Mike M, and dark influences.

B: Let’s talk origin stories. Did you make your start in board games or RPGs?

M: I started with board games, then got into role-playing as a teen. I’m not sure why my dad purchased Acquire, but he got quickly addicted to that 3M board game about investing in hotel stocks. Acquire didn’t play well with less than three players, so he soon taught my mom and I how to play, even though I was only five years old. We played an average of once a month until I left for college. We also played many of the classic family board games, like Monopoly, Stratego, and Clue. 

Was Jyhad/V:TES your first entry into collectable card games or were you a seasoned pro looking for a multiplayer fix? Also, was it your first exposure to the World of Darkness?

Jyhad was my second collectible card game, after Magic: the Gathering.
In 1991, I moved 600 miles away from my hometown in search of a better job market. I was already a fan of White Wolf magazine and saw an exciting full color ad for an upcoming game called Vampire: the Masquerade. My friends bought me the rulebook as a going away present, and I eventually played it a couple of times with new friends. Then I picked up a few Jyhad starter decks at GenCon in 1994.

Moving that far away, did you find collectable card games and RPGs a good ice-breaker? Has gaming been something that’s helped you forge friendships?

Due to a combination of geography and climate, the Twin Cities metro area was not an easy place to make new friends. At the time I moved here, a news article about the most recent census declared that 75% of all Minnesotans have always lived in Minnesota. That means that 75% of their family, friends, and ex-lovers are all still here. So Minnesotans are famously nice, but not generally looking for new friends. Gamers are different, because they are happy to meet people who enjoy their favorite games. Nearly 100% of my friends in Minnesota are people that I met through gaming.

What was special about Jyhad that got you connected to that game rather than its slightly older sibling?

It was a combination of factors that drew me to Jyhad. I liked the World of Darkness, and Jyhad did a remarkable job of portraying that setting with just cards. The intricate dance of the combat system and the focused multi-player interaction made every game interesting. The political element added an additional level of play that could alter the expected predator-prey relationships. The overall richness of the game generated stories as we played. Also, the Jyhad players were both more mature and more fun than the Magic players, who often seemed utterly humorless. By contrast, early Magic had a vague setting, and there was a definite disconnect between the mechanics and any sense of a narrative.

Is there an aspect of the game that you bounce off, or that doesn’t engage you?

I have a guilty confession to make: I have never enjoyed deck design. Coming up with a deck concept and adding cards is easy enough, but tuning it down to an efficient and playable deck feels more like work than fun. Last Wednesday, I played the Pact with Nephandi deck, and realized that I am probably not capable of making a better deck.

What do you remember about your first games and the local scene?

The first couple of games of Jyhad after GenCon were long and slow-paced, as we struggled with the rules and the cards. Then I found a weekly group at a local game shop with room in the back for 50 gamers. Magic was hugely popular at the time, so the store had to restrict Magic players to a maximum of three hours of play at a time. But Jyhad players skewed at least a decade older, so we had more spending power. The store owner recognized that we were better customers and needed more time to play a single game, so they let us stay all Sunday afternoon. Some of the Magic players became V:TES players several years later, because our elite status at that game shop made them curious.

That weekly Jyhad group included several very smart players, so we played the rules correctly as written. We typically had 6 to 8 players each game, and most players built single-clan decks that played to the obvious strengths of each clan. Malkavian stealth/bleed, Ventrue law firm, Brujah rush, etc. A couple of players built multi-clan decks based around disciplines, like a Brujah/Toreador weapon deck and a Ventrue/Malkavian/Tremere bleed deck. And a weenie bleed deck, of course. We didn’t see any really creative or thematic decks until maybe ‘96 or ‘97. By that time, the weekly group had drifted, so people played less often but spent more time on deck design.

That’s probably the first time someone has said that their local playgroup played the games as written, rather than misreading the rulebook or porting over card limits from Magic. So, the late 1990s saw the game drop out of publication and your local scene start to change. Did the launch of 2000’s Sabbat War revitalise the players who’d begun to play less regularly, or was it more an entryway for a new crop of players?

Our Sunday group gradually drifted apart by 1998, as more than half the players got married and started families in the mid to late ‘90s. Sabbat War brought together remnants of various V:TES groups around the metro area, and was also the entry point for a group of Magic players that I mentioned above. That group of Magic players is now the core group of local V:TES players. They play every Wednesday night at the Fantasy Flight Event Center, a local gaming venue operated by a major board game publisher.

It’s interesting you mention Fantasy Flight Games – as you may know, there seemed to be a push for FFG to pick up Vampire in the same way they did for Netrunner and Legend of the Five Rings. I wonder if the weekly group at their Event Center got big enough to prompt them to look into it!

Fantasy Flight has probably not noticed our weekly group. On a good night, we have eight players, while at least 150 other people are playing other games. For a direct comparison, there are usually twice as many Keyforge players present. 

If Fantasy Flight acquired the V:TES license, there would be significant changes. Judging by how they handled Netrunner and Legend of the Five Rings, FFG would probably streamline some of the mechanics, re-write most of the cards, and publish a relatively small base set followed by frequent but small expansion packs. More importantly, they would make the new cards incompatible with the existing cards in order to make V:TES more accessible to a new generation of players.

I’d like to take a sideways step from V:TES for a moment and talk about Dark Influences. Up until 2019’s influx of Vampire-themed board game licences, there’s been relatively few licenced card games or board games based on Vampire: the Masquerade or its spiritual sibling, Vampire: the Requiem. Can you talk me through how Dark Influences came to be?

Maybe in 1998, I saw an entry in the quarterly White Wolf catalog for an upcoming Vampire board game called Prince of the City. The game got delayed for a couple of years and then finally dropped from the catalog. I had some expectations about what the game would be like, and decided that I could design it. I recruited a local V:TES player named Dave Raabe as a co-designer because he worked at a comic/game shop and had read a lot of the published World of Darkness material.

Dave invited me to join a large Vampire live-action role-playing (larp) game that he was running with help from three co-storytellers. Once a month, 50 to 75 players would all dress up as characters and meet at some rented venue to roleplay and also throw some rock/paper/scissors to resolve challenges. That gave me some additional insights into vampiric politics.

Our original design struck a balance between players competing to control local institutions (industry, media, law enforcement, organized crime, etc.) while recruiting support from other local vampires. The city was a 5×5 grid of map sections where players moved their vampires around to pick up gear, spread influence, encounter other characters, drain victims, and fight. There were also cards displaying small pyramids where players would compete to place influence tokens. It was designed for 3 to 6 players and took about 2 to 3 hours to play.

I took our unsolicited Prince of the City prototype to the White Wolf booth at GenCon 2003 and met with Chris McDonough. To my surprise, he was very enthusiastic but completely unwilling to look at the prototype until I signed a non-disclosure agreement that he didn’t have on hand. Chris later passed our prototype on to Steve Wieck, who tried our game and liked it. But Steve had already paid an advance to Mike Nudd, who had been working on a design for Prince of the City for the last nine months. So Steve asked if we could change our game into a filler for 2 to 6 players, “with as much strategy and deal-making and breaking as you can fit in 30 minutes.”

At the time, Dave and I were both working seasonal temp jobs at Fantasy Flight, doing board game assembly. For eight hours a day, we walked back and forth at adjacent tables, collecting sets of cardboard token sheets and putting them in game boxes. This gave us a lot of time to talk about our game, which we re-named Vampire: Dark Influences. In a few months, we massively streamlined our game. The rulebook shrank to 4 pages, the encounters dropped out, and the focus was strictly on gaining influence over local institutions. We couldn’t retain all the player interaction in a 30-minute game, but we did get the play time down to one hour.

Time passed, and Dave and I resumed our respective careers in I.T. and accounting. In late 2005, White Wolf sent us a heavily revised set of rules and invited us to playtest them and give some feedback. This new version changed the whole game into a social pyramid and a deck of take-that cards. Players would compete to gain influence over individual vampires in the pyramid, with the vampires near the top worth the most points. It was a decent game and included some elements of our previous designs, though the setting was changed to fit the new World of Darkness.

Mike Nudd’s Prince of the City was published in early 2006, and Dark Influences was published in late 2006. Players of Prince of the City would sometimes cooperate against city-wide threats, compete to influence mortal institutions, and directly fight each other. Players of Dark Influences could harass each other with event cards and compete for vampire allies, but can’t engage in combat. If you played Prince of the City and Dark Influences at the same time, it would be a similar experience to playing our original design.

Hmm, it sounds like the game that was eventually released was a fair way off your original vision. Would you ever want to strip the original game’s concepts away from Vampire and re-release it without the ties to White Wolf lore?

When White Wolf requested that we change our game into a filler, Dave and I talked about “filing off the serial numbers” and trying to publish our original design with some other theme. We talked informally with former co-workers at FFG and found that they were no longer accepting unsolicited board game designs. Ultimately, I don’t think that we were attached enough to our first version to go to the trouble of re-theming it and seeking a new publisher, and we really just wanted to get a Vampire board game published by White Wolf.

Our streamlined re-design was actually a very solid worker placement game with combat, but didn’t convey much of a sense of the setting. That might have been a game worth re-theming even a decade ago, but now there is a massive glut of board games published every year. The Sons of Anarchy board game published by Gale Force Nine is somewhat similar to our streamlined Dark Influences, only better.

Seeing as you and Dave were both V:TES players, how did your experience playing that game shape your approach to things like player interaction? Or was your Prince of the City prototype more informed by your experience playing and analysing other board games rather than CCGs like V:TES?

I had tried a number of the popular eurogames of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, and found them to be dry mathematical exercises that lacked player interaction and theme. So I knew that I wanted both interaction and theme in our game, but not based directly on either V:TES or Vampire: the Masquerade. V:TES resolves conflicts with straight numeric comparisons, like number of votes, or points of damage minus points of damage prevention. V:tM had a cumbersome system involving rolls to hit, rolls to defend, rolls for damage, and rolls to soak damage. Instead, our first design resolved conflict with a single contested roll of 10-sided dice with bonuses for equipment and disciplines. The difference in results would equal damage to the loser.

Are there particular aspects of the world of Vampire, such as influencing institutions or cooperating against larger threats, that you inserted into your Prince of the City design that you’d love to see make their way into V:TES?

I think that V:TES already does a decent job or representing institutions and external threats in the World of Darkness. Master cards like Police Department or University Hunting Ground simulate control of certain mortal institutions. There are allies to represent most of the other game lines from the World of Darkness, though I wouldn’t mind seeing representation of the Kindred of the East or the agents of Orpheus. The event cards do a decent job of simulating more global threats, especially the Gehenna cards. I also have great fondness for the Nights of Reckoning expansion.

That’s a set that attracts a lot of hate from players. I’m always interested in exploring other perspectives, so what were some of the things you liked about the set?

I always found the ally cards interesting, especially the non-mortal allies. The ally cards allowed players to dabble in the rest of the World of Darkness, though the allies were usually too inefficient for their cost. It made thematic sense to me to bring the Imbued into V:TES as more than allies but definitely not as just another clan. Nights of Reckoning was very cleverly designed to make the Imbued very playable with a relatively small set of cards. The set also served to make a variety of existing cards in the game more interesting, either for use by or against the Imbued. I sometimes play an Imbued Gehenna deck for fun. It struggles to oust even one opponent, but messes with the whole table in amusing ways. One of our local players dislikes the Imbued so much that he refuses to play in a game if there is an Imbued deck in play.

Now, I should point out to readers at this point in the interview that you and I have been communicating via e-mail, off and on, for well over a decade now. I think it was probably some random post of mine about Kindred of the East on the newsgroup or old White Wolf forums, and from there you started bouncing off ideas with me in earnest. We worked on that stuff for years together, eventually submitting it to LSJ to receive a polite ‘thanks, but no thanks’. What are some of your observations of the KotE setting, your work on it, and how it evolved?

There was a V:TES fan site that I sometimes visited back in the early ‘00s. I thought it was TheLasombra.com, but that page is now a personal blog for some woman named Jill. Anyway, he had quite a few deck lists for tournament-winning decks, and a page with links to various variant rules. For example, I submitted a two-page variant that allowed players to play a combined game of V:TES/Rage. That’s where I saw your lengthy Word document containing complete card text for a Kindred of the East expansion for V:TES. I had the core rpg book and found it interesting, and your card designs looked very balanced and restrained compared to any other fan-created cards that I had seen. I already had some experience with prototyping cards for Dark Influences, so I thought that it might be fun to help you make prototype KOTE cards and maybe get the set published.

Although our proposal was rejected, I still think that your initial approach was great: a large, balanced base set that could function both as a big expansion to V:TES and a standalone game. It could have been a gateway game for new V:TES players from Asia. Some of our playtesters wanted to change our new disciplines into existing disciplines, but I feel that would have potentially unbalanced the core V:TES metagame unless we mapped every new discipline to all the old disciplines. For example, it would be easy to change Black Wind cards into Celerity cards, but if we don’t have a new discipline that gets turned into Serpentis, then Serpentis becomes relatively less useful than Celerity. Likewise, vampires with Celerity become more useful than vampires with Serpentis.

Thanks. For my part, I went through several major iterations in my thinking across the years that we worked on it, starting with a ‘kitchen sink’ approach that sought to convert every aspect of the setting across, then trying to create difference for its own sake, through to some streamlining that sacrificed some of the uniqueness of the setting on the altar of playability. I’d create it very differently now than when we worked on it. Still, I am immensely proud of our collaboration. Also, I remember that Rage/V:TES crossover! I don’t know if I knew that was yours, but we certainly tried it out.

You’re very knowledgeable about the World of Darkness more broadly – are there aspects of it that you’d love to see V:TES delve into in more detail?

It would be nice to see a bit of representation for concepts introduced in Orpheus or Demon: the Fallen. A few more ghoul retainers or allies. A few more vampires from various old sourcebooks. But sometimes it seems like a large and embarrassing chunk of the World of Darkness is based on shallow cultural stereotypes.

In terms of the game now, you mentioned earlier you’d played with the new Sabbat starters. What do you think about the quality of design and concepts in the Black Chantry sets?

Pact With Nephandi and Libertine Ball are tournament-quality decks. Den of Fiends and Parliament of Shadows are more on par with the starter decks that White Wolf published… better than the starters from Sabbat War and Final Nights, but not as good as later decks like any of the Malkavian or Ventrue starters, or even the dual clan decks from Heirs to the Blood.

Okay, final question then. You’ve been playing V:TES for 25 years now. Are the things that drew you to the game back in 1994 the things that you still love about it? Any closing comments around the game’s longevity, or what it’s meant for you over the years?

Everything that I initially enjoyed about V:TES is still there every time I play: the unique multi-player interactions, the emergent stories, the immersion in a dark and compelling setting. If anything, I appreciate the game even more now that I have learned more about games in general. Most multi-player game designs fall prey to the same problems, over and over again. People tend to bash the leader, a smooth talker can manipulate other players, and a close game may get decided by a king-making third player who has no chance to win. V:TES solves all of these problems by only rewarding a player for eliminating the player on his left. Various sub-games involving combat, voting, and stealth/interception all work smoothly within that multi-player structure, offering multiple paths to victory.

It’s impressive that V:TES has lasted 25 years. I own over 100 board games and dozens of role-playing games, but V:TES is the game that I have played the most. And I am fortunate to currently have a local group that plays on a weekly basis. But despite the best efforts of Black Chantry, I don’t see a way for V:TES to avoid a slow fade to black, at least not in the current form of the game. It’s just too difficult for new players to learn and acquire a decent collection of cards, and the existing fans already have their own card collections. If a company like Fantasy Flight Games picked up the license, they would probably need to re-boot the game with new cards and streamlined rules. That would make the game more accessible to new players and level the playing field against the old players. That would probably be for the best, but it would be sad to see my cards become obsolete.

Thanks for your time Mike!

One thought on “Mike M, and dark influences.

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