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Subject: Designer Diary 2: Origins, Expanded rss

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Cole Wehrle
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Last week I mentioned how the origins of Oath were complicated, spanning many years and many influences. In fact, for a long time it wasn't clear that my work on this material would even coalesce into a game.

Well, it turned into a game, alright. So, I want to do my best to gather up those various origins and arrange them for you all here. As I said, these things are complicated, and over the next few months I'll be giving you all a huge bibliography and ludography for the game. For today, I thought I'd just sketch a simple genealogy of my looser inspirations for the design and the broader inquiry that led to start working on it seriously.

When I was a kid, most of the games I played were second-hand. Often they were found in garage sales or stacked in a lonely closet at a friend's house. Most of these games were old and incomplete, but they were enough to spark the imagination. One of my favorite things about these old games was that they usually came with little booklets featuring ads for other games. It was through one of these ads that I discovered a game called Imperium.

I can't remember the exact wording of the marketing copy. A lot of it was the usual pulp sci-fi fluff about cruel space empires and fearless rebellions that you can find on any number of games published in the Star Wars era. But, outside of that, I remember two very specific claims the game made. The first was that it was asymmetric, offering two radically different factions. The second thing was even more compelling: the asymmetry was emergent and adaptive. Games were linked together in an epic campaign that informed how the factions behaved and their objectives. I was in love.

At that time, I had just started playing Dungeons and Dragons and was eager to turn everything I played into a campaign-style game. I built a little campaign game framework for my battered copy of Tactics II, and, when Battle Cry arrived the next year, an operational campaign system was one of the first variants I put together for the game club hosted at my middle school.

When I tried my hand at proper design in college, this subject was the first one I wanted to tackle. The very first game that I built and played was called Scion (2008-9). The whole game was designed around a concept quite similar to Oath. Players would take the roles of the disaffected youth of a failing kingdom and strike out for their own fortune, eventually building up a new empire. That empire would then set the stage for the next game. It was a nice idea but woefully overambitious and under-researched. Though I convinced several friends to play it with me, I don't know that we ever actually finished a game. After a few sessions I gave up and that was more-or-less the end of the project. As a design, it was largely a failure. I didn't leave that project thinking that I wanted to make a career out of game design.

The only copy of this game is buried somewhere in my parent's garage. Don't upload it to the bgg database, please.


Still, the ideas behind of big games were infectious. I hunted for copies of Blood Royale and was always on the lookout for local groups running big, multi-session games. Then, in 2012 I became obsessed with a big game about Mexican history in a very small box. Pax Porfiriana was the the first in Phil's sequence of small box titles that helped transform Sierra Madre Games. Though often lampooned for inscrutable rules, the design itself represents significant restraint compared to other Eklund titles. The game's chief excess was in its card list. The game has over 200 unique cards, representing personalities, innovations, and establishments from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This variety was owed in part to the fact that the game was a distillation of Phil Eklund's Lords of the Sierra Madre. So, while the box was small, it contained a mountain of content. In fact, there was so much content that its components often spilled over the sides of its small box.

Oddly the game did not require such a deep card list at all. In fact, only a small fraction of cards are used in each game. I certainly didn't mind the variety, but I was becoming tired of the fact that the game would flap open in my bike bag on the way to a game store, and I would arrive to find my pannier bursting with cards. At some point when playing Porfiriana I stopped taking all of the cards with me. I could leave most of the cards at home which both sped up setup and allowed me to safely close the box. Every once in awhile I would swap out some of the cards in the deck but mostly the card list stayed stable.

This choice had a curious effect that I did not realize until years later when I began to talk to others about the game. Many praised the design but found the high variance of the deck off-putting. Players could play an entire game without a single money-making enterprise showing up (usually these are the bedrock of the game's economy). This had not been my experience at all. After a play or two, players would familiarize themselves with the quirks of any additional deck cards and adjust their strategies. Then, right as things were beginning to level off, a few new cards would be added to the mix. The resulting metagame was delicious. There was enough stability that the deck was worth thinking about but with enough variance that kept players wanting another play. The stability also created something like standard cast of characters who could be fleshed out over several rounds of game. Hey look, it's Ida B. Welles again. Last game she ran a Marxist newspaper. What might she be up to this game? As someone used to one-and-done sessions of big historical games, this was a very new way of thinking about games.

That year was also the first time I came into contact with Risk: Legacy. I adored its ambition. The idea that players could create a world over several games of play seemed wondrous. I wondered if those ideas could be built into a Pax-style game. But, the game didn't quite live up to my expectation. Even with all of it's dramatic turns, Risk remained Risk. And, while I quite like vanilla Risk, I can't say it was always improved by the surprises of the Legacy format. I felt much the same way about Pandemic Legacy, which is a fine game with a good story, but ultimately didn't feel like a very interesting game. That's perhaps a little unfair. The game is quite wicked and clever, but I often felt like the actual play of the game was less interesting than the story bits. If I had to choose, I'd rather just play regular Pandemic.

Don't get me wrong, I admire these projects, they are just not the kinds of games that I'm interested in. I love the idea of legacy games, but just not how they are implemented. What I wanted was something closer to a free-form campaign game, where one match informed the next, but where the players were ultimately the ones driving the narrative of the game.



When I came to work for Leder Games in 2017, one of the first games I talked to Patrick about was a game he had been working on called Path. I was so excited by his outline for the game and the fact that it seemed to be tackling some of the areas I had been interested in for so long. He wanted to build an open-world adventure game where one game could inform the next. I eagerly gushed a dozen (mostly) nonsense ideas that had been pent-up in me from years past. We had a great conversation, but as Path was still a long way away, we both had to put the conversation on hold. Soon we were both caught up in Root and then TMM.

Early the next year, while I was finishing the development of Root, we had another meeting where we talked about future games. One idea was a (slight) adaptation of simplistic Root into a legacy format where players fought to either keep the governing regime intact or to usurp that regime. Patrick liked the pitch and urged me to work on as a side project while we finished Root and prepared to jump into then next Vast game. Later that year, while driving back from Origins together, we spent a good potion of the drive hashing out ideas and making sure this project was distinct enough from his work on Path to give games both room to breath and grow.

As work on Vast: The Mysterious Manor wound down, I started giving the game that would become Oath more and more of my time. By this point I had my pitch down, and I had a clear vision of what I wanted the game to feel like. But, I didn't have an idea what I wanted the game's arguments to be or even what mechanical systems the game needed to be built around.

To sort through my thoughts, I started a formal design log to help record my process. Usually, I find the process of writing to clarify my thinking, but that wasn't the case here. The first entry was a massive catalog of frustration and anxiety. I was terrified of this project.

I took a coupled days off, preferring to help out with Root: Underworld. When I resumed my log, scanned my previous frenzied entry and I began it with a simple summation: “The key problem I'm running into here is one of scope.” It would be months before I would figure out even how to begin approaching that problem--let alone a solution!

More on that next week.
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Pascal Abidor
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I'm very excited about this title and your posts are only making me more interested!
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Mike Ptak
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Imperium is one of my favorite games, precisely for the reasons you mentioned!

Scion also feels like an amazing premise, perhaps as a quasi rpg format? Id be interested in hearing more about the differences there from oath, since it would seem scion focuses on the individuals instead of oath players being organizations?

Already two journal entries in and Oath feels like the game that would age with me like an old friend. I cant wait to learn more!
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Pat M
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The Pax Porfiriana rotating deck reminds me a lot of Fabled Fruit. One of the interesting parts of that game is that the cards are designed to be wildly different in effectiveness and cost, but the really good cards tended to cycle out of the deck fairly quickly. So you'd end up with crazy good cards that would last one or two games, and then the "Take a Fuit if it's 5 o clock on a Tuesday" would kind of sit for 10 or 11 games, so when it finally rotates out of the game it's a big deal.
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Cody H
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Is that critter in the forest an example of the art slated for this game? Because if so, that itself is pretty exciting laugh

Cole Wehrle wrote:
As work on Vast: The Mysterious Manor wound down, I started giving the game that would become Oath more and more of my time. By this point I had my pitch down, and I had a clear vision of what I wanted the game to feel like. But, I didn't have an idea what I wanted the game's arguments to be or even what mechanical systems the game needed to be built around.

You used the word "arguments" here, and I was wondering in what sense you meant it. Do you mean the political/social/philosophical assertions being made by the game's design and theme? Or does the word here have a specific contextual meaning (perhaps akin to how "verb" is used in video game design)?
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Mike Ptak
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jack of spades wrote:


Cole Wehrle wrote:
As work on Vast: The Mysterious Manor wound down, I started giving the game that would become Oath more and more of my time. By this point I had my pitch down, and I had a clear vision of what I wanted the game to feel like. But, I didn't have an idea what I wanted the game's arguments to be or even what mechanical systems the game needed to be built around.

You used the word "arguments" here, and I was wondering in what sense you meant it. Do you mean the political/social/philosophical assertions being made by the game's design and theme? Or does the word here have a specific contextual meaning (perhaps akin to how "verb" is used in video game design)?

I'm curious as well!
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Samuel Vriezen
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A diary entry every week? And a big ludography and bibliography? This is something to look forward to!

I had been wondering if there was some sort of relation between Path and Oath. This now being confirmed and denied at the same time... I just have to ask... Oath and Path differ by just one alphabet position in one letter. Is this by design or a happy coincidence that you cannot but keep?
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Cole Wehrle
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Samuel Vriezen wrote:
Oath and Path differ by just one alphabet position in one letter. Is this by design or a happy coincidence that you cannot but keep?

A happy coincidence. The games are quite different.
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Cole Wehrle
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jack of spades wrote:
You used the word "arguments" here, and I was wondering in what sense you meant it. Do you mean the political/social/philosophical assertions being made by the game's design and theme?

In the first sense. Oath presents an understanding of the world and how it operates. That understanding is filled with contradictions and flaws, but I think it gets at some important things in its own way.

Every piece of culture cannot help but make arguments. Some are explicit and some are implicit. Games may be lousy rhetors, but they engage in rhetoric (and politics) all the same.

Many of Oath's arguments are similar to those made in Root, but where Root was concerned with the synchronic, Oath is diachronic. That's a little jargony, but it gets the the heart of the matter. Root was interested in the pressures of a moment. Oath is more interested in the consequences of a moment over a longer distance.
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Brian McCue
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Cole Wehrle wrote:
Samuel Vriezen wrote:
Oath and Path differ by just one alphabet position in one letter. Is this by design or a happy coincidence that you cannot but keep?

A happy coincidence. The games are quite different.
I'm going to skip Nath but I'm really interested in Math.
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Cole Wehrle wrote:
Samuel Vriezen wrote:
Oath and Path differ by just one alphabet position in one letter. Is this by design or a happy coincidence that you cannot but keep?

A happy coincidence. The games are quite different.
So you're saying there won't be a Qath released after Oath and Path?
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Cole Wehrle
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bassofthe wrote:
Cole Wehrle wrote:
Samuel Vriezen wrote:
Oath and Path differ by just one alphabet position in one letter. Is this by design or a happy coincidence that you cannot but keep?

A happy coincidence. The games are quite different.
So you're saying there won't be a Qath released after Oath and Path?

ninja
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Pascal Abidor
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Cole Wehrle wrote:
Every piece of culture cannot help but make arguments. Some are explicit and some are implicit. Games may be lousy rhetors, but they engage in rhetoric (and politics) all the same.

Outed as someone who's been to grad school for the humanities. We recognize our own kind.
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Cody H
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Cole Wehrle wrote:
In the first sense. Oath presents an understanding of the world and how it operates. That understanding is filled with contradictions and flaws, but I think it gets at some important things in its own way.

Every piece of culture cannot help but make arguments. Some are explicit and some are implicit. Games may be lousy rhetors, but they engage in rhetoric (and politics) all the same.

Hear, hear! It's not surprising, but it is pleasant, to read that it is important to you that you have a grip on what your designs are saying. It's also just generally refreshing to see a game designer espouse this viewpoint.
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K S
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abubrooklyn wrote:
Outed as someone who's been to grad school for the humanities. We recognize our own kind.
Not only do we recognize our own, but we also recognize the Other.
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Samuel Vriezen
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wamsp wrote:
abubrooklyn wrote:
Outed as someone who's been to grad school for the humanities. We recognize our own kind.
Not only do we recognize our own, but we also recognize the Other.




And if not, at least know how to produce a ton of theory explaining why that’s so hard.
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Tyler DeLisle
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Looking forward to hints of the bigger picture next week. So far the design philosophy going in sounds so great to me. I've been very similar in that the ideas of Legacy sound exciting, but I've never dove in myself as I'm less interested in a pre-scripted story-narrative, and I don't like the idea of being locked into a singular campaign. It sounds like this design is much more in line with the kind of evolving, player-driven game state that I would want in a game.

The big question I've had is the scope of the game. So far all we've seen are art on cards. I'm getting the feel from this entry that the game will be more card based, though without having played Pax Profriana I don't really have a frame of reference there. I'm hoping that there is a board of some sort that is manipulated.

Can't wait to read next week's entry!
 
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Anjovi Kulam
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Cole Wehrle wrote:
[q="jack of spades"] Root was interested in the pressures of a moment. Oath is more interested in the consequences of a moment over a longer distance.

I'm curious if you guys were tempted to continue using the Root brand/theme for Oath as the two concepts seem like they would conceptually fit quite nicely together..and visually on the shelf side by side..xD

That said, I do like the dungeons and dragons like direction that the theme is going with. Feels like you have the potential to create a world similar to game of thrones (or insert fantasy setting) with this engine (just judging by the art of all of the fantastical things in the world)

Otherwise, it might be troublesome applying roots theme to the broader sense as the animal factions are very rooted in exploring COIN as they are currently implimented...Though, I suppose you could take the dynamics of those factions and implement them in a broader sense, while the player takes the role of those who'd pit them against eachother?

Probably just talking nonsense at this point. lol!
 
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You mentioned in an interview that the artwork in Root was designed to be more approachable so that people who would otherwise be put off by war games might find it more appealing. I've been carefully watching Kyle's Twitter for his Oath posts and while the artwork is not cute fluffy animals, it is certainly very colourful and vibrant. I'm guessing you're planning to tell people more about the art in a later post but—just to officially register my interest—I'd love to know if the art for Oath is designed to give the game the appearance of something that the game might not otherwise have. (In the same way that Root's did.)
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Patrick Leder
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Cole Wehrle wrote:
bassofthe wrote:
Cole Wehrle wrote:
Samuel Vriezen wrote:
Oath and Path differ by just one alphabet position in one letter. Is this by design or a happy coincidence that you cannot but keep?

A happy coincidence. The games are quite different.
So you're saying there won't be a Qath released after Oath and Path?

ninja

I was going to ask Friedemann Friese to work on Path with me but he wanted to call it Fath.
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GreenM wrote:
Cole Wehrle wrote:
bassofthe wrote:
Cole Wehrle wrote:
Samuel Vriezen wrote:
Oath and Path differ by just one alphabet position in one letter. Is this by design or a happy coincidence that you cannot but keep?

A happy coincidence. The games are quite different.
So you're saying there won't be a Qath released after Oath and Path?

ninja

I was going to ask Friedemann Friese to work on Path with me but he wanted to call it Fath.

You can't fool us. If Friedemann had been involved, it would have been nothing less than 'Funken' Fath'!

Gotta be an FF.
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Jonathan Jordan
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I am very interested in how you are going to implement "game memory" into this. The legacy system of stickers and set decks to advance the game and record changes work well for what they are, but it sounds like you wanted to go a different direction here. As someone who is fighting with a similar idea in my own projects, I would be very interested in how you are solving this particular issue.
 
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Ben Kyo
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daikage wrote:
I am very interested in how you are going to implement "game memory" into this. The legacy system of stickers and set decks to advance the game and record changes work well for what they are, but it sounds like you wanted to go a different direction here. As someone who is fighting with a similar idea in my own projects, I would be very interested in how you are solving this particular issue.
Well, it sure sounds like deck composition is definitely going to be a significant factor. Given the stated 3 minute setup time, it would simply be carrying over the "main" deck from the previous game.
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brianmccue wrote:
I'm going to skip Nath

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Cole Wehrle wrote:
jack of spades wrote:
You used the word "arguments" here, and I was wondering in what sense you meant it. Do you mean the political/social/philosophical assertions being made by the game's design and theme?

In the first sense. Oath presents an understanding of the world and how it operates. That understanding is filled with contradictions and flaws, but I think it gets at some important things in its own way.

Every piece of culture cannot help but make arguments. Some are explicit and some are implicit. Games may be lousy rhetors, but they engage in rhetoric (and politics) all the same.

Many of Oath's arguments are similar to those made in Root, but where Root was concerned with the synchronic, Oath is diachronic. That's a little jargony, but it gets the the heart of the matter. Root was interested in the pressures of a moment. Oath is more interested in the consequences of a moment over a longer distance.

Considering your remarks on rhetoric, I'd also say that while Root was inspired by works of T. H. White, Oath definitely sounds like something Hayden White would find interesting ;-) (and I'm probably even more interested in the bibliography you're going to refer to in the designer diaries)

Jokes aside, I'd love to see the modern tabletop games use subtitles as this sort of a commentary on their theme and argument more often, especially if things like art direction or mechanics seem to be unusual for the particular theme. (Thorny Games' Dialect: A Game about Language and How It Dies is another great example as the idea of the language dying once the game is over may not be that obvious at first when you read the rules)
I've touched upon it in my recent review of Jamey Stegmaier's Tapestry ('A Civilization Game') here on BGG, as plenty of people voiced their disappointment about it being an engine builder and not a civ game in the sense of an established genre. I think that this genre choice, along with the game's subtitle, make for a powerful message on what a civilization (and, accordingly, a civ-building game) is, turning a history of civilization into that of an infinite, unimpeded growth.

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