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Subject: Designer Diary 6 - Oaths and Visions (Victory Part 1) rss

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Cole Wehrle
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Programming Note: Here in the United States we've entered the holiday season. This includes a fair amount of travel for both work and family. For this reason, these posts will become a little more infrequent, appearing once every two weeks or so. If you're at Pax Unplugged, feel free to come by the booth and ask me all about Oath. I'll even be running previews in the afternoons.

Back when I was working on Root, I was often asked what victory meant in terms of the game. Partly this was the design's fault. Root uses generic victory points. The first player to 30 points wins. This metric is pretty convenient and also allows players to easily understand the current game state at a glance. But, it also hid some of the game's thematic framework. What was a victory point supposed to actually mean?

The answer I gave then (and that I still give now) is that 30 points in Root represents a kind of legitimacy threshold. At this point, the creatures of the woodland throw up their hands—or paws—and decide that the first faction to achieve that goal is probably the best ruler they are going to get.

This seems simple enough, but it hides some careful thinking about what legitimacy means in the context of Root. For instance, each factions victory point distribution exists at the point of comprise between (1) the faction's priorities and (2) the hopes and dreams and fears of the woodland creatures. For the Marquise, control and exploitation might be the primary aim of her conquest of the forest. But, the population of the forest want more. They want to see that she can build and protect a robust economic system. That's why she gets points primarily for building (and rebuilding) buildings. The universal victory points for the destruction of building and tokens is meant to speak to the intersection of legitimacy and fear. It is a game of Might and Right after all.

Unfortunately, this victory schema also creates a bit of a narrative problem for Root. Don't get me wrong, I love Root. We play it a lot in the office, and I don't see any reason to stop. But, sometimes the game behaves strangely at the end. A player might craft a boot to cinch a victory. Or, an Eyrie player might eek out a victory by scoring the last point from a single Roost on the board.

What's happening here is that the game emotional and narrative climax sometimes arrives a turn or two before the end game. Heck, sometimes the first turn is the one loaded with emotional and strategic force and the rest of the game is just spent sorting through that trauma. This is, I think, a great strength of the design, but it also can lead to players occasionally feeling like the ending didn't quite match up with the rest of the game.

When I started working on Oath, I wanted to seriously grapple with the subject of endings. This is a tricky topic in games generally and, in particular, becomes extra tricky when trying to approach this subject with a game that, by some metrics, doesn't really end at all. Over the next few entries in these series, I'll be talking about Oath's victory condition, the perspectives of the players, how the game deals with the endings of all shapes and sizes.

Morality and Game Design

Every victory condition is a statement of morality. Eh, that might be a little melodramatic. Perhaps it's better to say that every victory condition is a value statement. That value statement might reflect the personal values of the designer, the values of a marketing team (or the audience they wish to connect with), or perhaps the imagined values of a particular group of people.

Victory conditions also orient the players within the game system. I think that the two most critical decisions a designer makes when working on a game is figuring out who the players are within the space of the game and what their goals are. I'll be writing a lot more about the scale of Oath and the player position in a future entry. For now, let's stick with goals.

A game is always about it's victory condition. When I teach games, it's the very first thing I tell players and the last thing I remind them of before we start to play. In my own work, I do my best to create victory conditions that feel appropriate to the stories I want to tell. This can lead to mechanisms which produce unfashionable results (such as the attrition die in John Company) or else lead to intense stand-offs that sometimes overstay their welcome.

I like these conditions because I feel like they recognize the limits of the game while pushing players to understand some of the forces that pressured their historical counterparts. Sometimes this can generate sympathy for their counterparts—as I hope Pamir does—but more often I want players to feel a more general sympathy for the many lives that were caught in the swirl of history and how a series of reasoned decisions can lead to total moral collapse.



When I first started working on Oath, long before it was a game, I had it's victory condition more-or-less set. This is primarily because victory in Oath was tied directly to some of the game's most central arguments about the passage of time and the shifting demands of legitimacy over generations.

The vast majority of games out there—including most of my own—revolve around a single victory condition. Sure, there might be other fail-states and curious asymmetries, but mostly players are all trying to accomplish a single goal. The goal might be global or it might be individual, it doesn't matter to much. They can mostly rely on that goal remaining in place through the many trials a game might put them through.

Legitimacy has always felt like a fair way to describe what a victory condition represents. Whether you are playing Greed Incorporated or Modern Art, at the end of the day, legitimacy is probably the best term I have for describing what the players are after. At the same time, I recognize the vague character of this definition. At HistoriCon a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of chatting with Volko Ruhnke about this. He told me about a game design exercise he had run with some some military and intelligence planners. At the start of the exercise, he asked participants to figure out who the principal actors were and what their goals were. While they didn't have much trouble coming up with the players, they quickly became deadlocked on the subject of victory. It turns out half thought the victory condition should be related to “power” and the other half thought “legitimacy” was a better metric. But, in both camps there was wide disagreement as to what those two terms actually mean.

Oath leans into this uncertainty. Legitimacy can mean different things at different times and to different people. Here's how I boiled it down. Each game has a single Oath card which establishes the game's core victory condition. Unlike the regime's in Pax Porfiriana, an Oath will not change over the course of the game. However, they can change in-between games, depending on how victory shakes out. This is one reason why they are called Oaths rather than the prescriptive climates or regimes described in Pax games. Oaths are the promises the people of the game's world want you to make with them, it's up to the players to imagine how such a promise might be fulfilled. It's my little nod to social contract theory.


Excuse the many prototype cards in this post. They are a long way from final layout!


There are four Oath cards in the game, each representing a different flavor of legitimacy: the Oath of Supremacy (empire, conquest), the Oath of the People (popular support, democracy), the Oath of Protection (dynasty, conservation), and the Oath of Devotion (knowledge, secret-keeping). This means that there are four paths to victory within the game's core design. The Oath of Supremacy rewards the player that controls the most territory. The Oath of the People rewards the player who has the most popular support, which is measured as a function of a players portfolio of supporters and their relative power. The last two Oaths both depend on holding special privilege which can be bought and fought over during the course of game: the Royal Blessing (for the Oath of Protection) and the Darkest Secret (for the Oath of Devotion).

Each of these Oaths is essentially a fully-featured aspect of the core game, complete with strategies and counter-strategies. This sounds overwhelming. Thankfully, only one is active each game, so new players are only marginally overwhelmed—at least, until the moment they draw their first vision card.

Visions

In the last entry I mentioned five special cards that were mixed into the top half of the deck. These are the vision cards. When a player draws a vision they must announce it to the table (bonus points for declaring loudly that they've “seen a vision!”). The penalty track is then adjusted which will make future draws from the main deck more expensive, which limits the number of cards flowing around in the game.

But, they are more than just friction points. Vision cards grant players access to the inactive oaths. When a player draws a vision, they could play it face up and declare their attempt to fulfill their new victory condition, or they can keep their intentions secret by playing it face down (essentially holding it in their hand). Unfortunately for the scheming player, the vision cards have different backs, so they will be marked by their rivals as a potential revolutionary as long as they hold onto their vision.

Four the five vision cards are essentially mirrors of the four Oath cards, but reworded as to be instant victory conditions. For instance, with the Vision of Rebellion, the player who reveals this card will win if three visions have been seen this game and they have the most popular support at the start of their turn.

The fifth vision, The Conspiracy, is not really a vision at all. Instead, it is the only one-time instant in the game. When played, it allows a player to steal either the Darkest Secret or the Royal Blessing from any player that shares a location with them. Then this card is placed in the box for the remainder of the game. Both privileges have other uses which encourage players to try to secure them earlier so they tend to get contested every game, regardless of whether or not they are tied to a path to victory.



In fact, there are organic advantages to pursuing all of the different victory paths during the game, even if it's not the path you think will help you win the game. Each system is woven into the others so that players get familiar blocking each other and trying to expand their power base.

The visions also set the stage for a classic policing problem. The leader must bat off potential rivals while also attempting to protect their flanks from alternative victory conditions. As the game goes on, the vulnerabilities increase as more visions are seen and players begin to seek for more desperate paths to victory. This is a familiar space to Marquise players in Root, but players will find that the role of the police person may shift over the course of the game. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

Victory's Consequences

The system of Oath and Visions creates a pretty expressive endgame, which is a useful thing to have if you want to build a game that adapts to the choices of its players. Essentially, games of Oath end three ways. Each of these ways will inform how the Oath might change in the next game.

One, a player might fulfill a Vision card. While Dominance cards only make up about 15% of wins in Root, Vision wins will be more likely, especially at certain player counts. If a player wins with a vision, the next game will be played using the Oath corresponding to that vision. The thematic logic here is pretty simple. If you win by starting a death cult out on the steppe, the next game will be played within the logic of that death cult, that is, under the Oath of Devotion. It's also worth noting that all visions are used in every game, so the victory condition could remain stable from one game to the next just because a player used a Vision to win on a condition that happened to mirror the current Oath.

Second, a player might fulfilling the Oath card. When this happens, the Oath will “age out” and be replaced by the next Oath card in a set progression (Protection to People to Supremacy to Devotion and then back to Protection). This represents a common ideological drift.

Finally, if the Commonwealth manages to keep the ruling class united and win on the Oath condition, the Oath will remain the same. This represents the conservative faction of the Commonwealth succeeding in keeping the state and the state's ambitions stable. Keeping that ruling class united is quite the trick. I'll talk more about how the commonwealth works and some of the headaches that its Chancellor faces in the next post.



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Brandon Harvey
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The way you talk about and struggle through game design is what has gotten me into thinking about designing my own game. The depth you go in considering why you make your design choices is something I think many should aspire to.

It'll certainly be years in the making, but I can only hope I can do the same with my design, whatever it may become.
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Ondrej Spacek
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I read each one of your designer diary in one breath. So many interesting insights into games and its relation to ideas about society.
Just a few remarks about this one. I like understanding victory condition(s) as a legitimacy. But mechanism as you describe it (similar to Dominance cards in Root) remove some tension from it. Let me explan it.

As I understand legitimacy in society, there is some dominant regime of worth, and then alternative/avantgarde struggle to overthrow it, especially from groups, which are not in good position from the point of view of dominant regime. E.g. avantgarde artists struggling to define worth of art in different way than old established artists (aka Bourdieu's field struggles). But what is interesting about this struggle is uncertainty, the question, whether alternative source of legitimacy will be established.
I think, this is very nicely captured in Pax Pamir. You lack influence in your coalition? You gather spies/tribes and tried to bring domination stalemate. Etc. You are trying to manipulate rules of legitimacy, but you can't be sure, it will work.

In this case, it seems that "alternative victory condition card" just happened. When you have idea/vision (card in your hand), it is just BAM! Alternative legitimacy! No struggle involved.

This is just few thoughts. I like whole idea and design, and all these diaries. You've already got my money



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Feel free to just dismiss the question as getting too far ahead, but with how tightly the oaths and visions are woven into the system you've created, I was curious if you are including expansion ideas in your design process. I guess adding oaths or visions could do the trick, but it seems like additional oaths would break the tight ideological cycle you've developed and adding visions just seems like it would make them too frequent (unless you only played with a certain number).

Anyways what are your thoughts on Oath expansions? I know you've designed both types of games. When I play Pax Pamir 2e, I feel no need or desire for an expansion, for instance. With Root, it's quite the opposite. Where do you expect Oath to fall?
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Cole Wehrle
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spacek wrote:
In this case, it seems that "alternative victory condition card" just happened. When you have idea/vision (card in your hand), it is just BAM! Alternative legitimacy! No struggle involved.
I think I may have given the wrong impression then. The various visions are tough to win with. Tough enough that players who have them often keep them secret. Of course, in trying to build up to their particular condition they usually tip their hand and players will jump on them pretty hard once they make their move towards victory.
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Cole Wehrle
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nedotykomka wrote:
Feel free to just dismiss the question as getting too far ahead, but with how tightly the oaths and visions are woven into the system you've created, I was curious if you are including expansion ideas in your design process. I guess adding oaths or visions could do the trick, but it seems like additional oaths would break the tight ideological cycle you've developed and adding visions just seems like it would make them too frequent (unless you only played with a certain number).

Anyways what are your thoughts on Oath expansions? I know you've designed both types of games. When I play Pax Pamir 2e, I feel no need or desire for an expansion, for instance. With Root, it's quite the opposite. Where do you expect Oath to fall?
If Oath does well, there is one thing I want to add to the game. But mostly it's closer to Pamir in the sense that all of the expansion content is essentially baked in. This is a huge game, easily the biggest I've ever worked on.
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Cole Wehrle wrote:
spacek wrote:
In this case, it seems that "alternative victory condition card" just happened. When you have idea/vision (card in your hand), it is just BAM! Alternative legitimacy! No struggle involved.
I think I may have given the wrong impression then. The various visions are tough to win with. Tough enough that players who have them often keep them secret. Of course, in trying to build up to their particular condition they usually tip their hand and players will jump on them pretty hard once they make their move towards victory.
I can attest to this. In a recent playtest session at BGG.CON, I had a Vision of Supremacy in an Oath of Supremacy game. I was in a good but not strong position for that Vision. Cole was sitting out the game, so we had a side discussion if I should hold back the Vision or play it. I’ve played enough Root to know the folly of playing a Dominance too early, so I held it back one turn. On the next turn, I wasn’t able to advance my position much, but Cole and I agreed it was time to give it a go. After this, my position was decimated by my opponents and my grand vision faded into an impossible dream. Let’s just say I didn’t win.
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Absolutely loving these designer diaries. I heard a tale from BGG con that you *might* have been showing off a prototype of Oath and it absolutely crushed me that I missed out on that!

This is putting the cart wayyyy before the horse, but is there any possibility of having say... Pax Pamir 2e as an add on when Oath ultimately hits kickstarter? I frustratingly missed the kickstarter when it was active and have regretted that to this day.
 
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tylrprtr wrote:
Absolutely loving these designer diaries. I heard a tale from BGG con that you *might* have been showing off a prototype of Oath and it absolutely crushed me that I missed out on that!

This is putting the cart wayyyy before the horse, but is there any possibility of having say... Pax Pamir 2e as an add on when Oath ultimately hits kickstarter? I frustratingly missed the kickstarter when it was active and have regretted that to this day.
Pax Pamir is a Wehrlegig Studio game, Oath is a Leder game. 0% chance of a crossover in kickstarters.

Rumor has it that PaxPam might be an option in a John Company kickstarter next year.
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Ravendas wrote:
tylrprtr wrote:
Absolutely loving these designer diaries. I heard a tale from BGG con that you *might* have been showing off a prototype of Oath and it absolutely crushed me that I missed out on that!

This is putting the cart wayyyy before the horse, but is there any possibility of having say... Pax Pamir 2e as an add on when Oath ultimately hits kickstarter? I frustratingly missed the kickstarter when it was active and have regretted that to this day.
Pax Pamir is a Wehrlegig Studio game, Oath is a Leder game. 0% chance of a crossover in kickstarters.

Rumor has it that PaxPam might be an option in a John Company kickstarter next year.
I kind of figured it was unlikely due to having different, yet related, publishers. Doesn't hurt to ask the question though! You'll always have a no, but you might get a yes.
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mrkvm wrote:
Cole Wehrle wrote:
spacek wrote:
In this case, it seems that "alternative victory condition card" just happened. When you have idea/vision (card in your hand), it is just BAM! Alternative legitimacy! No struggle involved.
I think I may have given the wrong impression then. The various visions are tough to win with. Tough enough that players who have them often keep them secret. Of course, in trying to build up to their particular condition they usually tip their hand and players will jump on them pretty hard once they make their move towards victory.
I can attest to this. In a recent playtest session at BGG.CON, I had a Vision of Supremacy in an Oath of Supremacy game. I was in a good but not strong position for that Vision. Cole was sitting out the game, so we had a side discussion if I should hold back the Vision or play it. I’ve played enough Root to know the folly of playing a Dominance too early, so I held it back one turn. On the next turn, I wasn’t able to advance my position much, but Cole and I agreed it was time to give it a go. After this, my position was decimated by my opponents and my grand vision faded into an impossible dream. Let’s just say I didn’t win.
This is curious! Can you elaborate on what would distinguish winning with a Vision of Supremacy from winning with an Oath of Supremacy? Is it simply for Exile as opposed to Citizen?
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Finally, we know what the Oaths are! I think this has been the most enlightening post yet on this game. Absolutely fascinating stuff you're working on.
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Finally we know what Oaths are! I have to say, when I first heard of the game and how the regime could be fought over between the rightful ruler of the land and an opposing warring army and while they were fighting over control of the land, a mysterious cult would swoop in and steal the crown under their noses via gaining the trust of the people, I was seriously sceptical to it being possible. But I wave my flag in defeat because you seem to have pulled it off, and after hearing this I can seriously not wait to play this. I wish I could go to pax to try it out but I can't make it. Oh the agony!!!

I also have one question. Is there any benefit to exclaiming your victory condition when you first get it or is it like the dominance cards in Root where it's better to keep them a secret until you finally choose to strike?
 
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Ondrej Spacek
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mrkvm wrote:
Cole Wehrle wrote:
spacek wrote:
In this case, it seems that "alternative victory condition card" just happened. When you have idea/vision (card in your hand), it is just BAM! Alternative legitimacy! No struggle involved.
I think I may have given the wrong impression then. The various visions are tough to win with. Tough enough that players who have them often keep them secret. Of course, in trying to build up to their particular condition they usually tip their hand and players will jump on them pretty hard once they make their move towards victory.
I can attest to this. In a recent playtest session at BGG.CON, I had a Vision of Supremacy in an Oath of Supremacy game. I was in a good but not strong position for that Vision. Cole was sitting out the game, so we had a side discussion if I should hold back the Vision or play it. I’ve played enough Root to know the folly of playing a Dominance too early, so I held it back one turn. On the next turn, I wasn’t able to advance my position much, but Cole and I agreed it was time to give it a go. After this, my position was decimated by my opponents and my grand vision faded into an impossible dream. Let’s just say I didn’t win.
Sounds great!thumbsup
 
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Andrés Santiago Pérez-Bergquist
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I’m quite excited about the model of multiple victory conditions through different ways of controlling the game state, as I find that to be the key genius of designs like Inis and Liberté. The latter in particular seems relevant, with its model of victory through points gained by aligning with and supporting the current moderate political order, and alternate victories achieved by dramatic overthrow of that order by either a radical landslide or a royalist counter-revolution.
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If there were two philosophies around victory conditions then they would be 'zero-sum' and victory points (VP). A 'zero-sum' would be a win-or-lose situation as commonly found in co-op games, whereas VPs lend themselves better to competitive games. I've always disliked VPs solely on the base of thematic dissonance but recognize they are like money: intrinsically dead but pragmatic in measurement and comparison. I like your concept for victory as it feels thematically 'on brand' while offering a diffuse (1 on n) zero-sum effect and staying away from tallying points during the game or bookkeeping at the end. Besides, the organic tension of not knowing what your rivals are up to (exactly) reaffirms the theme and creates an interesting pull and tug of alliances and rivalry during the game.
 
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Singhilarity wrote:
This is curious! Can you elaborate on what would distinguish winning with a Vision of Supremacy from winning with an Oath of Supremacy? Is it simply for Exile as opposed to Citizen?
Yes, though each will also potentially change how the next game is setup.

This is actually one of the strangest things about the design, that I will probably spend some time thinking about and writing about much later on. Player's end games incentives get a little strange. While victory is critical, because the game adapts to what happens players in general are more okay with the kinds of kingmaking plays that often leave a sour taste in the mouth precisely because those plays still have consequences.
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Hey, Cole! I asked you a while back about the two player mode and you mentioned (that the current plan is) both players start in exile and the bot controls the commonwealth.

Does this mean every 2 player game ends with a "regime" change?

What if one of the 2 players has a preferred strat/regime that is currently represented in the commonwealth, is he forced to try to topple it regardless?
 
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M0L0MAN wrote:
I also have one question. Is there any benefit to exclaiming your victory condition when you first get it or is it like the dominance cards in Root where it's better to keep them a secret until you finally choose to strike?
Unlike Root there are a bunch of reasons why you might want to show your Vision early. This depends on the Vision too of course, but most have structural advantages that you only gain once you are actively trying to lock it down.
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Lavoisier21 wrote:
Hey, Cole! I asked you a while back about the two player mode and you mentioned (that the current plan is) both players start in exile and the bot controls the commonwealth.

Does this mean every 2 player game ends with a "regime" change?

What if one of the 2 players has a preferred strat/regime that is currently represented in the commonwealth, is he forced to try to topple it regardless?
I'm not sure. It's likely that there will be two ways to do two player, you can bot the commonwealth or you can have one player play the exile and another play the chancellor. That part of testing won't start for a few weeks and I'm not sure how it will shake out yet.
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Cole Wehrle wrote:
Lavoisier21 wrote:
Hey, Cole! I asked you a while back about the two player mode and you mentioned (that the current plan is) both players start in exile and the bot controls the commonwealth.

Does this mean every 2 player game ends with a "regime" change?

What if one of the 2 players has a preferred strat/regime that is currently represented in the commonwealth, is he forced to try to topple it regardless?
I'm not sure. It's likely that there will be two ways to do two player, you can bot the commonwealth or you can have one player play the exile and another play the chancellor. That part of testing won't start for a few weeks and I'm not sure how it will shake out yet.
Awesome! I can definitely see me and my girlfriend being more invested in the game if we have the alternative to pilot the commonwealth sometimes in order to maintain a regime we're particularly fond of.

As a legal historian, she's been quite excited by the game from the info I've been relaying about the design diaries.

Here's to hoping it's a great 2p experience.
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Looking at the endgame conditions, what's the difference between fulfilling the Oath and winning on the Oath condition?
 
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arkanfel wrote:
Looking at the endgame conditions, what's the difference between fulfilling the Oath and winning on the Oath condition?
There isn't one. Apologies if that was implied.

Basically the Oath condition is your way to score victory points. The visions offer alternate victory conditions.
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Cole Wehrle wrote:
arkanfel wrote:
Looking at the endgame conditions, what's the difference between fulfilling the Oath and winning on the Oath condition?
There isn't one. Apologies if that was implied.

Basically the Oath condition is your way to score victory points. The visions offer alternate victory conditions.
Oh okay, I am still a bit confused because you mentioned there were 3 ways that a game of Oath ends, and those 2 ways were mentioned separately.

"The system of Oath and Visions creates a pretty expressive endgame, which is a useful thing to have if you want to build a game that adapts to the choices of its players. Essentially, games of Oath end three ways. Each of these ways will inform how the Oath might change in the next game."

1. Fulfilling a vision
2. Fulfilling the Oath
3. Winning the Oath condition

If 2 & 3 are the same, does that mean Oath only ends in 2 ways instead of 3?

Edit: I note that the difference is that #3 refers to the Commonwealth winning the Oath condition, is this where the Citizen and Exile distinction plays a role?
 
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arkanfel wrote:
Edit: I note that the difference is that #3 refers to the Commonwealth winning the Oath condition, is this where the Citizen and Exile distinction plays a role?
Yup!
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