Oath: New Foundations | Design Diary 4 - In the Weeds

Designer/Developer Diary, Oath -

Oath: New Foundations | Design Diary 4 - In the Weeds

Tomorrow, we’ll be launching the Kickstarter campaign for the next Oath expansion. Today, I want to talk a little bit about how we think about our crowdfunding campaigns and how they have shaped the identity of our studio. I’m also going to write a little about an element of the Oath expansion which I think illustrates our approach.

In the seven or so years I’ve been doing this professionally, I’ve seen a gradual shift in how companies use crowdfunding campaigns. I’m sure you’ve all seen it too. Most of the companies who have come to dominate the crowdfunding space have done so by becoming evermore polished in their presentation and evermore savvy in their marketing. The games themselves have reflected this change for better and worse. At their best, they’ve become more approachable, taking hard-won lessons and putting them into practice as their creative teams grow and mature. At their worst, some of these games have become become sprawling commercial objects—sometimes even including payment plans! I think in both cases though something critical gets lost. Crowdfunding has succeeded in the tabletop space because it offered players a way to circumvent the usual dynamics of publishers, distributors, and game stores. With crowdfunding, the folks making games could talk directly with the folks playing them. Suddenly, so many things were possible. I can certainly say that I owe my livelihood to this change. That’s also true for the nearly 20 people I work with every day. Without crowdfunding campaigns none of us would be able to devote our careers to games. It’s hard to develop any kind of mastery when you’re just working on the weekends.

I get bothered some time when I see folks in the crowdfunding space behaving like regular publishers. Sure, after a few successful campaigns, I suppose it’s obvious for a company to expand its operations team. Certainly we did that here at Leder Games, and it was critical in allowing the company to grow. But, as we looked at future titles and thought about the longer term growth of the company, we made a decision very early on to continue to explore difficult projects. It would have made a lot more sense for me to work on an expansion for Root than take a big risk for Oath. We’ve always tried to maintain a balance between a thoughtful stewardship of existing lines and using the profits from those lines to take big risks. I would much rather have our success feed some great experiment than a large bonus (though bonuses are nice too!).

There are a dozen ways Oath might be expanded. We might have just added a few cards or edifices and then go on our merry way. But, Oath has always been a special game for us, and, if we were going to run a crowdfunding campaign for the game, we wanted it to fund something worthwhile. Some of this is a response to the Arcs campaign, which should be shipping to you all very soon. Arcs was a very difficult project. Many people I talked to throughout the project urged me to scale down its scope—to make it more digestible. But it didn’t seem right. We wanted to make something big and something worthy of the trust you all invested in us. After the campaign was over, it was your voices and your support that gave our team the strength of will to tear down elements of the game that were finished but weren’t yet good enough. We weren’t trying to just deliver the product we told you we’d ship to you in a couple years, we were trying to make the game you believed would exist one day.

As we look towards our next project, we want to renew this commitment to you all and to continue to find new ways of both making games and talking about that craft.

To that end, I wanted to write about Oath a little differently today. Usually, when I write these design diaries, I try to pick settled subjects. The lineage system I spoke about last week, for instance, reflected work that was done mostly in March and April. However, to celebrate the expansion’s upcoming launch, I thought I’d take you right to the edge of my thought and speak a bit about a system that I’m working on right now and which likely will not be ready in time for me to also prepare a print-and-play kit for the coming Kickstarter. In fact, it may take a month before these ideas even enter internal testing! Nonetheless, I hope this little window into early, more conceptual thinking will prove interesting.

My general rule for the new Oath materials is to not completely replace any element of the game. While the foundations system will provide players ways of adjusting the core rules, the full body of the core rules will likely include all of the existing rules of Oath. If players, for instance, turn “off” the citizenship concept, that concept will still be in the rules, just in a dormant state. However, as we proceed into development more properly in the coming months, I’m not going to treat this guideline too seriously. I want to open myself to the possibility that I might think of a better way of doing something.

As it so happens, this past week I ran into one of these opportunities. The timing was not great. Most of my schedule at the moment involves getting the crowdfunding campaign ready. Usually, development wholly pauses while we build a crowdfunding campaign, but this Oath project has been a little different. For one, I have a much smaller team. Most of the creative staff are busily finishing Ahoy or working on other projects. The Oath project is being shepherded by myself, Brooke, and a few of our newer staff members (with the others dropping in for a bit of consulting from time to time). Honestly, the intimacy of this small team makes it feel a bit like the first Root campaign. I often find myself darting between a dozen little jobs, and design thoughts sometimes have a way of creeping into my workflow.

Early in the week, I sat down with Andrea, who is helping as the developer for the project. We were preparing the empire system for its print-and-play kit and talking about a new concept we wanted to introduce, the corruption of sites. The basic idea is that we would have transparent cards which could overlay the site cards, adding new status effects and providing another layer to the history of the world.

A render of a clear card over a site card
We had a viable prototype of these cards, but it’s mostly a placeholder for a deeper engagement. At one point, in our discussion, we started talking about the Drowned City.

This, along with the Tribunal and the Narrow Pass, the Drowned City is one of my favorite sites in the game. I love how clear its storytelling is and how it creates its in-game identity through such simple mechanics. Most of the sites in Oath were designed fairly early in the process and then were largely untouched. In fact, if you go back to the very first Oath kit we released publicly, you’ll see that many of the sites work more-or-less the same as the final sites in the game (though without final art of course).

This wasn’t because we had struck gold. Instead, this type of content falls into a category that we might call “low liability design texture.” The game could tolerate a wide range of special powers, and it doesn’t really matter what those special powers actually are. So, a month or so before the campaign, I quick knocked out a couple dozen site effects, based mostly on some narrative touchstones I wanted the design to hit, and we more or less just ran with those. When we added relics to the design towards the end of development, we mostly just grafted them on to the existing sites without modification.
example of an unused site card
Now, a few years later, as I sat looking at adding an additional layer of modification to sites, I started to realize how weak my site design framework really was. Maybe “weak” is the wrong word. Brittle is probably more accurate. The sites do their job and do it well, but it’s a design space that is hard to expand cleanly. For instance, one of the most common requests I’ve gotten from prospective backers is for more sites. Great! Except every site has a unique effect which means expanding the site reference. At what point does looking up the meaning of each little site icon become to onerous?

Looking at the Drowned City on the table, I realized that the new notion of corrupted sites could actually provide me the tool I needed to revise the narrative and design spaces around how sites were used in the game. Oath is a game about history, yes, but there is a deeper history that players don’t get to access. The Drowned City is drowned for reasons that the player’s don’t know or understand. I think this is fine of course, and there certainly are narrative benefits. But, they can grow a little stale once players get further into their chronicles. I wanted the world of the game to feel the consequences of player sites. What I wanted wasn’t just a Drowned City, but a city that had been drowned sometime in the game’s own distant history.

With this in mind, I started drawing up a new taxonomy that could allow sites to generate their peculiarities of the course of play. I imagined certain, geographical elements of each site would be “hard-coded.” These were things like a site’s base card capacity and any special power that seemed immutable. For instance, the Narrow Pass would always have its core movement impact. That was likewise going to be the case with things like the coast sites and perhaps even the baseline campaign modifiers of the mountain and the plains.

Everything else could be emergent. For instance, the act of drowning could both modify a site’s capacity and put relics in those slots instead. Likewise, a site that was enchanted could fill it with secrets and provide the special effect that allows players to collect secrets if they start their turn on the site.

To make this all possible, we would need to reprint the existing sites in Oath and likely create a new site UI that could handle one or two different overlays. We’d need to do a lot of thinking about the way site modification would be triggered and how it could be reversed or developed. We’d also need to make everything be backwards compatible, so players could easily port their worlds to the new system.

This might end up being a huge hassle. How, for instance, should site’s hold their modifications? The modifying overlays couldn’t be easily shuffled into the deck, so once a site was lost it would probably have to revert to its basic state. That itself would cause too much erasure of history. Ideally I would want these sites to hold their identity far beyond the space of a single game. I loved the wonder players felt when they stumbled upon the Shrouded Woods or Drowned City in Oath. Whatever new system that might exist would need to preserve and enhance those moments.

All of this is to say that big questions remain! At this moment, I don’t know if this will prove to be a fertile path, but I’m looking forward to investigating it and discussing its development with you all. Next week, we’ll return to our usually scheduled design diaries with a look at the new govern system, how empires gain and lose identity, and what a more modest site modification system looks like. See you then.

Find the Kickstarter page here.

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