Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile Review
Once Kyle Ferrin gets his crayons all over it, there’s no mistaking a Leder Games game. His art stands out a mile off, and thanks to teaming up with the likes of Cole Wehrle and others with Leder Games, it’s become synonymous with quality. It’s well deserved – Root (read my review) is absolutely fantastic, and I love Fort too. Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile is a game on a much grander scale, with the action taking place campaign-style. You can play the base game repeatedly, but the best way to play is by writing the Chronicle. Over the course of repeated plays, you and your group will shape the world and its outcome, but with none of the usual component alteration or destruction we’ve come to know in legacy games over the last few years.
When you first unfurl the neoprene playmat the game takes place on, you’d be forgiven for giving a groan. A groan of “Oh no, this is going to be really complicated, and take ages“. Despite the bright colours and sharp printing, there are things to look at all over the place, which gives it an air of something more complex than it actually is. Oath’s grand scale belies a game that is actually easier to play than you’d think.
Rather than replicate the asymmetry of a previous game like Root, Oath drops all of the players into one of two roles to start with. You’re either the Chancellor – the big character with a sign on their back saying ‘Insert knife here’, or an exile – the ones looking to partake in the stabby-stabby action. Roughly speaking, the Chancellor wants to remain the Oathkeeper (the person ruling the most sites) until the end of the game, and the exiles want to usurp them by ruling the most sites, thereby taking the little cardboard Oathkeeper away from the Chancellor.
I’ve grossly oversimplified the game there, but it gives you an impression of what the game is about, which isn’t obvious at first. Players pick from the standard actions available to them, which let them gather more of their chunky Warband meeples, draft and play cards, attack one another, or move their bigger pawn piece around. Actions cost supply points, and you gain supplies back at the end of your turn. The more warbands you have out in the world, away from your player board, the more you have to support them, so the amount of supply you get back is reduced.
It’s a wonderfully simple dynamic that underpins the game. Yes, you can get your little wooden army stomping all over the place, but it’ll cost you, and limit what you can do. As with all things in life, moderation is key. The croutons in Oath’s soup are the Vision cards. Cards which, if drawn, give the exiles new, unique win conditions. The visions change the way each game plays out, and often result in a bit of exile-on-exile fisticuffs, drawing focus away from the relieved Chancellor.
In many modern Euro games, the players dictate their own paths. They choose what they want to do, and build their strategy around those choices. In contrast, Oath requires you to adapt. You might have a plan, but executing it is another matter. Your actions and reactions affect the game, and the world it exists in, in ways you don’t expect.
Oath is a game that is meant to be played by at least four people, and the same group should be playing every game of the campaign together. The way that unspoken – or blatantly spoken – alliances form and break is brilliant. The game board changes so much as cards and locations are played. It’s like huge swathes of paint being daubed on a canvas, changing what you’re looking at while you’re taking it all in.
The Chancellor acts as a huge target, and playing as it can feel like you’re playing as an AT-AT on Hoth, as Snowspeeders buzz around your legs, trying to bring you down. The Chancellor’s got a wonderful trick up their sleeve, however, whereby they can offer citizenship to an exile, bringing them onside, in exchange for a powerful relic. It’s like the AT-AT pulls one of the rebels to one side and whispers “Look, if you don’t wrap that string around my legs, I’ll buy you a pint“. So now the Chancellor has other people on their side – nice! More twists ensue however, because the citizens can snatch power – and victory – away from the very person who offered them a partnership. It’s just brilliant.
As I sit here now, typing these words and explaining what I love about the game, it makes me want to play it again. And I can do just that. I can simply reset my game to the same state as when I tore the shrinkwrap off of it, and start again with a new group. I just need to find a new group.
Known by the company you keep
Teaching Oath well, and with the right group, is what elevates it from a clever idea to a masterclass in how to make a legacy game. Just, y’know, without all the legacy bits.
There’s a nicely-written book in the box which teaches you how to play, with led examples. If you’ve played Root and used the walkthrough in that, you know the sort of thing. It’s a nice way to do things, and Oath’s is a better teaching aid than Root’s. Understanding the motivation and planning behind why you’re doing, what you’re doing, is the most important part.
Now, while you can learn ahead of time and then teach your group, I believe the better option is to gather the group who’ll be playing through the campaign, and do the teach-and-learn together. The decks are pre-constructed in such a way that every example in the book ensures the cards are where it expects them to be, and I for one don’t much fancy trying to reconstruct them.
The other advantage of learning together is in levelling the battlefield. If nobody has prior experience of the game, then nobody has an advantage during the first session, when you should all be finding your feet. I really want to emphasise the importance of regular group for Oath, because it’s the one factor that will make or break the game. Forming alliances between the Chancellor and Exiles between games is personal and intimate. It weaves the players themselves into the world they’ve made.
The tendrils spawned by your decisions in one game reach far into the following games, tugging at their roots, influencing how they grow.
Trying to sum up Oath in ~1500 words is a very difficult job. There’s so much I want to tell you. So many small touches that make it special. Every card you draw can cause you headaches, trying to choose where to play it. Trying to keep an eye on what everyone else is doing, while guessing what they might have planned, is something I adore in a game when it’s done well. And Oath does it so well. For such a simple action set to choose from, and with only three roles available in the entire game, Oath has no right to tickle your brain in the way it does.
Kyle Ferrin’s artwork and design choices aren’t just cosmetic. They’re practical. They open the game up. This game could easily have been set in a barren, dystopian future, full of muted browns and greys, as a wargame. It would have worked. It would have been a good game. Instead, it’s a child’s pencil case full of colour and fun. The bright, chunky pieces make the game friendly and less intimidating. The bizarre setting, the way you’re just dropped into an alien world, even the Chancellor’s mask – so much of it has you wondering “What?”. There’s no lore to read. You make it all up. It all helps to elevate the game above a standard theme or setting, which in turn increases its potential cohort of players.
But look, I’m not about to tell you Oath is for everyone. It’s a very thinky game, on the heavier end of medium-weight, which might put you off. It’s a game which takes you by the collar, pushes one arm up behind your back, and demands you find a regular group of people, in order to enjoy it properly. If I didn’t have access to that regular group, I don’t think I’d have enjoyed it as much. Sharing the experience of continuously reshaping the world in which you’re playing is an intrinsic part of the game’s joy. If you’ve got three or four people in your pocket though, and if you want a game that’ll land on your table week after week after week, Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile is borderline essential.
Review copy kindly provided by Leder Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
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Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile (2021)
Designer: Cole Wehrle
Publisher: Leder Games
Art: Kyle Ferrin
Playing time: 60-120 mins