This book, this book again.
I am nervous to report that it’s beginning to make sense! My unease persists as the understanding is thin and wispy, threatening to float away.
I’ve begun to revisit earlier passages. These words jitter through my eyes and into my brain like whispers upwind. Crook thy head.
“We’ve come to a point where it’s necessary to address the most significant quality of Oath: theme. Theme is the connective tissue between the protagonist’s internal journey and their external pursuits. In a board game we are the protagonist and theme is the link between emotional cultivation with the external expression of manipulating cardboard.
Oath is fertile in this regard.
To understand where Oath goes, we need to understand where John Company, Pax Pamir, and to a lesser extent Root went.
All of these designs are the work of Mr. Cole Wehrle. One throughput of these titles is the systems themselves operating with a certain autonomy. It’s as if the games are each a machine, the switch flipped and engine come to life with the lifting of the lid. When writing about Pax Pamir I described this quality as such – ‘All you can do is nudge the whirring contraption in your direction and ride the situation like a hapless stooge atop a thrashing bull.’
In John Company it’s the East India Company. In Pax Pamir it’s the conflict between Britain, Russia, and Afghanistan. In Root, it’s the internal bureaucracies of your faction and how those challenges interface with the ersatz geopolitik of the forest.
All feel as if their unique systems are operating of their own accord. We’re the protagonists, but it’s always a struggle for power and control. To reach the desired endpoint we must trudge through layers of malice, often comprised of random chance. The game fights back and makes life difficult. It’s a machine with teeth.
At the heart of Wehrle’s creations are political institutions. They’re hard to shake and uproot as we’re urged to affect change.
Oath illustrates this but of course in a progressive way within the context of the Wehrle design space. The institution at its heart is not a fanged automaton for players to grapple with, but a living soul whose will you are attempting to subvert.
Everything takes place in the Chancellor’s empire and its fringe lands. Their autocracy is the political perspective the game is filtered through. The chronicle does not remember the accomplishments of just any lineage, only those of the victor. The Chancellor begins with constituents at their territories and with military might. They also possess greater potential, able to muster a surplus of troops and even enlist fellow players as subordinates. Finally, they begin the chapter as Oathkeeper with victory in their claws and must only maintain status quo to secure it.
Everything is uneven, tilted in the Chancellor’s direction.
The rest of us must work with a semblance of cooperation to corrupt, sabotage, and debase. We are still raging against a machine but not one that’s faceless or cold.
This is a shift from the philosophy of those previous designs. At a fundamental level it reframes strategy from manipulating systems to manipulating people. You’re able to negotiate, cajole, or coerce the establishment as well as those beneath it. It becomes more personal and behavioral.
This social behavior does occur in Wehrle’s other designs, but you’re often negotiating from a position of weakness, feigning strength or making a clever argument backed by nothing more than a promise or story. You’re chatting up your peers instead of the object of conflict.
Furthermore, attaining the seat of power and autonomy is the very goal of play. Think on this, for John Company is not about actually controlling the company. It’s about preparation and seizing opportunity as everything flourishes or possibly burns around you. Pax Pamir awards victory points for those who have thrown in and possess influence with factions that are dominating the countryside. Root likewise awards points for developing and operating your faction under its own specific parameters, as well as tearing down buildings and structure.
In none of those previous three games do you actually attain a position of authority or kingship. In Oath, you do just this. But it goes a step farther than the rest, unwinding the upheaval and assessing the fallout. Lands and people are wiped from the board, disappearing into their respective decks and possibly out of the world forever. The victor, body upon the throne, literally pens the apparatus for remembrance.
There are a multitude of additional implications forking off the chronicle system. One integral component is that the world deck represents the entirety of people and organizations under rule. However, they’re all nameless and insignificant until actually entering play.
Denizens placed to sites are chartered through force. This is the foundation of Oath. You can’t rule a site unless you partake in bloodshed and military conquest. Even those locations devoid of players require slaughtering nameless bandits.
The combat system itself reflects the philosophy that established organization is difficult to uproot. As an attacker, you will often struggle to overcome the odds of a dug-in defender. Yet you can turn the tide and win most battles if you’re willing to pay the cost. In Oath’s terms that means sacrificing your soldiers, breaking their bodies to secure your will. To annihilate that which is entrenched requires great effort.
Only after committing such bloodshed can you begin placing advisors to sites and propping up the various guilds of the populace. When the war has ended and the Chancellor is once again established – whether incumbent or usurper – the only denizens that persist are those in lands owned by the crowned ruler. The world itself is shifted as cards are removed from the world deck and new inhabitants are added based on those you enlisted in support.
The very culture of the world is established and maintained through violence.
And that is what you’re doing in Oath, you’re fighting to establish a nation’s culture and your place within it.
Yes, there are ways to succeed without committing brutality, but they all persist around receiving establishing rule through deceit and wealth. Even then, achieving victory via these duplicitous methods results in a kingdom that is weak and lacking agency unless you’ve found success through previous military campaigns.
Regardless the manner of success, the game ends just as it began – through the Chancellor’s edict. As play started by building the ruler’s kingdom and establishing their civilization’s structure, it ends by reforming the autocrat’s boundaries and establishing permanence of society.
The major themes of Oath revolve around attaining sovereignty and cultivating civilization, primarily through violence and turmoil. Additionally, established institutions are entrenched and difficult to topple without collaboration. Both of these are explored not through pitting player against system, but by framing conflict as costly, personal, and utterly human.
The king is dead, long live the king.
If you enjoy what I’m doing at Player Elimination and want to support my efforts, please consider dropping off a tip at my Ko-Fi.
I have never been more enthralled with a game I have yet to play. In a way I am glad this one slipped by me until now, so that I can experience it with somewhat of an immediacy.