When you win a game — let’s say a battle royale game — what do you remember? When the end screen shows up with your chicken dinner proudly displayed, what is the story you tell? I’d wager it’s a story about the fights. It’s the emotions of a player frantically scrambling to stay afloat, or a player dominating all who would stand against them. Winning isn’t about the stats; it’s about those moments. Games are memorable, and the experience of playing is what carves those memories into your mind.
Recently, game designer Cole Wehrle told me, “Remember: How a player wins is more important than who wins.” That quote feels like it’s fresh from the lips of a legendary game designer and, in some circles, the man who said it already is. Wehrle is an unfamiliar name to those who don’t browse board game forums religiously. It shouldn’t be, though. Wehrle already has two commercially successful, award-winning games to his credit — Root: A Game of Woodland Might and Right and Pax Pamir. But that’s not the extent of his import.
Both of these games are tons of fun to play, with bright art and crisp graphic design. Each is a critical examination of what constitutes an empire. They are explorations in game mechanics that probe the question of how different political systems engage with the world around them. My interview with him was focused on his latest game: Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile, set to be released widely later this summer.
“Oath is a political game,” Wehrle told me, a response to “an old way of history where you […] imagine the various powers as people.” The rub is, in Oath, the empire is experiencing a time of great turmoil. You and a handful of friends represent the powers at play in that empire. One plays the Chancellor, the current ruler of this world. The others play Exiles — upstarts and rivals looking to depose the Chancellor. There are a few little catches, though.
At any point the Chancellor can extend the offer of citizenship to another player. The exile jumps on a ship to join the Chancellor, and along the way gains access to some very shiny royal relics. Their reintegration into the empire changes the way all players are forced to compete, because at the end of the day, only one player can win.
Whoever wins changes the way the game is set up the next time you play. The Chancellor, map, and deck of denizens all adapt to the new world made by players. This decision mirrors the impacts that different generations have on a nation state. These changes aren’t arbitrary, but the direct result of how a player won.
Did they clean house in a violent uprising? The world reflects that, and it changes violently. Sites are lost to the Chancellor and Citizens become lowly exiles. The deck is infected with the winner’s preferred suit of cards. Win by maintaining the status quo? The next time you play, it might feel like loading a save before a tough fight, as if the last game never even happened.
This creation of memory ties Oath, with its lofty ambitions, to the battle royale genre, which many would regard as the video game equivalent of popcorn. In both games, players are constantly making choices with tactical depth, and then collectively creating the narrative that emerges from those choices. What happened wasn’t that your squad made a lot of noise out in the open and another squad took advantage of that situation. No, what happened was that you won an honorable fight and then some cretins came and stabbed you in the back. Never mind the fact that you would’ve framed the reverse as an incredible moment of your squad’s genius.
The same is true in Oath. It’s not that the cards have changed. Instead, those personalized cards may have different contexts during your generational conflicts. Last game you may have lost due to a Chancellor’s silver-tongued lackey, but this time that same lackey may be your double agent.
When the average player plays a battle royale game, they don’t tend to win very often. Mathematically speaking, when a game of Apex Legends begins, you only have a 5% chance of being the squad that wins. Wehrle describes the drop into the map at the start of the game as “this frenetic scary thing [where] maybe you barely escape with your life and you’re playing Metal Gear Solid for the next 15 minutes.” More than any other genre, battle royale cares about the experiences that arise from playing the game. Oath is much the same. Wehrle’s high concept isn’t so much about the conflicts between empires or the conflicts inside of them, but instead the way we remember empires and the creation of those memories. And the game remembers in its own way, too.
“Remember: How a player wins is more important than who wins.”
Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile is currently making its way to Kickstarter backers. Pre-orders are open at the Leder Games website, with a wider release set for August.