Oaf

So far, the only identifiable characteristic of games by Leder is that they all have four-letter titles. Might I humbly recommend POOP for their next blockbuster?

Oath is Cole Wehrle’s most off-putting game yet. I mean that affectionately. I also don’t anticipate everybody will feel the same way. Riding high on the goodwill generated by Root and Pax Pamir — and dressed up in Kyle Ferrin’s affable illustrative style — this sure is a beaut for something Wehrle called a “hate letter” to the civilization genre. Would it be rude to accuse such an attractive package of false advertising? Because Oath is so determined to make its audience reconsider their assumptions that it sometimes feels like it’s asking too much.

Sometimes. The rest of the time, I’m glad it asks so much.

That yellow guy is frowning within a broad collar. But I always see him as grinning and licking his philtrum.

Just a portion of the shared tableau that is Oath.

At its most basic, Oath is a tableau-builder.

Even that description is inadequate. Unlike most tableau-builders, the tableau you’re building is shared between players. From its very first moments, you’re presented with a map of a low-fantasy kingdom. Or perhaps it’s an empire. Or a republic, theocracy, meritocracy, thalassocracy — whatever you want, really. It’s a trick that might qualify as openness or vagueness depending on what you’re looking for, or even your mood. In any case, those destinations are divided between three regions (Cradle, Provinces, and Hinterland) and are soon populated by denizens, the game’s most common type of card. These represent, well, everything. Individuals, clans, ethnic groups, modes, technologies, actions, philosophies, ideas. Everything.

The early portion of Oath revolves around the uncovering and settling of these denizens. For example, perhaps you’ve traveled to the Fertile Valley, a minor destination far out in the Hinterland, where you happen across a Faithful Hawk Friend, a Mounted Patrol, and some Wrestlers. You decide to accept the Hawk Friend into your personal retinue of advisers, which acts as both your hand and a personal tableau that’s (mostly) untouchable by other players. In order to make room, you plant the Old Oak in the Valley. When you conquer this land, you’ll be able to trade with the Old Oak even when you aren’t personally present, hearing its whispered secrets from afar. The problem is that any visiting rival will also be permitted to do the same.

In that fashion, every card added to Oath’s growing realm offers a razor-hilted sword. It’s common to find yourself squaring off against old friends or uncovering ways to turn a rival’s most dangerous card against them. More so when moving beyond the confines of a single play.

But now we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

He's very protective of his grape cup. Much like my one-year-old.

The Chancellor often dominates the political situation — but not always.

If your shared realm and its expanding roster of denizens requires a reenvisioning of the tableau-builder, the political situation demands a paradigm shift.

The easy part is that players are divided into three roles. Roles aren’t revolutionary, right? Plenty of games have roles. In Oath, each play focuses on the fate of a single central polity, whether a dictatorship, republic, meritocracy… you get the idea. The honcho at the head of this polity is the Chancellor, a masked ruler with huge military potential. He’s opposed by Exiles, Oath’s default state for anybody playing as a bandit, outlander, or ragamuffin. These folks have their own troops and can carve out their own petty kingdoms, possibly even to the point that it dwarfs the Chancellor’s polity. Sometimes Exiles become Citizens, throwing in their lot with the Chancellor in exchange for one of his relics or the protection of his massive military. Let nobody say that the Chancellor doesn’t keep his pantry well-stocked with both carrots and sticks. Which is why it’s rare — possible, but rare — for a Citizens to abandon the Chancellor to become an Exile again, bribing their troops into becoming loyal warbands beyond the polity’s control.

The purpose behind these shifting roles initially seems nebulous. Supposedly, one changes their role in order to win. That requires us to ask what victory looks like in Oath. Okay, then: what does victory look like in Oath? That’s where things get complicated.

Let’s start with the Chancellor, because the head honcho can’t exactly swap roles. Sure, the Chancellor’s polity might dwindle or even disappear, but the Chancellor isn’t about to name himself an Exile. Every play features a different goal for the Chancellor, which becomes the polity’s “oath.” Aha! So that’s why it’s called Oath! Everybody is trying to meet this same objective!

Except that’s only true to a degree. Yes, it’s possible for the Chancellor to win by keeping his oath — basically, by defining success and meeting that definition. And yes, an Exile can do the same by keeping the Chancellor’s oath even better. Then the Exile becomes an Usurper. They’re playing by the Chancellor’s rules and winning. Maybe the Chancellor needs to control territory, but an Exile has greater holdings. Or the Chancellor has declared that he will control the state religion, but an Exile shows up who’s even more charismatic and capable of manipulating the religion’s power players. That sort of thing.

But there are two additional wrinkles in this tapestry. First, Citizens are totally invested in the polity, which means their efforts further the Chancellor’s aims. So how do they win? Naturally, by helping the Chancellor keep the polity’s oath while positioning themselves as his successor. This is an entirely separate sub-objective that balances Citizens on an unstable tightrope. They want to help the Chancellor keep his oath. At the same time, they’re subtly undermining his position. It’s even possible that they’re laying the groundwork to leave the polity altogether. This can be attractive because of the second wrinkle, Visions. These are additional objectives that trickle from the denizen deck. They’re not dissimilar from the alternate win conditions from Root, apart from being achievable. While everybody else is focused on the oath, an Exile might be playing a different game altogether.

I define victory as "making Geoff not win." So far, I've won every play.

Defining victory.

If this sounds like a jumble, it absolutely is. Of the many possible complaints with Oath, the soundest stem from this quagmire of conflicting interests. Learning the game’s handful of objectives, how they can be pursued or halted by its various roles, when to pursue one or the other, or how a rival might signal their intent through something as subtle as traveling to a distant region or playing a particular denizen — this is deeply tricky stuff. Not only is it difficult to learn, but it can also be a bear to parse. Even experienced players will spend time staring at the realm, charting the surest course from base ambition to lofty realization. Sometimes even a lot of time. And why not? This is heady stuff.

But intricate politics and competing definitions of success are only the first step. Oath takes another. Right over the ledge. Whether it soars or tumbles into the rocky waters below is the big question.

Here’s what I mean. You may have heard that Oath keeps going. The result of that first play becomes the setup for the second, which in turn becomes the basis for the third, and so on, until you decide you’re done or it’s time to reset the game. This isn’t a legacy system. There’s no preordained story. There aren’t even story beats, at least none that have been determined in advance. Instead, the winner of one game becomes the Chancellor of the next. Their holdings become the core territories of the coming polity. Their method of victory becomes the oath of the next generation. And their cards are protected while others are cut from the game, with new random denizens getting shuffled into the deck.

I have two notes on this. First, this act of transformation between plays is very real without precluding somebody from entering the story later on. Because Oath isn’t a legacy game, new cards are introduced but the mechanisms never change. Rather than opening boxes or envelopes, you’re shuffling different cards into the same shared deck. Every play is its own complete event, without omission.

That said, Oath becomes something else entirely once you experience those singular events as connected. Like links in an unbroken chain, segments of a tapestry, or the acts of one generation in a chart-spanning family tree. This requires a different perspective entirely, one willing to redefine success not only within the span of one play, but many.

What the dinglefluff.

Oh no.

I’ll do my best to explain.

In one play, I lost my temper. I know, you’re shocked. I was, too. So was the object of my ire. The inciting event was a battle. Of Oath’s many particulars, military campaigns are one of the trickiest to parse, a merger of raw military strength, denizen cards, and dice. Making matters even trickier, a single campaign can have multiple targets. Not just one or two territories, but, well, an entire empire. Even loot can be targeted. So, too, can certain of the game’s more nebulous ideas. Maybe this territory plus that relic plus, oh, the affection of the people. Like everything else in Oath, a little imagination goes a long way toward clarifying what exactly any given campaign is accomplishing.

Anyway, this battle was for the Darkest Secret, one of two banners representing control over a kingdom-wide concept. Here that concept was the religion, the intrigue, the ephemeral glue of the empire. In order to succeed, I needed to hold it for a few extra turns. Fortunately, I was fielding an enormous army with helpful denizens in tow. My attacker didn’t really have much of a hope. She didn’t even need to attack me. There’s plenty of kingmaking in Oath. Consider it a feature rather than a bug and the pill goes down more sweetly. In this case, she couldn’t think of anything better to do, so she woke up and decided to crash her warband against my army.

She won. Barely, of course. My appalling roll certainly helped. I won’t go into particulars, but there’s room in Oath for military catastrophes, and this rated. I flipped. Not the table — it’s too heavy — but certainly some dice were chucked, and not to resolve a roll. This fit arose not only because of my tendency toward competitiveness, but also because Oath had engendered so much investment in the fates of our would-be potentates that my ignominious defeat somehow burst the magic circle like a soap bubble.

My embarrassment was compounded when my attacker and I wound up connected at the hip for three plays straight. She was the Chancellor and I the Citizen who succeeded her. Then the inverse. Then again. We came to resemble rival dynasties, always at each other’s throats but never quite ascendant enough to purge the wound completely. On one occasion, our rivalry grew so heated that even though our empire persisted, its borders were significantly smaller than they had been at the beginning. She turned to me after that game, laughing about our ill fortunes, and noted, “Even though I won, it feels like we lost.”

Every game makes me consider how to win. It’s rare that I’m left asking what that victory means — what comes after. Civilization games revel in transforming their players into an Augustus or a Caesar. Less often do they strive to make us into a Tiberius or Aurelius, presiding over a contraction, a compromise, a diminishment. Over the course of a few plays, that’s precisely what Oath accomplishes. It’s full of minor successes that outlast empires, failures that loom heavy in the memories of succeeding generations, and gradual shifts of identity. As I mentioned in my preview, I’ve played countless games about history, but Oath is the first I’ve played about historiography. This is a board game that’s about writing history more than reading it. Literally, even, since it encourages you to keep a written record of everything that befalls your people.

Wizard Schools are the hot topic right now in the United States.

Despite its fantasy gauze, Oath is hardly apolitical.

Unsurprisingly, this works best when experienced with the same core group, plus or minus the occasional interloper. As a single experience, there’s less of a reason to play Oath than Pax Pamir, Root, or John Company. Taken in isolation, it’s an interesting plaything mired by irritants and infuriants, like spring air buzzing with pollen and insects. It’s only when given room to breathe that it adopts a unique seasonality. Here is spring, irritating and itchy, but also bursting with refreshment and renewal. Summer, hot and lazy. Autumn, the season of decay but also the season of gathering. Last comes winter, cold and bitter, but a relief in its own right, a time to burrow and hold close the things that keep us warm. Something that is stifling alone may become richer through connection. Then it’s part of a cycle, whether a harrowing or a reprieve.

Oath manages to encompass that entire cycle on its own. It’s ambitious like that. At its worst, it grows stomach-sick with ambition. Mostly when viewed through a pinhole. This passage is better suited to a window or a door. What lies on the other side captures such a tremendous portion of why history is so enrapturing: the breadth of it, the character, the sheer interconnectedness of time and place and person. Oath asks for a paradigm shift and somehow matches the gumption of its demand.

 

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on May 25, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.

  1. Not enough games explore the five minutes after the so called “win” trigger or whatever. You win farming games with an unsustainable mess but because you have fourteen horses packed into the smallest barn available you are the champion. If the health inspector shows up the next day, you’d be toast but instead the winner is chosen at the precipice of collapse. The top atom of ththe mountain.

    This sounds like it completely flips that which is kind of cool.

    I wonder though what does a “win” feel like knowing it’s a thread of an increasingly large fabric? Does the fifth win feel like a win knowing that other victories end up being less and less important? I wonder if this kind of diminishes the steam and drive to win a particular game?

    I really want to give kings dilemma a go as it seems to hit some similar modes.

    • Agreed. “The morning after” is such an under-explored topic.

    • I know lots of people love Terraforming Mars explicitly because, unlike most engine builders, it leaves room in the game for a few victory laps to show off the impressive engine you have built.

      Personally, I can’t stand that useless 45 minutes at the end of a game of TM, but I can at least understand how frustrating it can be to spend the whole game building something cool and have it turn to dust the minute it does something cool.

      Oath’s idea seems really appealing to me – immediately gives you an infusion of drama into the next play.

  2. Mihail Kiridjisky

    Beautifully written post, thank you! Makes me all the more looking forward to finally experience the game. It has been in my shelf for quite some time now, but, alas, the times…

  3. “[T]his sure is a beaut for something Wehrle called a ‘hate letter’ to the civilization genre.” Maybe I’m wrong, but wasn’t it a “hate letter” to the *legacy* genre? Or maybe Wehrle is writing multiple hate letters here.

    At any rate, I’m going to pass on Oath. At least for now. First, because it doesn’t seem to be the sort of game that shines at lower player counts. Most of the time, it’s just my wife and me playing games together. Second, because of the commitment. Whether Oath is a campaign game or not, it definitely fills that niche. It wants to be played often. And between a current Monster campaign, with Arkham Horror, Pandemic Legacy, and Gloomhaven on the backburner, I’m not sure that’s something that’ll happen anytime soon.

    On another note, you mentioned someone saying, “Even though I won, it feels like [I] lost.” Do you mind elaborating on that a bit? After reading other reviews of Oath, it sounds like the game’s neverending-ness might leave players feeling a bit unsatisfied. Like victory is hollow because it’s temporary, and it therefore isn’t worth chasing. Or at least, it doesn’t mean as much. Is that what’s going on here?

    • She meant it more in the sense that she had won, but the empire we had been commanding had been so diminished while we were distracted fighting each other that we were left ruling over a tiny fraction of our birthright. That’s the opposite of unsatisfying — it’s a complex emotional state brought on by how much the game state matters over multiple plays. Which is very, very cool.

      • I’ll admit, that this part was initially a little ambiguous for me as well. Funnily enough, I interpreted it as the experience having stirred up so much negativity that the fun and wanting to see the game through to the end was hampered.

        Of course this was contradicted by the following paragraph, which clarified your point of view on the game, but thought it’d be worth mentioning.

        Enjoyed the read Dan!

      • Thanks, Anjovi! Perhaps I need to go back and clean up that portion.

      • It made sense to me when I read it.

    • I find victories less absolute than in other games, but maybe the way the game develops is all the more meaningful for that. You have games that you just win or lose and that’s OK. In Oath, it’s all about *how* you won or lost. It’s about the story!

  4. Kunal, ploderup, would it work to have the group set their own campaign terms for playing Patch? Like a best of 7 or most wins before the solstice? Setting some goal posts might make individual wins more meaningful.

    • For me it’s more, if wins increasingly come with gut punches and could essentially be marked as failures or with asterisks – how hard do you go into the game? Can you afford to put everything into it knowing it’s going to be somewhat bitter? Might as well lose less energy and still end up feeling disappointed’

      Maybe the eventual state of this game has it become a pseudo co-op where a nice steady state is preferable (of course you have to keep playing) as no one is losing what they’ve got so there’s a satisfaction in that.

      In super Mario 3D world there’s a mechanic where the winner gets a crown. The crown does nothing but show off your a current winner. I wonder if it’d be fun to walk around for a week with a crown on between games.

      • Well, it isn’t always bittersweet when you win. That’s just one example of how the game’s persistence makes you question what exactly success looks like.

  5. The last two paragraphs are key. My group made the mistake of playing with 5 players and it was very unsatisfactory, partially because of the over-large player count and partially because the amorphous victory conditions and the anticlimactic win by the Chancellor (roll the die and win) left a lot to be desired.

    I really hope Mr. Wehrle didn’t save all his genius design ideas for the subsequent sessions. While I admit that we made mistakes (aside from an ambitious player count), I certainly didn’t have the same experience as with PP2 and Root.

    • Personally, I like it best with four. Even then, I actually sort of like having players who float in and out, provided they’re playing enough to be invested.

      • I think the challenge is getting players to be invested after a first game that puzzles and confuses more than it inspires. I don’t think Mr. Wehrle intends to alienate, but for many gamers attracted by his pedigree and the look of the game, that may be the result. We’ll see!

    • FWIW, I tend to have the greatest fun with the five player game. There’s always something crazy happening, some weird shift in coalitions, some dramatic turn of events. Four can be a little too comfortable in comparison (I mean it’s also excellent). Three is also a good game, more focused on strategy.

  6. In an earlier version of the game the Oath of the People was centered around a light “stockholding” mechanic wherein your overall popularity score was determined by multiplying the favor in each bank by the amount of advisors you controlled of that suit. I completely adored this mechanic. It was unlike anything I had encountered in other games. There was a beautiful decision space revolving around the favor economy and curating the perfect portfolio of advisors. I was incredibly dismayed to find that in the final version this ruleset has been totally scrapped in favor of a boring bidding system that mirrors the system used for the darkest secret.

    How viable would it be to modify the oath of the people to reflect this mechanic? The banner of the people could still use the same system of demanding favor but instead of buying it outright players would have to subtly maneuver their favor and advisors.

    Great review!

    • Yeah, I miss that system as well. It was difficult to parse, but that was also part of its charm — it was possible to manipulate in such a way that somebody would overlook a minor detail. I don’t know whether it would be possible to port into the finished version, but I would love to see somebody take a stab at it.

  7. Excellent piece, Dan, thanks!

    “Even though I won, it feels like we lost.” – I think of this as maybe the one most distinguishing affect of Oath. There’s a very wide spectrum of winning, and also losing – like losing but actually being happy that this or that site or feature has been saved, helping the most deserving person to victory, etc. It all enlarges the game tremendously.

    (I just think the trade action cannot be taken as a distance on cards you rule? Though you can use the card actions themselves from elsewhere of course)

  8. The historiography that is promised in this game is where I’m most interested. I’m intrigued at the stories that will be written in the book by the victors compared to those that are remembered by the other participants. As you alluded, will that victory be the beginnings of a collapse for that chancellor? Will it be viewed as a rallying point for the next? What will the story look like several generations after? Recognizing that the conclusion of an “event” can be the nexus of so many different future stories gives you the impression that so many futures are possible, but also that everything is causative.

    Oath offers great promise in this space, and I’m incredibly excited to get to wade into those waters… if only my blasted shipping notice would arrive…

    • This is all so true, but it only matters if the players care enough by the end of the game. If the players are baffled, alienated from the design, and never sure what they should be doing, what happens afterwards won’t matter. Dan alluded to parts of the design that are opaque and a bit maddening (I find the combat targeting perplexing myself), so I’m agnostic about how it will fare with new groups. Obviously, if everyone likes the game well enough to play it again, then you’re off to the races.

  9. I backed this on Kickstarter based off your first preview. I’m the president of my university’s history club so I nervously hope this will be a hit as part of a board game night or as its own semi regular event. The idea of a historiography game sounds awesome though

  10. I have read so many thoughts and “reviews” of Oath and I still do not understand what it is. Its rules feel constricted and yet nebulous, it’s cards serious and silly, it’s design too elegant and yet too open and loose.

    In all, I can’t help but feel it is the type of game in which you have do a lot of mental legwork and imagination to keep the narrative going. You need to really invest in the play space and imbue each aspect with significance to really get much out of the game.

    You need to look at your tableau as if staring into a cup of loose leaf tea and really project your thoughts into the ether. If you just see tea or bone China, the “game” is done and over.

    • ^this is exactly correct. It’s really deeply odd to not be able to get into the world of a Cole Wehrle game, but that’s what happened…twice! There’s no theme. There’s no world with its own narrative. It’s all regurgitated historical narratives mixed with some fantasy tropes. Nothing at all like the strong theming of his earlier games. Players that love sandbox games will love this. Those that want a strong theme and narrative? Not so much.

      • This was exactly my experience. All semblance of setting or theme melt away instantly once you start playing, leaving only a set of ever more complicated interacting mechanics. The guys I played with tried valiantly to “take on their roles”, but the game itself doesn’t require them at all, so it felt forced.

        Unfortunately you can’t really ever get around to the kind of imaginative projection that @Kakybac mentions, becuase the board state is so complex and tense, that you have to use all of your available resources just keeping up with the endless win-conditions. And then someone starts a battle…

        This is in massive contrast to a system like the COIN games (or Pax/Root, which I think are heavily inspired by COIN) which are so infused with their settings and themes that you are constantly and pleasantly reminded of them while you play. And keeping them in mind can actaully help inform your strategy! I’m not sure if it’s fair to make these comparisons, but I found myself constantly doing so while I played Oath, and afterwards when I played these other games.

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