs.

These Oath-ideas didn’t initially cohere in a way that suggested a particular strategy for expanding Oath. They also didn’t seem to offer a strong enough premise for an entirely new project. Some of this is probably Arcs’s fault. After a couple years of hard work on Arcs and with over a year yet to go, I didn’t have much appetite for starting another ambitious campaign game.

At a certain point, I decided to put the Oath expansion on ice. I had a lot of interesting ideas, but I wasn’t sure if spending a year or so working on Oath would be the best use of my time. In contrast, I was finding the expansion potential of Arcs to be tremendously exciting. Arcs was, unlike both Root and Oath, designed for seamless expansion. Late in the development of the game, I had even ventured to write a formal roadmap which would guide the next wave of development if the game found its audience. Usually I find this kind of road-mapping tiresome and presumptuous. But, I didn’t want to be caught flat-footed in case there was a real demand for more Arcs. I was also genuinely excited about the possibility that I would get to keep working on the game. As we finished the game, the response to the near-final versions of the game was tremendously positive. It seemed as if there was a good chance that I’d be spending the next couple of years stewarding new plotlines, leaders, and game modes.

But, while we were finishing Arcs, something odd started happening to me at conventions. Last year was a bit of an outlier for Leder Games. For a bunch of reasons (including the tremendous size of Arcs), we had a gap in our production schedule. For the first time since I started working with Patrick back in 2017, the studio did not release a game. This meant that our convention strategy was mostly designed around promoting our previous releases and doing previews for upcoming games. Don’t get me wrong, this strategy still requires a lot of work from everyone on the team, but it also means that we tended to have more unscheduled time at our booth where we can talk to folks. And, for the first time, I started regularly meeting Oath fans in-person. Oath had been released in the middle of a pandemic. Backers began receiving their copies just as people were queuing up for their second round of the vaccine shots and well before we had any sense of what a return to normal would look like. The game never had a release show, and we didn’t even bring it to conventions when we started, cautiously, reentering that space.

Drew and Cole Wehrle


At Essen in 2022 and UKGE in 2023, I kept bumping into fans who wanted to tell me about their chronicles. Here I had traveled halfway across the world, mostly to promote Root and John Company, and the thing that seemed most pressing was an experimental campaign game I had released during the pandemic. They loved telling me about how the game really opened up after the 10th play, or how they used the Tribunal to mint new game currency or warp the core rules of the game in some other fundamental way. I got stories of epic dynasties that had fallen to ash and glorious reversals. It was heartening. Still, it might only have been some quirk of European game market. Then the same thing happened at Gen Con and at Pax Unplugged. It was clear the game had found an audience, and, when I told these stories to the operations team here at Leder Games, they showed me the steady sales data of a game finding its place in the market.

As Arcs wound down, I decided to take another swing at an Oath expansion. This time, rather than start with some high-concept premise that I dreamed up, I wanted to meet the game’s fans halfway. What were the sorts of things they loved about the game? Where did the design frustrate them? And where, I wondered, could I still surprise them with something they wouldn’t have thought was possible.

I want to take a quick break here to say that this line of thinking—one that includes the audience so directly—represents a critical evolution in my own thinking. When I first started designing games over a decade ago, I treated them a lot like academic monographs or pieces of intensely personal art. There’s a lot of value in this approach, but I think it’s also valuable to understand a game not just as something that is made, but something that is played. A game fundamentally exists at the intersection of a designer (and creative team) and its players. This means we should often treat our audience as a collaborator. This is one reason why I’m especially interested in games that reward replayability and study. It’s also why, personally speaking, I tend not to care for games that feel like polemics. I want games that are filled with arguments and ideas for players to explore over many plays. There’s probably no better example of this than in the development of the first edition of Pax Pamir into the second. The second edition is significantly more repayable while also being more clear-eyed about its arguments. Many of those changes were adjustments that came from just watching the game get played. I imagine this must be what it feels like to adjust a song after taking it on tour. Of course, it’s possible to over-correct. One of my biggest complaints with many modern game designs is the degree to which they too aggressively try to please every audience member all of the time. As in all creative endeavors, I think the key is knowing who to listen to and when.

When I first proposed Oath, I remember telling Patrick that I had no idea who the game was for. I had a sense of what I wanted to make, but I didn’t know if such a game would ever find an audience. Now, a few years later, I know who those folks are. And so, at the end of this month, we’re going to launch a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the development of an expansion for the game.

We’re not doing this because we think Oath is incomplete or needs fixed. Instead, we want to use the crowdfunding campaign to celebrate the community the game has found and ring in the next phase of its life. We want to offer a space to share what we are working on, and include as many folks in the process of making the game as possible. To this end, we’ve got a lot of things planned. Like our other campaigns, I’ll be firing off designer diaries in the weeks leading up to the campaign and afterwards. We’ll be slowly rolling out preview kits for in progress ideas and sharing our designs as we make progress on them. We’re also going to be trying out some new things, from actual-plays with new partners to producing an in-house documentary about how games are made in the studio. As with all of our campaigns, the shape of what’s to come is going to depend on you all.

I should say that, unlike our other campaigns, we won’t be relying on a ton of external preview/reviews for the new Oath materials. This is partly because of the nature of the expansion. When it comes to a new game, we try our best to build something as playable as possible before the crowdfunding campaign begins so that we can prove to everyone that the new game is robust and that folks can trust us with the development. But, these sorts of previews always make us a little queasy. It’s sorta like being asked to be graded on a paper that is half-done. While this queasiness is necessary for launching a new flagship title (like Arcs) they are always less necessary for expansions, which mostly rely on the bonafides of the core game. Furthermore, some expansions are easier to talk about than others. For instance, when it comes to a Root expansion, it’s pretty easy to talk about how the new faction works. This creates a pretty clean block of “content” which a reviewer can easily evaluate. What we have planned for Oath does not lend itself to that style of review. The changes are more pervasive and subtle. It’s the kind of thing that, once folded in, a player would never want to sort out, and, in a few years time, they might not even remember which parts of the game were added with the expansion at all.

But, we don’t want anyone backing this game without knowing what they are getting. So, over the next several weeks, I’ll be talking about the new aspects of the game we are exploring, some the of the challenges we are encountering, and, where possible, describing how the new systems work in progress. In addition, over the course of the Kickstarter campaign, we’ll be dropping little preview kits so that anyone who’s interested in the game can try out the new stuff.

Next week, we'll kick things off by talking about some of the fundamental challenges of the project. The sorts of things Oath is good and remembering, and the things it tends to forget.

And, if you’d like to follow along with the Kickstarter, you can find it here.

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