I have to say that I’ve really been enjoying the conversation that the possibility of VTES 2.0 has sparked. The VEKN forums are lively again! I don’t agree with a lot of what’s been tossed around, but that largely doesn’t matter – the game again feels alive, and people seem to genuinely care about it. That has not been the impression I’ve had about our community for some time. I’ve probably “contributed” more than I should to a number of these discussions on the VEKN forums, but I also wanted to discuss some of the problems that I perceive being part of VTES, and propose some solutions for how to solve them. I promise not to spend too much time on this (I’ll try to confine it to this single article) as I know that there are many out there who are opposed to a reboot of any kind. I think that is a very fair and understandable position, but (as I previously mentioned) I’m unconvinced that is the best idea for the long term viability of the game.
Now having said all that, I will mention that when I floated some of these ideas past my own local play group, I received a lot more disagreement than I was expecting (turns out that I’m not as persuasive as I had hoped…), so I’ll just warn you now that this post is just my crazy ideas. There is something here for everybody to disagree with! It is my hope that small parts of this will resonate with different people and make them think deeply about VTES and how it might be improved. And of course my hope is that whoever will be making decisions about the future of VTES might find a tiny spark of inspiration here amongst all the rambling. Please feel free to disagree – post what you disagree with and why. I’d like to encourage discussion and excitement about the game, but I’m not trying to force my agenda on the community or create divisiveness.
So without any further hand wringing, let’s dive into these these VTES problems!
The Problem with Combat
“But, Brett,” you say, “the VTES combat system is one of the most innovative and strategic combat systems in card game history!” Well, you’re right, the combat system is amazing, and I actually don’t really want to change the basic paradigm of maneuver-stirke-press. Rather, my problems with combat are design issues, and I’m not convinced that printing new cards will entirely solve them. So the first and most damning problem is that combat results in wild swings of power. By which I mean that it either does very little (Rush, Torn Signpost, Slam… oh, you played Majesty…), or it utterly prevents a player from playing the game (Oh, did Arika just come out? Rush, Acrobatics, punch for 1, Disarm, Decapitate… hope you are ok with losing your first minion and 11 pool!). Neither extreme is any fun and any redesign of the game is going to need to seriously consider how to help nudge combat back into the middle ground.
One element at play here is the arms race between defensive and offensive combat, and Strike: Combat Ends lies at the heart of the issue. It’s the ultimate trump and if left uncountered, it allows a deck to completely ignore combat. Given that combat is one of the central elements and strategies to the game, I think we can all agree that this is a bad thing. But many of the counters have created more problems than they solve. Take Immortal Grapple as a prime example – it introduces yet another combat phase (did we really need a “before strikes” step?), kills off melee weapons, and creates yet another situation where only one party wins. Either I play Immortal Grapple and make you powerless to resist me, or I don’t and you escape unharmed. It creates a “winner take all” scenario that I think it unhealthy. Don’t even get me started on cards like Charismatic Aura that cancel grapple cards. Do we really want special counter cards to counter the other special counter cards designed to deal with the ultimate combat counter?
Let’s contrast this to Strike: Dodge. The counters to it are already included in the game in the form of additional strikes and presses. And these counters allow both players to gain something. Even if my opponent plays an additional strike and shoots me, I still got the benefit of avoiding that first strike. Plus neither of these counters have crazy unforeseen side effects like completely hosing melee weapons. You can even build a modular defense if you base it off dodges. Want to design a card that provides a stronger defense? How about something like Wind Dance – Strike: Dodge with an additional Strike: Dodge? Or how about something like Dust to Dust – Strike: Dodge with an optional press, only useable to end combat? You can even combine these extra effects if you want to create a really powerful defensive card. The point is that none of these increasingly potent defensive cards necessitates a unique counter card. I personally think this offers much greater design space for defensive combat, while allowing both sides to win a little bit during combat.
Now one legitimate concern with removing Strike: Combat Ends is that it’s the only way to counter environmental damage (well, plus prevention). My only real answer is to ask what how much value environmental damage brings to the game, and if it does more good than Strike: Combat Ends does bad. Environmental damage appears on very few cards yet requires a long list of rules and FAQs to properly explain. Maybe it’s time to see environmental damage leave the game, or have it be uncounterable but confined to effects like Weather Control that hit both parties.
But if Strike: Combat Ends is a necessary part of the game, I suggest that it be confined to a very few disciplines (it’s a perfect for Obeah for example), should be quite expensive to use, and that we should avoid creating a special class of cards to counter it. A less drastic idea would be to simply change how Strike: Combat Ends works. Instead of canceling the entire combat, it could simply skip to the press step. This would allow it to remain useful without necessitating specific counters like Immortal Grapple. The name would likely need to be changed to something like Strike: Evade (?), but it would be simple enough to say that all new cards will have the new text, while old copies simply work differently.
The second major issue with combat is that it doesn’t actually directly advance your objective of ousting your prey. The game has tried to solve this by releasing a number of cards like Tension in the Ranks and Dragonbound, but cards like these forget that minions in a combat deck are the ones getting into combat most frequently, and are at a higher risk of being damaged or sent to torpor themselves. This means that these cards often also end up hurting the very combat decks that play them. Also, if this is really the direction we want combat decks to go in, why not code the pool loss into the rules? During your untap phase, you burn one pool per vampire in torpor. But I digress. My real point is that it’s time to start considering cards that key off combat that have non-combat effects. Think Street Cred, but actually, you know, playable. So perhaps if you deal more damage in combat you do 1-2 pool damage to the controller, or you put 3 tokens on an uncontrolled vampire. Cards like this would allow combat decks to turn their combat into ousting power.
One reason that cards like this haven’t been released is the feat that the game would likely be tilted too heavily in favor of combat if you could remove a minion and deal pool damage in the same action. This brings me to my final combat topic. We’ve all seen circumstances where a player’s minions are all in torpor, but their predator can’t do anything more than bleed for 1. That player is forced to sit there turn after turn with nothing to do, technically in the game but not playing. The fact that combat can remove a player’s ability to play the game is unacceptable, and any serious look at VTES has to include this topic. I’m honestly not sure what the perfect solution is, but my favored solution is to find a way to make sure that vampires can always leave torpor, even if they are empty. Another idea is to encourage cross table rescues by allowing you to untap at the end of a rescue (remember, you still have to pay 2 blood). But if we are going to let combat do pool damage in addition to minion damage (which I think is a good idea), we also need a way to allow players recover from minion damage more easily.
The final piece to consider is burning vampires. While it doesn’t happen often, I think we should take a long hard look at how much value it gives to the game. Burning a vampire is the ultimate expression of swingy combat. And while I’m not advocating we make vampires invincible, I do think we shouldn’t make the process any easier through cards like Decapitate and Amaranth (sorry Tariq, if you want to eat the world, you have to take an action to do so!).
The Problem with Blood Management
Yup, I’m going to take a swing at one of the greatest strengths of the game. Resource management is at the heart of VTES and it’s one of the things that makes it such a unique and wonderful game. Yet there are also problems. The first is that every deck is required to include a number of cards (almost always Master Cards) dedicated to recooping the pool invested into your minions. The game really can’t be played without Blood Doll, Vessel, Minion Tap, or Villein. But if this blood management is such a core part of the game, why not include it directly in the rules? If players didn’t have to devote so many Master cards and Master Phase actions to resource management, then perhaps the need for multiple Master Phase actions would be eliminated (or at least reduced to the point where only having a second would be plenty sufficient).
Another problem are transfers. They represent a key resource in the game, but they often go unused for a large part of the game. Additionally, the fact that we have 4 of them each turn has created three major categories of vampires: weenies (who can be transferred out in a single turn), mid-caps (who require 2 turns worth of transfers), and fatties (who require 3 turns). But the number of turns required to influence a vampire doesn’t appear to have been adequately taken into account when designing large capacity vampires. It appears that when you pass from one level to the next, you are given an extra level of a discipline (so 4 caps get 3 discipline levels, and 5 caps get 5 levels). While this extra discipline is pretty useful for midcap vampries (who are typically given the extra level in a clan discipline), it becomes a lot less useful for high capacity vampires who usually have all their clan disciplines at superior and so they are just being given a random out of clan discipline. The point is that having 6 superior disciplines is pretty sweet and gives that vampire the flexibility to be put into many different decks, most of those disciplines will be wasted in any single deck. This has created a class of vampires (9 caps and above) who are largely viewed as undesirable because they force you to pay for disciplines that you don’t plan on using. Now there are some 11 caps that break this rule by being dramatically better than any of the 10 caps, but the majority of them suffer a similar fate of rarely seeing play. By and large these vampires just aren’t worth waiting three full turns for!
These problems can be solved through mechanisms that have been kicked around since the early days of the game: change how transfers work, and alter the number that players get per turn. I’d suggest giving players 5 transfers each turn. This would mean that 9 & 10 capacity vampires could be transferred out in only 2 turns which helps to remove one of the major drawbacks to these vampires. It also helps smooth out the first turn. Currently, going fifth provides you no advantage over going fourth – you just have to deal with the fact that you got the crappy seat. But this balance issue vanishes simply by increasing the number of transfers to 5. Now, this would also require that “decrypting” (moving a card from your crypt to your uncontrolled region) would instead cost 5 transfers. In fact I’m in favor of having players pay a pool and completely skip their transfer phase to decrypt (this would mean that you couldn’t use cards like Powerbase: Montreal or Arcane Library). Furthermore, I’d allow transfers to be used like Blood Dolls – you can move blood to or from an uncontrolled or ready vampire. This would make the use of transfers dramatically more important than they are now – you’d need to carefully balance how many are used to influence out new vampires, and how many are used to bring that investment back to your pool.
Assuming that transfers worked like Blood Dolls, it does raise the frightening possibility that a player could effectively gain 5 pool per turn in the late game. There are a couple of ways to combat this including limiting transfers back to pool to be once per minion per turn and/or having transfers back cost two transfers per blood moved. Personally I’m not crazy about either option. But if the concern is that there is just too much blood around, one tantalizing possibility is to have vampires enter play with half (rounded down) of their capacity in blood. This means that it would actually cost pool to bring out minions (and reducing the amount of pool at the table is likely to speed up games), but it comes with a number of other advantages. 1 cap vampires would enter play with 0 blood and would need to spend their first turn hunting. This alone is a pretty significant disadvantage, and it would allow the designers to create 1 cap vampires somewhat safe in the knowledge that they will having a meaningful drawback.
It would also dramatically change how the importance and power of blood gain effects. Many of them (especially those that provide blood without limit) would need to be toned down. It would require some significant rethinking of the whole blood economy, but I think that it could yield some very interesting and good results.
The Problem with Card Limits
Having no card limits in deck construction is one of the unique elements of VTES that sets it apart from any other card game. And it’s worked out pretty well thus far. The problem isn’t necessarily with card limits or no card limits, the problem is with card distribution. If we are going to buy cards from a publisher (or from our local game store), it’s pretty clear that we aren’t going to be able to just buy the specific cards that we want. I know that this model is what many people have been hoping for from Print on Demand, but there are exactly zero games that are distributed like this. Not even the few Print on Demand card games that already exist are distributed like this! So, as sweet as such a prospect sounds, I am extremely doubtful that we’ll ever see VTES sold like that.
So what are the alternatives? If we set aside the idea of starter decks and starter sets for a moment, I think there are only really two options for selling expansions – randomized boosters, and non-randomized packs. The first is the old CCG model that we all know and… well… know. While the new VTES (reprint or reboot) could be distributed like that, I do not think it would be a good idea. The CCG model is largely dead and players are seem thankful. No new successful CCG has started since… well, I guess Yu-Gi-Oh was the last, and it came to the US in the early 2000’s. Players just don’t seem interested in playing or collecting CCGs these days. Every time I demo VTES, I get asked “Is this a CCG?” Players have literally walked away before I can explain that while it is technically a CCG, it really doesn’t function that way at present. I know for a fact that I’ve lost perspective players simply because of the looming specter of not being competitive in a game because you aren’t willing to buy enough random packs to get your ultra rares.
Let’s contrast this to non-randomized packs, which is how Living (or Expandable or Dynamic) Card Games are sold. Before Fantasy Flight Games started making LCGs, I think that most game publishers had pretty much given up on the card game genre. It was sitting in a position that MMOs currently occupy: many had tried to replicate the success of the original and failed. A few exceptions existed, and niche games continued to make a bit of money. But the introduction of the LCG just flipped this paradigm on it’s head. Players don’t have to gamble on getting their rares, they just have to purchase an expansion set and play! The success of the LCG model has spread outside of FFG and has been responsible for the relaunch of games Doomtown and Shadowfist (and soon Legend of the Five Rings!).
For VTES, I think the clearly superior distribution model is the LCG one. I know that some in the community would prefer things to remain like they were in the old days, but we have to appeal to a gaming crowd that lives in 2016, not 1993. But for all it’s benefits, the LCG model does come with a problem: most LCG companies sell packs that contain the maximum number (usually 3 or 4) of every card in the set. But what could you do for VTES? Sell packs with 1 copy of every card in the set and allow players to buy as many as they pleased? Would players really want to buy a whole new pack for just one more Govern the Unaligned? I can imagine the complaining now! But the fact is that this distribution problem can be solved simply and easily by introducing card limits.
But facilitating and LCG-style release isn’t the only advantage that card limits would provide: it also increases the diversity of cards that get played with. There will always exist cards that are better than others, even if only by a hair. And with no card limits, there is no reason to include these slightly less good cards in your deck. But limits would force us to seek alternatives in what are traditionally considered weak cards. Gun decks would have to actually run something other than .44 Magnums (when was the last time you saw a gun that wasn’t a .44?), stealth and intercept packages would have to be diversified, and you couldn’t rely on the same combat chain every combat. How refreshing would it be to see Potence combat have cards other than Immortal Grapple, Torn Signpost, and Slam?
Sure, card limits would be a big change for VTES, but I think that the benefits (card diversity and an easy transition to an LCG distribution) far outweigh the downside (not being able to play as many Deflections as you want to).
Wow, this article got long. But there you have it – three problems with the current iteration of VTES and some potentially solutions. I assume at this point that I’ve convinced everybody that I’m crazy, but that’s ok. I hope you found something here that you agreed with, or that made you think more deeply about the game. Keep the conversation and excitement about VTES alive – a new edition of our game, or a reprinting is in sight! Next week I’ll get back to some less speculative articles including new decks (maybe even Gangrel Demo Mark II!), recruitment strategies, clan analysis, and more!
Until next time, may you keep the flame of VTES alive!