Oath: New Foundations | Design Diary 5 - Empires and Difference

Designer/Developer Diary, Oath -

Oath: New Foundations | Design Diary 5 - Empires and Difference

The early development of Oath was a very frustrating, protracted experience, and not something I’ve written much about. Partly, there’s not much to say. While the origins of the design go back very far, I only started working on the game that would become Oath (originally called Saga) during the year after Root’s release. For months, it bore hardly any fruit. With Root, I had benefited from a very clear design prompt from Patrick. Oath could be anything and was, consistently, amounting to very little. Thankfully, I was able to earn my keep during these months by helping out on Vast: the Mysterious Manor and the wave of new Root expansions that came with Underworld.

One aborted attempt, worked on in the summer of 2019, focused its attention on different types of governments. Instead of the Oath/Victory Condition framework, there was a regime type which not only determined victory conditions but also sculpted play. For instance, in a monarchy players had to play courtly politics and manage their dynasty. In a republic, players needed to maintain sway over critical interest groups. And, in anarchy, players spent their time boxing out weaker rivals through sheer force of will.

I wanted to build a diverse array of political systems. Some would be highly articulated. The monarchy system, for instance, had both a succession system and a system that would model courtly politics. The republic system introduced voting mechanisms and parliamentary procedure. These contrasted very sharply with the despotic regime, which introduced very few rules to the design and mostly got out of the way so players could tear each other apart.


Early Government board for Oath
Early Government Board for Oath

This proved to be a very foolish ambition. Basically, I was designing as many different games as there were governmental types. And, because the game often changed very quickly from one government to another, players had very little time to internalize the different political systems. Oath is, in some ways, a game about slow history. It cannot and should not change too quickly. But, at this point, I hadn’t fully internalized the restrictions that working on a generational political game would place upon the design. I also hadn’t seriously appreciated the demands that such a system might put on players. That’s a long way of saying that I found out the hard way that the idea was a bad one. I kept working on it for a couple months without looking up and failed to notice that I was slowly walking towards a brick wall.

The key realization that made the design of Oath possible was that players need time to learn the game and the world if we want its changes to impact them. This, I’ll admit reluctantly, is one of the reasons why working on established intellectual proprieties such as Star Wars can be so fruitful. Players already know so much about the world and its characters! One of the critical ideas that made Oath work was the fact that deck stays largely stable from one game to the next. If a player abused the alchemist one game for victory, that card might still be lurking around in the next. If it’s ever dispossessed, it will be felt loss, rather than just an idiosyncrasy of a randomized setup/teardown. To be surprised at the usurpation of a king, players have to have the expectation of dynastic continuity.

I think it’s possible that the original Oath erred too much on the side of stability. Because the four victory conditions are largely immutable, the different regimes derive most of their identity for the denizens they happen to rule. Of course, this can be considerable! A regime with Tinker’s Fair, Gambling House, and Toll Roads is going to feel very different from one built on a Boiling Lake and The Great Levy. But, because the underlying rules and victory conditions remain stable, these effects can feel fairly peripheral.

When I set out to work on the new Oath expansion, the primary goal was to allow players more ways to invest themselves in their chronicle. With Lineages, we offered another answer to the question “what do I do when I cannot win?” Now, with the new empire system, I wanted to answer a question that might be understood as a counterweight: “why should I care about winning?”'
Failed attempt at an Empire Record Sheet
Failed attempt at an Empire Record Sheet
Like the lineage system, my first impulse was to give each empire something like a character sheet that could be used to record the unlocking of various abilities. It would apply more-or-less the same logic as the lineage system but to a “character” that was shared by the victorious citizens and chancellor. I suppose it’s a little bit like the recent trend in RPGs where players collectively manage a base or a ship. Like the lineage system, I also wanted to avoid a pattern of endless growth. A character sheet means less and less as players all approach the same god-like power ceiling. I didn’t want players just unlocking new skills and upgrades. The empires should have identity. I wanted people to care about which political structure was managing things.

Here again I went to the idea of a deck/bag builder. The identity of a state shouldn’t be entirely fixed or reliable, so the noise of a deck-builder could provide me with that uncertainty. At the same time, one of the key lessons of the lineage system had been that players need immediate feedback. If you changed the nature of the state in some way, there had to be a high chance that you’d see the benefits of your action during the very next game. While this mechanical strategy hadn't worked with the lineage system, the idea was well suited to empires.

The basic system works like this: an empire’s identity would be composed of 8 tiles, representing ministers and governmental infrastructure. Each game they would draw 4 randomly from their bag and then resolve those tiles. Some tiles could be drafted away, but broadly the tiles you used would go back in the bag at the end of one game so that the empire's identity could stay largely fixed. If an empire fell, a couple of the old tiles would remain, but mostly a fully new empire would be drawn from the supply.

Here I should say a word about why I want to use tiles instead of cards. With cards, it’s easy to design very detailed abilities that are likely too specific. Oath abounds in specific thematics. It’s one of the designs great strengths. But there can be too much of a good thing, and I’ve often found that by working at different levels of specificity, you can give a design a lot more narrative hitting power. For instance, when I was working on Khyber Knives, the expansion for the first edition of Pax Pamir, I introduced several new cards that were not proper nouns (with names like like “Dungeon”). These cards went a long way in helping ground the narrative and allowing the named cards from the base game to exist in a much more vibrant game world. I wanted the empire tiles to use this technique to provide some grounding to each state’s character.

Thanks to the many suits of Oath, I knew I wasn’t going to need many tile types. If I had perhaps 6 or 7 different types of tiles, assuming they could be modified by suit, I would pretty quickly have dozens of “unique” tiles. Pull any random 8 of those tiles and you should have an empire that behaves quite differently. Let’s take a look at a few of those tiles. In the govern phase, the chancellor might draw the following tiles.
Early examples of identity tiles
Early examples of identity tiles.
Here we have three types of tiles. The first two are Decrees. These are global rules which will modify the coming game. Decrees come in two varieties, there are penalties for exiles and there are bonuses for citizens. In this case, we’ve got two things which are going to make life difficult for citizens. Then, we have the builder tile. The govern phase removes the regular edifice building system. Instead, players must draw builders if they want to build an edifice. Critically, they no longer need to replace a denizen in the world. Now the edifices are just built where they rule BUT they must take the suit the builder indicates. It’s also worth emphasizing that a builder forces you to turn an unused empire card face down. This means that if you want to build that Great Spire you’re going to need to decided which of your other cards to ignore. Finally, the supports card has two consequences. First, it will enrich a single bank. Second, it provides the citizens and the chancellor with an additional “virtual” advisor of that suit.

The numbers at the bottom of each card are a new mechanic. After the chancellor resolves their tiles, they will add up the sum of all of the face up empire tiles and will add a further 2 for every edifice they rule. This total represents the length of their rule. (We can see this as decades or years or perhaps as something more abstract). This number has no in-game function but players can use it as a scoring system or as a way to draw timelines showing the length of various empires and dynasties.

Of course, empires are not necessarily stuck with the tiles they start with. At the end of the game, if the empire survives, any facedown empire tile can be discarded. The new chancellor will then draw 2 new tiles and chose one to take its place. (Chancellors can always voluntarily turn down tiles too if they want to cycle their ministers out for a better team).

However, these face down tiles have a critical impact. Facedown empire tiles represent disruption. At the end of the govern phase, the chancellor will look at how many of their tiles are face down and then add that many shadow denizens to the game. These denizens don’t have suits or abilities players can use. Instead, they generally make the world a worst place to be. Some of the effects are fairly moderate. For instance, bandit kingdoms just stop players from controlling particular sites at the start of the game. And, in the chronicle phase, sites with shadow denizens remain in play, like those with ruins.
Bandit Kingdom shadow denizen
Bandit Kingdom shadow denizen.
Players can deal with shadow denizens two ways. First, there is an empire tile, the hero, which can dispatch certain shadow denizens. Second, players themselves can deal with them by facing whatever challenge they present. The bandit kingdom, for instance, requires a campaign where you beat a defense of 3. For your troubles, you’re rewarded with a search action from the bottom of that region’s discard. However, I decided to steal a little texture from one of my favorites: Republic of Rome. The challenge level of a shadow denizen is multiple by the number of shadow denizens with the (exact) same name. So if there are two Bandit Kingdoms, they each defend with 6 instead of 3.

If a player dislikes their draw of empire tiles and wishes to turn them all face down, they are more than welcome to. If their empire survives they will be able to redraft half of their empire’s character! But, this will exact an awful cost on the world, adding 4 shadow denizens to the mix.

The shadow denizen system is a recognition that succession politics are not the only threats that face a head-of-state. Part of what gives a state its identity is how it governs and how those decisions can have long-term impacts. States sometimes create their own problems and always inherit others. The empire system offers players the ability to address that space. Even in our early testing, this system has gone a long way in expanding how players think about the game and has allowed us to find new meaning in existing systems like citizenship and the stakes of exile.

If you’re curious about it, we’ll be posting the print-and-play later today. And, next week, we’ll round things out with the final print-and-play which ties it all together.
Find out more about Oath: New Foundations on the Kickstarter campaign page.

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