“My introduction to Jyhad was in January 1995, at CanCon. It was my first year of university back in Newcastle, but I’d been going to Canberra for this convention since I was eight years old thanks to grognard older siblings who were into war gaming. For years I’d loved the Jedko clearance auctions that you’d get there. This particular year, they were selling Jyhad starter and booster displays for cut-down prices – $15 a display. It was overstocked, and word was out that it was a discontinued game. I bought one of each – both a starter display and booster display. I took it back home, cracked the packs, and never looked back.
I can still remember the smell of the cards as I tore into those boosters. It was such a visceral experience. I was already into Magic: the Gathering, and a good mate of mine was playing Vampire: the Masquerade which meant I was familiar enough with the mythos. The game felt immediately different than Magic. The rulebook had an aspect of storytelling to it, and that came out in the play and merged with card gaming mechanics. It was such a marvel of game play, and it was transformational to combine that with a world that was already such a part of the zeitgeist.
The first game that I remember was a Tremere deck, which I played against my friends Molly and Kent. I can remember Jing Wei tooling up and going on adventures, recruiting Thadius Zho and Outcast Mages, and scorching people with Walk of Flame. My mate Kent was particularly into Brujah, and our decks told stories rather than necessarily being made to win.
As well as playing Jyhad together, Kent and I worked together at The Games Shop in Newcastle. A few other players started to emerge – I remember Roger, Tim, Floatey and others getting into it. Then a revelation: the game that we thought was a one-shot, self-contained experience returned as VtES! Camille turned into Raven, and everything carried on as before, with all our cards still playable. Kent and I were voracious and we hoovered up packets.
By 1996 and 1997, our group discovered the bigger scene. We Newcastle boys came down to Canberra again, for what was the first Australian championship hosted by Salem. I went in with an Alexandra/Anson deck, and I still have the third-place trophy that I won for my showing. Those early years were great, and I have fond memories of meeting Brendan B and plenty of other faces that would return through the years.
Around 2000, early 2001, I moved from Newcastle down to Melbourne. It was in Melbourne that I discovered Sabbat War had been released, and I heard there was a guy working at a games store in the city who was the Prince. The scene was starting to change. I remember Ong’s Food Court, where we’d meet and flop cards. The google group on rec.trading-cards was becoming a thing. LSJ was out as net-rep and rules began to codify. Rob Treasure and Peter Bakija, laying out those alchemical structures running through the core of the game, setting down the prime forms of grapple combat and other archetypes. We had a regular play group, a massive card pool, and players like Wayne who were bringing truly sophisticated deck building to the fore.
We thought that group was coming to a really good place in terms of its maturity, when Rob Treasure came for a one-night visit in mid to late 2001. Rob was the world #1 at that point and a living legend from our perspective. I vividly remember when I was going to rush him with my Renegade Garou and he turned around and said, ‘so how many turns do you want?’. We had never encountered that before. Overnight, those few of us who were there playing against Rob brought dealmaking into the Melbourne meta.
Returning to Newcastle in late 2001, I entered a very different scene than Melbourne. The camaraderie we’d been building up in Melbourne was replaced by Merto’s Shed, a dedicated venue to drink beer and play combat decks. All those subtleties I’d learned from Rob Treasure and the Melbourne crew were initially lost on the Newcastle boys! Everyone made lots of deals, but lots of them were broken too. I remember the call of ‘Oathbreaker!’ echoing across the shed on a regular basis.
I had always considered myself an aficionado of the game, but it was the Newcastle scene that made me enjoy truly competitive play. You’d have Roger, Tim, Merto, all great deck builders, all dedicated to a high level of craft. It was a tight-knit scene in Newcastle, with seriously honed decks. When the first ‘modern’ Australian Championships were held in 2002 (the first with with the perpetual trophy we still use today), we road-tripped down together, drank six million beers and crashed in a hostel. Craig J was the only one who kept his head that night, and he won the next day.
A few years after that, I moved to Sydney and played with the crew there. I remember playing against Eugene, Nick, Vega and Shane Schneider. Very social, lovely folk. Lots of schnitzels at the pub, and lots of beers. VtES was in its Byzantine years at this stage, with frequent releases and growing complexity from that increased card pool. Complexity has always been part of the game’s beauty, but it was very hard to keep on top of the changes. Not long after that I started to disconnect from the game. I was doing a bit of travel, and those different geographies meant I wasn’t really thinking about picking up a game. I’d played JOL on occasion, but it wasn’t really my thing.
I moved back to Melbourne a few years ago and have reconnected a bit with the scene. It’s great to see how it’s kept ticking along, and how vital the Melbourne scene remains. While I appreciate witnessing the exceptional deck building from people like Jason and Craig L, I’ve become a creature of habit when it comes to deck design. Now, it’s more about reconnecting with the community rather than the game itself. A chance to nod and smile, introduce yourself to the new faces, then pull out Tariq and relive the glory days of the combat-heavy Newcastle scene.
I play a few other games beyond VtES, and coming back to Melbourne makes me think that the challenge for VtES’s ongoing success is how to keep it vital for all; to retain veterans and find new players for a game with a deep card pool. I think you can achieve this through learning from what Magic: the Gathering is doing. A curated core set equivalent to Magic Standard would give a smaller card pool that could change over time. Legacy sets would be separate. This gives new players an entry point and allows veterans to play with all their older versions if they want to. It means everyone comes in an a more equal footing. You’d have a core set, with every year having a different flavour, and have new blood coming in without disenfranchising the veterans.
In terms of my playstyle, balancing the table is something that’s always been important to my approach. Combat is an appealing archetype to me because it’s one of the best ways to facilitate cross-table interaction, which is critical if you’re interested in maintaining that balance. Some might say that this creates petty rivalries, or sway the game toward one person or another for no reason. But the core of VtES is that finely balanced multiplayer dynamic. There’s a uniqueness to the design, something that goes back to Richard Garfield’s brilliance and which cannot be found anywhere else. If one person is set to sweep, it takes away from that beauty. You want to look for the fine balance of a table, where it could go in any direction, and then watch everything collapse together. That emergent moment is pivotal to the VtES experience, and there’s a beauty in the teetering balance where it could go in any direction. The deep complexity of the game’s structures is what allows for these moments to emerge. Newer players may not always get this aspect to the game, which exists above the rules and cards as written. Mature playgroups are interesting because the awareness of what’s going to happen on a table occurs earlier, and you can have a conversation about it to shape those potential outcomes.
That’s the aspect that keeps me coming back to VtES. It’s a game with a unique and finely balanced multiplayer dynamic, with emergent conditions that are not always visible. The design is built around so many sub-phases and small interactions, where each card accretes toward something and success is very rarely linear. What you’re trying to do is pick the pattern in the table that is about to engender whether you’ll sweep to victory or see something else coming to crush the table. Everyone knows that feeling when the table is about to decide itself. You live for that moment, when everything folds. Feeling the dynamic of the game shift and understanding how your small interactions can perturb that environment; it’s truly, truly beautiful.”