Home Interviews Jamie Jolly—designer of Oathsworn—Interview

Jamie Jolly—designer of Oathsworn—Interview


JamieI had the pleasure of meeting Jamie Jolly, designer of Oathsworn, at Gen Con 2022. I wanted to back Oathsworn but did not have the finances at the time the original Kickstarter was live. I knew I wanted to try the game and there were limited pledges on sale (if you were lucky enough to even get one). After participating in a great demo run by Jamie, I was convinced I wanted the game and was first in line the next day to purchase a pledge. I also had time to talk to Jamie that morning. I let him know I wrote for BGQ and that I would like to interview him after the Second Edition campaign went live. There are about 24 hours left in the campaign. I highly recommend you check it out!

What influenced you to pursue game design?

I feel very fortunate. The commercial success of games really arose during my childhood which is amazing because before that time games were seen as something that kids did. The organization around board games and computer games was very weak. The technology wasn’t there and neither was the demand. I really got to benefit from growing up in an age when games were taken seriously for the first time.

I am a bit of an omni gamer. So, it was board games, computer games, D&D, and game books. I have been utterly, utterly blessed by being able to just absorb games my entire life. I am basically a vat made game designer, effectively, who just spent WAY too many hours playing games when I was younger. My entire childhood was spent with books, films and TV, and that sort of thing. It was kind of inevitable that I wound up in game design. You could see back then there was so much space for innovation. So many places design could go. These pockets have really only popped up a few times in history. Times for utter innovation within an area that no one spent any serious time looking into. It is a complete frontier kind of world and it was really exciting getting into that.


You have a degree in Games Design, correct?

Yes. It is primarily focused on computer games. I do not think there are any board game design degrees that focus primarily on board games, although Game Design degrees do use board games as a method to teach design.

The sad thing is that, although I was convinced of becoming a designer back when I was a kid and this revolutionary time was happening, by the time I got to University the world had changed so much that it was already corporate in a big, big way. One of the members from Team 17, makers of Worms, came and did a talk at our University, and at the end of the talk I remember asking him “What are the chances of getting in at a design level now at these companies?” He laughed and said “Next to none. It is like being a football player.” These things were already heavily entrenched. The designers who were successful wanted to make their own games and keep moving. The teams were small back then. The designers were also the artists. They had multiple hats. It would be difficult to find an opening if your sole focus was design. This is not true in board gaming, where you could actually design a game and make a good one.

Another influence was the charity work I did after University. I used to run educational games I designed. I was one of the only people in my class actually designing. I even ended up running a circus in a van for fundraising. I would bring all of these crazy things like games we designed, sumo suits, bouncy castles, face paints, and juggling. I remember at that time feeling that you would get 300 to 400 people in a field but that the amount of effort and organization and everything it took for them to have that experience for a couple of hours was huge. I had this thing in the back of my mind say what if you could put fun in a box and give it to 10,000 people, make something once that could keep being enjoyed. The question then was could I put fun in a box that people would actually play and enjoy?

What was your first board game design?

Farsight. It was a successful Kickstarter, but I wasn’t involved in the campaign. I was just the designer. That was really exciting but also learned a lot of lessons. Up until that point I was under the impression that everyone is like me. I am an omni gamer. That is not the case with most gamers. There are pockets of people. Farsight was aimed at strategic war gamers who read Sun Tzu’s Art of War. That is not where most of the board game industry is at. It was not for mass appeal. But through this process, I met Toby, who was my sculptor of the mechs for Farsight. He was also very passionate about making board games. We were discussing what we could do and wanted to build our own worlds.

Around this time Gloomhaven came out. It was a really exciting time. Eurogames and more complex mechanical combat systems were able to make headway in the dungeon crawl world. This really opened up the market. This, as well as Kingdom Death, proved that grandioseness and the level of maturity were marketable. It felt like the time was right to generate a world within the board game that people could care about.

What came first – Shadowborne Games or Oathsworn?

Toby already had a passion for making games. He had already prepped Shadowborne Games and was planning to fill it with an idea in the future. As soon as we decided we could make Oathsworn, he was like “Well, I have a company ready. Should we do this?”


Can you explain the origin of Oathsworn?

We were talking about H.P. Lovecraft and how the greatest of all fears is the fear of the unknown. There are different types of horror. Cosmic horror. Body horror. These sort of things. Then this idea hit me. Nature horror and the idea of what you find under a log. That visceral feeling of moving a log and not wanting to touch whatever you see there. What’s valuable in good stories is a grounding in our own personal experience. There has to be a connection to what we experience in life. I think everyone has felt that feeling about how horrible it is to look under a log and then build a world based on that very feeling. That is where the Deepwood came from. That was the hook. From that everything else rolled out naturally. The idea of standing against the Deepwood, the Free Companies and the nature of the beasts and the monsters and humanity surviving. The idea of building a world based on nature horror but with a kernel of hope and acceptable levels of darkness.

We then asked ourselves the question—what is the biggest, most awesome scoped game we can possibly make? What if we make every chapter unique, with a unique boss, with unique art? What if every Chapter had 20-30 items with unique items you could get from that combat? What if you made an app to go with it? What if the entire thing is read to you by a celebrity? What happens if you go to the ultimate end that a product could be? HIPS models, swappable weapons, and oversized monsters that are all hidden in mystery boxes so it is all a mystery to you. We even got to the point where if we made the game any heavier, it would not have been legal for one human being to move the box for delivery. Oathsworn would have been dangerous for people’s health had we made it any bigger.

But I think it ended up bearing out in the experience people had which explains the high rating Oathsworn has on BGG (it’s a 9.3). “Why do you have such a high rating?” I think I’d put it down to my passion for the game. 5 years is a long time to develop a game and we spent an unbelievably large amount of money and effort in making this crazy thing. This could not even get past the idea stage in retail. It is a silly game to make from a value proposition for a company. I’m feeling really blessed that it is here in the world now, as at no point was that a certainty.

Oathsworn Cards

What is the one design/game mechanism in Oathsworn that you are most proud of?

All of my kids are hidden in the game. My first born was one when we started development, we had another one mid-development and our newest one, who is one and a bit, he was at the very tail end of development. We had Jonas as a name for our 2nd boy and happily, without planning it, it turned out that we already had a character with his name in the game. I think at some subconscious level my brain had picked the name for our son because it was already in the game!

From a design perspective, the Battleflow system was really fun, but was also a late-game development. It started off that we had a different mechanism using a more traditional time system and we had items and abilities that allowed you to move things around. It was pseudo-Battleflow. This was all done as effects on cards that would speed up rather than the fact that when you play the card it pushes them around.

The combat system was also an ‘aha’ moment.

There is a key design concept which is increasing player agency generally improves games. Anywhere there is no choice, if you add choice, it should improve a player’s experience. It’s a really simple rule. With the dice and cards combat system, for example, choosing how hard you swing a weapon. Why have we not done that? It was one of those nice simple moments, to let the player choose how many dice they roll rather than telling them how many dice to roll.

On the cover of Oathsworn, it says it is a Twisting Tales Game. What is a Twisting Tales Game?

The idea is that a Twisting Tales game is a game book in board game form. The idea of having maps that allow you to pick from a vast array of locations regardless of where you are in the story and the story does not need to track. When you choose the location, you then move that location to the time track, which lets you track time. Board games have an advantage over game books because we are using the map and the time track. Also, Twisting Tales story branches and changes based on your choices.

Oathsworn Art

Let’s discuss the new Oathsworn campaign. It is a Second Edition reprint and its funding has already surpassed your original campaign. Do you ever sit back and just watch the amount pledged go up?

Kickstarter is very strange because it feels like it is a constant number of increases. The reality is that you have dozens of people canceling every day. The idea is that in aggregate, over time, you are going up. But if you are actually watching it every moment, you will just see that five minutes ago three pledges were canceled and you ask yourself “what just happened there? Did I do something wrong?” What is interesting is that often happens around updates. If you put an update out and you get a lot of people canceling, you are like “What did I just write? What did I just do?” It’s actually just because an update going out is often an email reminder to everybody. What people do is use that as a reminder “Oh, I was going to cancel and forgot” and then they go and cancel. In reality, it had nothing to do with the content of your update… I hope.

I think you have the most community driven contests ever included in a Kickstarter campaign.

The community is amazing and creative. That is one of the reasons we do a lot of contests during our campaigns. We have art contests, story contests, we’ve got monster design contests. All these fun things let people have a chance to do creative stuff. You get some amazing things like last time we did a campaign, we had knitted characters that someone made. We have had people make big swords with the Oath written on it. All kinds of amazing stuff. It’s really cool seeing what the community comes up with.

Rapid Fire
Favorite movie – Lord of the Rings, V for Vendetta, 300, and Jurassic Park. I am an omni film guy as well.
Favorite board gameFive Tribes
Least favorite board game genre – Dungeon Crawlers limited to move, pick up a die and drop it—I need something meatier
Favorite board game designer – Bruno Cathala
Favorite Video Game – Diablo II and World of Warcraft
Favorite Doctor (Who) – David Tennant
Favorite series – Frasier
Favorite board game genre – Area control

Oathsworn Gamepaly

Can you give a sneak peek into the next game you will be working on?

Honestly, there’s been no time for the next game since every hour God sends has been spent on Oathsworn for the last 5 years. However, there are plans emerging from the mists. That’s all I can say.

What genre would you like to design next?

After 500,000 words of Oathsworn, a nice 18-card microgame is pretty tempting. That said there is so much ground to explore in the Deepwood and beyond that who knows.

Will you use crowdfunding for your next game?

Certainly, I think it’s an amazing place to bring like-minded people together for a time and build a community that runs post-launch of the game. Premanufacturing funding is also vital for these types of big games but that opportunity to build a community around a game during a campaign is just as valuable.

What do you see Shadowborne Games accomplishing over the next 5 years?

We’re hoping to reach the moon by 2025, Mars a few years after that. Oh and humanoid robots next year.

The Kickstarter for Oathsworn 2nd Edition wraps up tomorrow, so head over to their campaign page to become a backer, or to find out more information.

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