Review: The Leder Games Oath is one of the best board games of the year
Ouija boards are fun to play because they encourage a shared illusion. If I don’t move the planchette and you don’t move it either, then it must be a spirit trying to talk to us. There is a similar kind of illusion going on in Oath: Chronicles of the Empire and the Exile, the latest from Leder Games. Everyone who sits at the table is convinced that they are playing a traditional strategy game, a version Risk Where Axis & Allies. But just like that old hokey mind board, Oath is simply the facilitator of something much bigger.
Oath is not really a strategy game. It’s a complex, almost convoluted engine for generating stories. Performed regularly with the same group of people, it becomes more than a simple contest of wills. It’s an elaborate role-playing game wearing the garments of a complex strategy title. And that’s only part of what makes it one of the best tabletop experiences of the year.
At the end of each part of Oath, the winner makes one of four different engagements. Then, at the start of the next part, they become the ruling chancellor and, most likely, the oath keeper. This wish completely changes the victory conditions for the next game.
The keeper of the oath of supremacy, for example, wins by strength of arms and strength of influence. Games played against this oath can sometimes look a lot like a traditional zone control game. The Guardian of the Oath of Protection, however, wins by collecting and keeping the most loot. Games played against this oath may feel more like an adventure game, with heroes roaming the land one step ahead of a mighty despot.
The Oath of Devotion keeper exchanges information and must hold the darkest secret. It is an abstract concept that represents the most powerful knowledge in your world. Played this way, Oath becomes a game of courteous intrigue and deception. Finally, the Oathkeeper of the People must always be a shepherd for the non-player characters (NPCs) in the game. Dislodging the chancellor holding this oath is like leading a revolution.
As these wishes are being said and tested, other players have a whole different way of winning. Vision cards represent potential game states – difficult ways to shoot the moon, in a way – that can lead even less powerful players to victory. They aren’t any more difficult to pull off than the repeatedly necessary campaigns to keep or break the oaths described above, but they do require stealth, timing, and sometimes an almost supernatural understanding of the hidden information scattered all around the table. .
The real magic of Oath, however – and what separates it from other high-level strategy games – are its NPCs. These Denizen cards inhabit the World Deck, which also houses the Visions of the game. Each of these NPCs is unique, both in their art and in their powers. Some can be played in your reserve, where they serve as advisers. Some must be played à la carte, where they take up residence in a particular region. But they all have their own personalities and each of them is categorized into a thematic costume.
Cards with the Hearth costume represent the forces of love, community, and kindness, while the Beast costume is filled with powerful animal creatures. Order features military units and just a hint of totalitarianism, while Discord is filled with new quirks and weird restrictions. The Nomad costume is equally disruptive and features new characters from outside the game – an evil twin, a magical horse, rival warlords, and more. Finally, the Arcane suit represents magic and wonder in your world.
It is through the interaction of all these NPCs and the unique objectives of each of the players that a story begins to unfold. Once the rules themselves are internalized by players, elaborate storylines begin to emerge organically, rising from the table like a haze.
I’ll never forget when, in our second game together, a friend assembled a massive army with the help of a mighty werewolf and his adorable animal playmates. In that same game, a wizarding school moved a group of rangers, turning a powerful offensive region used to gather soldiers into a secret enclave that traded mysteries. It’s as if the NPCs themselves have a role to play in determining the direction of the story. The game mechanics reinforce this with an intelligent influence system that transfers power to and from the game board itself. The bright and evocative art of Kyle Ferrin, who also helped create the world of Racine: A game of strength and law in the woods, uplifts the whole experience.
At the same time, the terrain on which players stand – the materials of the game world itself – are constantly changing and changing. For example, there are three regions in Oath named cradle, provinces and hinterland. Using the large sign-shaped maps provided in the box, players will shuffle and reshuffle the contents of these regions from game to game. The result is a world that seems amorphous, almost dreamlike.
What is interesting is that the cost to travel in these three regions will always be the same. No matter what type of terrain there is, travel between areas of Cradle will always be cheap, and travel into the backcountry will be expensive. It’s also the back and forth movement Between these regions. In this way, the geographic center of power shifts from game to game, even as political power shifts as well.
As this whirlwind of conflicting regions, NPCs, and player goals shift and mutate across the table, so does its cast of characters. The winner can literally remove their choice of inhabitants from the game, constantly pushing the world towards order, discord and other card combinations. At the same time, the players themselves develop a rich common history. One betrayal spawns another, provoking deep-seated rivalries and mistrust. Meanwhile, inactive peace treaties and occasional alliances can develop and harden into bonds that can last for generations in the game. As designer Cole Wehrle told Polygon in an interview earlier this year, who winning every game is not as important as How? ‘Or’ What they win.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Oaththe production values of. I’ve mentioned Ferrin’s art before, but the materials used to make this game are top notch. It starts with the game board itself, which is actually a lot thicker and shapely than some luxury mouse pads I’ve owned over the years. The pack-in is also perfect, providing both a place to store the tokens used during game play and a way to safely save your game world once you are done playing. All of this helps to help the game get to and from the table as quickly as possible.
The only limiting factor for this game, in my opinion, is the manual. It’s painfully dry and reads more like a pre-flight checklist for an exotic jet than a traditional mainstream-grade game. Fans of crispy strategy games like GMT and Phalanx shouldn’t be intimidated in the least, but pretty much everyone will need to study before, during, and well after their first game. The included Oath Playbook offers a complete, annotated walkthrough of your first round of play, but even that seems incomplete for new players. Your best bet is, for better or for worse, the sea of fan-made tutorials on YouTube.
Despite these limitations, I am still completely in love with Oath: Chronicles of the Empire and the Exile. Its complexity and narrative force creates a virtuous circle, making the game more and more interesting each time you revisit it. I believe it represents the pinnacle of modern board game design, earning it a place in the Polygon collection for years to come.
Oath: Chronicles of the Empire and the Exile has been reviewed with a physical copy provided by Leder Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find more information on Polygon’s ethics policy here.