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Oath Pre-Review

GS Updated December 02, 2020
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Oath Pre-Review

Game Information

1 - 6
There Will Be Games

Oath creates a grand narrative.  While I believe it will develop an extremely devoted following among players who brave several plays and are not averse to the traditional characteristics of the multiplayer conflict genre, it is going to fall flat among many of the people designer Cole Wehrle brought onboard with his much more approachable Root.

It is unusual to review a game before it is released, but it is also unusual for a team to do almost all of its playtesting online and provide a feature and art complete tabletop simulator module well before the physical game is released, as Cole Wehrle and Leder Games have done with their newest kickstarted game, Oath. I’ve played enough, around twenty-five times, to feel comfortable with a pre-release gameplay review in order to let you know what to expect in spring when it is physically released.

Fundamentally, Oath is a multiplayer conflict game in the vein of Chaos in the Old World, Cthulhu Wars, or Lords of Hellas, but one that has a player pawn focal point and somewhat deemphasizes holding territory. It also adds a unique persistent element across games, the Chronicle. Each player’s goal is to seize one of the four objectives, determined at the beginning of the game, long enough to win the game. An incumbent regime player starts with advantages already in place (the Chancellor) and the game will quickly become complicated by the introduction of various “Visions” entering the game that present other victory conditions to the non-Chancellor players.

Instead of providing its special powers via differentiated plastic units (e.g. Kemet) or innate player power boards (e.g. Root), at the heart of Oath is an enormous deck of around 200 cards (“denizens”). In a single game, you will only have 50-60 of these cards available, describing the major features of the current world, and will almost certainly see only 30 of those cards each game. These cards are all completely unique, providing military, mystic, political, and even more niche and bizarre support to the players in their struggle with one another. The suited world deck serves to shape player incentives and specialties. While some cards are relatively mundane, giving bonuses to combat or other marginal changes, other cards reshape the context of the game in its entirety and the design team clearly felt no compunction to keep their ideas within a carefully bounded box.

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Where Oath succeeds in spades is in providing drama. Because of the cornucopia of special powers, which are not afraid to be game changing, games will generally hinge on critical plays featuring the deployment of wild special powers. There are cards in the deck which make a player impossible to target via military campaigns, that force a player into the Chancellor’s existing empire against its will, and that make binding deals, even across games, possible. While some of that incredible drama is random and tactical, via pulling out a single lucky card, most of the drama I have experienced among skilled players is strategically coherent: players carefully build up a plan through several turns of card draws and preparations, then unveil that plan in a gamble on victory while their opponents do the same.

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The narrative momentum Oath builds is enormous. I suspect, however, that this narrative will not resonate with players who describe themselves as narrative or thematic gamers, as none of the narrative is provided by flavor text or executive direction from a scenario or faction designer. It is instead generated mechanically, via minimalistic card titles, weird art, and strong card suit themes. Expanding this narrative focus through mechanics is the Chronicle system, which has the winner of a game add new cards into the world deck from the suits they used to win from the massive card sideboard, then removing other cards of other suits back to the box. Individual games of Oath are most akin to a dramatic short story in the much longer book of a fantasy world. Over many games, the entire game state takes very distinct thematic states due to its denizen card balance and how dominant the previous win was by the incumbent. A “Discord” suited world, where many players have been winning using discord cards in previous games, focuses on stealing from other players and burning the economy of the game to the ground while an order suited world is focused on site control and military dominance. Over time, the legacy element enhances the game an enormous amount, to the extent that a friend I play with in our forums has called the sequence of games in a continuous Chronicle “the real game.”

20201006201232 1As the follow up to the Wehrle mainstream hit of Root, Oath superficially seems to hit some of its notes, especially its focus on player powers and troops on a map structure. Several plays, however, will reveal that Oath is something far different, to many people’s dismay and my delight. Oath is larger and much more ambitious, a completely open sandbox. This is incredibly intimidating to new players, and I suspect will lead to some extremely poor first and second impressions from excited Root enthusiasts, especially as their games run agonizingly long. Because Oath presents you with six action options and features 30+ special powers entering play throughout the game, it provides a dismaying array of options that will drive even non-analysis paralysis players to a grinding halt. This is particularly problematic because Oath features game mechanics which generate a tremendous amount of frustration in a very long game, including an unforgiving zero-sum economy, kingmaking opportunities, large swings of fortune due to the introduction of new special powers, and elaborate deal making. Oath is a game that wants to be around two hours or less, which is easily achievable with experienced players, but takes an agonizing three to four on first plays because its rules are quite crunchy and it has so many unique powers. Oath also wants players to play multiple times and observe the changing texture of the world being built, along with the new, more radical, cards being added to the world deck. But multiple plays with the same players of a game with kingmaking is not in the cards for most modern board gamers; I think Oath is doomed to be a niche success compared to its more on-the-rails, curated, cousin, Root. Ultimately, though, I believe that Oath will develop an extremely devoted following among players, like myself, who brave several plays and are not averse to the traditional bugbears of the multiplayer conflict genre.

Editor reviews

1 reviews

Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile
Where Oath succeeds in spades is in providing drama.
Steve M. "Gary Sax" (He/Him)
Community Manager

Steve is an academic in Arizona and Texas that spends his off-time playing board games and hiking. He cut his teeth on wargames and ameritrash before later also developing an odd love of worker placement and heavier economic games. You can also find him on instagram at steve_boardgamesfeed.

Articles by Steve

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Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #316458 23 Nov 2020 11:27
Great write up. While it sounds pretty interesting, I think I will be glad I passed on this one as I think it would not hit the table often enough to gain the competency for fast play. How strong/necessary is the legacy element if players drop in.out?
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #316461 23 Nov 2020 11:37
Not necessary at all, the game is intentionally made to allow people to drop in and out pretty seamlessly. BUT I think it enhances the experience a lot because you grow with the board state and you've seen the key cards the current board state is revolving around and developed some love/hate for some of the existing combos. Missing a game here and there is no big deal, and in fact might provide a fun surprise when you come back to the game and someone has built up a huge empire.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #316463 23 Nov 2020 11:49
Great article! I too am glad I passed. I think if I had a group that could make this work, I'd rather we played Dune.
Not Sure's Avatar
Not Sure replied the topic: #316482 23 Nov 2020 17:09

Msample wrote: Great write up. While it sounds pretty interesting, I think I will be glad I passed on this one as I think it would not hit the table often enough to gain the competency for fast play. How strong/necessary is the legacy element if players drop in.out?

Competency for fast play doesn't take 25 games, maybe 4-5. The first one is a doozy, though. There are a lot of actions, and they vary a lot in complexity so it's really hard to get a picture of what to do on your first game. Then once you have an idea of what you can do, you can start putting things together in the next few games.

Dropping in and out is pretty easy, but if you're playing without a notion of the "next game", some of the more intricate bits don't always make a ton of sense. Specifically, the "Citizen" aspect of the game is rarely going to benefit someone in the game they're in unless it's a kingmaking sort of deal. You gain access to a different win condition that you haven't been working towards, and if you've been after a Vision win then your work towards that no longer applies. So the Chancellor is unlikely to offer citizenship to a player still in the hunt for a win (and they're unlikely to accept!). In many circumstances, being a citizen is just "lose differently".

That said, it can be a great move to pick up someone who's running last and elevate them to a citizen to help seal this game, and then they start with a slightly better position next game, having a clear victory goal from turn 1 that even takes precedence over the Chancellor's own victory goal. Without some expected continuity, those discussions become pretty moot.

In a world that didn't have literally thousands of releases every year, this would be a shining star. If this had been published in the 80s, it would be one of the biggest grail games around. But with so much competition and new title churn, I don't think it's ever going to get the repeat plays it needs to sink in. I'm glad it's being published, but i don't expect a second print run of this game. It's definitely not Root.

edit: Also, I agree "great writeup"! I'm glad you took the time to distill all those plays into something coherent and approachable. It's a tricky game to get your head around at first, and "will I like it?" can be pretty hard to answer from the just the rulebook in this case.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #316485 23 Nov 2020 18:25
I really like the concept of Oath, but it's unlikely that I would actually enjoy playing. I have played Root three times now, and still don't enjoy it at a fundamental level because it feel likes interesting mechanics were created first and then had the setting slapped on afterwards. I greatly prefer games that were designed in the opposite manner, where the designer starts with theme and setting and then translates those into a game through the mechanics. This sounds like a petty and arbitrary difference, but it means a lot to me, because starting with mechanics often produces a non-intuitive distance between mechanics and subject matter. That in turn makes it harder to remember rules and exceptions, and the stories that the game tells might be diminished by the more gamey elements.

The other major problem that I have had with Root is that I really like asymmetric factions in general, but they are so extremely asymmetric in Root that they seem to end up somewhat scripted in terms of strategy. You can literally see the script on each faction's dashboard. That, and the asymmetry in Root feels like it reduces the potential interaction in the game to less direct than the type of interaction I like to see in a multi-player game. I get the impression that those issues are not a problem for Oath.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #316488 23 Nov 2020 18:50
I've definitely never felt the Root factions were created mechanics before theme, but to each their own.

Scripted directions are not a feature of Oath, for sure, that semi-scripted part of Root is one of my issues with it too. Some Root factions are worse than others with that, a faction like Woodland Alliance feels very scripted.
mc's Avatar
mc replied the topic: #316489 23 Nov 2020 19:16
Yeah, you can't deny the way a game feels for you, and games where the mechanisms stick out of the theme are the ones I bounce off the hardest,BUT Wehrle has discussed in various places the way he designs, which is that he tends to have 2 questions in mind - a thematic one, and a mechanical one. Things start to develop when the two questions form a kind of coherent whole, basically. I too found the factions fairly thematic. But - I can see how they also are a little mechanical, all the steps, etc.

BTW thanks for the write-up Gary. I'd echo the first couple of comments there too; I held off even thought the excitement was high about the ideas. Got an email to do a late pledge or whatever the other day and started getting the feels again. Timely article :) Just wouldn't get it played, I think.
Not Sure's Avatar
Not Sure replied the topic: #316490 23 Nov 2020 19:36
"wouldn't get it played" never stops me. That's the story of my whole game collection.

If I were to guess, I'd say some of the Root factions were theme-first (particularly Vagabond) and some were mechanics-first, or at the very least needs-based (like the guerilla Alliance or the bartering Otters).

But to swing it back to Oath (derailment mea culpa), Oath is about as much like Root as Root is like Pax Pamir or John Company. Which is to say not very alike at all. There are some similarities in design sensibilities across those games (high-negotiation, willingness to play off-table, closed-resource economies) because they're from the same designer, but that's it.

My purpose in mentioning Root is that I don't think this game is going to be a huge hit. I think it will sell a lot of copies up-front (because of Root and Pax Pamir), people will cycle it, and then be on the secondary market for a long long time.

As it happens, I really like Cole's design sensibilities and the games that he makes. They don't really fit easily into the "play-em-all-quick" space in the hobby, though. Doubly so when you factor in how much he likes harsh economies, fuzzy alliances, kingmaking, etc.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #316491 23 Nov 2020 20:41
Having passed on Root and yet to unbox Pax Pamir 2e I remain unmolested by Werhlegigs thus far but the emergent narrative aspect of this has me super intrigued and glad I backed it.

My favourite element of my favourite game KD:M is almost entirely the stories that were crafted by emergent circumstances that evolved out of scant prompts and story nubs across successive sessions. The exposition was entirely our own to weave and that made the experience 'ours'. I just hope it gels with the group in a way that invites sustained play.
Ah_Pook's Avatar
Ah_Pook replied the topic: #316496 24 Nov 2020 07:05
Great write up is a game that is definitely not for my play group. I love reading about it though.
Tamburlain's Avatar
Tamburlain replied the topic: #316710 30 Nov 2020 18:39
I'm an Oath backer and I hope not a soon-to-be disappointed one. My primary concern is the touted emergent narrative. Admittedly, I have not played the game yet, but in watching several run-throughs I'm having difficulty conjuring the mental cinema of what exactly is happening, which is not a problem I've had with Root and Pax Pamir. Could it a limitation of the somewhat abstract map? What does it mean when magic is canceled, for instance, or when visions are revealed, or citizenship awarded? Do the cards in the tableau truly evoke a world? The mental picture is fuzzy when watching it played. Combat is easy enough to envision, but without a real historical context, even that seems to lack dynamism. By way of comparison, Root takes place in a meadow with physical landmarks that spark the same imago mundi of Mouse Guard and a the long tradition of other woodland references. I'm eager to get the game and see for myself. I would like to invite anyone who's played the game to share their imaginings.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #316716 30 Nov 2020 19:59
I feel like people have been taking this review as being pretty negative! I think this game is *wonderful* and far, far better and more interesting than Root! I have it rated as a 10.

I haven't had a hard time thematically at all---the cards are *quite* specific in what group or supporter is helping you and how. And the game runs on the card plays, with the menu of action choices being pretty straightforward in terms of their verbs. You have an advisor or denizen of Arcane plague engines, or Nomad elders, or Order shield wall controlled... it's pretty clear you've enlisted their political support and the powers tend to be pretty spot on thematic.

The thing that, I think, makes Oath a little different than Root or the like is that the cards are broadly indicative of an asset, faction or group supporting you in your quest for the throne. An Oath board is a geographically abstract representation of the political, cultural, and economic situation of a state. So it paints a broader political and military picture unlike the very specific, detailed narrative a Root game makes (as you mention). A game of Oath is a lot more like the events described in a few chapters of the Game of Thrones books than a single, military-focused, conflict. Here's my first game from the other, Oath specific, thread in the forums if this helps:

"I just played a solo two handed game of this and it was absolutely wild, delightful shit. It was supremacy and the Chancellor took territory and managed to get lots of denizen cards on the board, in particular playing toll roads and curfew, which completely left the exile out in the hinterlands dead in the water because of the punishing action restrictions in any part of the realm. By turn 6 they had no sites ruled and the chancellor had 6! In turn 5, though, the completely out of it exile drew lost heir on a "what else should I do, drawing from the world deck only costs 2 due to darkest secret" draw from the world deck and put it face down. From just holding the darkest secret at the beginning and down 2-1 in relics at the start of turn 6, the exile bought the people's favor (a relic) and then bought the sticky fire relic at their site with the last of their resources, flipped up long lost heir to become a citizen, then rolled for the end of the game. 5. Citizen red wins.

This shit writes itself. Court noble starts a civil war, is resoundingly beaten and driven to the hinterlands as the king consolidates and develops a police state in the realm (very effective order cards), then in the hinterlands slums finds out that he is the unknown bastard son via his intelligence network (darkest secret), whereupon he takes the people's favor by showing off an ancient family relic (sticky fire).

An individual game of this is super short so I think this sort of stuff is just going to be a blast."

That thread has other people mentioning some of their stories too, this one was from an older version of the playtest so some of the mechanisms have changed slightly.
Cyrus's Avatar
Cyrus replied the topic: #316723 30 Nov 2020 22:50
I'm not sure, it might just be me but I don't think that it'll be too hard to create your own narritive.

I don't know most of the cards but say you get a vision of prophecy, to me, that sounds like your exile encountered a holy figure/prophet of some sort who has sent your exile on a genuine religious war to topple the government and usher in a theocracy. Maybe they had a Mohammed Esque vision on the mountain top and will lead their followers to topple the empires of old. I don't think you need a historical setting to draw from history in creating your own narrative.
sornars's Avatar
sornars replied the topic: #316730 01 Dec 2020 04:42
Excellent review! I find it funny to know how enamoured with the game you are yet how the perception after this review has been somewhat negative. I think that's a testament to the fact that the things you love or are willing to overlook will also cause a lot of people to bounce off of the game.

As someone who really struggled to see the narrative in early games due to the density of rules, once I'd mostly internalised them, the narrative elements did come front and center and I started to become surprised and delighted by how individual games played out. I still sometimes struggle to see the narrative during the game but when I think back and reflect afterwards I start to identify the key characters, locations and pivotal moments with big swings in fate.

I think the notebook included with the game is not just a random tchotchke - having the victor fill it in afterwards will really enhance the experience in a non-contrived way. You don't even have to go full RPG with it, a few sentences describing how the match played out should be enough. To my previous point on post-game reflection, taking a few minutes to fill it in afterwards will solidify the narrative for everyone, even if it's just one perspective (which is a fun parallel to real history too!).
mc's Avatar
mc replied the topic: #316766 01 Dec 2020 14:51
I think the review is very positive Gary! I can't speak for others but for me, any comment I made should be interpreted as "this sounds GREAT! If only I could be confident of getting the game played."
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #317016 10 Dec 2020 15:00
Finally got around to reading this. I've tried to refrain from reading too much about Oath as I'd prefer to experience it fresh. This review has certainly stoked my anticipation though. Great work Steve.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #317019 10 Dec 2020 15:26
Thanks, means a lot coming from you!
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #321313 27 Mar 2021 12:44
I was reminded of my caveats on this review because someone on the Woodland Warriors official discord said their first game went a TI:4 length 6-7 hours.

That would be an immediate Michael Barnes tm table sweep for me on this game forever. I might even burn the box after that. And I love this thing.
Jack's Avatar
Jack replied the topic: #321481 31 Mar 2021 07:42
Lol, that was me!

In our defense, we regularly play TI in under 7 hours, so this wasn't us being ultra-slow at games or anything. We had 4 players and went right to the end of round 8.

I've seen a couple of other people pop up with long playtimes - someone else on the discord took 5 hours and quit partway through in round 5. So I don't think we'll be the only ones.

We had a blast with the game, absolutely loved it. It felt about as epic and large in scope as a game of TI. I have no regrets.

But yeah definitely set the day aside for your first play of this one. The Playbook itself tells you that your first game can go for 4-5 hours.
mezike's Avatar
mezike replied the topic: #321482 31 Mar 2021 08:00

Jack wrote: But yeah definitely set the day aside for your first play of this one. The Playbook itself tells you that your first game can go for 4-5 hours.

I think that's sound advice. I believe most of us in our TTS group learned in a 2p game without the bot, which isn't ideal player count but at least allowed us to muddle through and discover a good bit of the flow of play in just a couple of hours - but that isn't going to be easy to organise in RL game groups.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #321505 31 Mar 2021 13:08
Hi Jack!

I hope you didn't take my comment as a dig at your group---it is not intended to be personal in any way. It was instead echoing the theme of my review that it's possible to have a long, disjointed first game that could inhibit the enjoyment of the players---though obviously not in your group's case, so that rules.

The Oath crew around here can check me on this but our later games generally clocked in at around 2 hours, 2 1/2 if it went the full distance with longer final turns where negotiation had to take place. The early turns just fly by eventually as everyone is putting together their combos and finding their opportunities. This is a far cry from some really laborious 3-4 hour teaching games at the very beginning. This thing is a tough teach and first play because of the openness.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #321512 31 Mar 2021 15:31
As much as I appreciate this game, I don’t see my regular old group sticking with it enough, even once we start meeting again.
Jack's Avatar
Jack replied the topic: #321539 31 Mar 2021 19:11
No worries at all Gary, I didn't take it as a dig. I definitely agree that these long first games could really turn people off the game.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #322059 14 Apr 2021 10:52
The "This is just a confusing mess like Feudum!" thread is now up on BGG and I feel vindicated.