Oathsworn: Out of the Woods And Into the Deepwood with Jamie Jolly

20 January 2023
If you go down to the woods today… you better be really well armed

Words by Christopher John Eggett

When the dark woodland comes crashing to mankind’s doorstep, ripping down everything between like a great green tide, there’s only two ways to respond. Hide, or become a hero. We talk to Jamie Jolly, the game director at Shadowborn games, about this choice and their huge Kickstarter success, Oathsworn: Into The Deepwood.

Jolly is a rare breed for games designers: he actually has a degree in game design. As those who read these pages every month know, you’re more likely to be an ex-fisherman, a scientist, a PhD-holding specialist or obscurely talented person to have made games worth talking about. Bizarre then, that someone who studied game design went on to actually make them. From there he worked with charities running educational games, and many years later Oathsworn became a wild success.

The game is a “fully co-op dark fantasy epic romp,” says Jolly, “the intent was to make an RPG in a box and make a world that people can care about.”

“In games we’re so often bringing in worlds from the outside – from movies, from computer games – they’re not usually born within board games,” he continues, “the first thing we did was work out this world idea and how we could make something that people cared about.”

It’s a point that chimes true. How often are we faced with a board game world which is simply ‘Tolkien but X’ or ‘this movie: the game’ – and it’s not that these things aren’t mostly fine or even sometimes good (in that order) but that it’s hard to not notice the lack of original stories in tabletop games.

“We passed that back and forth for several months until we stumbled over the idea of the Deepwood,” says Jolly, “the world has been consumed by this chaotic, gnarly forest that rose up – and nobody knows where it came from – and it destroyed the land. All the villages, towns, roads, fields – gone. Mankind now lives inside fortified cities – like islands in a sea of trees.”

“And if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s monsters coming out of the trees to snack on the citizens,” says Jolly, miming a monster eating someone perfectly.


Jolly has big goals for Oathsworn. Like the idea that a campaign style game like this should actually be engaging all the way through its 21 missions. We discuss how many players will play a game once and move on, and how Jolly doesn’t want his games to be part of that culture.

“What we decided on is: what if we made it completely unique every time? Each mission is crafted as a cinematic experience with special rules that are unique to that monster,” says Jolly. Each mission’s boss is also hidden behind the now classic legacy element of a miniature in a box. Jolly’s goal of creating a page turner of a board game is further complicated by the fact that it’s simply massive – his guess is that it’s three times the size of Gloomhaven and twice as heavy as Kingdom Death Monster.

“The stories that have spoken to us a lot of the time – they’re very normal, real, grounded experiences,” says Jolly, before citing Dune as one such influence, “the idea of being in a desert with no water, the idea of thirst – that’s where it’s grounding. It’s the backbone of the entire story. And so with the Deepwood itself the value I saw in that is, if you’ve ever been for a walk in a wood there’s this weird existential trip that comes over you if you go off the path about 20 feet. You might as well be on the moon from how far you feel from civilisation. And then that experience of turning over an old log and finding underneath all those creepy crawlies and weird stuff. It’s that slightly antagonistic nature of nature – grounded in a childhood experience.”

We also talk about a TV programme from some years ago (we speculate it’s called Life After People) where scientists explained how quickly the world would go back to the earth if people simply stopped existing. In a matter of months the pavements crack, within a couple of years the cities are green, and within a couple of decades major buildings are crumbling away.

“Nothing could stop the irresistible march of nature over time,” says Jolly, “and we are actively having to fight back this tide, although we don’t realise we’re doing it. And that impermanence of civilisation stayed with me.”


Oathsworn has two modes for players to explore the Deepwood with. There’s the story mode, and the encounter mode.

“We found there was so much more we could do time wise storytelling if we actually separated the two parts out,” says Jolly, “we have this idea that you spend days and weeks in game time travelling around cities and the hidden spaces of the world trying to solve mysteries, hunt monsters, gain allies, buy items as you’re trying to find this monster. But when you actually find the monster, it collapses down to this 60 second high-octane whirl of teeth and fur and bone and steel. And that’s the encounter.”

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The story mode is something akin to a fighting fantasy choose your own adventure games but with interactive maps with locations to choose to visit at any given time. In this mode there’s a simple combat mechanism and skills checks. There’s also a countdown timer that helps players if they solve mysteries quickly by giving them information on the creature they’re hunting.

“This is valuable because when you come to set up the encounter you get to choose the hand of cards that you are taking into the combat with you,” says Jolly, “I think people are quite surprised actually, when they get into it, just how much messing up the story will give you a really rough time when it comes to the encounter.”

Of course, you should be taking the story seriously if you’re using the companion app – the story there is narrated by James Cosmo, who played Jeor Mormont, leader of the Night’s Watch in Game of Thrones.

When it comes to the encounters themselves the team is always comprised of four heroes – although if you’re playing with less people around the table then the companion system comes into play. While the main way of playing a character includes all the cards, interactions and management elements, the companion mode strips this down to two cards one with basic stats and the other with an ability.

“They’re just as powerful as one another, as the companions have benefits the full characters don’t. It’s good for younger players or controlling multiple characters,” says Jolly.

“You have this giant encounter in front of you, this giant monster with multiple hit point dice. You also have this ‘stage’ card that tells you what the monster is about to do – after all you’re a bunch of badass monster hunters and this is your day job.”

“You’re trying to get the best out of the situation by getting rid of all the minions, positioning the monster, hiding behind a tree and praying,” laughs Jolly, “and trying to minimise the damage coming at you.”

You do this by playing cards. These cards go into slots around your player boards, which are nudged along to the next slot – and eventually into your hand – every time a card is pushed along. If you play a card with a cooldown of one on it, it’ll be waiting there until you play another card with a cooldown of one and back into your hand. These cooldown slots run to three, and cards can be bunched together, meaning you can have this large swingy turns of getting all your options back. There’s no cascading effects here, but instead a multitude of ways to get the cards you want back into your hand.

“We also had this big focus on wanting to make the ability cards mechanically diversified, not just numerically diversified. So, it’s not just a ‘heavy blow’ which does plus two damage,” explains Jolly, “the heavy blow throws your character and the enemy across the board, smashes into something else and they both get killed because they get hit by knockback. Or toppling over trees on top of someone and it knocks them out. Some of the characters can run up trees and dive out of them. There’s one that can create ‘bio-turrets’ around the board and focus them on to an individual target. Or propagate fire and water tiles that actually go on the board, and then later consume that fire and water to create spells. You know, all kinds of weird stuff.”

These cards can also be used for defence bonuses too – trading off the ability to play the card in the future for surviving an attack right now.

Jolly discusses the damage system in the terms of swordplay, the idea that one of the things people think about in that situation is how hard to commit. Here that exists in a push-your-luck mechanism. You can roll pretty much as many damage dice as you like, but rolling two blanks at any point means your attack misses. There are better dice which you might gain through the story or other means. Alternatively, and quite strangely, this set of dice can be switched for a deck of cards at any time.

Damage itself is divided by the armour of the enemy, so you’re always rolling to thresholds against their armour. This means minor defence increases can have big effects, and that you’re more likely to push your luck if rolling nine is the same as rolling a six or a seven. The damage is applied to dice connected to each area of the creature – dice tracking different health of each body part. This allows players to ‘break’ the creature in certain ways – distracting it away from, for example, their friend getting eaten.


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