Oath: An Interview with Cole Wehrle


What we talk about when we talk about legacy

Cole Wehrle tells us about Oath, a game designed to echo through generations.

Words by Christopher John Eggett

What is a legacy game anyway? In the most ungenerous reading of the genre: it’s a game that you destroy. You rip up a card once used, or you place stickers on the board denoting a change that is permanent to the world it depicts. Time is baked in, and whatever you do while playing reduces the amount of game you have left. Some find this traumatic (hence the popularity of removable Gloomhaven stickers) while others find the threat of permanence in their choices a thrill. Once you have completed these games you can look back on them as an object that recorded your time playing them. They hold the time you put into them in stasis.

Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile is a game of legacy, if not a legacy game in the above sense. Instead, it’s something that fits into the way games exist as physical objects in our world, without having to ‘break’ them through play.

Cole Wehrle, creator of Root, Pax Pamir Second Edition, and now, Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile, kindly takes us through the broad strokes, “The birds eye view of Oath is: it’s a strategy game. It’s a political game. It’s a game about political crisis. It opens with the state in some kind of crisis, and then we will resolve that crisis.” 

At its heart, mechanically, Oath is a tableau builder, with an area control element. Vying for control over the three provinces, each faction, one the chancellor, the others exiles, skirmish for ultimate prestige and influence. You draw cards and attach them to locations, or explore the regions further by flipping randomly placed site cards. When you want to take hold of an area, you send in your army. This might seem fairly direct, but that’s not where it ends.

“The thing that makes it special is how things fall out in one game seeds the next,” says Wehrle. The game, when a winner is found, is packed away in a certain order – retaining the board state. The victor’s faction becomes the chancellor in the next game, and they influence that future win condition. This is the oath that is sworn.

If this sounds suspiciously like a game you could play again with any group of people, you’d be right. There’s no demands of continuity outside the box,“it’s a little bit like a legacy game – but built without any teleology. There’s no set end point for things,” says Wehrle. 

“A lot of design for the past 20 or 30 years has worked to compress,” says Werhle of the way the medium has moved toward speed and accessibility – a natural outcome of the broadening of the hobby, “people want to try to make these big epic Dungeons & Dragons experiences you have when you’re kids as a single session game. And even an oldie like Talisman tries to do the work of compression. It tries to be the arc of a D&D campaign in two hours. And a lot of 4X design now is about making it shorter, leaner,
and faster.”

“Oath does not do that. Oath does not care about that,” says the designer about the solution to shortened play times. It is one that doesn’t leave the game bloated, “Instead of compression, it’s about segmentation. It tries to say, ‘Hey, this is a maybe a 10-hour game and we’re going to play it in four or five acts. And the whole game is built to easily ‘save’ those acts and add onto them.”

It’s hard to keep your eyes away from the horizon with Oath. There is a constant draw of the metagame and daydreams of the world that is in existence between each generation’s conflict. If you are playing a moment of political crisis, then the time you aren’t playing is likely a period of stability. But it’s a stability that is imbued with the victory and domination of one faction and the defeat of wounded counterparties. It’s hard not to think about how your actions will form the next game, and the games to come beyond. Assuming you influence the board significantly. History, to hammer a point, is written by the winners.

Naturally, it was designed this way. Wehrle offers an autobiographical and philosophical answer to the genesis of the core ‘endless legacy’ idea behind Oath, “one of the things that really matters to me when I think about my own design practice is that, games are physical objects and they last for a really, really long time.” 

“When I was younger most of the games I played were second hand. I would hunt for them at garage sales. I played a lot of Squad Leader growing up, and a lot of old Avalon Hill games that my uncle had given me. And they were always incomplete. I had a copy of Chancellorsville, where half the pieces were from Gettysburg. It took me a long time to realize that my copy of HeroQuest was actually two copies of HeroQuest and a couple of expansions that were mashed together. There was a lot of missing bits – and it might’ve been 20 years old when I found it.”

“But it had a kind of history to it. It still echoed. And so, because games are these physical objects they can kind of ‘echo’. I wanted a game that had a more resonant ‘echo’. The whole point of Oath is building a game that was able to deal with its own physicality a little more directly.”

Crisis Point

You can’t be a player in that metagame without winning of course. But even when it comes to the core interactions of Oath, the ones we actually play out on the table, it’s not straightforward conflict.

“It’s a political game that is an engine builder, but it doesn’t follow the best practices of engine builders because it is so interactive,” says Wehrle of the main friction points in the game, “you can really hurt each other’s engines, to a point. And there’s a lot of funny, tangential inertia to those decisions.”

And these decisions are somewhat dictated to by the giant deck of over 200 cards that the game is played with. This deck sits as something like an ‘event deck’, but the outcomes from it mean there are a great deal of wonky interactions which can occur, and creativity is a must.

“The cards you craft in Oath are really powerful,” says Wehrle, “and so the emergent asymmetry is quite high.” 

“So, you can play a game of Oath where there are no cards that generate money. The game will work fine. Sometimes you get a deck where it’s like, there are no enterprises. And then in other games it’s all enterprises and you feel like you’re playing monopoly. That kind of variety is a really critical part,” says Wehrle. 

In between each game the winner will choose an element to be added to the deck, often based on a faction. While you only play with a smaller stack of these in each game, there’s a huge variety to imagine in the deck. Each game should feel different, fitting for a game that has a generational fast-forward button built into it.

“This game uses a lot of offbeat and strange systems in part because those systems are designed to be really responsive to the players. In a lot of Euros, say Powergrid, you can’t keep playing because the cash economy is all screwed at the end of the game,” says Wehrle, “most Euros pull the plug right at the moment when all the engines are running very hot. And if you were to take it another turn – I remember we used to play Age of Steam and for many years we played one of the maps a turn too long, and we hated that map. But we’d just read the rules wrong because if you run an extra term, it just really deflates.”

The card variety will produce emergent stories of your particular chronicle as you play. It’s hard not to look at the evocative art of Kyle Ferrin, the long-time collaborator whose work on Root in particular received many cooing plaudits, and not wonder if there’s a story baked in to the game. Is there a story in Oath

“Yes, there is. But it’s not important, or – it is important. It’s funny,” he laughs, “Kyle and I do tons of world building work. I give him little short stories, all kinds of little ‘sketches’. And history. And we’re building a lot of that into the art of the cards and into the way that presents itself. But nothing will be explicit. We want players to write their own histories for their game. This is a game that generates its own story. And that’s the point.”

Kingmakers

The stories we generate in Oath aren’t just about who controls what area of the map before you, but the deals you make along the way. An important aspect of Oath is the representation of the way power flows from one part of society to another. The revolutions, and the revolutionary sell-outs.

One player takes control of the winning faction of the previous generation’s struggle in the form of the chancellor. Their goal is to continue the status quo, as, after all, they are the status quo. Exiles on the other hand are working to topple the chancellor directly, or to create a vision of a new world. Visions are cards that can be drawn throughout the game which contest the victory condition of the initial oath of the game. These can be secret, meaning there is, for the player that keeps the vision, a new win condition. Those on the side of empire in this situation are suddenly under pressure to combat the dream of a new world. 

While the chancellor has more resources from the start, there’s less actions available. The exiles have less, but can do comparatively more. A balance is apparent.

If one player starts the game winning, and everyone else is attempting to bring them down, you can imagine how power slips away. The chancellor then, to stymie the loss of power, territory and influence by offering enfranchisement to exiles, turning them into citizens. They, in effect, buy another player into their team to help defend the current power balance, if a little watered down.

The new citizen then takes purple coloured pieces, the same as the chancellor, and in theory acts on their side. In theory because, as Wehrle says “you’re kind of a bad citizen,” – the new citizen won’t offer their personal retinue to defend a chancellor controlled area, and, if they want to begin a bloody campaign for prestige amongst other generals, they can.

Making deals is part of this process, and it’s something that happens fluidly over the table. The only part of the transaction that is mechanically tied down is the actual agreement of how much will be given away by the chancellor for the enfranchisement of the citizen.

“There’s a lot of informal deal making and scaffolding that happens around those decisions,” says Wehrle. One of the main concerns for the chancellor is the threat of internal coups from within the citizenry – so even these alliances are fraught, “I love emergent partnerships, it’s my favourite element of design. I especially like odd bedfellows –  wanting to work with your enemy. We might be political enemies, but economic allies or economic allies and political enemies. On the different axes of plays, you find ways to work together – and that’s kind of right at the heart of it.” 

“I think all the games I’ve worked on have pretty interactive designs and they’re all about the end games. I see the same kinds of conversations pop up in games I work on about ‘kingmaking’ and about if ‘the right thing’ had happened, or ‘the right player’ had won at the end of the day,” says Wehrle, expressing something of the complex relationship he has with these perceptions, “I have such weird feelings about victory conditions. The designs that resonate most with me in my own practice of play are the games that have very, very narrow strict victory conditions, where they really lock players together. Where, instead of ‘cashing’ out any activities players were doing over the last 90 minutes, there’s a real struggle.”

For Wehrle, there’s a slight disconnect in players thinking that a ‘kingmaker’ play as something that interrupts the victory conditions of the game. Power struggles are the point, and making room for better expressions of those struggles is a goal with Oath.

“The victory conditions are like the script that we’re all reading, that we’re all using to perform the act of play,” says Wehrle, “But there are these moments where sometimes players will go off script and do something that is not sponsored by the victory conditions, but it’s true to the moment or the activity.”

“We kind of associate these with things like a ‘kingmaking’ moment. But if you think about the story that the game is generating, sometimes that is actually a satisfying turn. It was almost an uncomfortable realization because I want to believe that a game is judging the quality of the play. But in the same way that, sometimes, when an actor goes off script and improvises it can be truer to that moment, right?”

“And so, what I was hoping to do with Oath is by shifting the centre of gravity to something like the metagame, suddenly a decision to help a player win isn’t just a mean spirited or sour grapes play – it actually has consequences for how the game is going to develop.”

This shift puts players in a position where they can be expressive with their turns as they like. Wehrle tells a story of one of these moments, where a member of staff at Leder Games had won several sessions in a row. With a very developed board and a big, built up state she was about to be ousted, losing her grip on the rudder of the world by one of the citizens that had been enfranchised. Instead of allowing the coup to take place from within, she chose to help the external forces, and topple everything instead.

“In another context that could have felt off-putting, but it seemed quite right,” says Wehrle, “there’s just all these different ways that players can participate in the persistence of the game state.”

And while players can effect the game state, the game effects the player’s perceptions too, “It’s shifting how players think about the end of the game in a way that wasn’t totally intentional,” says Wehrle, “but now that it’s happening, I’m trying to lean into it as much as I can.”

Never Ending Legacy 

Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile is a new definition of a legacy game. Rather than being the object inflicted with the scars of change, Oath looks to ‘contain’ the legacy while retaining its form. It’s an elegant solution that always summons the ghosts of previous playthroughs. 

It’s wildly different however, so how does it fit with what we consider legacy games these days?

“This is a very ungenerous thing to say. And I love Rob (Daviau) and Matt’s (Leacock) work, but, legacy games to me are much better TV than they are games,” says Wehrle, in reference to the high-water mark of legacy gaming that is Pandemic Legacy

“I think the way these games want you to consume them... it’s a little bit like a season of a television show. It’s not an accident that they make sense as seasons. I mean it’s brilliant, but it’s also fundamentally different from how I think about games.”

This transience of legacy games as seasons means they actually lose a sense of physicality through history. Ironic as often they include a large amount of physical ‘editing’ of the game as you play.

“To me the main thing that a game can do is that it can ‘echo’ and exists as part of the print culture in a way that TV can’t,” says Wehrle of this difference. You can’t expect to play through a legacy game that has been completed in its final state. For most, that’s more than enough, but Wehrle is driven by a loftier goal.

The designer admits that the concept for Oath comes from a high-minded idea of a game that can exist in a physical way in a similar way to the mis-collated games of his childhood. To us, it seems that a game that could contain this concept would be able be more of a legacy object, more resilient to the world, and able to survive as a whole for longer.

The idea of this kind of legacy game isn’t new however. Wehrle is actually returning to a point of game design some years in the past. This is a natural point to kick off from, for him, “I come from a school of design and creative philosophy that says if you’re going to try to make a Western, the first thing you should do is watch a thousand Westerns.” 

As such, there’s plenty of thread from the past to pull on when it comes to legacy gaming.

“My high level dream for this game is I want a kid to find a copy in 20 years that was played 30 times and it has all this history in it,” says Wehrle, painting a vision of permanence that is refreshing in a world where the deluge of the new has become normal. 

The game comes with a booklet designed to record all your sessions. There’s something intrinsically powerful in creating a game that could potentially be experienced through different generations, and for nothing to be broken in the line of history from the first game to the most recent.

With this goal in place, Werhle could begin the process of finding where to start. 

“And so, I started looking at the problem like, ‘okay, so this is the effect that I want to generate. What’s the way to do it?’ And one of the striking things about that process is that it was instantly clear that legacy games in the modern sense were not the way to do it. I wanted to make it a legacy game, but the last 15 or 20 years, and really just the entire branch of legacy games is the wrong way for me to get what I want,” says Wehrle. The search drove him back up the branch of game design history, “I just kind of kept going backwards. And then in the 80s you start seeing these ‘adaptive campaign’ games. And I’m thinking of games like Imperium or Barbarian, Kingdom & Empire. There’s a whole cluster of these games that were drop-in/drop-out games that were kind of like one step RPGs like Blood Royale.”

“This branch weathered in the 80s and then legacy kind of grew out of this other part of it. But I actually think there was this other path that we could have taken way back there,” says Wehrle of his journey through time to find a point where his game could gain purchase, and grow organic roots.

“In a lot of these designs from the 80s, the creators were building a design and then they were trying to figure out how to make it adaptable at the end of the process. And what Oath has taught me is you have to start with the adaptability. Every single system has to be built with the idea that it’s going to grow and change. And if you don’t do that, you’re going to have something that feels artificial,” says Wehrle.

And Oath is a long way from that. It is imbued with the powerful and authentic sense of a game that will last. While it might be a game that attempts to transplant and graft itself on to a trunk of design that has long been pollarded, it feels more like its roots are set in the fertile sense of difference from the legacy games we are playing today.

For those of us whose connection to games came from family members a generation away, the idea of a game that contains the legacy of everyone who has played it is one that resonates. We can’t wait to start building up our own echoes in Oath.

Don't miss out on another interview with Cole Wehrle, for our Tabletop Gaming Spring Showcase! You can see that below, plus a ton of additional content over on our YouTube Channel. Be sure to subscribe for even more tabletop gaming videos. 

PLUS: Check out our review of Oath: Chronicles of Empire & Exile as appeared in issue 56 by clicking here


This article originally appeared in issue 47 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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