22 June 2021
History in the making
Oath: Chronicles of Empire & Exile was the winner of the Tabletop Gaming 2021 Award for the "Best Board Game of 2021". You can watch the awards, and hear from designer Cole Wehrle below!
Oath is a bundle of fascinating contradictions. It is abstract, yet it glows with theme. It looks bright and cute, but is deeply and, at times, viciously strategic. And it is a legacy game that is not a legacy game. As such, despite that ‘Must-Play’ tag above, it won’t be for everybody.
Those drawn in by Kyle Ferrin’s awesomely evocative and characterful artwork – think The Dark Crystal by way of Richard Scarry – might be put off by designer Cole Wehrle’s almost highbrow yet generic terminology (that wordy subtitle is a big tip-off). Those expecting a solid civilisation game might be irked by its non-specific worldbuilding; though there is a refreshing purity in Oath’s refusal to ladle on lore and name every last character and location (or indeed any character or location). Those who prefer the reassuring familiarity of victory points and straightforward endgame objectives may become frustrated by Oath’s varied, malleable and initially unclear win conditions. And if you’re expecting a campaign game where specific storylines unfurl, stickers are applied and cards are torn, then you’ve definitely come to the wrong place.
Wehrle describes Oath as a game about legacy, rather than a legacy game per se. So instead of comprising a fixed, multi-session ‘season’, it forms an endless, samsaric cycle whereby each setup is modified according to the way the previous game ended (who won, which faction they favoured, where they ruled), with changes to the main deck and central Site tableau that may be too subtle for some legacy-loving tastes.
How this affects the game over the very long term is honestly hard to judge, but it is clear that any impact will be best felt by the same, regular group of players who have together experienced the generations-spanning ebbs and flows of previous crises as encapsulated by successive playthroughs. Or, alternatively, those who devote themselves to it solo, using its neat “Clockwork Prince” A.I., complete with an action-selecting, crazy spaghetti-flowchart “Mind”. (It’s worth noting, however, the most satisfying player count is three-plus, so the Clockwork Prince is best employed with two human players.) It is possible, we suspect, for you to play a really long game with Oath and strategise for eventualities that might not be realised until a future session. But for most people, Oath will be dealt with one slightly different game at a time.
Here, in a non-specific fantasy realm divided into three regions (Cradle, Provinces and Hinterland), one player takes the role of the ruling Chancellor (typically the winner of the previous game), and the other players are either Citizens, who join with the Chancellor to form an Empire but can still take power as a Successor, or (more likely) Exiles who seek to usurp the Chancellor.
This can be done in one of two ways. Firstly, by meeting the conditions of the current game’s Oath, such as ruling the most Sites – there are eight in total – or holding one of the game’s two power-imbuing Banner placards. You then take the Oathkeeper title from the Chancellor and must keep it for two of the game’s eight rounds; in other words, you beat the Chancellor at their own game. Or, alternatively, you can win by discovering one of four Visions buried in the stacked World Deck, meeting its condition and maintaining that for one round.
Meanwhile, the Chancellor just has to stay on the throne to triumph, which they can do from the fifth round onwards with the simple roll of a die at the round’s end. This sounds clumsy and annoying, but actually works really well, providing a sense of escalating tension during the game’s final act.
It is rare for a single player to pull off a swift, decisive victory, but with the right combo of recovered Relics (basically magical artefacts) and rule-tweaking Denizen cards, which you either play as personal Advisers or to Sites (thereby forming a shared tableau), it’s not impossible. More likely, you’ll spend the first few rounds exploring the lands while sizing up your opponents and nudging yourself towards the most advantageous position. This might be through trading and building an economic engine. Or through discovering “The Darkest Secret”, or winning “The People’s Favour”. Or maybe just mustering your forces and going on a rampage. Or perhaps you’ll seek Citizenship from the Chancellor and position yourself as their inheritor.
The later rounds then become a matter of every player coming tantalisingly close to victory, only to have it dramatically snatched from them by another. Which is hugely entertaining, as well as pleasingly true to the game’s central theme.
At heart, Oath is about power and the difficulty of holding onto it. And while that struggle is largely abstracted, the gameplay itself allows narratives to emerge organically. In one of our games, a player founded a new religion and, soon after, established a dominating theocracy. In another, a crime lord sowed chaos in the realm through their expanding Mafia, before an upstart militarist suddenly took advantage of the discord to seize control with an iron fist. None of this was written on any cards or components. It was written by the players, with actions and decisions rather than pen strokes.
If the sign of a good game is the strength of the stories it tells, then despite its potentially off-putting quirks, Oath is a great game. In fact, though it’s not for everybody, it might also be a masterpiece.
PLAY IT? MUST-PLAY
Like Wehrle and Ferrin’s previous collaboration Root, Oath defies expectation and challenges its players to move outside their comfort zones. But, once you’ve grasped its tricky concepts and oblique, shifty win conditions, you won’t want to let go.
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED PAX PAMIR 2ND EDITION
Despite its visual similarity to Root, Oath is closer to Wehrle’s last game (itself a reimplementation of his debut), with its unconventional approach to a power struggle – in Pax Pamir’s historically specific case, the Great Game in 19th century Afghanistan.
Designer: Cole Wehrle
Publisher: Leder Games
Time: 45-150 minutes
What’s in the box?
- 1 Play Book
- 1 Law of Oath book
- 1 Neoprene playmat
- 23 Site cards
- 198 Denizen cards
- 5 Vision cards
- 6 Player pawns
- 94 Warbands
- 36 Favour tokens
- 20 Secret tokens
- 17 Dice
- 8 Track markers
- 6 Player boards
- 1 Imperial Reliquary board
- 21 Relic cards
- 2 Banner placards
- 1 Oathkeeper token
- 4 Goal reference cards
- 6 Edifice cards
- 2 Player aids
- 1 Chronicle aid
- 8 Archive dividers
- 1 World Box
- 8 Secret multiplier tokens
- 1 Clockwork Prince board
- 1 Princely Reliquary board
- 1 Solo rules sheet
- 1 Mind sheet
- 10 Punchboard markers
Want more? You can read an interview with the designer Cole Wehrle on Oath, and what we talk about when we talk about legacy by clicking here, or even watch another that was completed as part of our Tabletop Gaming Spring Showcase, as below!
This article originally appeared in issue 56 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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