Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile is the latest game in the four letter series. Root, Fort, and Vast have all received critical acclaim and spawned a large following. Can Oath keep up the trend? Or does it fail to live up to these past achievements?
Let me introduce you to yourself
The best description of Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile (here to refered to as Oath) is to imagine the French Revolution acted out by the same characters as Monty Python and the Holy Grail. For your first game, you start the game as either the Chancellor, or an Exile.
As Chancellor, you rule the lands, and to gain the fealty of the people you've sworn a promise, an Oath if you will. As long as you uphold your promise, the people will believe in your cause and follow you.
If you're not the Chancellor, you're an Exile from this ruling party, and you're not happy with how things are run. In fact, you've already started sharpening your guillotine and pitchfork. Your goal is to prove yourself more capable than the Chancellor, by upholding their promise better than they can. Otherwise, you can receive a vision from a higher deity - in this case the World Deck. Fulfilling this vision will amass a following large enough to take down the current regime.
There's one more option which comes into play after your first game, and that's being a Citizen. Meaning you've accepted the rule of the Chancellor. Well, at least for now. Because your goal throughout the game is to overthrow them from within to become the new and improved successor!
This is as asymmetrical Oath gets, three different roles all vying to take over as the next Chancellor. And while the goals are different, the game plays similarly for all. Each turn you'll have a number of supply to spend. You'll be spending this on raising troops, searching the World Deck, playing advisors, striking bargains, attacking lands, and gaining relics.
Rules within rules within rules
This is a heavy game in all senses of the word. There is a large amount of rules, exceptions, and variations from usual game mechanics. It took my table four hours on our first three player game, with at least an hour of explanation and running through the tutorial.
Thankfully, the team at Leder Games puts a lot of effort into ensuring a great first playthrough. For Oath, the included tutorial runs each player through their first turn, giving them insights on how to play the game. Along with the graphic design, this went a long way towards us learning the game, and smoothing out a lot of questions we had.
Despite the volume, the rules in Oath by and large are intuitive. While we found we had to dig through the rule book for rare scenarios and exceptions. In most cases we already knew the answer. This allowed us to focus on playing, rather than enforcing all of the systems.
By our fifth game together, we got the game time down to two hours.
An example scenario you'll get familiar with is wanting to search the World Deck, normally costing two supply, but there are three visions in play meaning it costs four supply. This lets you draw three cards. You find a good one and want to play it to your site but your site has a card limit of two cards and is full, but you have the people's favour and therefore can discard a card at the site. This then nets you one favour from the favour bank matching the suit of the card you just played, but the bank has no money so you get nothing. But you still get a relic because the site has a power based on the suit of the card you played.
If your head isn't spinning right now, it's a good sign you'll have no troubles with the game.
We've finished playing, but the game isn't done
Mark my words: Oath is going to be one of the most influential games of the next 10 years. There's a new mechanic called chronicling, which allows one game to bleed into the next. For instance the winner of the current game becomes the Chancellor of the next game, and any sites they rule remain ruled.
Oath goes further with this mechanic than I've ever seen. The World Deck is made up of 41 denizen cards. There's another 157 denizen cards in the game box. The winner of each game gets to pick and choose 6 cards to add from the box to the World Deck. While 6 discarded cards are removed from the World Deck back to the game box.
Winning in Oath is more than bragging rights, you get to change the game.
This simple mechanic adds so much importance to winning. While also making Oath more personal. My copy of the World Deck has almost no Nomad cards in it. I expect others to be Nomad full, or at least Nomad neutral.
Because of the pay off of this mechanic, and the ease of execution. If we don't see chronicling added to more games in the near future, I'll eat my hat.
Oath is not a great game
Mechanically, Oath isn't a game I'm rushing to play. Even though its sand box environment lets me live my desires to join in the crusades. There are some glaring issues.
Lots of downtime between turns.
You get a number of supply to spend each turn, meaning you can do anywhere between 1 and 10 actions. But you must do them all at once. Meaning even with your friends quickly playing through their turns you will suffer at least 5-10 minutes of downtime between turns.
What makes this worse, is that all of the winning conditions are activated at the start of your turn. So you effectively put yourself into a winning position. Then have to sweat through 5-10 minutes of people scheming against and attacking you.
It's not balanced.
All cards are powerful but contextually so. Cards can feel extremely powerful one game, but trash the next. For example, there's a card letting you control an unkillable bandit army, which is great if there are a lot of empty sites - terrible if they're all occupied. Getting stuck with a bad hand, or a wilting hand because of the context of the game, will make the game feel impossible to win. Which is never fun, no matter the game you're playing.
Beyond cards, there's also alliances where you can find yourself the only Exile at the table surrounded by three smiling Citizens. You're straight up not going to have a good time. It's easy for them to knock you down, but it's really hard to get back up.
The game can end randomly.
While a full game of Oath is 8 rounds, after the 5th round the Chancellor can yell "Time to Win" and roll a 6 and that's game over (this actually happened). It's fair enough, because the Chancellor has to work hard to earn the right to end the game. But for the long term planners among us, this is going to annoy the heck out of you. As your well laid plans may get interrupted by the roll of the dice.
Almost none of the above matters. Because Oath is the best board game at creating an emerging narrative, and it isn't even close.
These "flaws" in the game create challenges to overcome, odds stacked against you. Creating narrative arcs you and your friends will get invested in, and talk about weeks afterwards. I distinctly remember every one of the six games I played of Oath. As each told a distinct story with all the drama, comedy, politics, betrayal, war, and intrigue you'd expect from a HBO show.
While there is some slow build up, by round 5 everyone has either been in a winning position or is about to be in a winning position. That's when it becomes a dog pile of everyone trying to climb over each other to get to the top while the whole table trying to drag you down. You're often positioned where it's if I stop Bob, Steve will win, and if I can stop Bob & Steve than Jake is going to win. It is king making, but that's what Oath is all about.
It is captivating to play through, and it's exciting to relive through memories. All enhanced by the chronicling mechanism, that reminds you of these past exploits and adventures. You're simultaneously experiencing nostalgia, as well as creating a new chapter.
And what's most exciting is the new choices you make will have an impact on games to come. For instance, in one game when it was clear I wasn't going to win, I spent my last turns clearing the sites of Chancellor, so next game they wouldn't have so strong a hold on the land. Another game, I spent a turn repairing an Ancient Forge, for no other reason than ensuring some artefact of the first ruler remained. These decisions, and your impact on future games, means you can still have an impact even when you're out of it.
Where to from here?
Oath is a hard game to judge, and rank. It's going to cause controversy. It's heavy, it's complicated, it's unfair, and to pull it off the shelf for a one off session, there are much better games out there. But, if you're going to be sitting down and playing Oath three or four sessions in a row. There's not a board game out there able to compete in terms of flavour and story. And if that's as important to you, as it is for me, then Oath will be a game for the ages.
Oath is one of the only board games I've played where I've enjoyed the stories from it over the game itself. Have you every experienced this phenomenon? Whether it be board or video games I'd love to know!