I’ve been thinking about combat in VTES lately. I’m sure that you already know my position on the matter (I’ve been pretty vocal), but allow me briefly spell it out for those who haven’t had the opportunity to read my other article on the topic. I think that combat in VTES is the very best and most incredible combat system I’ve ever seen in a CCG, and is one of the best I’ve seen in a boardgame. There is so much flavor and imagery that can be evoked by the cards played in different phases – it really gives you the chance to turn an encounter into a story. But the current goal of combat is to put vampires into torpor in order to deplete the number of acting or blocking vampires that stand in your way. Even the cards designed to support combat like Fame, Dragonbound, and Tension in the Ranks all require that you put vampires into torpor.
But I honestly think that this design philosophy hurts the game. It’s a philosophy that results in game denial: “You can’t play this game because I want to kill all your vampires.” While it is certainly true that many CCGs feature analogous strategies, the successful games that I’m aware of have taken efforts to curtail them. Take Magic: the Gathering as an example – it includes land destruction (which prevents the opposing player from playing cards), and counterspells (which negates the cards as they are played). But both of these effects have been substantially toned down since the early days of the game. Both strategies have largely been relegated to support strategies, rather than ones you can build an entire deck around. Why did they make this choice? Because strategies like these treat fun as a zero sum game. The only way that I get to have fun is if you don’t have fun. And this isn’t how games should be designed. Games are here to allow us to have fun, not to allow us to take it away from others.
Before I move onto my thoughts on the matter, I should mention that I’m a player who likes combat in VTES. While I don’t play many rush decks, I play a fair amount of intercept combat, and the majority of my decks are toolboxy with solid (although not dedicated) combat plan. So I’m not whining about my how my “zero combat card” decks lose when they go up against dedicated combat decks. And I’m not trying to complain that my mono-Vicissitude rush combat deck can’t reliably get past Strike: Combat Ends. I’m trying to point out that the game needs to find a way to turn combat into a strategy that can win without actively taking fun away from others.
How can such a thing be accomplished? Well, I’ve got three thoughts, which I’ll outline below:
Option 1: Have combat give out-of-combat bonuses
Currently, combat doesn’t really accomplish much if you fail to knock the opposing vampire into torpor. Your pool damage cards don’t trigger and you fail to reduce the number of acting or blocking minions. But what if we could design cards that did provide a benefit in this circumstance? Enter Reputation cards, which are cards that are placed on the vampire during combat and can be burned later for some benefit. They represent word spreading about how seriously bad ass some vampire is and how you do NOT want to mess with them. I mean, if somebody really roughed you up, would you really want to hack their bank account? Or would you really want to go and stop them from doing whatever the hell they wanted to do? These translate nicely to bleed bounce and block denial – powerful effects that many combat clans simply don’t have access to.
To discuss the idea a bit more mechanically, each Reputation card would have a specific requirement that would need to be met during combat. After all, you have to actually earn your reputation! For the moment, I’ve gone with “Play at the end of a round of combat in which this vampire successfully inflicted more damage than the opposing minion and both minions are still ready.” This template mostly comes from Street Cred, and includes a clause about having both vampires be ready. You don’t get a reputation as a bad ass if you are going to Torpor, and if you kill the opposing minion, they can’t spread the word about how seriously your beat the snot out of them. But really it could be anything, and the condition could change from card to card. Let you imagination run wild, just remember that if the requirement is too difficult to meet, nobody will play it.
Since these are combat cards, we need a way to prevent a vampire from playing a handful of them after they meet the requirement. We don’t want to fall into the trap of Draught of the Soul, after all. I think a thematic and balanced restriction is that a vampire may only have one Reputation card at a time. After all, these cards are going to provide potent benefits, and we don’t really want one vampire racking up a bunch of them. But, as we’ve seen time and time again, having major restriction on when you can play cards results in them seeing little play. If a player was stuck with a hand of Reputation cards, but no vampire eligible to play them, that would be a shame. A convenient way to fix that is to include a secondary effect on the card. It’s actually something that I think far more cards should do in VTES. Anyway, let me show you an example card:
Reputation. Requires a Vampire.
[combat] Maneuver, only usable to maneuver to close range.
[combat] Play at the end of a round of combat in which this vampire successfully inflicted more damage than the opposing minion and both minions are still ready. Put this card on this vampire. You may burn this card when you are being bleed by the opposing minion after blocks have been declined. Choose another Methuselah other than the controller of the acting minion. The acting minion is now bleeding that Methuselah. A vampire may only have one Reputation card at a time.
As you can see, the main benefit to this card is that it provides access to bleed bounce to clans that don’t have access to it, but in a highly thematic way. It’s also fairly limited. It only works on the vampire that you beat up, and it lacks the surprise value that playing a bounce card from your hand would provide. The advantage, of course, is that you don’t have to be ready to use it. But again, recall that you can only do this once, and it will only work against one specific target. It’s doubtful that your predator will be bleeding you very heavily with that minion again for fear of having it be bounced. But this would be of great benefit to both rush combat decks (who could now rush backwards in order to pick up a bounce), and intercept combat. Also, notice that I’ve chosen to include the text “Requires a Vampire” rather than having it cost a blood. But in either case, I don’t think we want War Ghouls playing these cards, so I think the vampire restriction is an important one. Finally, in order to help flush this card out of your hand, it provides a secondary effect similar to High Ground: a maneuver that is limited in how it can be used. Let’s take a look at another possible card:
Reputation. Requires a Vampire.
[combat] Press, only usable to continue combat.
[combat] Play at the end of a round of combat in which this vampire successfully inflicted more damage than the opposing minion and both minions are still ready. Put this card on this vampire. You may burn this card when the opposing minion is attempting to block this vampire to make that block fail. That minion may not attempt to block this action again. A vampire may only have one Reputation card at a time.
This card follows the same mold, but provides some offensive power with a block-fails effect. Again, it’s limited to the vampire that you were in combat with, but it could be extremely useful for a bruise+bleed deck. A defender blocks you once, and in the future, you’ll be able to cause their block to fail in order to push your bleed through. This card also includes a secondary effect that is identical to Dead-End Alley. And here’s my final Reputation card:
Might Makes Right
Reputation. Requires a Vampire.
[combat] Strike: Hand strike at +1 damage.
[combat] Play at the end of a round of combat in which this vampire successfully inflicted more damage than the opposing minion and both minions are still ready. Put this card on this vampire. This vampire may not play action modifiers to increase the amount of a bleed. You may burn this card when this vampire successfully bleeds the controller of the opposing minion to gain +2 bleed. A vampire may only have one Reputation card at a time.
This one was a bit trickier to think about. It stems from the very basic idea of giving a one-time bleed boost to a vampire who does well in combat, but I wanted to make sure that it couldn’t be played on top of action modifiers that increase bleed (imagine how terrifying the Giovanni would be with Govern + Conditioning + this!). I settled upon the idea of providing a bonus which is applied after the bounce window has closed similar to cards like Spying Mission (which is both potent, and prevents further use of Action Modifiers) along with the drawback that you can’t play action modifiers to increase bleed while you have this reputation. But imagine how much more viable clans like the Nosferatu would be if they had access to this card. +2 bleed if they beat somebody up? Hell yah, sign me up! Finally, it’s got a slightly more limited Lucky Blow effect attached to allow for easier cycling.
Honestly, the list of possible effects that you could use this reputation system for are endless. Intercept to help intercept combat decks, votes to help Bruise+Vote decks, pool gain to help… all decks. My only concern is how wordy the cards are. There is a lot to be said for simplicity, and that is a term that cannot be applied to these cards. If anybody has a suggestion about how the wording or effects could be simplified, I’d love to hear it! To give credit where credit is due, this idea was heavily inspired by a short article written on the PCK VTES blog, which you should check out.
Option 2: Allow combat to do pool damage
If the last idea was the “have combat help other strategies” idea, this is the “let combat be it’s own strategy” idea. At present, combat can only do pool damage if it dunks somebody into torpor, but is our imagination really so limited that we can’t think of a thematic or mechanical way to have combat deal pool damage without needing to invoke torpor? Cards like Fame helped establish a precedent that breaches to the masquerade cost pool (presumably because the Methuselah is force to expend resources to keep the breach quiet). Thematically this is a little odd for certain sects and clans, but it certainly makes sense given that the game was originally supposed to be about the Camarilla.
So if we accept that breaching the masquerade is a good thematic reason for loosing pool, then we need look no further because few things breach the masquerade like two vampires fighting in public! You could have cards that burn pool whenever something happens that might reveal the supernatural nature of either combatant. Let’s look at an example of how this could be implemented:
Caught on Tape
Combat Card, 1 blood
Only usable when in combat with a vampire or a non-mortal, non-animal ally. Play before range is determined. Each round during the press step, if a vampire was dealt 3 or more damage this round (even if that damage was prevented), that vampire’s controller burns 1 pool. Only one Caught on Tape may be played each combat.
The idea here is that watching a vampire take a shotgun blast to the chest and keep coming is pretty clearly supernatural. But if you take the shotgun blast and fall over into torpor (which makes it look like you are dead), then it will appear to be a relatively normal (if brutal) killing. The requirement that each minion be ready is implied by the fact that the card checks to see if either vampire has taken 3+ damage during the press step, which is skipped if either combatant goes into torpor. The damage threshold of 3+ was chosen to prevent it from triggering to a weenie with a Weighted Walking Stick, but the damage requirement also provides a nice cap on how often this card could possibly trigger. If you manage to get into combat with a full 9+ cap vampire, you can get it to trigger a maximum of 3 times (the fourth hit will send it to torpor). More often it will trigger 1-2 times. Finally, this card presents a danger to playing it – if the opposing minion has effective hit back, you might find yourself needing to burn pool. Like the Reputation cards above, it should likely have a secondary effect to allow it to be cycled more easily.
This is just one example that tries to allow combat to directly deal pool damage at the cost of not depriving the other player of actions. Cards like this might help combat be an option more similar to bleeding and politics.
Option 3: Change how torpor works
Finally, if having all your minions knocked into torpor is really the problem, then maybe the solution should be in the way that torpor is handled by the game. And while there are a number of rules changes that could be made to substantially alter the way that torpor works, only two spring to mind that really work well.
The first is to provide an alternative means of rescuing vampires or allowing them to leave torpor. As it currently stands, you can get into a situation where your only hope of rescue is the kindness of cross-table allies, or recruiting another vampire. But what if you could pay pool to automatically rescue a vampire? That would help your predator in that it costs you pool (moves you one step closer to being ousted), and it also prevents the player from feeling helpless because they have no possible way to act. I think a smart way of implementing this is to have the player pay 2 (or 1?) pool and spend a master phase action to automatically rescue one of their vampires, but another possibility is to have players spend pool and transfers during their influence phase to rescue vampires. I think the master phase option is better because it allows you to be rescued and hunt in the same turn. But in either case, this means that a player will never be backed into a corner from which they can do literally nothing but ask other players for charity.
The second idea is to change torpor into a more temporary thing. I don’t think that combat should provide permanent or semi-permanent action advantage (so I really dislike cards like Decapitate and Amaranth as examples), but I’m completely fine with the idea that it provides a temporary action advantage. So maybe when a vampire goes to torpor he is given 1 or more torpor tokens, 1 of which is automatically removed during each of your untap phases. Once all the torpor tokens are gone, then the vampire is automatically rescued. You could even inherently tie torpor to pool loss together by requiring that a pool be spent to remove a torpor token (although I’d suggest that vampires going to torpor only get 1 token in that case). So you could elect not to pay the pool and instead take actions, or you could pay the pool and have your vampire be rescued. In either case, putting an inherent timer on how long a vampire is stuck in torpor (similar to how the incapacitated region works for Imbued) would be a very good fix in my opinion.
Well, what do you think about these ideas? I’d love to personally playtest them, but I get to play so little VTES these days that all my games are spent testing and refining demo decks. But I’d love to discuss these ideas with people, and would love to hear if anybody else has a chance to test them out. I think that the Reputation cards in particular could really shake up combat in a very good way (it’s my favorite idea of the three). So what do you think? Want to see something like this in a future VEKN set? Post your comments and thoughts below!
Until next time, may your bleeds never be bounced and your combats be fruitful without torpor,