Oath is another outstanding piece of design from Cole Wehrle and shares common DNA with Pax Pamir 2nd Edition and Root. One way in which it differs is that it is a campaign/legacy game, but of a rather different fashion, delivered with simplicity and elegance that sets it apart.
No surprise that it is one of my top 5, having enjoyed multiple plays with one group of friends and standing ready for another campaign with another group in the very near future.
The End Of An Empire
In Oath you are playing asymmetric roles. One of you plays the Chancellor - ruler of a declining empire, wrestling to retain control of the reins of power, by fulfilling an Oath: your own public victory condition. At the beginning of the campaign, in the first game, this is Supremacy: military dominance by ruling the most territories by the end of somewhere between the 5th and 8th round.
Everyone else is, at least initially, playing an Exile - either looking to defeat the Chancellor by completing the Oath themselves as a Usurper or seeking a Vision in the World Deck to provide them with an alternative route to victory.
How are you going about this? In your turn, you choose a number of actions based on your Supply. Many of these have you interacting with the World Deck or its discard piles: drawing and playing cards to the locations on the board, or to your own player board as advisers. You will move your pawn through the kingdom, exploring the different regions and the locations that comprise them.
You will raise warbands to take control of locations and claim rule of them and their denizens, fighting other players or the native bandits. You'll struggle for control of powerful relics and banners recovering them from the board or wrestling them from other players through combat.
All of this is incredibly evocative, as play creates its own game narrative. But this is not achieved through some kind of campaign book or developed lore - there is almost none of the latter bar the opening premise of the Chancellor and his Oath. What emerges comes from the 198 unique cards that comprise the World Deck. These are divided into six suits that characterise the nature of the denizens depicted: order or discord, hearth or nomad, arcane or beast.
Cards offer some kind of power: the production or trading of the game's two resources, favour and secrets; improved movement, or combat; additional actions; the ability to peek at cards; bonus bands or modified mustering rules… the list goes on. Once played to the main board they can be activated if your pawn is present at the location or from anywhere on the board if you rule the location they inhabit.
Alternatively, some can be played to your player board as advisers and their powers are accessible wherever you go. So, much of the game is about building synergies between cards, deciding when and where to play them and then using their powers to control board space, raise economic resources and easily access more cards.
The Subtle Art Of Winning
It is a game where initially, even if comfortable with the rules, you won't immediately know what you are doing. Sure, you can attempt to beat the Chancellor at their own game and will certainly want to restrict their progress to their Oath but playing to win as Usurper is really hard so you will probably be hunting for a Vision.
There are four associated with victory: controlling the most regions, controlling the most banners and relics, controlling the banner of the People's Favour or controlling the banner of the Darkest Secret. However, even when you have one of them there is some waiting to be done, as no Exile can win until three visions have been drawn from the deck.
So, you find yourself secretly jockeying closer to your aim while trying not to make your direction of travel too obvious. And even then, there is the prospect of Citizenship: an offer from a beleaguered Chancellor to an Exile to swap sides and join the Empire. If you accept you will be granted a powerful relic from the Imperial Reliquary, swap your banners for imperial troops and ally yourself with the Chancellor's aims.
And yet, this is not an entirely collaborative relationship as a Citizen is looking for personal victory over the Chancellor by achieving his master's Oath and then fulfilling their additional personal goal to be named Successor and snatch the victory.
So, the shape of the game emerges as you sit and play it, and thus no one game is quite like any other. Part of that is inherent within the mechanical design of the play in a single session, but this is made even more true by the 'legacy' element which has the end of one game affect the nature of the next. If an Exile wins, they become Chancellor next game and their Vision becomes the subsequent Oath.
Locations the victor rules and their denizens endure, moving on the board to the Heartland region. And they tweak the World Deck - the suits of the victor's advisers affect the suits of 6 cards added to the World Deck while the other 6 random cards are removed from future games.
Ever so gradually the deck shifts, based on the play preferences of the players; it's a bit like watching kids grow up.. the shift from one game to the next is almost imperceptible, but after five games if you stop and reflect the World is evidently a different place from where you started.
A Grand Finale
And it's for all these reasons that I love this game. I love the individual sessions and the gameplay that comprises them, but I love the narrative even more. Like many of us, I tend to like winning, and while this is true of Oath too, I find this one of the most satisfying games to lose as well. Certainly, the art and production values help - Kyle Ferrin, of Root fame, does a splendid job of conjuring character in the world.
Oath is not without its flaws. It's better suited to regular gamers rather than casual players - though the opening, instructive play through is excellent - and it rewards a dedicated group committed to playing a campaign. Individual sessions can feel tactical rather than strategic, because as an Exile you start fairly goalless, and need to be flexible until you have a vision in hand.
The luck of the draw plays a role as getting cards from the World Deck hammers your Supply for the turn and unlike the market of Pax Pamir, there is a lot more top-decking. And bounce back is hard if you take a hammering.
Nonetheless, Oath is a masterpiece of design and this review has only really scratched the surface - I haven't really explored how the economy works; the nature of the two banners; the range of relics; the excellent Clockwork Price automata; the opportunity for player negotiation or the satisfying dice chucking combat mechanics.
There is so much style and sophistication in the mechanical design and so much rich character in the developing narrative of the individual sessions and the campaign arc that emerges. It will come back to the table again and again, for the drama, the backstabbing, the politicking but most of all the stories.