Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile Review

Welcome to the Provinces. Turmoil is afoot – the reign of a Tyrant can only last so long here before someone comes to make things right. Exiles from the outer lands are rallying troops and building support among the populace for an uprising, seeking to overthrow the Empire and build something new. The Chancellor of the current Empire is fighting to maintain the status quo, but they have to contend with internal politics. Given enough support, one of their popular Citizens may grab the crown for themselves. This is an endless game, a rolling story that will leave its scars upon these lands as Oath after Oath is sworn, held, and broken.

1-6 Players | 2-3 Hours | Designed by Cole Wherle

Oath was brought to Kickstarter in 2020 by Leder Games, the next title in their four letter, illustrated by Kyle Ferrin series of games (Vast, Root, Fort). Intriguing many backers, the mystery of an evolving but not quite Legacy, not quite campaign game garnered a lot of chatter and support, funding with almost $1.2M. From the end date of the Kickstarter to the time the game was totally finalised, it continued to evolve and grow, with a beautiful final product being shipped out to backers beginning in late March 2021.

Some dudes on the map

How does it work?

Oath is an area control game with an action point mechanism for turns, slightly asymmetric player powers and very asymmetric win conditions. Most players begin with a small force and little influence over the board, with the player acting as the Chancellor starting out with control of several locations on the board. Players will build up their influence and armies, seeking to gain dominance over the current victory condition that applies to their faction.

Depending on who you are playing as, your victory condition will change. There are essentially four ways the game can be won, and access to each of these depends on whether you are the Chancellor or a Citizen of the Empire, or otherwise an Exile. There will be one main victory condition for a game of Oath, (which could be one of 4 options, such as ruling the most sites on the map, or holding the most relics). The Chancellor can only win by holding the victory condition when the game ends after 6-8 rounds. A Citizen can only win if the Chancellor holds their victory condition at the game’s end, but the Citizen ‘out-ranks’ them by succeeding at the victory condition’s secondary objective. An Exile has two ways to win – holding the Chancellor’s victory condition for two turns (becoming the Usurper to the throne), or otherwise by satisfying the victory condition on a Vision card that they have played. Got all that?

On a turn, a player has an amount of Supply that they can spend to do actions. Actions include moving around the map, drawing and playing new Denizen Cards, acquiring relics, mustering troops, and campaigning against other players (to gain control of sites, steal their relics, or otherwise cripple their influence). Denizen cards are the crux of gameplay. Each card is unique and will provide powerful actions and abilities to players. Cards can be played to locations on the map allowing all players access to their abilities, or privately to a player’s advisors meaning only they can use the card.

Players will build up armies and resources, gathering relics and advisors to increase their power and make a play for a victory condition that is available to them. Exile players will need to secure their victory condition and hold it as early as possible if they hope to win, as if the game progresses to rounds 6-8, the Chancellor or a Citizen will receive a ‘default’ victory when game end is triggered. Citizens seek to maintain the Chancellor’s empire while sneakily accumulating influence over the secondary victory condition. But they must be careful as the Chancellor may choose (given they can pay the resources) to Exile them if they see them as a threat to the crown.

The game in motion.

What do I think?

When I received Oath I thought it would be good to put together an ‘Oath playgroup’ to try and get together every 1-2 weeks and play the game with the same people. I think approaching Oath in this way is important. Despite it not really being a ‘Legacy’ game at all, you need to play a few times to get into it, and so taking a Legacy game attitude towards Oath helps with that. We ended up playing 5 sessions before (unfortunately) most players lost interest in the game, but I will get to that in my summary. I played the game at 5 players and 3 players, and found both to be quite different experiences. I think 5 players was ‘better’, but the chaos made it hard to focus on the ‘what can I do to win’ aspect of the game. 3 players made it much easier to focus on and execute a strategy, but ultimately wasn’t as ‘fun’ because there was less happening. I can’t comment on the Clockwork Prince as I never tried it out.

The Good Stuff

  • Oath brings us another amazing Cole (designer) and Kyle (illustrator) world. The theme is subtle but really well applied to the game, and the art just draws out the feeling of this world so well. I remember looking at the picture of the Chancellor with it’s striking half-moon mask and feeling impressed at how well it evokes a sense of tyranny. Every part of this game has that same amount of thought put into it – Empires are lubricated by favours (in Oath a coin is a favour) and powered by knowledge (the book resource is a ‘secret’ representing something you know that others don’t). I could go on and on but there is so much to discover here.
  • The production of this game is next level. Check out my Oath Unboxing post for more on this point.
  • The rule book is really good from a technical point of view. I really like games that break rules down into two books, the ‘how to play’ and the ‘reference’. It makes it so easy to find rules when you need to look them up without compromising the learning experience.
  • The tutorial game was good, I think it got us into the game pretty well and gave a good idea of everything you can do. Despite this I did feel there was a lot of work from me required in advance to understand everything around the game so I could teach and facilitate the first game smoothly. Even first time set up took ages as I wanted to understand everything and I was constantly checking rules about things. I think if you try to sit down with your group and do the tutorial without at least one person having done some preparation you would have a bad time.
  • Oath stimulates great thematic table talk. This is one of the things I value most about boardgames these days, as I really like the social aspect of playing games the most. We had a lot of fun getting a bit into our roles and adding little thematic flairs to why we were doing things or what was happening. With so much theme and flavour hinted at in the art, cards and naming of things, there is a lot of ‘story’ going on in this game.
  • Having three distinct ‘roles’ with many varying motivations makes the gameplay and strategy of Oath really interesting and dynamic. The Chancellor is playing a game of holding their position, keeping everyone else in check. A Citizen is trying aid the Chancellor but also fly under their radar with the alternate win condition, whilst maybe looking for an opportune moment to leave the Empire. An Exile seeks to beat the Chancellor at their own game, or fulfil a Vision. All of these objectives can become more or less possible as the game goes on so players need to stay on their toes and look for opportunities to grab a victory.
  • Oath‘s economy system is cool. I like the faction bank mechanic, as it encourages players to diversify their card types versus the other players. I also think a very interesting mechanic is how upkeep of your empire works. In Oath this is represented as a ‘payment’ in action points, the larger your presence on the board and the size of your army, the more actions you need to spend, decreasing the amount of things you can do in your next turn.
  • Building up the map with Denizen cards is very interesting. Players essentially build up the actions and abilities available at each location on the board as the game goes on. With a little bit of thought, some very powerful combos can be built up if players find the right cards when searching to add to the board.
  • The thematic nature of succession at the end of each game is really well done. It makes total sense that the winner of each game will play the Chancellor in the next, because in winning, you gained control of the Empire. The thematic nature of travelling around to locations on the board and interacting with the ‘locals’ at each location to gain power, favours and influence is well executed too.
  • Cards are a fundamental part of the game and they can affect so much what players can do and how their strategy evolves. I was really taken aback when a card came out in our second game that just changed a fundamental rule for one player (it was Vow of Kinship, which merges that player’s personal bank with the Nomad bank). That simple card had such a big effect on the whole game, and each card can. Really the cards are what makes the game, and what allows it to ‘evolve’ from play to play.
  • To continue on from the previous point, essentially each individual mechanic in Oath is thought provoking, interesting and well crafted. The game is intricate and feels lovingly designed and honed to a fine point. But I think this can also be a detractor for many players, as I’ll get into in the following section.

The Bad Stuff

  • Oath essentially makes use of King-making as a core mechanic. Every game we played, players were forced to make decisions about who would win, when it was obvious they couldn’t. All wins but one were decided by the immediately preceding player to the turn the game was won in. While I understand that Oath is ‘that sort of game’, and King-making can often be very fun, when it happens every time you play the game I find it frustrating more than interesting.
  • Campaigning (combat) is complicated with a lot of varying inputs and outputs based on the current situation. The caveats and conditions based on the situation are very confusing and even in our 5th game we needed to look it up in the rules nearly every time a combat happened. It’s okay to need to look at a reference to get the steps of combat right, but I felt in Oath combat is so opaque that players couldn’t easily understand what would happen before attempting something without asking a lot of questions, and that can harm people’s strategy.
  • Additionally, campaigning, or the ability to fight to get control of things can be extremely one sided. I get that the intention with this is you shouldn’t let anyone get a giant army, but power is rewarded with power in Oath so that’s not really realistic. The attacker isn’t weakened in a victory, which leaves them in their very strong position, ready to attack again and with low likelihood of being defeated if attacked.
  • To me, the game experience doesn’t feel complete in one session, but playing the game as a ‘campaign’ doesn’t help with this. It’s like each game tells half a story and is reset every session, never finished. I think I get this feeling because you only get 8 turns max in a game. This can feel really short (even though a game can have a long play time), leaving you feeling like you didn’t really have a chance to do much.
  • There are a few rules and mechanics that feel really opaque and overly complicated. As I mentioned above, I think campaigning is one. I also think the Chronicle system is explained/set out in a pretty convoluted way (but I don’t know how that could be improved while retaining its function). Another thing is there are so many cards that end up in play. With each one being unique the burden of remembering what is available, what other players can do, and things that might catch you out becomes extremely high. We found a few cards to have ambiguous or poorly defined abilities, and there was no resource available for clarifications while we were playing.
  • The Chronicle system feels to me largely a waste of time with no game-play or ‘fun’ value provided. Considering it’s supposed to be a core feature of the game I was expecting it to feel more meaningful. Unfortunately it just feels like variable set up that is determined by the previous game. I know Oath isn’t a Legacy game but this implementation doesn’t really provide any value in my opinion. Having the game ‘evolve’ is certainly interesting, but I think a random set up of the map and cards each game would result a pretty similar experience for me without the hassle of Chronicling. This comment is somewhat coming from my expectation to not play Oath too often in the future (I have lots of games to play!). I think Chronicling would benefit a solid group that plays the game very regularly. I think a ‘lazy random set up’ option could have been outlined in the rulebook for those who prefer a quicker pack-up time.
  • Having turns where you feel like you just have to do something (anything) to move the game forward because it seems like there is nothing productive to do sucks. You only have 8 turns in Oath and I found this happening to me multiple times per game. Generally this happens because you can easily get stuck in a bad place on the board, or not have enough resources to do what you want, and have to move around to get what you need for your next turn. Sometimes I even found myself doing something to get something so next turn I could get the thing I actually wanted so several turns out I might be able to do something. This doesn’t feel good, especially when you think, ‘this is 2-3 turns of the 8 turn game’.
  • The player’s conflicting values in Oath, or lack of thought/intent when playing cards can quickly ‘ruin’ the map, filling it with dud cards that players played just to get some favour or to ‘get rid of’. Because sites can get full and it’s hard to remove things from them, this can lead to a boring game without many interesting combos or abilities on the board.
  • Oath has so many things going on! It’s hard to ‘see’ anything clearly, I mean this in the sense that it’s hard to picture in your head what steps you need to take to achieve something, what the result of certain actions or mechanics might be, and what other players are up to. It’s hard for a game to feel coherent to me when I can’t keep the whole thing in my head at once.
  • ‘How to win’ is very opaque in Oath. Even though the win conditions seem simple, there is not a clear path to get to them. How I can translate my actions into winning the game? It seems that ultimately the game is all about stopping others from winning, leaving no chance to work towards a victory for yourself. In each game I played, the person who won was the person who managed to be furthest down the ‘foiling’ chain, i.e. they won because the table ran out of time to stop them from winning while stopping everyone else from winning. This can make it feel really random and ‘undeserved’ when someone does win this way. I would say only one game ended with a ‘calculated’ win that I felt was satisfying and ‘deserved’.
The view from a Citizen’s desk

Oath is academically a masterpiece, with beautiful theming, art and production. I think because I personally prefer a ‘tally at the end’ victory point style game, Oath doesn’t totally sit with my preferences. It’s very confrontational, there is a lot of direct conflict, king-making, and it’s heavily player moderated. I also have a dislike for games with absolute/’instant’ win conditions. Thinking about all those things though, I loved Root (which I expected I probably wouldn’t going in) and it has all of these same features, but it’s a lot simpler of a game. Unfortunately for my group, player interest drifted off after a few games. I think this is because of the time investment playing a game like this represents, and if you aren’t totally feeling it you can’t justify spending the time on it when you could be playing something you more enjoy. While we certainly experienced the game and did have fun moments, I feel we didn’t get the most out of it, the full Oath experience. If you think you have a group that will enjoy really committing to a game, then Oath will be great. The more you play the better it gets. If you are interested in finding out more about Oath or getting your own copy, head over to the Leder Games Store! Thanks for reading, make sure to follow the blog if you want to know when our next post goes live.

The copy of Oath used for this post was provided to The Boardgame Detective by Leder Games.

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