Recently completing their recent successful kickstarter campaign, Oath is a game for 3-6 players (though there are 1 and 2 player modes currently in development) about wrestling for control for a kingdom, and how the history of that kingdom evolves and is built by that conflict.
Developed by Ledergames, Oath is another interesting experiment from Cole Wherle, designer of Root, another weird and fantastic design experiment. Whereas Root is a wargame hiding commentary and analysis into how warring factions interact and how the local population are the greatest casualty (a theme that’s well hidden by Kyle Ferrin’s wonderfully cute artstyle), Oath focuses more on the legacy of an empire, and how wars shape and guide its direction and philosophies.
During the Kickstarter, Ledergames released both the Print and Play version of the game, and the official Tabletop Simulator mod. Neither of these represent a final product – the game is still very much in development, but it does provide a chance to dig in and see how the game plays. Fortunately I’ve spent a fair amount of time, both with the physically printed kit and the mod on tabletop simulator!
How the game works
One player plays as the Chancellor, a political leader in charge of an empire they helped shape, determined to retain the status quo. All the other players take the role of Exiles, outcasts determined to take control of the land and shape it in their own way, whether by outplaying the Chancellor at their own game, or by working to achieve their own visions for the land.
During a round, players will take turns traveling to and exploring areas around the map, building armies and fighting battles, “populating” areas by playing cards into their locations, or building up their personal retinue by playing those cards next to their character board. Achieving these things can be difficult though, as players are limited by only having three actions a turn (a measly two actions, in the case of the Chancellor, though they have unique powers to make up for it), and an effort track that players expend as they perform actions.
All but one of the actions cost effort, with movement into the further reaches of the kingdom and searching to draw a large amount of cards being the chief consumers of effort. The final action, resting, allows you to fully refresh your effort, as well as providing an update for how popular you are among the citizenry, but otherwise does nothing. As such, timing your actions and budgeting your effort is a large consideration.
Combat has some interesting, unique quirks to it as well, particularly as it’s primarily based on the ratio between your attacking soldiers and the enemy’s defense. This is represented by a “tug of war” track, the more the odds are in your favour, the deeper you are into your own side of the track. However, every fight has a combat dice that’s rolled as a random modifier, its results are only either neutral or negative, and can drastically worsen things for the attacker. After the dice are rolled, the attacker can spend and lose soldiers to boost them back up the track, but a bad roll of the dice can result in a very costly victory. As such, overwhelming odds are a great tactic, but carrying soldiers also eats up your available effort, meaning that moving around with a large army results in you being able to do very little.
Then we come to the cards themselves. Whenever you search, you draw a hand of cards. You pick one of those cards, discard the rest to another region, and either play that card to the area you’re in, or into your private cohort as an adviser. There are six suits of cards, each representing a vague group of people, lifestyles, or ethics, and the choice of where you play the card has important ramifications.
If you play the card to your location on the game board, you generate favour (the main currency of the game) with the suit it belongs to, and more cards on the board mean you have more people to hire into your armies, and more abilities to trigger. The downside is that the card is public, any player can now move to that location and gain the benefit of that card, and you can’t use that card if you don’t have presence in that location.
If you play the card to your cohort as an adviser, you and you alone have access to that card, and can gain the benefits of it at any time during your turn. Your advisers also dictate which groups of the population support you, glad to see you take one of their own in your personal retinue, but the cards never generate favour for you.
Et tu, Brute?
All of these mechanics are further complicated depending on whether you’re an Exile, or the Chancellor. The Chancellor has unique access to several intimidating powers, they have a larger army and are by default very popular amungst the rabble, but the weight of bureaucracy sees them only having access to a measly two actions per round, compared to the luxurious three actions the Exiles can use to quickly build up their armies and political support and start dismantling the Chancellor’s kingdom faster than they can react.
To this end, the Chancellor can invite one of the Exiles to become a Citizen. This would mean that player joins the Chancellor’s government (losing any victory points they had, as well as the ability to gain more victory points), turns their armies into those of the Chancellor, and also gains shared control over the Chancellor’s military forces. This greatly helps the Chancellor’s attempts to retain control of their kingdom.
However, if the Chancellor wins, but a Citizen has managed to obtain more Prestige than the Chancellor, they’ve been selected to be the new Chancellor and steal the victory – a risk that’s compounded by Exiles most likely demanding some measure of the Chancellor’s prestige as a cost for becoming a Citizen.
So, while The Chancellor now has a helping hand in managing his kingdom, they now have to watch their back for political rivals. A struggle that very often blinds both Chancellor and Citizen to the dangers of Visions.
Multiple routes to victory
Visions are alternate victory conditions that will appear from the game deck as the game goes on. These represent grand visions of the future that people will flock behind, should you prove yourself capable. While the game’s default victory relies on the winner being the player with the most Prestige when the game ends, Visions can win the game for you almost immediately. Each of the four Visions require you to attain a certain goal. This could be controlling the most areas, having the most popular support, or having bought certain privileges. If you declare a Vision, revealing it to others, and meet that condition at the start of any of your future turns, you win immediately. This can come as a shock to other players who are caught off guard, but they will always have at least one turn to sabotage your attempt.
If multiple visions are out, it becomes possible to distract players by redirecting their attention to other threats, and the Chancellor in particular tends to be caught up in desperately trying to retain control. If you’re going for a Vision victory, you either want to reveal it when you’re already in a very strong position to win on your next turn, or reveal it and then use misdirection to keep players’ eyes of you.
How gameplay feels
The first time playing Oath can be overwhelming. Specifically, Oath’s gameplay is very much about being able to pivot and adapt to a changing environment and multiple winning conditions, and that open-ended nature can easily leave new players feeling a bit stranded. A large part of the game is recognising whether you stand a good chance at competing for the main objective and, if it looks poor, being able to hunt down another end game objective and making an opportunity to compete for that.
However, if you’re able to get your mind around the game’s mechanisms, hopefully after the first game, the game becomes something very interesting. The changing environment keeps your attention, and a limited action pool, as well as a limited resource for spending on actions, means each turn is important, and (by extension) other player’s turns become something you need to pay attention to, as there are numerous ways to throw spanners in collective works. This also means the game leans towards diplomacy, either the official diplomacy between the Chancellor coaxing Exiles into government or dueling with other Citizens, or with Exiles and other Exiles as they team up to tear down player who are threatening to win the game.
The ability to switch between game objectives, while potentially overwhelming at first, is refreshing as you’re never quite out of the running, and a few games have been won by players who desperately dug for a Vision card and managed to complete it, when they were otherwise at the bottom of the barrel. The downside to this is that you’re never quite certain you’re going to win until the round you’re threatening to win – and even then, it’s possible to distract players from that fact by threatening them on other fronts.
And finally, there’s the wonderful way that Oath evolves from game to game.
How Oath remembers
When a player wins a game of Oath, that victory reverberates through future games. Firstly, the winning player is the favoured choice to play the Chancellor in the next game, and the territories that player controlled (as well as the cards in those territories) persist into the next game. The manner in which that player won determines the default victory point win condition for the next game – if the player won by victory points, they can choose any of the four victory conditions. However, if they won by Vision, that immediately becomes the next victory condition. Finally, the game’s deck of cards gains new cards depending on which cards the winning player had in their private cohort, and 6 random cards from the discard pile are removed from the game.
Of all these changes, the change in victory conditions is the far greater immediate change up, though the others all subtly affect the game slowly through several play sessions. The card types most favoured by players will become more popular, as those less favoured will slowly be weeded out. Powerful areas will persist through games, until a revolutionary new way of winning the people over sees those areas fall into obscurity. Players can even erect monuments that persist through games, though will fall into ruin over several games if not held by the winning player.
It must be said that, depending on which victory condition you aim towards, the game changes drastically, especially if it’s the default victory points condition. Conquest is the most straightforward, simply amassing and applying military might, and collecting cards that aid you in that endeavor. However, as soon as you switch to a game where popular support is the main objective, and your inner council and ability to manipulate the suits becomes the main concerns. Games about holding onto the Royal Blessing or Darkest Secret become solely about generating large amounts of favour and magic respectfully, which highly prioritises the locations in which you play cards and where your character pawn starts its turn. In all these three alternatives to military objectives, soldiers become a rarity, and even owning areas isn’t common. You amass soldiers only to attack players to damage their ability to run their engine, rather than for conquest.
And, more interestingly, the path of progress towards the current objective makes room for players to win with Visions. When everyone is focusing on military campaigns, you’ve got a unique spot to focus on popular support if you happen to obtain that particular Vision.
Overall, these changes do create a sense of a saga, a slow evolution of a country’s political history. These changes aren’t drastic, as once you know the rules you’ll be able to sit at any table, read and understand the situation, and play as normal. However, after one or two games the deck of cards will be largely unique to each copy of the game, and the cards you use to empower yourself will likely be largely different depending on whose game you play with.
Oath, as it stands at this point in development least, is a fascinating game, and definitely not quite like anything I’ve played before. This works to its merit, but it also means it can be difficult to teach to players who rely on more familiar mechanics to learn games. However, players who dislike games with large amounts of antagonistic player interaction, or games with lots of moving parts and a moderate amount of complexity (both mechanically and strategically) are likely to not enjoy this game.
Personally, I really enjoyed the game as it stands, and I’m really curious to see how the game’s design will shift as development continues. This playtest offers a fairly solid look at the game, as the design was near final when Oath’s kickstarter went live, but it’s likely we’ll still see some tweaks based on player feedback from the public playtests.
Oath is planned to begin fulfillment in January 2021, with a retail release likely in the first quarter of 2021.