I spend a lot of time thinking about board games. Lots of board games. It’s the nature of the job - to try and see, play and understand everything that hits the tabletop. (Or as close as I can get as a single human being with finite time in the day and only so many friends available at weekends, anyway.) This year, one board game dominated my thoughts: Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile.
This will likely come as little surprise to those of you who’ve been reading and watching Dicebreaker for a while. After all, my admiration for designer Cole Wehrle’s games is hardly a secret - the second edition of Pax Pamir was my favourite game of 2019, and the asymmetrical masterpiece Root might well be my favourite board game of all time. That said, even I was surprised by just how hard I fell under Oath’s enthralling spell of strategy and storytelling.
On its face, it’s a board game of fairly familiar parts - you command armies of wooden pawns, visit and seize control locations, trade coins, and ultimately wrestle for rule of the land. You have a number of action points to spend each turn, trying to optimise your investment in travelling, building up your forces and choosing carefully when to engage in all-out warfare with your rivals. Dice are rolled for fights, and cards are used for effects.
It’s how Oath colours between these solid, dependable lines that makes it so much more than just another strategy game with a gorgeous coat of paint. (Courtesy of prolific illustrator and Wehrle collaborator Kyle Ferrin.) Or, more accurately, how the players colour between the lines with the vivid palette Oath provides.
Oath conjures up one of the most evocative narratives of any board game I’ve ever played. Importantly, this narrative takes place as much around the table as on it. Over the course of a session, players’ fortunes rise and fall, alliances are forged and broken, and even the victory condition that everyone is striving for can change.
One player starts as the chancellor - the ruling power who will maintain their grip on the throne if the other players’ exiles fail to seize it from them by the later rounds of the game. (A random die adds tension to the one-more-turn climax.) Like many historical rulers, their game is one of desperately trying to hold on to power as their empire is gradually whittled away by those allied by a common enemy. The exiles, meanwhile, are classical heroes; they start with little, and build up through determination and patience to overthrow their at-first insurmountable foe. Whether it’s through subterfuge, the support of the people, pure military might or something else is the clever touch of Oath’s shifting victory conditions, known as oaths.
The arcs of each session aren’t forgotten once the game is packed away, either. Oath’s Chronicle system tracks the impact of players’ decisions and the outcome of each playthrough on the fantasy world - the exact details of which are left tantalisingly vague. An upstart exile can become the chancellor to be overthrown in the next game, their route to power often paving the way for their own downfall. Individual places and people in the world grow, move and disappear, sometimes for in-game generations, as the land is reshaped and game rearranged around the who, how and what of sessions past. It’s as impressive as the permanent evolution of legacy board games, but with no fixed end point - like history itself, Oath’s world continues regardless, laying the stage for endless new stories.
It’s for this reason that Oath stands out as not just the best board game I played in 2021, but one of the most singular board games I have ever played. I’ve rarely (perhaps never) experienced a game that understands so clearly why so many people play tabletop games - for the stories written around the table with friends - and manages to make that such a key, concrete part of the experience on the table, too.
Oath is a game that will continue to occupy my thoughts into 2022 - spurred by the exciting news that Wehrle is working on a new Chronicle game, Arcs: Collapse and Conflict in the Void. It’s a board game that reminded me why I play board games, and an experience I’ll continue to think about for a long time to come.
Buy Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile on Zatu.