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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A complimentary copy was provided.