Oath: New Foundations | Design Diary 6 - The Arcs-ing of Oath

Designer/Developer Diary, Oath -

Oath: New Foundations | Design Diary 6 - The Arcs-ing of Oath

In the first diary I wrote for New Foundations, I described how many ideas for this expansion came out of the process of making Arcs. In the same way that Oath’s development had seeded Arcs’s design both thematically and mechanically, the development of Arcs had done likewise with New Foundations. This virtuous circle is pretty rare for me. Mostly I feel like I work against myself. Each game tends to be a reaction against the project I just completed. Oath and Arcs are perhaps the lone exceptions to this rule. The designs sometimes seem like they are speaking to one another. They don’t agree about everything, but they also haven’t resorted to shouting at each other, yet.

Today, I want to talk about one of the biggest things that Arcs has given Oath: New Foundations. It’s not a specific system or mechanism or even a broader design goal. I’ve already written a lot about how specific systems in Arcs have informed systems in Oath and the places where I’m looking to build on those ideas. Instead, today I want to talk about a general design ethos, and what it means to go from thinking about how to make a game to thinking about how to make a framework.

When I work on history games, I tend to think small. I want the simplest way of expressing the core narrative dynamic that I see at work in the source material. Of course, this doesn’t always lead to small games! John Company is huge—in some ways every bit as large as the games I do at Leder—but its nonetheless very small compared to the vast complexity of its source material and, I think, quite focused as a game. I think this is true of my other history games as well, from An Infamous Traffic to Pax Pamir. It’s also certainly true for my contributions to Molly House. This focus is partly an extension of the fact that I’m not interested in expanding these historical games. They have said their piece about their subjects. I don’t want to add another site to Pamir and, though I’d love to be able to widen John Company’s aperture, I don’t think it would really benefit the core game. The game doesn’t feature the West Indies or its base at Saint Helena or the history of Singapore because I ran out of time, it doesn’t feature them because I didn’t want to dilute the game’s arguments.

Oath is a funny game in this regard. In some ways, it has the least in common with the other games I’ve worked on at Leder Games. While it was in development, I thought of it very much like a Pax game, and, for that reason, it was originally designed as a single “closed” experienced. Everything the game could ever do was in the box. Period. It wasn’t design to grow or to adapt beyond what we had imagined. Despite that restriction, the game still offered a huge narrative range. More than one reviewer commented on the game feeling like a set of narrative legos.

But, if the game were a set of legos, there were some legos that, in keeping with modern sets, were perhaps over-articulated and meant for one particular use. For instance, the rules for the recovery of the darkest secret generate fascinating strategic texture, but they are also hard to remember and easy to stumble on and over. I could say the same for some of the peculiarities of citizenship and the conspiracy. These are all good rules in the sense that they widen the game’s strategic space, but they are also ornate.

An ornate rule isn’t a bad thing. Pamir’s most ornate rule, The Overthrow Rule, is also one of the most important rules in the game and provides critical connective tissue between player tableaus and the map. But such a rule is fiendishly difficult modify and expand upon. Why is this? Well, generally these rules become complex because of the demands the design places upon them. For this reason, they are less flexible than other rules in the game. In addition, they are difficult to tamper with because players have a hard time understanding the implications of any adjustment. A good special power should be easy to hold in your head. The bad ones are the ones which make a subtle alterations to already difficult to understand rules.

The little secret about these highly-articulated games, and here I mean games like John Company, Oath, Infamous Traffic and Pamir, is that they were not always this way. In the course of design and development, I prize plasticity. I want to be able to easily change all parts of the game to suit my current judgment or the judgment of the development team. Then, as a design nears competition, it hardens. We work hard to find the most interesting way for the game to express it’s arguments and balance the weight of every bit of chrome against the depth that it is offering.


a photo from early in oath's development when few things about the game were certain.
A more open oath? This is a photo from early in the game's development when few things about the game were certain.
In contrast, in the case of Arcs and Root, the core engines of the game were kept plastic. The action structure, general terms, and victory conditions are designed to be expressive and flexible. Any thematic detail that would threaten to harden these systems is carefully fenced off. In the case of Root, these elements are cordoned off in the faction design and in the special powers in the game’s deck. In the case of Arcs, it sits mostly in the card powers (guild, lore, and leaders) and, of course, the game’s plot lines.

Both of these games can certainly get every bit as chrome-y and exception-filled as John Company or Oath. In the setup of a game of Root, players decide what sorts of game they want to play through the selection of factions. Arcs protracts this process over the course of either a single game (with the buying of guild cards) or over the whole campaign (with the progress through a plot line). In both cases, players have a lot of agency in determining the shape and scope of their game’s mechanical and thematic articulation.

With the expansion to Oath, I want to recapture just a bit of the plasticity that Oath enjoyed in its development. My hope is that by doing this, players will then have more latitude to alter the game in the chronicle. Oath, as it exists now, is not the only way it might have existed.

Playtesters probably have a better understanding of this than most. Our testing discords are easily most active when a game is in its earliest and most open stages. Then, as the game becomes what it is, a hush begins to descend. This makes perfect sense. In my experience, most playtesters are interested in the possibilities of a game. Once those possibilities are winnowed down to a single path forward, there’s a lot less to talk about, and testers will naturally move on to other more inchoate projects. I don’t blame them! In fact, I often I could join them as they head to the next project that strikes their fancy.

One of the primary achievements of Arcs’s design is that it allowed the game to remain flexible, even as the design was completed. This wasn’t an accident. It was clear from the game’s first design document that the game would need an open design that could be modified dramatically over the course of play. I’ve started to think about these designs as “frameworks” more than games. If a game is a particular articulation of a set of restrictions play possibilities (say, a set of 4 Root factions along with their map and deck choice) a framework was what we might think of as the core rules of Root: the basic grammar of the game.

For all of its factions, Root’s grammar is actually quite limited. We have some basic movement and combat rules, resources in the guise of a deck of cards, and a few piece categories, such as slot, path, forest, warrior. This is all well-and-good for creating a traditional asymmetric wargame, but the system would struggle to tell stories outside of that genre. This is one reason why factions designed around pacifism never quite feel at home in the design. The Lizard Cult, for instance, was originally designed as an entirely peaceful faction, but we found we just couldn’t give them bite without providing them some of the same pointy tools that the other factions enjoyed.

Arcs has a significantly more open framework. The card-play system ensures that game play generates narrative tension, even if the actual player positions have no built-in overlap. To this we built out an adaptive action system that could easily take modification from cards powers. We also created design templates for the cards that allowed for a ton of flexibility. It’s possible, for instance, to imagine building a Root faction within the rules of Arcs. The reverse was not true. Imagine trying to build the Believer or the Pathfinder plot lines in Root!
Cards from Arcs
Cards from Arcs.
Oath occupies a middle ground. While the game is more open than Root, it’s late stage development had closed many doors that might have otherwise remained open. Part of the work of the upcoming expansion is to reopen those doors and find ways of keeping them open even after we finish our work. Here the most important tool we have is a group of adjustments I’m collectively calling the foundations system.

The foundations system does two things. First, it replaces the old chronicle phase with a set of 3 tasks that are associated with the winner, the holder of the Darkest Secret, and the holder of the People’s favor. Here I couldn’t help but be inspired by Dominic Valdes’s work on the Suit Wars variant (Suit Wars). At the end of the game, instead of the winner resolving all of the phases in a mostly procedural fashion (that is, with few real choices), each of these three roles would have real agency over how the game developed. And, critically, a player could only resolve on of these, so if you ended the game with two preconditions, you had to pass one of those two responsibilities to another player.
Chronicle card prototypes.
Chronicle card prototypes.
The winner would be responsible for adjusting the map as well as drafting new empire tiles or creating a fresh deck if they were a usurper. The player with the people’s favor would be given extra latitude over which cards would be dispossessed and, potentially, which cards would be added (we’re still working on this second element). The most important job, however, would be reserved for the player with the Darkest Secret. This player would look at the status of the Darkest Secret and draw a number of cards from the foundations deck.

The foundations deck is the interface that allows players to alter the core rules of the game. It interacts with two new elements. First, there will be some kind of book or display for “active modifications” similar to the one we used in the Arcs campaign. If you played a card that changed the combat system, we needed a way for the game to remember that it had been altered. The second element is an archive of possible modifications. This archives includes both new pieces such as variants of the Darkest Secret as well as a host of cards, including new foundations cards which can undo changes as well as provide players with additional changes that build on previous ones.
Foundation card prototypes.
Foundation card prototypes.
Let’s run through a couple examples so you can see what I mean. First, a simple one. Foundation card 17 is called “Rise of the Advisers.” This has a simple persistent power, doubling the amount of influence each of your advisers provides, but, crucially, ignoring a players personal stash of favor. In addition, if in play, it will also add in its complementary off-switch (“Fall of the Advisers”) to the foundations deck. If you’ve got a lineage that offers you a bonus advisor, this modification can offer some important strategic advantages. Or, you might just prefer having the game’s influence system be more closely linked to advisers.

Other foundations might shake up the game more dramatically. For instance, they can introduce alternate takes on both the People’s Favor and the Darkest Secret. Some will even let exiles carry their control of territories from one game to the next.
Prototype new components for the foundations system
Prototype new components for the foundations system.
These cards, simple though they are, require us to do some work on the back-end of Oath to make sure that the various card effects and rules still hold together. In most cases, this means opening up Oath just a bit. It’s likely that certain clusters of rules, such as citizenship, will need to be restructured to better lend themselves to this modularity and we might even have to revise a few denizen cards, but what we have to gain seems well-worth the effort. By making Oath’s core game a little more plastic, we can build design framework that allows chronicles to grow and change in dramatic ways. To my mind, this is critical in allowing Oath to further deliver on its most ambitious ludo-narrative promises.

If you'd like to hear more about the game, I'm going to be talking about how we're adapting our internal processes to meet the challenge of this new game next Monday during a little design stream I'll do over on Twitch (Here's a link to the recording on YouTube). The studio has changed so much since the days of Root and Oath, and we've gotten a lot better at tackling big projects. But, as we've grown, we've also done our best to keep the core character of our work intact. This has not always been easy and I'll be reflecting on some of our previous projects as well as getting into the weeds on how we plan on executing this current project.

And, if you haven't had a chance to check out the crowdfunding campaign, you can see it here. None of our major projects would be possible without your support, and we are so thankful that the performance of the campaign has given us space to explore some of our wilder ideas.

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