Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile Board Game Review


Oath board game box cover

Year Published: 2021

Players: 1-6

Playing Time: 45-150 Minutes

Hoo boy. I almost don’t want to write this review.

See, many of Cole Wehrle’s games intrigue me. I also greatly enjoy various Pax games, which directly inform at least a few of Oath’s subsystems.

And I also like Cole’s approach to game design. There are larger historical or societal statements in his works, and clearly there’s a thought process that goes well beyond “will it sell?” This is what we need more of in board gaming.

But I really don’t like Oath. Like, really. And even among gamers whose tastes seem to match my own, all I’ve seen so far is praise for it. So on the off chance that this prevents someone from stumbling into the game who it might not be for, I’m writing this.

The game clearly has an audience, though, and far be it from me to question that fun. If you love Oath, I wish you years of happiness with it. Consider this the minority report, though, and a hedge against the praise, since there are gamers like myself who won’t enjoy the game.

Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile is a sprawling area control game that plays a bit like a wargame. There’s card management, tableau building, action points, dice rolling, negotiation, storytelling and others. It’s a lot blended together, simply put.

The Opening

You’ll start your first session with a scripted opening. No, not just the setup. The game will walk you through a full round of play.

I want to be clear, with only 4 players (the game holds 6), this round took us something like 35 minutes in our first play due to all the sub-steps and descriptive text. So after prepping like a good heavy gamer and watching a bunch of tutorials so that I was ready to jump in right away, I watched the game play itself for far too long.

Ok, whatever. That part’s over at least, right? Sure, but maybe not if you reteach it to another group. The tutorial round will also sidle you with a specific strategy that may make sense, but it isn’t yours. This isn’t a short game (ignore the ludicrous play length on the box if you’re playing with 3-6 players), so my first hour or so of play was just reacting to the strategy I’d been given, not any approach I’d selected of my own accord. I ended up winning that first game, but it didn’t fully feel like it was earned.

Games are about player agency. Please, let me play and screw up horribly. At least it’s my own screw-up. Instead, we got something that didn’t trust players enough to learn and play on their own to start. Not good.

But ok, this is a game that gets better as you mature in its system, and that’s the last time it holds your hand like that. I’m not going to judge it solely on this. But it was a bad first impression.

The Middle Game

Oath is a big ol’ sandbox, and you can see some remnants of DNA inherited from various Pax games. Multiple physical areas and actions relating to variable win conditions…it’s good stuff. Lots of interesting choices. The freedom in the system is laudable, and here it’s sort of the opposite of the claustrophobic opening round, since you’re exploring and fighting without guard rails on outcomes.

Conceptually, this is great. It’s what I love about a lot of Pax games, and various other troops on a map games that share occasional qualities with Oath.

However, one thing mars all of this freedom considerably, and it’s the pace. The game seems to go out of its way to make the experience seem like a laborious crawl.

I once had a turn that lasted about 30 seconds. I then waited for 30 minutes before my next action.

Was that an outlier? Sure. Though maybe it isn’t, actually. It was only with 4P, and no one was deliberately paralyzed on choices. It was just a long, complicated round with a ton going on. I shudder to think what the downtime could reach at 5-6P. Your average downtime will be shorter than this, of course, but it’s never brief.

I’m also far from the only person to make this observation. Even some positive comments I’ve seen acknowledge the copious downtime, but apparently give it a pass?

Regardless, the very fact that that’s possible is an early warning sign. And even at a more reasonable play tempo, the downtime is both considerable and ponderous. Scheming and table talk can only mitigate some of this; you’ll simply be sitting idly for stretches regardless of your level of engagement.

Compounding this is the fact that the board state can (and usually will) change dramatically during each player’s action sequence. So you can’t plan your actions with anything resembling certainty. Rather, you have to sit and wait, hoping that the player before you doesn’t rearrange your mental map of your upcoming turn and put you back at square one strategically.

Fans of the game will talk about having to balance this by watching others’ plans and anticipating them. But in a game this complex, few will ever get to this point. I love a lot of games where you’re weaving long-term strategy into round-to-round tactical decisions. That exists here at times. But when the sheer volume of possibility before you can slow the game to a crawl, being able to think ahead is necessary to avoid feeling like a slog. In practice, it means you often won’t really know what you can – or should – do until it’s your turn.

So the sandbox structure and complexities of the game hurt themselves in this regard, because you don’t need to be a slow player to have a long turn. Sometimes, the intricacies of the variables and options presented to you will simply take a while to suss out. These are heady moments of possibility, but generally only for the active player. So the moments of excitement are punctuated blips in an overall experience that can flatly be boring due to the occasionally glacial pace.

Convolution, Thy Name is Combat

There are…a lot of sub-steps in combat (or Campaigns, as the game calls them). Or rather, there are lots of potential modifiers both before and after the actual dice rolls. I enjoy combat and conflict in my games, including many in the intersection between Euro games and dice-chucker Ameritrash games. So I had high hopes for this phase of the game.

What I found, though, was another laboriously procedural process. If there were a single process to calculate combat scores, I’d be fine with some complexity. But there were conflicts where the dice seemed almost an afterthought, stuck in between interwoven modifiers that were scattered in half a dozen places around the board, and the backend upkeep with relic modifiers and deployment decisions. Not to mention if alliance aid (and accompanying upkeep decisions afterward) are present.

If I compare this to two hybrid “troops on a map” games that I love—Kemet and Inis—Oath lacks all of the visceral punch of those two, and rather than a compelling central combat system, you’ll be grafting sub-rules onto the combat randomly based on what areas you control and what cards are in play. Hilariously, those two don’t have dice rolls, but they capture the nervous feeling of dice rolling better.

I also mention those two games because they share the “hold a victory condition for {X} amount of time to win” trait, so the rationale behind some conflicts is identical. Oath is arguably trying to be more than both of those games, but sacrifices any visceral drama for more rote bean-counting, especially by game’s end when there will be the most number of cards in play and actions have to have scalpel-like precision to function as intended to gain or deny a victory. The closest comparison might actually be Twilight Imperium (TI) and its mountains of modifying technologies. I occasionally feel similarly weighted down by TI’s rules density, and frequently miss something by accident in both TI and Oath, but the action also feels more immediate in TI than it ever does in Oath.

In the game’s defense, everything is at least broadly thematic. Nothing feels completely arbitrary. It just matches everything else in the game: complicated, slow, and sapping any momentum that’s generated during the more exciting or interesting moments. Having played my share of both combat games and heavy games, Oath is among the most convoluted conflict systems I’ve ever seen. Rules crunch isn’t always equal to depth or excitement, so while it’s possible I’m simply missing the depths in ways that others won’t, to me it just feels like the excitement is buried beneath those layers.

Win Conditions and Kingmaking

This game has kingmaking and bash the leader mechanics built into it. Heck, the Oathkeeper gets a bonus defense die in anticipation of taking more heat than usual. I actually like these things (this is the one semi-frequent criticism of Oath I won’t be echoing), but many gamers don’t. Adjust your interest accordingly.

Both are present in copious amounts, though. Functionally, some situations will force you into the role, regardless of what you do (or don’t do). I enjoy how this creates temporary alliances and table talk. Many times, this was the only aspect of the game that kept me tethered to the action during the downtime between my turns.

The variable win conditions will seem a bit opaque at first, but they’re actually one of the game’s most interesting features. When you decide to go for victory, how you ally yourself with others, and which type of victory you angle for can all influence your overarching strategy. As a result, no one is playing precisely the same game. It’s both reminiscent of Pax games and, in some ways, more nuanced than many of them. If I thought Oath was as tightly designed overall as many of those Pax games, I might even say it iterates on the idea of variable win conditions in exciting new ways. Alas, this ingenuity is mired in a system that drags down the whole.

There’s a potential issue even here, though, and that is that by mid-game, you’ll have to make sure you know who’s about to win, and oftentimes will have to simply devote your entire turn to stopping them. It creates a weird time loop, wherein you and others are often just gaining then blocking win conditions. Maybe you’ll eventually have a full round to pursue your own ends instead of simply preventing another’s win. But when you inevitably have to devote a whole turn to this, have fun waiting another ~15-20 minutes between actions that feel like you once again have freedom of choice instead of “you have to do {X} or the game will end.”

That criticism doesn’t always hold, granted. The multiple paths to victory at least occasionally allow for more oblique strategies that don’t hand the win to someone else, but rather allow for clever positioning amidst the chaos. It’s just that other times your turn will feel much more rote.

But let it not be said that there isn’t some brilliance in this game. There is, which makes it all the more tragic for me.

The Dice Roll

I also need to mention the dice roll(s) that can mean insta-victory for the Chancellor (or, at times, Successor). I assume the design rationale involves the capricious whims of Fate in large-scale power struggles, and the supposed legacy-esque nature of the game turns this into a narrative talking point.

I have to assume that to rationalize it to myself. Because as a game-to-game victory mechanic, it’s baffling and inexplicable to me.

On the surface, it’s just a single die roll to maybe win randomly. In a game of this much narrative heft, the absurdity of this moment is striking. Literally, all that stuff you just did for the last two hours? Cool, that’s great and all. Forget it for a second, though. Hey Tim, roll this d6. Oh, you got a 6? Awesome, you win.


I’m not sure I can explain the blinking double-take my mind does contemplating why this exists, and why whatever it balances in the gameplay couldn’t be implemented in a way that matches tonally with the rest of the game. Someone’s going to be happy to explain it to me in some future forum discussion, I’m sure, but that understanding alone doesn’t mean it’s a good design decision. And like, I enjoy semi-arbitrary caprice in many of my games. But the context and execution matter, and this just seems to undermine the colossal investment asked of players in every other phase of the game.


I don’t want to leave out the setup for the next game. You’re not just tearing things down and packing up; there’s a large, hyper-specific checklist needed to prep for the next game. If you like reading through extensive procedural checklists, buckle your seatbelt I guess. In any case, plot out another 10-25 minutes for this portion, before the formal teardown and packing up.

The first session will again be the worst offender, but it’s another momentum-killing step in an experience that can already be mind-numbing. I don’t care that it’s a complicated game; if I’m sitting at a table for 2-4 hours, I should feel like I actually participated in more than about 30 minutes worth of gaming. I’m also someone who’s more willing than many to invest in the meta-game of table talk, unofficial alliances, and light roleplaying. And even I’m just sitting there for large swaths of time.

And yes, the post-game setup sets up the pseudo-legacy elements that ostensibly add intrigue down the line. If you enjoyed the experience to this point, I can see how this could heighten the tension of subsequent sessions. But I was just exhausted by this point in every session, so it was an additional bit of bookkeeping that I think the game could easily do without. Curating an experience is great; but many of the steps to set up for the next game feel like they could have been approximated with some more generic shuffling in of new card types and rearrangement of the Citizenry. I guess I’ll have to trust the designer on that level of granularity, but for my group the payoff was never truly there in future sessions in ways that justified the pedantry in post-session teardown.

Wrapping Up

While I mentally prepare to field responses to this review when I cross-post it to Board Game Geek, let’s do a roundup of things I missed:

  • I came down hard on the opening session in this review, and the game does become more streamlined with subsequent plays with the same group. Just not enough that I think it invalidates my criticism.
  • I’d say you should only consider this if you can keep the same group together for multiple sessions. We lost one in our group after two plays (he had much the same reaction I did, and less of a stomach for revisiting it), and recovering with a newcomer made us relive a lot of the sting of that excruciating first session.
  • I think some of what we see in this review is me finding my limit for rules overhead. I can handle and enjoy complicated games, but there’s a line somewhere, past which it feels like complexity for complexity’s sake. This is subjective, though, and Oath’s fans likely just have a higher tolerance for this crunch. If you liked the games I name-dropped in this review, and others like them, maybe you’ll be fine in Oath’s environment.
  • We need more open sandbox games in this ilk. Just, ideally (for me at least, and I hope others), with less downtime and more emergent complexity rather than complexity that’s baked into the system from the onset.

So hey, Cole, if you’re reading this (who knows; he may stumble across this link someday), keep doing what you’re doing! I didn’t want to mince words here since I value authenticity in the reviews I read and want to mirror that in those I write, but I really do enjoy your work. Oath didn’t land for me. But that’s ok. It’s found its audience, and that’s great. I’m just a hard pass on it, and I suspect some others will be as well.

So how to sum up? I’m pretty sure I went harder on this game than usual because there are some legitimately good ideas in it, which compounds my frustration with it as a whole. I hope, for example, that others steal the Chronicle concepts here and insert them into more streamlined games. I hope more designers experiment with variable and asymmetrical win conditions. So it’s the Uncanny Valley version of something that, based on the elevator pitch, sounds like it should be a great game for me. The fact that it falls so flat for me is a profound disappointment.

There’s a concept in basketball called a “heat check” shot. It’s when a player is on a hot streak and takes a ridiculous, high-difficulty shot to see if they’re really just untouchably accurate on that particular night. This feels like a heat check game from Wehrle. He quickly became a star designer in recent years and produced a string of ambitious, well-regarded hits. And Oath is his heat check shot, because it’s a hugely ambitious undertaking. And I think we need ambition that pushes games into new and interesting territory. Unfortunately though, for me, this particular shot clanked off the rim and fell unceremoniously to the ground. I will still follow Wehrle’s efforts with interest, but I am happy to leave this particular one behind.

For more content, or just to chat, find me on Twitter @BTDungeons, or check out my other reviews and game musings!