Selen T, and meaningful interactions.

Selen Turkay is a game researcher, an avid Vampire: the Eternal Struggle player, and a New Yorker at heart. She investigates what makes games engaging and motivating to others – so, playing games is part of her job. She co-directs a research lab of graduate students who design and develop virtual and augmented reality applications in multiple topics including health and wellbeing. She also teaches game design to undergraduate students. 

B: What was your introduction to V:TES

S: V:TES was my first CCG. Growing up in Turkey, card games or even video games are not a girls’ thing. It is a bit different now but not too much. I don’t even remember if I had seen any of my friends playing Magic in Turkey. 
I was introduced to V:TES as part of a class assignment in a game design course at Columbia University. We were supposed to try out a new game and analyse its mechanics. I had just met with Sonam and I knew he played games so I asked him to introduce me to a new game. He took me to a gaming store called Neutral Ground in lower Manhattan. I watched him and his friends play V:TES and he explained its rules to me. It sounded complex but I found it fascinating. 

Was V:TES your first exposure to the World of Darkness too? If so, what was it like jumping into the deep end of clans, disciplines, sects, iconography etc.? 

Yes, V:TES was my first exposure to World of Darkness. It took me a while to get to know different clans and disciplines. Good card interface design helps with recognition of icons and familiarity. You can do more work on card graphical design such as to further distinguish allies from retainers, for example. To me, it was not a big challenge as other players have been patient enough to explain things to me if I had any confusion. 

Is that level of complexity a selling point of Vampire for you, by conjuring up a broader world beyond the card game, or is it simply creating a steeper learning curve for new players?

I definitely think that both having a supportive community to patiently explain things and an interactive app for new players to look up cards may help lowering the learning curve. 

You’ve played V:TES in a number of countries around the world. Have you spotted any regional variations, or do those sorts of things get flattened out due to online discussions, net-decking and the like?

Good question. I have not played in as many countries as I would have liked to. There are some variations in how people play across regions even across playgroups —  some talk more or complain more than others ;), some play more fighty decks than others. For instance, NYC players like fight decks, they like action but this changed when Ruben Feldman played with us for a while and showcased good decks have to reduce their pray’s pool to zero consistently 😀 So, play styles changed a bit but not too much. I don’t think I can put my finger on any other specifics especially for across nations. I also played with a fairly international crowd who travelled to North American Championships so I might have got used to the variation. 

Are there particular aspects of the game that you gravitate toward? What does a Selen deck feel like, and what sort of memorable moments does it create?

While I am fascinated by deal making mechanics in V:TES , I am not much into a deal making and politics – nor am I in real life really lol. I tend to play with mid-cap vampires who can play bleed and bruise cards. I also have a couple of stealth bleed decks. A Selen deck doesn’t involve a lot of moving parts, so no complex combos. I also focus more on playing my own game, so heavy intercept and rush combat aren’t high priorities.
I am not as good as some others to recount the entire games they play. My first tournament deck was Euro Brujah bruise bleed deck and I played with Matt Morgan, a super talented player from Washington D.C., he got no VPs. It turned out that in the next couple of years, whenever I sat at the same table with Matt at tournaments, he got no VPs 🙂  Perhaps I was playing so bad that I confused him very much. Who knows! 

Putting on your game design hat, does V:TES feel of its era – i.e., very much a mid-1990s design – or do you think there are aspects of it that still stand up? Are there particular mechanisms or systems in it that you think stand up particularly well?

I think V:TES does great with multiplayer dynamics in a card game – prey-predator; friends-enemies-sortoffriends. It also does really well with how many of the cards are still usable from earlier days of V:TES. Having the complex multiplayer dynamic might have created a barrier for some players but might have also created a tighter community around the game. Maybe because of the type of decks that I play, I don’t feel the two hour game time is too long. Either I’m acting, or getting ready to act, or reacting.

It can be a very busy game, in terms of sub-phases, minion-on-minion combat simulation, politics, deal-making, resource management and more besides. What are some aspects of Vampire that you’ve seen it do particularly well? 

The depth of engagement in V:TES is closer to strategy based board games. You could simplify it to make it more like other CCGs but that may abolish what we think of as V:TES.

What I also like about V:TES is there is still iterations going on and community has input in those iterations. That is probably the main reason that it came back from the dead for the second time. 

A point which has come up in some of my recent interviews has been representation. Do you have any comments on Vampire on this front, for better or worse? 

Interesting point. Overall, I am not aware of any work that V:TES is doing to improve representation. Representation of women and minorities in V:TES is very low in the USA and Australia. This is, unfortunately, not very different than other CCGs, including online CCGs. It is about marketing strategy and making the game approachable. Negative behaviors also hurt the odds of getting new players to improve diversity in games, including in V:TES. While V:TES is a competitive game, let’s remember, it is a game that we play to have fun. There is so much negativity in online games, it would be great to keep V:TES free of such behaviors, and make each other aware if anyone shows toxic behavior. One person’s behavior can hurt the community around them.

Some of the previous interviews I’ve done here have also talked about how the complex dynamics and systems of V:TES can create emergent strategies or styles of play in ways that other games don’t have (whether because they’re fewer players or less complicated). Have you had that experience before, and do you have any comments on how game design can plan to create that sort of experience?

I would say both of those. The complexity of V:TES coupled with multiplayer mechanics can lead to emergent strategies. There are so many cards in V:TES that interact with each other. I remember NYC play group would challenge each other to come up with ways to use a single silly card and try to make a deck around it. Of course, 99% of the time that deck would fail but it is the fun creativity that makes people look up cards and strategise.

In terms of game design, if there are options for players and those options can interact in meaningful ways, then someone will come up with interesting combinations to play their own way.  

Are there particular aspects of Vampire: the Eternal Struggle that you think other games could learn lessons from?

CCG-wise, V:TES seemed to have done a great job avoiding “pay to win” strategies. While rare cards are interesting, they are not necessarily better. Considering a lot of digital games are using microtransactions, loot boxes etc., there needs to be a very careful consideration around things that players can purchase in the game and their power for gameplay.

Mechanics-wise, I very much like multiplayer interactions and changing dynamics in the game. There is hardly ever a boring V:TES game for me. There were many frustrating games but not boring, and I think this is due to how the multiplayer mechanics are set up. 

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