Oath: Chronicles of Empire & Exile – A Review

Hints of Oath: Chronicles of Empire & Exile started to surface at the beginning of the year, and there was something about it that instantly made me want to not just play it, but to own a copy of the game. All games have a central idea around it, and they usually focus on things such as dungeon crawl, cooperative, abstract, economic, area control, or role playing. Recently, some game have added a new aspect to it to add a campaign experience to the gameplay called legacy, and I have always been intrigued by these games because it would create a storytelling element to it that would make the experience of playing it unforgettable. The only problem I had with games like this is that after you have completed the cycle of the legacy, it could not be played again. This is a lot of money to spend on a game for only a limited amount of game time. Leder Games saw this problem and designed a game around legacy games’ central appeal, a sense of history.

Think about it. What if you had a game board that created its own history? Every game presented its own set of characters that played out their stories in various landscapes with their own objectives that created a new direction that the world would turn. Then take that world at the end of each game, let the winner write down this history of what happened, and then set up the game for a completely new experience the next time around with a new cast of characters playing their stories out in new landscapes with different directions.

And unlike all other legacy games, Leder Games have set up a system where, like history, the story never ends. This was too exciting of a concept for me to ignore this game, and now that I have played it, I am excited to share my thoughts on its unique and yet familiar style of play.

THEME

Three areas of the kingdom, the Cradle, the Provinces, and the Hinterlands, is tentatively held together by the rule of the Chancellor. This fledgling government has deployed war bands on some of the lands that it rules of over to keep control over other sights overrun with bandits, and even worse, the scheming exiles who are looking to take over the kingdom for themselves. In the first game, the Chancellor will try to keep control over his land by sheer force of his army, but this is not the only way that the exiles can overthrow this dictator. These other ways come in the form of Visions.

One of the exiles might find in the middle of the night that they have obtained a dream that they can interpret different ways. Maybe if they could collect the secrets of the court and use them to their advantage to make their way up through the ranks. Or they might become the most popular person in all of the land and get the favor of the people. Or they might search the lands for the hidden treasures that have been left behind for a time long forgotten. These powerful artifacts could help them in their rise to power.

The Chancellor still has another trick up his sleeve. He has collected a few of these powerful artifacts and has placed them in his treasury. At any time, he can offer one of these powerful artifacts to one of the exiles, and offer them citizenship into his kingdom. With citizenship comes certain privileges, and new paths to taking over the kingdom as a successor.

All of this takes place in a closed economy where favor is passed off to different factions within the kingdom who use that favor to unleash their special influence over the land. But one faction may gain too much favor which causes the economy fall into the control of the ones who may have advisors who are friends with those factions, making it harder for the other players.

Overall the story sounds like a complicated game of courts and politics that has enough variety to it to allow a different story to unfold every time the game is played. Add into the unique legacy aspect of the game that creates history for each individual game box and you are left with a fun and exciting story that will have you begging to play a new game as soon as you finish one.

Rating – 10

GAMEPLAY

A game with this complicated of a story line might scare away some people away because the gameplay must be as complicated to support it. It might scare others away because there is no way that a designer could take on such an ambitious endeavor without it all falling apart. It would take quite the balancing act to make this work out properly.

But this is where the genius of Cole Wehrle comes into play. He has already made his mark with other four-lettered games such as Root and Fort, and each of those games has its own unique twist on gameplay that makes it unique, but Oath is by far his most ambitious. There is enough asynchronous game play going on this game that you have to pay attention to what other people are doing, or before you know it, they will have taken over control of the kingdom. The nice thing about this gameplay is that, except for the Chancellor whose role is to react to what is going on, the rest of the players have the opportunity to choose their own paths to victory. All of this come in a set of choices that when stripped down are not as complicated as it would seem to be in a game like this. There are elements of randomness, but it is adds more to the story rather than being frustrating when a person looses due to some unlucky role of the dice.

Despite all of these different ways of going about pushing your influence out on to the game board, the gameplay is rather easy to pick up and figure out. There are only six different actions you can take per turn, and some minor actions that you can participate in as well, so it does not take long to figure out what you can and cannot do. Strategy takes a little longer to figure out because you are not always aware of all the new cards you will see during a game and how they will be able to help or hinder your gameplay. It is what makes the game exciting and fun each time you play this.

It is a little more crunchy than a typical game, and takes some time to figure out, but Leder Games added a walkthrough of the first round of the first game that you play. It talks you through what would be the best move for four players based on what they have in their hands and what cards they draw. It also talks about why this is an important move for each person to help wrap your mind around the strategy of the game. So even though, it may appear complicated and intimidating, they help ease you into the game.

The best part of all of this is that the gameplay and the different cards that you get to see for advisors, artifacts, and locations with different win conditions not only playing out during each game, but for each player that each game is a unique experience. It also feeds directly into the theme and creates a unique story each time that you play. People who love this storytelling element in their games will obviously make the story come alive more as the game plays out, but do not think of the stories that this game tells is like one that plays out in role playing games. The strokes are more broad with the narrative and important moments in the history of your board are the ones that you will be talking about long after the game is finished. People who bought the Kickstarter version of the game even received a journal where they could write down the story after each play of the game and how that has expanded their overall history. It was one of the things I was really excited about, and was really disappointed that I did not get it with the version I bought through retail, but a quick trip to a local bookstore, and a purchase of a cheaper journal fixed this problem rather quickly. The one I got even looks like it might have originally been part of the game to begin with.

Rating – 10

ARTWORK

If you know anything about Leder Games, then you know that each one of their games has a certain look to it that adds to the overall enjoyment of the game. Kyle Ferrin has a certain art style that quickly recognizable and can be seen in their other two games, Root and Fort. He has taken great care with each of the cards, whether, it is one of the advisors, lands or artifacts. It is not only a great card to look at, but each cartoon character begs for its own story to tell that will add to the narrative that your group tells. It also adds a different kind of levity to the game. This is easily a game that could come across as being extremely dark as war, and court intrigue play out in every session, and if the artwork was designed to to reflect this darkness, then I feel like it would be a completely different game.

The game board also has a unique design. It is not a big piece of cardboard that you unfold and place on the table, or a collection of tiles that you have to piece together. It is a nice mat that you role out and place your pieces on. It does provide the basic knowledge that you need to have in order to play the game, but for the most part, until you add the other pieces, it does not add a lot to the overall gameplay.

Great care also went into creating the game pieces. Though the only difference between the war-bands that you use during battle is the color, the pieces that represent the various exiles and Chancellor reflect the personality of each of them. Of course, the Chancellor’s piece is taller that any of the other ones that just adds to the fragile nature of his character, as if he is taller somehow makes him better. The pieces also have the same feel as the cards that are played and once again help you to become a part of the world that you are playing in.

The game not only is a lot of fun to play, but it also has a great look to it that adds to the game play. The Kickstarter version of the game even went so far as to make the favor and secrets plastic which adds more to the overall experience, but they are nothing more than cardboard punch-outs if you buy the retail version of the game. It was a little disappointing when I opened the box, but it was quickly forgotten when I looked at all of the other artwork that game had to offer.

Rating – 9

INTERACTIVITY

As always, the main reason I enjoy to play games is because it allows me the opportunity to hang out with friends and enjoy an experience unlike any other. Some games have low levels of interactivity where the players are over in the corner doing their own thing, and it isn’t until the end of the game and everybody counts up their points that the interactive aspect of the game begins. Oath is not this kind of game. The game forces you to interact with other people and either work together to stop the bigger threat, or fight against your greatest enemy. Some people are trying to be sneaky, while others are using all of their force to win the game. You will be spend a lot of the time playing this game interacting with each other. When I played, as soon as the game got going, there was not one of us that were sitting down. We were so excited about what was going on that we were walking around the table, looking at different points of attack and strategizing about how we could pull off a win. Nobody was ever completely out of the game, and at any moment, a simple turn could change the tide of the game. I absolutely loved the aspect of this game.

The battles also added a lot of dramatic tension that I had not seen since playing the old area control games, and it was not a long drawn-out tension like you might see in other area control games, such as Risk or Axis and Allies. Basically, it is one role of the dice for both the attacker and the defender. At first look, the attacker has the advantage because they have a handful of dice compared to the defenders couple of dice. But the dice that the defender uses are more powerful, and even though, the attacker won most of the time, the battle would leave both sides devastated. I believe this to be the most accurate depiction of war I have ever seen. Very rarely, does someone just come in and destroy the other side without taking any casualties. It just means that there has to be a good reason to attack, and you had better have a lot of war-bands mustered before you attempt it.

There is also a lot going on in the game, so you need to keep a close eye on everything happening, or someone might sneak in a win when you least expected it. The bottom line is I spent a lot of time interacting with the people I was playing with, and because of the legacy nature of the game, it would be best to try and find the same people to play with on a consistent basis, or they might lose what is going on with the history of the board. The set up for the next game took a long time to figure out, and people got bored while this was going on, but if the winner spends that time writing their history down and sharing it afterwards, it will add to the overall experience.

Rating – 10

EXPANSIONS

At the time of the writing of this review, there are no expansions to Oath. I have not even heard of hints or rumors about expansions coming later, but considering the game is less than a year old, it does not surprise me. If it is anything like Leder Games other big hit, Root, there will be extra packs of cards added to the game, and new complications to keep people interested in playing the game for years to come. Right now, the only thing that you can buy to add to the experience is the leather bound journal to keep track of your board’s history, but I am still a little annoyed that this does not come with the game. I do believe it is the main draw of the game and it is the one thing that really make this game more unique than any other I have ever played. As of right now, this is not one of the strong points of the game, but there is enough going on in the game to keep you engaged, and you will not replay a game any time soon.

Rating – 5

OVERALL

I have loved my experience with the game so far, and I am constantly thinking about the next time I will get to enjoy it again. I love the history aspect of the game, and how each play is completely different, but somehow still familiar. Its gameplay is simple enough that I feel confident in what I am doing, but complex enough that I still feel like there is a lot I have to learn about the game to get really good at it. I do hope that they have plans to make expansions for this game, so that it stays fresh and exciting for each game play and allows me to continue to add on to the history of my board. With this in mind, this is not a game for everyone. Though the rule book is short, there are enough of them to keep certain people away from this game. It is also rather expensive, so before buying, you might want to make sure that you have a group of friends that will be excited about playing it over and over again. If you do have that group of friends, it could easily become that group’s favorite game, and I could see it being pulled out time and time again.

Overall Rating – 4.4 Stars out of 5