Ben O, and a game that’s only gotten better.

What was your introduction to V:TES like? Had you had any exposure to collectable card games beforehand?

My first exposure to CCGs was when I started playing Magic in High School, starting at Revised Edition.  Jyhad was released when I was at the end of High School, and a couple of friends and I started playing it from the start.  There were only three of us, and we first started by playing it one-on-one, which heavily favours combat decks, and is not a very good way to play.  For this reason, I only played this game occasionally for a couple of years, and my first exposure to proper games, with four or five players, was with a larger group of about thirty players at university (ANU) in the late nineties.  This gave me a great exposure to the game and also a whole new group of friends with a shared interest.  Since I had transitioned from Magic, I came from an environment where multi-player games degenerate into “gang-ups”, where a single player cannot compete with multiple players grouping together, with all the attendant card-advantage.  The predator-prey mechanic of Jyhad, together with restrictions on bleeding and the victory-point rules, created an excellent multi-player dynamic, where alliances could still be made, but they were subject to adverse incentive problems and action restrictions.  The card-draw mechanic also meant that the games were more dynamic than in Magic, and card advantage was no longer as important.  This was a great introduction to the game, and it showed me that you could have a really interesting and dynamic multi-player game with subtle incentives and alliances.

Was V:TES a window into the World of Darkness IP for you?

I did some modest learning about the World of Darkness from other sources.  I had a brief interest in the Vampire: The Masquerade role-playing game, but only to read the rules and lore — I never played.  While I am impressed by the WoD world in which it is set, my main interest in V:TES has been as a gamer, so my reaction to the sets has mostly been from a gaming perspective.  (The Imbued were a complete disaster, from both a gaming and lore perspective; in my view they should just ban the whole set and pretend it never happened.)

What was early play like?

My first proper play-group was at university.  There were about thirty of us in total, though not all of us came to all the same game sessions.  Our group was a mixture of classic nerds like myself, with an interest in strategy games (background in Magic, D&D, roleplaying, etc.), and a large contingent of goths, who got into the game through their interest in the World of Darkness.  Our “prince” and main organiser was Salem, who is a legend of the Canberra V:TES scene.  He has long black hair, gothic accoutrements, long fingernails painted black, and wears a black trench-coat.  When I first met him in the V:TES group it was a great introduction to someone who takes the World of Darkness ethos very seriously.  It was great fun entering into this playgroup and meeting a whole bunch of cool goth guys who I wouldn’t ordinarily have met.  Many of them have become lasting friends.

We had enough players that we ran regular tournaments, but occasionally met for casual games.  We were pretty competitive, and tournament play was intense and often nerve-wracking.  From early on I was partial to Gangrel decks, mostly owing to the immense power of pre-errata Form of Mist.  I still mostly play Gangrel, notwithstanding that Form of Mist is now errata’d so that it is less insane!  At my first major tournament (Cancon 1998) I played a Renegade Garou combat deck and won a tournament of 36 players, which cemented my love of Gangrel.

From the early days, my deck designs have generally been built around a few core cards, used in large quantities to give me a consistent deck.  For example, if I build a combat deck it usually hinges around no more than two core combat cards used in large quantities (e.g., Indomitability + Undead Persistence for fortitude combat), plus a few other cards thrown in in small quantities for surprises.  In the Canberra play-group I’ve developed a bit of a reputation for having large quantities of individual cards, so people try to guess when I have run out (which I usually haven’t).  For a long time I played a lot of intercept-combat decks that run large numbers of Wakes to ensure that I never run out of blockers.  As I’ve played longer I’ve branched out into all sorts of decks, but I still love Gangrel and protean.

Yeah, I understand from Tim that you’ve got some great wall decks – are those your specialty? What sort of experience will other players be in for when they see you sit down at their table?

Intercept-combat decks are definitely my specialty.  I’ve played for a long time, and so I’ve played all sorts of decks, but back when I played a lot of competitive tournaments, I would usually play some kind of wall deck.  I tend to build wall decks that put some permanent intercept cards into play and then pack ridiculous numbers of Wakes, to ensure that I am never left unable to attempt to block.  This method means that a strong stealth deck can still get actions through me occasionally, but it will suffer from attrition in the long run, as I force out the stealth cards.  In terms of play style, I have learned to play wall decks pretty well, and it is a balance to make sure you are going forward, and not just shutting down your predator to such an extent that your grand-predator rolls through him.  The key is to keep regular pressure on your prey with lots of one-point bleeds, and then leave just enough defence that it is unappealing for your predator to attack you.
In terms of what others should expect, if I’m playing my deck well, I would hope that they go around the table until they get to me and then have to stop their aggression — that is the point of a wall deck after all!  Since I play these types of decks regularly, I have developed a bit of a reputation in my play-group, such that other players know that I always have at least a couple of Wakes in hand, so they know I will be able to block even if I’m tapped out.  For decks that are weak on combat, I can usually put myself in a position where it is in their best interests to wait, and look for an opportunity later in the game.  When dealing with my predator, I am usually not inclined to shut down all their actions, and I generally try to negotiate to allow actions that don’t hurt or threaten me, even if this entails some bloating for later.  Usually this means that my predator will bide his time, looking for a weak point to strike, and I try to grind forward while making it unappealing to attack me.  If I do this well I end up gaining pool faster than my predator is taking it, and I gradually roll through to be the last player standing.

What’s the thing about Vampire that you couldn’t find anywhere else?

My initial attraction to the game was just the fact that it was another Richard Garfield product, designed as an improvement over Magic.  The art was cool, and the World of Darkness setting was well-developed and interesting.  Once I started with a proper play-group, it was clear that the game massively improves the multi-player dynamic that existed in Magic, and creates an amazing experience when played with four or five players.  The predator-prey dynamic ensures that there is an incentive to go forward, and limits the power of alliances, while still allowing subtle and interesting negotiations between players.  I have played about 15 CCGs/LCGs/TCGs and in my opinion V:TES is the best multiplayer game I have played.  The predator-prey mechanic is pure genius.

What are your reflections on how the game has changed over time?

Honestly, I am really just impressed by the fact that the card designers have not ruined the game, which is unfortunately common with other CCGs.  With most of the CCGs I’ve played, they are good fun for a while, but they come to a point where too many silly and overpowered cards have been printed, and the game starts to lose its strategy element, and just becomes a competition of overpowered cards.  Other CCGs often suffer from “power creep” in the cards, or they make the rare cards intentionally overpowered relative to common cards, or the designers create cards that massively destabilise the game, or create mechanics that are not fun.  I think V:TES has largely managed to avoid this fate, mostly due to keeping reasonable consistency in card power over time, having a large number of elements to the game, and having designers that aren’t afraid to errata and ban cards promptly when there is a problem.  For this reason, I don’t think there has been a “heyday” in design terms; I think V:TES has gotten better and better over time, as new deck types gradually open up with an expanding card pool.

Although the card pool has gotten better over time, as it has expanded, there are some particular things I have liked and not liked.  The gradual expansion of the clans has been good, and it was exciting when we got the independent clans and the minor bloodlines from Dark Sovereigns up to Bloodlines, between 1995-2001.  The creation of multi-discipline cards and the bloodlines clans and disciplines was a great expansion, and it brought in a lot of interesting new aspects to the game, so this period was a high point for me.  I also thought that Keepers of Tradition was a good set.  There have been a few design missteps, the main one being the Imbued, which was a particularly poor design.  I’m also of the view that it is a bad idea to change the card design for an established game, so I thought it was a bad idea to do this after the Bloodlines set.  We lost quite a few players after this change, and I was really annoyed by it.

Did that period of excitement, from 1995-2001, also correlate with the local scene’s size?

There was certainly a heyday in our play-group in regard to the popularity of the game, and our ability to draw substantial numbers to tournaments and gaming sessions.  In Canberra the popularity of the game peaked somewhere around Sabbat War (if memory serves), and at this stage we could regularly draw about twenty people to a local tournament.  At that stage the card pool was large enough that there was a lot of diversity in deck types and clans, so it was a rich and interesting game.  The game was also new enough that we had a large scene of devoted players who were still willing to take time for regular attendance at events.  Our play-group remained quite large up until the end of Bloodlines, and then it went down a bit with the new sets after this, and eventually it has gotten small as people have gone onto other things.

What’s caused the changes over time?

I’ve now been playing V:TES for over twenty years, so I’ve seen the local scene wax and wane, and we are now down to only a few players who occasionally meet now and then for casual games.  The game itself is in a really good state, but unfortunately it no longer has the player base it once had.  The card-pool is the largest it has ever been, with a huge number of viable deck types and clans.  You can now make viable decks with the Bloodlines clans, which have always had trouble as stand-alone clans.  This makes for a great game, since you have a huge number of options for deck-building.  However, I think eventually the card pool became so large, and the mechanics sufficiently complicated, that it has been hard to draw new players, and even if you find them, they are not able to compete with experienced players; the learning curve is just too steep when playing with experienced players who know all the cards.

The main cause of our loss of players has just been the dreaded march of time.  As the years have progressed we have gone from university students with plenty of time on our hands, to young adults with work duties, to middle aged people with work, children, and a million other priorities.  There has been a gradual attrition as people who used to play have moved on to other things, and so our local scene is now very small.  I can scrape up a casual game occasionally, with the same set of players, but we are are now close to being bled out.

So having played for more than two decades, what are some of your favourite memories of V:TES?

There were certainly a few times in tournaments when I managed to pull out some big plays and win games from situations where I should not have survived.  Those were quite exciting moments, but they are not so memorable that I can recall the specifics.  I’ve also had a lot of great discussions with other players about strategy and deck-building; those are some of my favorite memories.  One of my favourite memories of the game was when a bunch of us Canberra guys drove up to Newcastle the day before a big tournament, and we ended up playing casual games with the Newcastle crew all night, playing and drinking scotch into the wee hours.  That night of gaming ended up being more fun than the tournament, and it was one of the most fun nights of V:TES I have had.

What would you like to see from the game in the future? 

I would love it if the player base came back, sufficiently to get some larger gatherings going.  The game itself is still in a great state, with enormous diversity of viable decks, so all that is missing is the people to play.

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