Oath: New Foundations | Design Diary 2 - What Oath Forgets

Designer/Developer Diary, Oath -

Oath: New Foundations | Design Diary 2 - What Oath Forgets

When we were first pitching Oath during the first Kickstarter, I would often describe it as “a game that remembered how you played it.” This was less of a pure description than a kind of aspiration. My main task in those days was to find ways to quickly sum up what made the project special and to communicate its ambitions.

It was a little harder to put that slogan into practice. I could of course, describe the ways that information could be remembered by the game. In fact, I wrote a whole designer diary on that subject. But this designer diary didn’t quite do justice to the scope of the claim. What did it mean for a game to remember? How could I measure my success or failure here?

To that end, I designed a little test for myself. I imagined a scenario where I had a copy of Oath that I had played for 20 games or so. My brother, at this point still living in Chicago, likewise had a copy that he had played for roughly the same number of games. If we were to swap copies, would it feel like we had jumped from one timeline to another?

This is not the sort of question that can actually be answered during the development process. I’m far too disruptive as a designer and developer to run an experiment that would require me to freeze the design that long. In fact, most of Oath’s campaign elements were tested only theoretically. Despite the fact that Oath was designed to be played as a campaign game, we spent the vast majority of our testing time on individual scenarios. Our primary aim was the make sure that the game could handle any combination of cards. Often, tests would begin with us picking the most troublesome cards and designing scenarios that would push the system to its limits. In other words, we weren’t trying to tell multi-generational stories, we were trying to break the game. We figured if the game was strong and flexible enough, the chronicle storytelling would take care of itself.

In some respects, this methodology probably comes from my background in wargaming. I highly doubt that most of the long scenarios in the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War (GCACW) were ever robustly tested. It just takes too long to test a scenario which might take a dozen sessions or longer to actually resolve. Instead, most of the testing time is usually invested in making sure the game’s core model is as air-tight as possible. If the model is good, then it should be able to scale up to meet the demands placed upon it.

'Long Roads to Gettysburg' scenario maps
And, to a large degree, the success of Oath and its reception have vindicated this strategy. Even before the game shipped to backers, I had digital testers who had gotten 20 or even 30 games into their chronicles, and who hadn’t yet started encountering problems. In the game’s first year on the market, I saw a group who had gotten to 50 games. The wheels weren’t falling off—though it should be said that there were some elements that weren’t firing quite as well. The game can get a little odd once a couple suits are slowly eroded from the deck. Though, to that point, we did test game’s of Oath with only 3 suits of cards and it still worked fine, so we knew that, even in extreme situations, the game would probably still work.

Then, sometime in 2022, I had a chance to watch a game of Oath at a Pax Unplugged show. Some folks asked me to join them, and, while I didn’t have time to play, I was able to watch them play and listen to the game. On the one hand, it’s always a lot of fun to watch folks play a game you’ve worked on. The group had a great rapport, and they were engaging with the game exactly as it was designed to be engaged with. They sought redress for generational wrongs, while sparring over the future of their world.

And yet, for all of that, it was still just another game of Oath. The same sorts of power struggles that you seen in every game of Oath were struggled over. Players hatched hair-brained schemes and made stunning last-minute grasps for the crown. At the end, the victor wrote some notes in the game’s journal describing what had happened. The world changed a bit—some cards were added and others left, and then everyone helped put the game away as they cajoled each other about the next game.

I should have been very pleased by the experience. A group who had played the game many times, sat down, and had a great time. Even as they packed up the game, they were already talking about when they would play again. But something didn’t quite measure up against my hopes for the game. For all that Oath was doing for them, the best parts of their experience were the parts that they were adding. The game wasn’t giving them a system for multi-generational vendettas, they were conspiring on their own. I couldn’t help but think that if I stumbled into their copy at a used game store sometime in the future, the amazing things that had happened in their game would be lost. The world they had created together ultimately wasn’t imprinting itself in the game’s memory.

Oath is a game that can remember. But, it’s also a game that forgets. It forgets the names of its players, and of their victories and defeats. It doesn’t remember the sites of great battles or memorialize its greatest rulers. Those things are the domain of its players. They have to write their own histories.

There are some exceptions. About halfway through the game’s development, we introduced the idea of edifices and ruins. The idea was that these places would be build by the winners of games and then become sticky, even as they were neglected. The game improved so much the day we started playing with these cards. Players finally had a way they could write their ambitions directly on the map and see those stick around (or be forgotten) in the games that followed. The citizenship offer system was likewise an effort to allow players to broker peace and encourage multi-game thinking.
Oath card fan
We might then say that, while Oath is a game about history, it not interested in the mechanics of how history is written. It doesn’t engage with the material work of history. To the degree to which the game has libraries at all, those libraries only serve the present moment’s political calculus. The empire keeps no archives. The imperial reliquary is a random store of goods. The names of its emperors and usurpers are forgotten. In fact, we might even go further: not only are those things forgotten, they were never recorded to begin with. The game doesn’t care about its players.

At the time, this was a necessity of design. Continuity was primary design objective. At the very outset of the game, I wanted the world itself to be the only legacy element of the game. This decision had less to do with my vision for the game than with a calculation I made about the game’s audience. If there weren’t specific player positions that grew and developed, then the game would be easier for players to drop-in and drop-out of. And, if the core of the game remained the same, then players could easily hop from one game of Oath to another. In other words, by applying some best practices from game design to the challenges of Oath, I clipped its wings.

History of course, is a family affair. Children walk around with the burdens of their parents (and, we hope, some of the advantages too). As Marx put it, dead traditions weigh like a nightmare on the dreams of the living. The course of history is likewise full of ruptures and discontinuities. Worlds end and begin every day. Oath could tell amazing stories, but it was ill-equipped to think beyond the present.

Thankfully, players themselves were not so unsuited to the task before them. They found ways of using the game, much like early Dungeons and Dragons players took rules for a clunky wargame and transformed it into so much more. Oath players saw the words and verbs of the game and used them to spin epic tales. It turns out, you simply cannot keep a good story down.
A photo of an illustrated chronicle page
For a long time, I thought this was enough. Players had found a way of playing Oath that, improbably, matched the game’s best aspirations. And, for my part, I had learned my lessons and applied them to Arcs. The more reasonable course was to just let Oath be what it is and move on. Certainly that was probably the best financial course I could have taken—in this business you’re often better off taking any win you can and then moving on. But, something in the back of my mind just gnawed at me. We had learned so much from Arcs. And, in the years since Oath’s release, the players had taught us so much about what made the game work and where it tended to stumble. If we went back into Oath now, with a little more openness, who knew what we might find.

These thoughts gave me the basic outline for the New Foundations project. I wanted to focus on three key interventions which I felt could offer more tools to players and allow the game to grow to its full potential.

The first, was building out player positions to carry over more information from one game to another. This required thinking about how players structure their goals in a game and what sorts of rewards and punishments could be meted out.

The second system was the game’s foundation system. Originally Oath was a far more expansive design, but, over the course of development, we had to pick and choose a subset of these options so as to not overwhelm players. However, Arcs had taught me quite a few things about how games could change dramatically between games. Thankfully, this framework for this system was already in place with the Chronicle Phase, but that phase would need to be completely re-imagined. As part of this process, a new foundations step would be introduced which would allow players to adjust the core rules of the game. Critically, however, these systems wouldn’t be purely additive. Instead, as certain doors were opened, others would be closed. This kept the overall system complexity neutral or better and dramatically increased the total number of combinations of possible variations. This is because, in most rules-unlocking legacy systems, the games slowly grow in complexity till basically everything that can be unlocked is unlocked. With the foundations system, instead players have access to a switchboard of 20 or so switches. There is no “on” or “off” position. Instead, each of them is either in one state or another. Every combination is essentially a different game in ways that could be subtle or dramatic.

The third and final system is the empire system. In the earliest versions of Oath, I had several systems of government, each which had their own victory conditions, dynastic dynamics, and special rules. This ended up being far too great of a dynamic space for players to navigate as they considered their strategy. However, with the foundation system to help mediate how the game shifts, I could now customize different regimes to reflect the ambitions of the players. While the other systems basically work with existing game terms, the empire system introduces a new set of components that is used at the start and end of the game to determine the fate and development of the game’s ruling power. With this system, players might have added incentive to prop up a failing but opulent society or seek to burn it to the ground.

In short, while Oath was primarily interested in remembering the world of the game, New Foundations, extends that memory to the lineage of its players, their impact on the game’s key systems, and the governance of the world.

Next week, we’ll start exploring the first of those new systems in detail.

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