Oathsworn – Into the Deepwood is currently a Kickstarter exclusive board game produced by Shadowborne Games. It is also their first game, and it collected so much praise and calls for a second print, that the company decided to return back to Kickstarter and produce it again.
You can follow their second print Kickstarter at this link. Since it is getting printed again, we decided to make our Oathsworn Review ready so you can decide if it is a game for you.
Oathsworn introduces 100+mm tall boss miniatures that you need to fight in an intriguing showdown. But you don’t know which monsters or enemies you are going to fight because everything is closed under sealed envelopes (for the standees version) or mystery boxes (for the miniatures).
It is currently rated 9.3 on Boardgamegeek which may be the highest-rated game with more than a thousand reviews on that website, but is it the game for you? Let’s find out.
What is Oathsworn – Into the Deepwood?
Straight from the creator’s mouth, Oathsworn – Into the Deepwood is a 1 to 4 players Solo/Co-op dark fantasy dungeon crawler game with multi-path interactive legacy story and multi-phase 100mm miniature boss fights.
Does it sound like a mouthful? Well, it is. In summary, Oathsworn is a game solo-friendly that can be played with any group of friends, even if they are not committed to the entire campaign thanks to their swap-in system that allows to create new characters at the right level ready to get into the fray after a brief session of rules explanation.
The setting is in a world where darkness triumphed in the form of the Deepwood: an intricate and vicious wood that surrounds all remaining cities suffocating them. The Deepwood is extremely dangerous and full of all sorts of creatures and things ready to kill anyone passing by. The few surviving cities are protected by tall and solid walls that are the only thing keeping the horrors in the woods from taking over. Your role is that of a band of mercenaries, called the Oathsworn, completing missions for these cities to ensure their survival.
The game is split into two different phases that can be played in a single game session, or split into two different evenings or sessions. The first phase is called Story and is a multi-path choose-your-adventure type of game, with a story unfolding in front of your eyes, and where your decision will affect your choices available at later stages (the legacy aspect of it). You can play this part both with the journal provided in the game, reading at your own leisure and flicking pages back and forth, or use the conveniently created app that takes care of the story and the passing of time for you.
The Encounter instead is where things get bloody. That’s where you can finally open one of the mysterious chests (or the envelopes if you opt for the standee version of the game instead) and set these giant miniatures on the table. There’s no dilly-dallying, you get straight into the boss fight that may or may not be accompanied by minions. Each fight has different stages, where the enemies get more aggressive and use different tactics, the more damage they receive.
The game itself was conceived with the use of a deck of cards, called Might Cards, which would eventually be supported by dice, so that a single deck represents 3 dice of the same colour. The cards (or dice) are of growing colour with white representing the basics and black the more powerful.
These represent how much damage the attack performed but, in an interesting twist, defence is not subtracted from the damage but divided, so that to remove 2 wounds from someone with defence 3 you need to do at least 6 damage, and so on. While they suggest using the Might Deck for enemy attacks, as it provides a minimum of predictability, you can use either depending on your preferences.
To perform attacks, you need to select a card from your deck (you always have 7 cards even when you upgrade you swap one card for another), and then the card will be placed in a discard position depending on its cooldown value. If there are other cards already in the same slot, you shift those to the next slot before placing the newly discarded card.
This concept is called battleflow and is basically a way to control the cooldown, making you need to plan carefully. For example, the maximum value is 3, if you want to get that card back in your hand, you need to play another cooldown 3, that shifts your original card in position 2, then a cooldown 2 card, and so on. You also battleflow when you use your cards defensively to improve your defence, and as that happens before your new turn, you could get back your most powerful cards within a turn given enough resources and planning.
The game is meant to be played as part of a campaign, 21 missions long. However, it is possible to skip to a specific encounter and play it with the “Instant Action Mode” which allows you to get straight to the point after a brief introduction.
One final comment, and the reason we will not talk about the story, is that the game is meant to be enjoyed by discovering everything one step at a time. So all miniatures or standees are hidden in their envelopes or boxes and are mostly relevant only for a single mission. The maps of the cities and places you are going to visit are also hidden at the beginning. The only thing you know is who your character is (from a choice of 12), starting equipment and that’s it…
But how does Oathsworn play? Let’s have a high-level look at the different phases and set-up.
Starting to play Oathsworn – The Story phase
The first thing you need to do when starting a campaign of Oathsworn, is to choose your Free Company, a group of 4 mercenaries that will be playing through the different chapters. You can swap them at any time, the only things you lose out are traits and items an Oathsworn may get while playing the entire campaign.
There are 12 different options, although they recommend to not use the Grove Maiden until you encounter her in the campaign. They are ordered by difficulty, so starting with the easiest one is definitely recommended. The easier ones are your classic ranged, tank, damage dealer, healer stereotypes, and then they get more and more complex.
Note that you always need to choose 4 characters, independently from the number of players. But you have the choice between setting them up as full characters or as companions that have a much simpler management without the cards to battleflow. Also note that allies behave as companions, so you need to familiarize yourself with their rules eventually.
There are different difficulty levels, they mostly affect your defence or maximum hit points.
Oathsworn have to be set up with all their cards and tokens (depending if they are full or companions this list will be bigger or smaller), items (that affect their starting attack and defence value) and of course model.
One important aspect of the game is that it comes with card organisers that are extremely useful when playing the game. While it has enough space to sleeve the cards, most cards are used only for a chapter so we thought protecting all of them was a mostly useless task. We recommend using sleeves mainly for the character cards, the ones you are going to handle the most. The card organisers rapidly separate cards by type and chapter they come from. Also, most cards return back to their chapter space once you conclude that scenario.
Stories are played on a map or similar devices. There may be different places to explore and more rules explained once the story progresses, but to start with you will be in the city of Bastone. The map is a highly detailed paper sheet with white circles representing various places of interest.
You can play the story either using the log book or the app: we found the app is more useful rather than flipping pages back and forth, but the acting voice is a single one, meaning there is not much variety when different characters speak. Whichever you choose, they will inform in which location you start and which options are available to you.
You will not be able to go everywhere all the time, and a time track forces you to make decisions as resolving the encounter faster has incentives such as more items, while running out of time has consequences in the Encounter phase.
The Story has the following scopes:
- To narrate the events and progress the campaign.
- To prepare your team by collecting tokens that you will be able to use in the Encounter phase.
- To decide if the Encounter phase will start with you having the upper hand or being ambushed.
Set up of Oathsworn – Encounter phase
And once you are instructed by the Story, you are ready to start the Encounter. Please note that the game has a full system in place to stop here, save everything via the zip-lock bags provided and return back to the Encounter phase another night.
We found that a Story takes around an hour, but since most of the set-up is shared with the Encounter phase, playing both together in the same session is more convenient.
Before you start the Encounter you have the chance to modify your deck. There are some restrictions based on the battleflow value and level value of the cards, but as long as you use any card equal or lower your level and you have 1 cooldown 0 card, 2 cooldown 1, 2 cooldown 2 and 2 cooldown 3 cards you are good. If you succeeded in discovering what you are going to fight during the Story phase, then you have a chance to prepare your deck based on that information. Otherwise you go blindly. And the monster starts first (you have been ambushed).
The set up of the Encounter is probably the longest set up required in this game as you need to find all relevant miniatures (or standees) and place them together with the terrain tiles (or 3D printed if you have bought the optional add-on) by following the instructions in the Encounter Book.
You will also need to retrieve the boss cards (they are divided in 3 phases that need to be shuffled separately), but you should have already prepared from the Story phase the Oathsworns, cards, token and dices.
Once it’s all ready you cycle through 4 different phases:
- Refresh phase: this allows you to get back all cards in cooldown position 0 and regenerate Animus, that is your currency to use abilities.
- Oathsworn phase: this is the main phase where you can move and play cards. You can play only one card per turn, and you play turns in rotation until all Oathsworn pass.
- Encounter phase: this is when the enemies act.
- End of round phase: sometimes some effects are resolved in this phase.
During the Oathsworn phase, each character performs a turn in which he can move and/or use an ability on a card. Abilities usually cost a quantity of animus, that is your currency to perform any action, including moving. There is then a subtle balance between how many abilities you can perform in a single round and how much energy you want to spare for the next round.
Some cards can be played as interrupt in the enemy’s turn and of course many of your cards have a defence value that you can use for no cost when attacked. We are going into more details about how combat works in the next section, but suffice to say every single action performed needs to be strategically studied.
You know in advance what the enemy is going to do and when, so this allows some preparation and of course, is highly recommended to save some cards to use in defence if you are the intended target.
The enemy does not have a single pool of health, but rather some of his body parts have a single die (6 wounds) and you can damage only the body parts in range with your weapons, unless you have already “broke” that location. Breaking a location means removing a die from that location and that immediately triggers a reaction from the enemy.
Enemy AI is controlled by a deck of card drawn randomly. You start from Stage 1, then, depending on the instructions on the boss card, you progress on the next Stage cards when you break enough locations. If a reaction is triggered during a change of stage, you resolve the new stage card instead.
Once you removed all dice locations, the boss is dead! Breaking a location is also useful as if a particular attack uses one of the broken locations, it will use one less dice/card to attack you.
But how does the attack work?
How combat works in Oathsworn – Encounter phase
Oathsworn attacks start by choosing a card that allows to perform an attack action. You need to verify you have a valid target in range and then you can perform the action.
As mentioned before, you can choose either to roll the dice or to draw the relevant Might Cards. They both come in 4 colours, each more offensive than the next, from the basic white, to the top black. When you perform an attack, you first start with the values linked to your equipped weapon(s), then you can add up to 10 white dice to it. The more dice you roll, the higher will be the damage. But if you roll 2 or more blanks, the entire attack misses. White dice have higher chances to miss than the others.
Certain abilities and tokens allow you to “upgrade” your dice, the most common is the Empower x 3 token that allows you to move the dice colour up one level for each empowerment. For example you could replace 3 white dice with 3 yellow, or a single white dice with a black (white -> yellow -> red -> black).
Once you have determined how many and which colour of dice to roll (or cards to draw), it’s time to chance the fate. Remember, 2 misses and the entire attack fails. However, when you see the result, you can still use tokens and abilities to re-roll any dice. If the attack is not a miss and you have any critical hit, you can keep rolling dice of the same colour but misses don’t count in this case.
Certain abilities allow you to add extra damage to the result if certain conditions are met.
Once you have a final value, it’s time to compare with the enemy defence. Instead of subtracting, you divide your result by the defence value. So to inflict 2 wounds to someone with a defence value of 3, you need 6, 7 or 8 damage. It may seem a bit complicated at the beginning, but 6 is the maximum value a single boss location (or character) can have.
When the enemies attack you, the process is the same, only they will have a specific might value (the stage card may alter it and broken locations draw one less value) and they ignore both critical and misses unless otherwise specified. The game recommends to use the cards rather than the dice for the enemies, but the concept is the same.
Before knowing the result of the draw, Oathsworns have a chance to play a defence card to increase their defence, plus they have tokens that can temporarily increase it as well. Then you divide as usual the damage by the defence to know how many wounds you are going to lose. Note that each character has only 6 wounds, and recovering them is not easy. Few characters are able to restore a couple of wounds here and there, but in general, losing them is bad. Once an Oathsworn runs out of health, he becomes unconscious and there are some malus he’ll go through in the next fight. But he can be immediately replaced by an ally (behaves like a companion). Once these are out of health, they are dead and removed from the game permanently (only the man-at-arms are restored).
You lose the Encounter if you run out of characters to field and the boss is still alive. You win if you kill the boss. The boss may be accompanied by minions, these have a fixed behaviour and always target the nearest character. They will also tend to swarm the same target whenever possible. They act only in the Encounter phase and not when the boss reacts after a location is broken.
The dice/card system is the same when you need to do Checks, only you have to beat a specific value (the difficulty of the check) and you start always from white dice ignoring your weapon might, unless you have abilities or items that tell you otherwise. You can still use the tokens as usual to empower or re-roll. Winning or losing the check still progresses the story and the consequences are usually not dire.
Campaign in Oathsworn
The intended way to enjoy Oathsworn is through the campaign system. You’ll alternate story and encounter while progressing the narrative and discovering this weird and dangerous world.
You can save the tokens, cards and anything related to your character via the conveniently placed zip-lock bags, one for each class. Even your free company will have its own bag to store your backpack, allies and events (random cards you are instructed to draw from time to time).
Anything else can be recorded in the specific sheets, including the upgrades you obtain along the game.
You could replay a scenario or skip to any one through the Instant Action mode, but this heavily disrupts the narrative. However, you can decide to not play the Story at all and just go from an Encounter to another while following the same progression chapter by chapter.
If you lose a chapter, you can still progress to the next one after noting down all your losses, or replaying it from the beginning following the instructions for a lost encounter.
Final thoughts on Oathsworn
By now you should have a decent idea if this game is for you or not, so let’s analyse the good and the bad.
First of all, this is a campaign game based on mystery. You don’t know what awaits you behind the corner, which cities or part of the woods you will explore next and which enemies you will face. If mystery is not something that entices you, then this game will lose much of its appeal to you.
Furthermore, if you need to have all miniatures painted BEFORE starting to play, you will greatly spoil yourself by looking at them before you are supposed to unlock that box. In that case we strongly recommend the standee version, so that they are already painted although in 2D format. This is actually a good way to save some bucks as well. And space. The game is huge: there are 2 mystery chests, both of the same size as the core game, plus the armoury and terrain optional add-ons making for a huge quantity of plastic and obviously storage space.
The main characters can be assembled using the push-to-fit technology that allows also to swap weapons when you find new ones in the game. While this seems a great idea in principle, it is not that straightforward to implement. Miniatures have to be pushed hard to be kept in place with the risk to break some smaller components: swapping weapons is more of an hindrance and if you want to paint them, the continuous swap can damage your paint job.
You could alleviate this by gluing the main miniature leaving enough gap for the holes that are used to swap weapons, and/or choose in advance which weapons you like the most and glue those instead. If you don’t have the optional armoury, then just glue the entire miniature. If you are an expert in working with miniatures, and you want to use the armoury at its best, then this is an excellent job for magnetisation. Most sockets are actually quite good for small magnets and if you have some practice is not that difficult.
The miniatures are nicely detailed, not the best on the market, but still look good on the table.
The next topic is also contentious, should you use cards or dice? I personally think the use of cards increases the level of difficulty of the game: they compare to 3 dice, so if you are using them, and you are good at counting cards, you can predict how many cards are left (i.e. how many misses versus critical), however if you are rolling 4 or more dice, you have more chances to miss and critical than drawing 4 cards. Not using cards means some abilities that allow re-shuffling those decks would be useless.
The battleflow mechanic is another interesting topic. It takes time to understand how to use it at its best, but once clear, the flow of actions will be pretty consistent. However, having cooldown actions that do not return back to your hand after a determined period can be frustrating. You could play a cooldown 1 card and not get it for a couple of turns, or play a cooldown 3 card and never use it again in the same encounter.
You’ll never end up without cards, you can always play at least the one with cooldown 0, but you should keep some in defence to ensure you survive the next attack. This can limit what you can do in a turn.
You can almost always predict what an enemy is going to do as you are allowed to show the next stage card. The main exception is when breaking a location triggers a stage change, then the following reaction would be from a previously covered deck. But apart from that, you almost always know who is going to be attacked and when, enabling you to plan which cards to use or keep accordingly.
In addition to that, you can quite easily attack the enemy in your turn lowering all its dice value to 1, so that when you are ready for its reaction, you can attack with the one with the highest defence and finish the fight quite quickly by destroying locations one after the other with smaller attacks.
Finally, a comment on the “create-your-own-adventure” format: while on one side is a great way to introduce the narrative, every path leads to the same outcome. Succeeding in a story event mainly means obtaining more tokens and avoiding being ambushed. Depending on the scenario and your party composition, being ambushed may not be that bad. On one side, you are unable to plan which cards to take, but usually you’ll get affectionate to some and will not change depending on the threat faced. On the other, if you are melee-focussed, some enemies start too far from you and having them getting near you is the best way to avoid spending animus to move.
Therefore stories may feel without short-term consequences (we have not finished the entire campaign so we cannot comment on long-term). You could obtain the same effect by using the Instant Action mode if you are not interested in the story.
Another interesting aspect of the Story phase, is the ability to use the free companion app that narrates the events for you and helps in keeping track of time and the various choices you made. While the voice could be improved by adding other actors and sound effects, overall is a pleasant experience. For anyone interested in doing their own reading, the only downside is the continuous search of the right section to read next as they are all not on the same page to avoid spoilers.
This game is absolutely solo-friendly as it allows you to control only 1 or 2 characters, leaving the rest of the companions to the AI. You could also play with 4 people, but then the sessions would be definitely longer including the time required to take a decision during the story phase. 2 people is probably the sweet spot, in particular if you use the companions.
And here we are, at the end of the review. So is this a game for you? It will be up to you to decide, we thoroughly enjoyed it so far and we are going to continue the campaign. The standee version is probably the best option, considering both money value and space required, but this is up to personal taste.
We leave it with a summary of the pros and cons described above.
- Engaging game with new or improved mechanics
- Full of mystery that keeps you wanting more every session
- Beautiful miniatures, some super-sized
- Rich and dark world to explore
- Push your luck system allows for high risk-high reward
- Characters look and act differently giving plenty of variety
- Rules are not too complicated, yet leaves plenty to strategy
- Saving mechanism with zip-lock bags simple but efficient
- Perfect for 1-2 players, as well as 4 if you have the time
- Engaging companion app that simplifies the story part
- The full set of miniatures require a lot of storage space and is heavy to transport, not ideal to go to a friend’s house
- Push-to-fit miniatures are a bit flimsy and may require gluing
- Painter’s nightmare as you shouldn’t paint these miniatures before discovering them
- Cooldown and battleflow system may frustrate people at the first try with board games
- The story could have had different outcomes depending on the path followed
- The companion app could do with a bit more love on the narration part and extra features
Other resources and links
Here you can find the official FAQ for Oathsworn that will help you navigate the most common questions or errata.
You can see the previous Kickstarter at this link, while the new one is available at this link.