When we talk about games, genres and styles of play become an easy shortcut for relaying information; if you like this game you will probably like this other game that looks like it. It can be a powerful way to communicate recommendations, but it can also be a dangerous crutch when you come across something new. This is the case with Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile. As a board game that defies easy classification or comparison, it can be difficult to decide if it is right for your group of players. But for those hungry for novelty, innovation, and strategic gameplay that reveals new layers after every game, Oath is a remarkable success.
Leder Games has developed a reputation for asymmetrical gameplay designs, and that dynamic is clear when you pull the lid on Oath to start your first game. In this game for one to six players, players take on the roles of competing individuals attempting to control a vast fantasy empire. One player takes on the role of the Chancellor, the country’s beleaguered ruler, desperately trying to hold on to power against a wave of military and political challenges to his reign. These challenges mostly come from the other players around the table, who start the game as exiles, each of whom may or may not become a citizen along the way. While each player may pursue different endings and victory conditions, you ultimately seek to gain control so that you can rule the empire in the following eras.
Your first few games of Oath can take a long time, but once all players know the rules, expect it to be less than two hours.
In a fascinating twist, the outcome of one game changes the conditions for starting the next session. The center of power on the board shifts to the winner. New cards come into play and old ones go, in part representing the individuals and circumstances that have gained or lost the favor of the new regime. Even future victory conditions change. It’s not a legacy game in the strictest sense, as there aren’t any proper carry-over story elements, surprise twists, additional components, and more. Instead, a copy of the game begins to develop as an individualized chronicle of this particular empire. Each session is a generation of conflict, and the following session continues the story, sometimes repeating past mistakes and sometimes branching off in new directions.
With this generational depth as a guiding principle, Oath becomes a game primarily focused on the nature of power. It examines the holding of power, its wrenching and how it engenders conflict from one generation to the next. These concepts are built into the mechanics of the game. The Chancellor seeks to maintain his hold on lands and resources but often has to recruit allies to have any chance of success. Inviting an exile to become a citizen may be the advantage you need to control, but it opens up the possibility for the newly raised citizen to win by maneuvering to become your successor. As an Exile, you can choose to remain independent, gather resources and secrets, and research new victory conditions as they arise, presented as Vision cards on how to shape the future of the empire. Perhaps you harbor the vision of faith by learning and holding the darkest secret. Or you can pursue the Rebellion Vision by garnering popular favor and holding it until the end game kicks in.
Asymmetric structure places one player in charge of the empire, while other players aim to take control
If you notice a preponderance of heady proper nouns in all caps in the descriptions above, it’s not accidental. Oath is an emergent storytelling game but no specific flavor text based storytelling. The idea is that you explore the in-game map, visit different sites, and meet – and sometimes you clash – with the inhabitants of the empire. Yet much of the details of what happens when you buy components and cards are left to your imagination. What exactly are the deep secrets that you glean in the form of little tokens? What is the nature of the plot that brings down the Chancellor? You can create these stories, talk about them, and laugh about them as you play, but it comes down to core concepts of power, like conquest, popular favor, and the nature of alliances.
Players take action every turn to play this loose story setting, gathering troops at all levels, exchanging favors, and mounting military campaigns against enemies. Each action decreases your Supply, a nebulously defined resource that determines what you can do during a turn, depending on the size of the army you are currently lining up. While there is a lot of terminology, nuance, and variety to what goes on, the main game loop isn’t that complicated. But it is not a simple game.
The board is divided into three distinct regions, with different maps appearing at each location for subsequent games.
Some games that I bring to the table because I want a game that is fast and easy to pick up, accessible and immediately enjoyable for a wide range of players. The oath is not this board game. Oath is a difficult and potentially overwhelming game due to the varying victory conditions, the asymmetrical nature of the player’s power at the start of each game, and the many varied paths you can take to try and win (which change from session to session. the other). This sophistication and complexity should be enough to warn at least some inexperienced gamers, but it is also the main reason for falling in love with Oath. It’s all about having a clear strategy and maintaining enough flexibility to change direction as circumstances change. It’s about observing the actions of your opponents, hoping you can outsmart them before they achieve their often hidden goals.
This is the kind of game that gives the experienced player a huge advantage. So even if you can moving the playgroup from session to session, the best way to enjoy Oath is with a relatively cohesive group, each of whom can enjoy the dynamics implicit in a new generation of conflict in this strange fantasy land.
To combat the frustration that might come from those early sessions, Oath relies on their high production values and magnificent craftsmanship to enhance the experience. Most players are unlikely to grasp the ins and outs of strategy options in their first game. Only later does Oath open up as a cohesive system of nested goals and actions – and that’s when it shines. In the meantime, the beauty of the game should be more than enough to grab your attention. The table is a lovely fabric rug that rolls over the table, filled with fall colors and small details. Hundreds of unique works of art bring the maps to life, which appear to be halfway between comic book art and the sort of thing you would see depicted in an ancient medieval illuminated manuscript. Custom character pawns and dice add style and brightness to the table layout. It’s a beautiful game with just the right amount of whimsy so you don’t take yourself too seriously.
Players who start as exiles can become citizens, changing the conditions they seek to win the game.
Even with large production values, Oath can be hard to digest, and the game’s creators at Leder seem to recognize this truth. Publishers have prioritized onboarding new players in recent years, as it remains one of the biggest hurdles in getting into the tabletop hobby. I was fascinated by the different methods that different game makers try. In this case, Leder Games uses a dedicated Playbook as a tutorial for the game. Inside, the basic concepts of the game are exposed and the specific actions that could start a four-player game are explained, structured to communicate many of the different strategies and particular moves that a player can perform to begin with. It’s a solid tutorial, but you can still expect to run into things you don’t understand, so be aware that you may need to dive into the more specific rules reference booklet to figure out what’s going on.
I always enjoy a game that has a single player variation, allowing a game owner to get familiar with the flow of the game before sharing it with friends or just having a way to play when everyone gives up on the night of the game. match. In the case of Oath, the game sets up a non-human opponent, called the Clockwork Prince, against whom you can compete for victory. It’s a fascinating structure, as it uses a flowchart to present some sort of artificial intelligence to your enemy, injecting more life into the game’s automated actions than is often the case. But the organizational chart can also be a bit complicated to follow. Additionally, using the Clockwork Prince ignores one of the things I love most about the game – the sense of a shared history with the Empire that the entire group of players know and understand. In short, this is a useful addition but not my recommended way to enjoy the game better.
Oath offers top notch components, artwork and overall production values
The oath defies classification. While borrowing elements of area control, alliances and negotiation, player betrayal, legacy gameplay, army combat, and action point management, it is not focused on any of these. things. Instead, Oath challenges players to think in abstract terms about the nature of power and provides a framework of rules and goals for playing out the resulting conflicts. Players are likely to miss a lot the first few times they play, and that’s great. Much like the beginnings of any Imperial Dynasty throughout history, things get complicated over time as you come back to the game over and over again. If you’re willing to invest the time and multiple sessions it takes to grasp the potential of Oath, it turns into one of the more intriguing tabletop versions in quite some time.
Not all games are as demanding as Oath when it comes to its players’ strategic thinking. If you want to browse a range of other fantastic board games and role-playing games that you could bring to your table, feel free to browse through the backlog of Top of the Table articles, including last year’s picks. for the best games advice and best RPG releases of 2020. I’m also always happy to offer personalized recommendations; drop me a line and let me know what you’re looking for, and I’ll be happy to try and point you in the right direction.