It is a well-worn adage that ‘history is written by the winners.’ Far less credence is given however to the truth that in order for that history to take root, unfettered by the hand of revisionists – the winners need to keep winning. The history of all dynastic legacies is rife with tales of bloody squabbles for succession, courtly intrigues and the rehabilitation or damnation of those previously shunned or canonised. Fail to seed a trustworthy successor and the annals of history can very easily transform the chronicles of ‘Leopold the Just’ to that of ‘Leopold the Dim with the Club Foot’ within the space of a single fickle generation.
The issue is one of legacy, and with Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile, ludic wunderkind Cole Wehrle seeks to tackle this issue in a unique and ambitious fashion – offering a new take on the legacy format, and all without a sticker in sight.
Sitting astride the kingdom, replete with orb and sceptre – the Chancellor eyes his lands with a benevolent gaze. Swept into power by the favour of the people, he rises each morning to consolidate his vision. Conceiving new technologies that will advance the cause of his people, putting bandits to the sword to stabilise the common good, and straddling the unpredictable tide of secrets, gossip and slander that swell throughout court with a deft diplomatic hand. He ferries the kingdom into a new age of enlightenment and stability. He is just, he is wise, he is a visionary.
Corpulent and arrogant upon his throne of bones, the Chancellor grows fat off the labour of the people, erecting towering edifices in tribute to his vanity. Supressing the will of the people and whispered of in poisonous asides throughout both court and common square, he idles his way through days of sloth and indulgence, lording over a brittle network of nepotism and sycophancy. He is buffoonish, he is demoniac, he is a tyrant.
The same institution, as viewed conversely through the lenses of officialdom or exile can take on a vastly different aspect. And so the stage is set for a chronicling of the ages, played out across a series of struggles in which history is formed, spindled, revised and wrinkled, all across the sweep of your living-room table.
One to six players will partake in this struggle, one to six competing tribes or families – up to five of whom are striving to upend the order and claim their sainted space upon the throne, and one of whom shoulders the lonely burden of empire – seeking desperately to stem the tides of change as they foster their fledgling dynasty. It’s cut-throat, it’s unpredictable, it’s a tale written in longform and – at least initially – it’s daunting as hell.
We backward folks lurking in the antipodes were amongst the first to receive the finished physical copies of Oath, a quirk of logistics offering us primacy to explore the tactile rewards of an experience that has lingered and evolved for quite some time in the digital space. I had studiously avoided the nascent versions of this offering – partly because I think I’m allergic to Tabletop Simulator and partly because I wanted to experience it in its final form (at least until the inevitable second edition). Opening the box I am immediately rewarded for my patience with an offering fit for the most perfumed resident of Versailles or dwarf-entouraged Romanov.
For a game that even in its backer-baiting Kickstarter finery initially looked somewhat bland, something miraculous has seemingly occurred during its gestation, emerging from its carboard chrysalis now to crowd your table with a presence and confidence that is equal parts utility, beauty and lots of lovely bits. The idiosyncratic artwork of Kyle Ferrin outstripping even his efforts in Root and Vast to create a sense of wonder as it is splashed across hundreds of unique individual cards.
It daunts as it sprawls however, and it holds fast to its secrets. This is a game that immediately demands your fealty and commitment if you are to unlock its bounty. Atop the relatively straightforward bones of area control fuelled by hand and resource management, Wehrle has layered a myriad of interconnecting systems upon an ever-changing board state – one where options, threats, opportunities and victory conditions are in constant flux. Even after mastering the basics, there is still an ocean of nuance that reveals itself slowly, as players come to grips with the canny pragmatism required to thrive in this strange quantum play-space.
Your first game will most likely be aided by the set-up and walkthrough provided by the included cards and play guide. This method takes the reins from you in a show-and-tell affair that forces your hand through a series of pre-scripted turns, highlighting various strategies and opening gambits whilst offering a smattering of insights into how to manipulate this beast via its various levers of agency. We dutifully did as we were bid before stumbling blinking into this brave new world as we sought to parse our way through the tangled thickets of opportunity offered upon the map, within our court of advisors, and upon the backs of the denizens of the realm.
It was seconds before our noses were thrust back into the rulebook though, our first strike transforming into a stuttering and belaboured affair- as rules and exceptions were checked and re-checked, icons were scrutinised for meaning and an uncomfortable rhythm finally, stubbornly, began to develop.
It was then that the possibilities – and limitations – began to unfurl.
Essentially, Oath is a game of compromise and conflicting ambitions, one where players need to keep one eye on their own path to victory, and one eye on preventing their opponents from achieving their own, wholly different ambitions. Ambitions that may mutate from turn to turn as the state of the kingdom demands. You have six eyes, right?
As the Chancellor and lord of the realm, one player will be focussed on retaining the title of Oathkeeper for a requisite number of turns. The other players, as either Exiles or Citizens will be seeking to either usurp the mantle of Oathkeeper, fulfil one of four disparate ‘Visions’ or finagle their way into the role of ‘Successor’, all whilst ensuring their opponents do not enact their competing ambitions in a world where fortunes can rise and fall alarmingly swiftly.
To realise these ambitions, players will primarily be seeking either military dominance of the realm, the favour of the people, or mastery of the kingdom’s many secrets. In a brilliant act of thematic binding – the currencies with which you’ll pave your legacy are ‘favour’ and ‘secrets’ – the twin backbones of courtly life – which will be used to supplement the ‘support’ required to take actions turn-by-turn.
Perfecting a fragile balancing act between these competing priorities is paramount, as geography bleeds into favour, which dances with secrets and rallies with support. No one of the game’s systems exists in a vacuum – as each card, each location, each action, forms the cogwheel teeth of but one sphere in a dizzyingly interconnected Rube Goldberg apparatus. To tinker with one is to set the entire contraption in motion, where unintended consequences sit shoulder-to-shoulder with your desired outcome on every precarious tilt and tumble.
Fix your eyes too keenly on one path to victory and you’re almost certainly doomed to become a footnote. The aforementioned pragmatic elasticity required to succeed keeps every game intriguing until the very last turn however, as dominance and opportunity swing wildly on the coat-tails of Dame Fortune, and even the unlikeliest of successors can emerge out of the rabble to forge their own empire. An empire which they in turn will have to maintain and defend, an unceasing parade of barbarians ever crowding their gates.
Should they succeed in keeping the tides of history at bay, the Chancellor will begin to see their influence seeded for future generations. Their will becomes manifest in both a physical transformation of the land, and the ascendancy of their favoured factions. In practice, this is a somewhat glacial process. Each successive victory will see a handful of cards added to/removed from the deck, and a single game-changing monument or edifice erected in a state of semi-permanence upon the board. Armies will again clash upon this space, intrigues will be played out and maybe, just maybe – one faction’s ascendancy will sway the state of play decisively as the kingdom evolves.
In a game where individual cards can often mean the difference between swift victory and winnowing defeat, this is no small alteration- even if it may take many, many games for players to wrap their heads around just how their options are mutating, what each faction offers, and how best to spin it to their advantage.
And that’s the rub with Oath.
Like an insecure monarch, it demands your loyalty if it is to shower you with the ceremonial sash of state that gains you entrée into its more gilded chambers. It reveals itself slowly, evolving from a card drafting, dice-chucking area control game into something far more nuanced as players wrap their heads around the swathe of possibilities, the eye-for-the-main-chance of odds, and the evolving loyalties of the world for which they duel. Whilst perfectly serviceable as a self-contained experience- with a dedicated group it begins to realise its generational ambitions and embrace of story, as you pen your own chronicles of empire and exile – writing and rewriting history as grudges are formed, alliances sundered, slights tallied and myths scribbled into the margins.
Whether or not this approach will succeed in todays environment of truncated attention spans and ‘the new hotness’ is yet to be seen. Seven games in, however, and the richness of this experience only continues to mount. I dove in with a group of three, and we have returned to this world with relish, seven times within the space of two weeks. In all shameful honesty, most games in my collection are lucky to get seven outings within the space of a year.
Oath lures us back with its promise that this time, we will be the one to ink history, we will maintain our hold on power, we will usurp the tyrannical chancellor with the will of the people. And inevitably – we will lose it all again, our deeds scrawled in impermanence as the story continues to unfold, punctuated by shocking twists and narrow escapes.
Especially when the Chancellor rolls a six to end the game on turn five – that’s some hot bullshit right there.
Wildly ambitious, dangerously mercurial, and wilfully demanding- Oath embodies the characteristics of Emperor Tsar it seeks to replicate. Accede to its demands and it offers a rare glory, champ against the bridle and it can easily overwhelm you.