Five Things You Should Know About V:TES

cardbackVampire: The Eternal Struggle (or V:TES) is a compelling customisable card game with an interesting history that remains one of my favourite games of its type. Conceived in the 1990s during the ‘golden era’ of collectible games, V:TES has accrued and maintained a loyal fan base that has supported it all the way through to the game’s 20th anniversary last year and beyond.

1) It is Based Upon an Award-Winning RPG

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V:TES is based on the Vampire: The Masquerade role-playing game, originally first published by White Wolf in 1991. In the RPG players typically begin as newly-made vampires who must not only deal with the horrors of their new undead condition, but who must also contend with the intrigue and the politics of vampire society, which is concealed from the mortal world. Essentially, all vampires generally agree to work in the shadows and keep the knowledge of their existence a secret – a tradition commonly called ‘The Masquerade’.

A popular myth among vampires is that they are descended in a number of generations from the Biblical figure Caine, who may have been the first vampire. Hence the lower your generation, the closer you are to your origin (and the more potent your blood). Also hence the belief that all vampires are related, leading to the term ‘Kindred’. While the majority of the eldest vampires have been destroyed by the ravages of both mortal and vampire history, many fear that some survive on, slumbering in hidden crypts, and will one day rise up again to enslave or feed upon their undead descendants. A few more paranoid Kindred fear that their own actions in modern nights are supernaturally influenced by these sleeping, warring Methuselahs.

V:TES extends this premise, with each player becoming one of these Methuselahs. Each player has access to a number of cards representing his or her minions and pawns in his or her struggle against the other Methuselahs around the table. Many more cards represent locations, equipment and vampiric powers called Disciplines, all of which are tools in this great struggle. The game frames the conflict between these great vampires, and the last player standing is normally declared the winner.

Both of these Vampire games came before Buffy the Vampire the Slayer and the Twilight Saga, their creators instead citing literary references such as Bram Stoker, Anne Rice and Poppy Z. Brite. The RPG went on to become a big influence within the gaming industry, breaking the mould in the way stories were told, and the way new characters were designed to be fully grounded in the setting. It also spawned a new gaming subculture of social, live-action games using White Wolf’s Mind’s Eye Theatre rules.

2) It is the Only Multi-Player-Only Customisable Card Game

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Unlike many other games of its type, V:TES is positioned as a multi-player-only game. You can attempt to play it with 2 players 1-on-1 but it doesn’t work very well that way. The optimum number of players is actually 5, with official events and tournaments comprised of 4- and 5-player tables.

The game however is not a free-for-all. Instead each table is carefully structured so that you can only attack the player on your left – known as your ‘prey’ – and can only be attacked by the player on your right – known as your ‘predator’. The only way to advance is to kill your first prey, so that you can sit next to the following player, who becomes your new prey. And so on – ideally – until you are the last player left standing.

This dynamic means that the players across the table from you are allies, in that you share common enemies between you on each side. The game encourages table-talk, deal-making and back-stabbing. Often if one player becomes very strong, all of the other players at the table will discuss a common strategy for taking them down. No agreements made during the game are binding, and ultimately a player must fall back on the ‘play to win’ strategy of ousting his or her prey.

Although the predator-prey order is fixed, there is a ‘voting’ strategy which counters that dynamic. Each vote will have specific terms and specific targets – once the terms have been set every player will for or against using the number of titled vampire minions at their disposal. The more titles you have, the more votes you can cast, effectively locking out players with few votes from the decision-making process. Hence when building a deck you need to consider your approach to voting.

It follows that the game becomes as much about playing the cards as it is about playing the players, in many ways like a game of poker. Mind games, intimidation, bluffing and feigning positions of weakness are all viable options in the V:TES playbook. Hence the game attracts an interesting selection of fans that are arguably more social and more self-aware than the average gamer.

I’ve remained a fan of the game myself partly because of the great people I get to meet through playing national and international events. Over the last 10 years I’ve travelled to Spain, Sweden, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Germany and even the USA for the opportunity to meet and hang out with some awesome players. (We normally end up playing a number of other games too on top of V:TES.)

Other customisable games such as A Game of Thrones, Babylon 5 and Doomtown (Reloaded) have all promoted multi-player formats, but in official play these formats have always been secondary activities to the primary focus of head-to-head play. V:TES is the only customisable game ever (that I know of) to promote multi-player as the primary competitive format.

3) It is by the Guy Who Designed Magic: The Gathering

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The game mechanics of V:TES were devised by Richard Garfield, the same man behind the collectible card game and global phenomenon Magic: The Gathering. In fact, V:TES was published originally by Wizards of the Coast in 1994 as their second game after the original editions of Magic. (Of course, I should point out that the game was originally called ‘Jyhad’ but this was deemed to be politically sensitive and changed after the first printing to Vampire: The Eternal Struggle.)

There were some similarities between these two Deckmaster games, such as ‘tapping’ a card to indicate its activation, and defending a finite number of player resources (‘life’ in Magic, but ‘pool’ in V:TES). There are however many more differences – e.g. a deck in V:TES is actually split into two components called the ‘library’ and the ‘crypt’.

Contrary to Magic, in V:TES there is no mana resource and instead you must purchase cards using the same pool of counters s which you are trying to defend – resource management is hence much more important. In V:TES you may take new cards into your hand only by playing or discarding the cards you currently have, also making hand- and deck-management much more important.

To capture the flavour of the RPG on which it was based, in V:TES many library cards can only be played by vampire minions that have the required Discipline. The requirement is done by icon-matching – i.e. the symbol on the card must match a symbol on the vampire minion. Most Discipline cards also have two levels – the same icon as a square (inferior) and a diamond (superior).

The dynamic between players is also very clever, in that when a minion takes an action there is usually an opportunity for other players to block. Playing ‘stealth’ cards on your action allows you to sneak past an opponent’s block attempt, but if your opponent then plays ‘intercept’ this cancels out the stealth. Hence when building a V:TES you need to balance how effective it is at doing its thing against your ability to counter the play of the other players around you.

4) The Game Has Been Brought Back From the Dead

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Following the original success of V:TES (originally Jyhad) Wizards of the Coast produced 3 expansion sets for the game – Dark Sovreigns, Ancient Hearts and Sabbat. However in 1996 after the release of the last set they announced that they would not produce any further material for the game.

This did not deter the V:TES player community however, who had by this point grown into a fan organisation called the Vampire Elder Kindred Network (VEKN). The VEKN had volunteer ‘Princes’ in many cities in USA, Europe and the rest of the world that were organising regular friendly games and tournaments in their local areas. Championship events at national and international level were drawing hundreds of players. With a certain degree of love – and a certain degree of stubbornness – the VEKN simply carried on, ensuring that interest in the game continued to thrive.

In response to this dedicated but informal support from the community White Wolf – the publisher of the Vampire RPG – decided to acquire the rights from the game from WotC to publish the game themselves. The relaunch began in 2000 with Sabbat War (a reworking of the previous Sabbat set with some new cards and starter decks) which proved to be popular enough to secure a new lease of life for the game. White Wolf published many more sets on an approximately annual schedule all the way though their own acquisition by CCP up until the last set Heirs to the Blood released in 2010.

Currently V:TES is out of print, but the fact that the game has been here before gives the player community hope that it will be published again in time. We also take heart from the success that Fantasy Flight Games has recently had in rebooting other classic customisable card games such as A Game of Thrones and Netrunner in a fixed, non-collectible format (which they call a Living Card Game).

The tabletop gaming industry itself has changed massively in the last few years, largely due to the pioneering format of crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter. It is now theoretically possible for the player community itself to fund a new printing of VTES – the only hurdles being the licensing of the appropriate intellectual properties and artwork.

5) New Cards are Still Being Designed and Published

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It is of course difficult to maintain interest and discussion in a customisable card game when there are no new cards to play with. Acknowledging this, 3 years ago the VEKN set up a project to start producing new, fan-originated cards that would be ‘officially’ approved for competitive play.

This Design Team took up the mantle from the game’s former designer L. Scott Johnson with a mandate to further explore the game’s design space, addressing potential balance issues, presenting new strategic choices and finding ways to increase the utility of existing older cards. I was fortunate enough to be invited to be part of this team.

After a few minor setbacks we were able in 2013 to publish the first VEKN sponsored set called Danse Macabre, which focused on adding more vampires and strategic options for the Sabbat sect. This was followed by a second set in 2014 entitled The Unaligned which focused on the Independent clans of the Assamites, Gangrel, Giovanni, Ravnos and Setites. Both sets were warmly received by the player community and we are currently working on a third, Anarch-themed set which we hope to release later in 2015.

Obviously we have no license to sell any gaming materials in any commercial capacity. We have settled for the time being on a compromise where the cards are freely available for download from www.vekn.net and for tournament play they should be printed and inserted inside card sleeves.

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I should say that our new cards would not be complete without the amazing work of our volunteer artists, who have submitted a number of works for us to use entirely free of charge. The overall quality has quite frankly blown us away. We are incredibly lucky to have such support, and we are very conscious that this situation may not last. If you are an artist, or know anyone who would like to help us create new cards that will be played worldwide, then please get in touch to let me know.

Five Collectible Card Games to Re-Publish

In the 1990s following the release of Magic: The Gathering a plethora of different collectible card games (CCGs) hit the marketplace hoping to cash in on the new craze. The scene quickly become crowded with some publishers joining the ‘bandwagon’ without giving much thought to the quality of their products.

Some games were simply terrible, while others floundered because the publisher did not provide the level of support needed to find the right audience. More folded when faced with the patent challenges presented by Wizards of the Coast (the publisher of M:TG).

With hindsight, it is possible to see that the more successful CCGs were the ones which built tournament scenes and loyal player communities. It simply wasn’t enough to just sell the game – you needed to sponsor competitive play and give reasons for your customers to keep coming back for more.

It’s also now clear to see that the market did not have pockets deep enough to support the sheer number of different games in circulation. In fact, many prospective players balked at the monetary investment required to remain competitive in many CCGs.

For this reason we’re now starting to see the re-emergence of games from that era re-published and re-packaged in more modest, non-collectible formats. Fantasy Flight Games in particular has led the way, first by rebooting their own Call of Cthulhu and Game of Thrones card games, and subsequently by re-issuing the classic game Netrunner (originally published by Wizards of the Coast, their third original game after M:TG).

This gives hope to fans of other CCGs which – since the 90s heyday – have sadly fallen out of print. Below is my own shortlist of games that I’d like to see published and played once again.

Babylon 5

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In 1997 Precedence Publishing produced a CCG based on the Babylon 5 and Crusade television show. OThe cards were of minimalist production design with artwork using stills taken from the TV shows themselves. The game could be played with 2 or more players, with the multi-player variant designed to encourage bartering, negotiation and deal-making between players.

To play, each player needed to select one of the sentient races of the B5 universe – to begin with Human, Minbari, Narn or Centauri, although later sets introduced Psi Corps, the League of Non-Aligned World and the Drakh. Babylon 5 itself, along with the Vorlons and Shadows remained non-player factions, although it was possible to benefit from aligning with those factions.

The goal of the game was to be the first player to achieve a certain level of influence points, and often it was not possible to advance your Agendas without the assistance of other players. The game was for the most part well-balanced, with plenty of different strategies to choose from. Like many CCGs there was a trade-off between building an efficient influence engine with few defences, and building a ‘toolbox’ designed to counter a wider range of opposing strategies.

Some of the rules of the game were a little fiddly – for example, the game allowed you gain or lose different types of ‘marks’, but many cards were printed with these marks on them so it was difficult to track when they had been used or not. Nothing however which could not be fixed with a reprint.

Although I’d like to see the game in circulation again I appreciate that basing a game on a 20-year old TV licence that people may not remember or have never seen is a tough sell.

Hecatomb
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One of last new games by Wizards of the Coast, Hecatomb was a high-concept card game where the ‘cards’ were actually made from transparent plastic. Possibly inspired by the small press card game Gloom, the principles of Hecatomb were based around stacking multiple five-sided cards together so that their powers and abilities all showed through the surface of the top-most card of the stack.

The theme was loosely modern gothic horror, with each player summoning various unsavoury entities to collect enough souls to end the world. As in Magic: The Gathering creature activation was representing by ‘tapping’ sideways, and every attack on an opponent to steal souls could potentially be blocked by an opposing creature to trigger a round of creature combat.

Hecatomb was a highly innovative game and it would have fared far better if WotC had not handicapped its chances by releasing every wave of product months later than actually advertised. After three successive times of booking pre-release events and getting no product, most retailers and players simply ran out of patience. Many also found the dark themes of the game much more niche and less suited to a younger audience. With so little goodwill left there WotC simply decided to cut their losses and discontinue the product.

A real gaming tragedy – I am sure that an eco-friendly, non-collectible version would do well in today’s market.

Heresy: Kingdom Come

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Heresy: Kingdom Come was the only attempt by publisher Last Unicorn Games to enter the CCG space. Heresy was also probably the most beautiful CCG ever printed, with gorgeous artwork from the likes of Brom and Bradstreet printed onto full-colour long format (tarot) sized cards.

The world of H:KC was a near-future dystopia where cyberpunk themes collided head-on with a religious armageddon. Wars in heaven and hell had exiled angels and demons to walk the earth side by side with hackers, mega-corporations and cyber-enhanced war machines. Each player would build a deck from a variety of different philosophical factions with the aim of opening a new gate back into heaven. Players could take control of locations both in the real world and in cyberspace and could jack characters in and out of these two worlds. And there was also an angelic council of sorts where the angelic minions of every player could vote.

Needless to say, H:KC was a highly complex game and not for the faint-hearted. It was also a difficult game to master given the number of different mechanics and strategic possibilities. While I’d love to see more people play the game, I appreciate that it was – and will remain – an acquired taste.

Doomtown

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A joint project between Wizards of the Coast, Five Rings Publishing and Pinnacle Entertainment, Doomtown was a card game set in the same ‘weird west’ world as Pinnacle’s Deadlands RPG. The game oozed the theme, with every card serving as a regular poker playing card as well as a special CCG card. And this was not whimsy but an intergral part of the game – many effects required you to ‘pull’ a value from your deck. And in combat between characters you would draw a ‘hand’ of cards to make the best poker hand possible – the different in poker ranks would be the number of wounds that you would deal to or receive from your opponent.

Every player would set up their own ‘street’ of deed cards representing different locations with influence over the town. Each player would then play a number of ‘dude’ character cards who would have the ability to control these locations. If dudes from different factions entered the same deed then a shootout would commence (using the poker mechanic described above). The winner would be the first player to control enough influence to control the town.

Deck construction for Doomtown presented a number of unique challenges. Not only was it mandatory to use 52 cards in your deck (not including jokers) but you had to think very carefully about respective playing card suit and value of every card. You could have multiple 10 of spades cards for example, but that could lead to you playing a ‘cheating’ hand in combat (which could lead to you being punished by your opponents with special cards reserved for the purpose). Spell cards required high pulls to trigger but were typically low-value cards themselves.

The game was originally released in mini-expansions calls ‘episodes’ which advanced the story of the world of the game. Many characters were released again in ‘Experienced’ or ‘Experienced 2’ versions to show evolution over the narrative.

The commercials behind the game were highly complex and ultimately led to the game’s downfall. The mechanics belonged to FRP, who were bought by WoTC, but the world belonged to Pinnacle. When the license between WotC and Pinnacle expired the former chose not to continue the game. AEG picked up the license instead, but made a series of poor decisions – reprinting too many existing cards, failing to properly playtest new cards – which lost a good proportion of the game’s audience. The final set Do Unto Others was issued as a fixed set by mail order only, and was widely considered a ‘farewell gesture’ by the publisher and fans alike.

This entry is actually a little disingenuous as I’m already aware that the game is being rebooted by AEG as Doomtown Reloaded and should be released at GenCon in the USA in August. It’s too early to tell how much the game will differ from the original and whether any old cards will be cross-compatible, but I am certainly looking forwards to see what happens.

Vampire: The Eternal Struggle

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Vampire: The Eternal Struggle (V:TES) was originally reprinted under the title of Jyhad, and was Richard Garfield’s second successful CCG (after Magix and Netrunner) released by Wizards of the Coast in 1994. Based on the gothic-horror Vampire: The Masquerade RPG by White Wolf Publishing, the game had a multi-player–only format which encouraged bluffing, deal-making and back-stabbing to an extent that has rarely ever been seen elsewhere in the hobby. Although the term ‘Jyhad’ had a special context meaning the ages-old war between ancient vampires, the name was changed after the first print run as it was deemed ‘culturally sensitive’.

Each player would build a deck of two parts – a ‘crypt’ of vampire character cards and a ‘library’ of supplementary game cards. Every player would begin with the same starting amount of 30 ‘pool’ and would use that resource to influence out their characters and purchase allies, weapons and locations. Players could only attack the ‘prey’ player to their left, and could only defend against the ‘predator’ player to the right. Originally conceived to give victory to the last player standing, tournament play evolved to award 1 point per player kill, and 1 point for survival – such that in five-player games one did not necessarily have to survive to the end to win the game.

V:TES was carried by WoTC through four different card sets before they discontinued it. It was however a hugely popular game, and the fanbase played it obsessively for years after, to the extent that White Wolf eventually picked up a licence to print the game themselves again in 2000. White Wolf continued to provide support for the game up until their merger with CCP Games in 2006. CCP allowed the game to continue for a few years more but eventually cancelled it in 2010. Although there have been several industry efforts to secure the licence from Wizards of the Coast so far these have come to no avail.

While I have spoken about the game in the past tense, in fact even though it is out of print again it is still alive and kicking, with major community events drawing hundreds of players from all around the world. The official fan organisation the Vampire Elder Kindred Network continues to maintain tournament ratings, and has started publishing its own ‘official’ card sets for organised play.

I must admit a little bias in regards to V:TES and I have long been a fan and community representative. In fact I am also a member of the VEKN Design Team and responsible for a number of official new card designs. V:TES has been a big party of my life – not only has it been a lot of fun to play but it has allowed me to travel the world and meet all kinds of interesting and unusual people.

Of all the games in my list this is the one I’d like to see find a new life and a new home the most. I can only hope one day someone can convince Wizards of the Coast to let it go so that it can have that chance.