Oath: Chronicles of Empire & Exile is perhaps the first board game to make the description "generic fantasy" a glowing compliment.
The latest release from darling strategy designer Cole Wehrle - best known for his asymmetric masterpiece Root, in which players control animal factions scrapping over a woodland - Oath is a highly ambitious board game that attempts to chart the rise and fall of empires, their rulers and those attempting to seize power from them over countless generations.
While the game presents itself on the surface as a deeply strategic game of commanding armies and maintaining a tight grip of regions - and make no mistake, that's all in here - it's at heart a hugely accomplished storytelling machine, primed to allow players the space to weave their own tales of victory and defeat, alliance and rivalry, ascension and inevitable fall.
The key lies in the "Chronicles" of Oath's subtitle, realised in the Chronicle system devised by Wehrle that chains together every session into a constantly evolving timeline. The outcome of each game affects the setup of the next, with places and inhabitants of the world - represented by cards on the board that players visit to gain their unique benefits - developing, vanishing and shifting to offer a distinctly different experience the next time around.
This goes for the players too, with one player beginning the game as the ruling chancellor of the land, while the others typically start as upstart exiles hoping to build up their threat to the throne and oust the chancellor from power by fulfilling the given win condition, which is defined by the previous winner's victory (Did they win via military might? The support of the people? Or more nefarious subterfuge?) and can change as the game rolls on. Alliances are possible but flimsy as exiles try to hold onto their winning claim for a full round, or even throw in with the chancellor by pledging their service as a citizen - as long as it benefits them, anyway. It's all very Game of Thrones, except it sticks the landing.
Unlike legacy board games, such as Pandemic Legacy and Gloomhaven, Oath avoids a hard stop to the evolution of the world. Cards are never permanently altered or destroyed, instead being - at worst - cast from the world deck for several generations with the chance to reappear a number of sessions - and in-game centuries - later. There's no set number of games before the cardboard credits roll - Oath's narrative and mechanical remixing can last as long as its players' interest. And that will be a good long while.
Oath's gameplay takes a relatively approachable core loop, with players moving their character between places in the world and trading in favours and secrets to amass power and wealth, and deepens it with the sheer variety of cards that can spring up. Players can interact with denizens of the world on the board, but are forced to share with their rivals, or form a close council of advisors for their sole benefit. The shifting win conditions and strategic freedom makes the game a bubbling petri dish of player interaction - the kind of experience that'll have you glued to its in-world drama for its fairly lengthy playtime. Like all good things, it's something enjoyed unrushed.
Tying its intriguing gameplay and ingenious Chronicle system together is Oath's minimalist world-building, which adopts an effective 'show, don't tell' approach to leaving the details up to players. Regular Wehrle collaborator and Root artist Kyle Ferrin returns to illustrate Oath's many cards, which are accompanied by evocative names: "Roving Terror", "The Buried Giant", "The Hidden Place", among others. Avoiding the bad habit to saddle modern fantasy games with pages of bland lore, Oath provides exactly the right level of charm and mystery in its restrained painting of the unnamed empire. For a game that aims to inspire the most memorable stories around the table as well as on it, it's a boldly confident move that pays off in full, turning what would be generic fluff into loaded starting points for players' imaginations.
Oath: Chronicles of Empire & Exile is an extraordinary creation, a masterpiece of board game design and emergent player-driven storytelling that ranks as one of the year's most outstanding tabletop releases. Its constantly evolving world is a marvel, its balance of strategic and thematic gameplay exciting and entertaining, and it showcases one of the greatest designers of recent years at the peak of his powers. Just as the game's Chronicle system remembers the decisions and stories of its players over generations, I think Oath will be remembered for a long time to come.
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