söndag 1 maj 2016

I speak of the first times - Part 1

I dream of the first times
the longest memory
I speak of the first times
the oldest Father
I sing of the first times
and the dawn of Darkness … 

- The Book of Nod

I recently re-read “The Eternal Struggle: A Player´s Guide to the Jyhad” from 1995, and here I want to quote some from V:TES designer Richard Garfield´s chapter and comment on it. Of copyright reasons I won´t republish the whole text, but I try to pick some quotes that might help you understand some aspects of the original design.

Richard Garfield: “The second Deckmaster™ game — it had to be really different in order to demonstrate that trading card games are not an anomaly, but a new gaming vehicle, a new genre. It also had to be a good, lasting game to establish the line as more than just a series of sidenotes to Magic: The Gathering™. I hate weak sequels.
    In retrospect it was ambitious to set the game in the World of Darkness, since it not only had to be really new but also had to satisfy the existing fans by not betraying the atmosphere that drew the players to Vampire in the first place. No matter what the game ended up being, something was inevitably going to be left out.
    Trying to capture a roleplaying world within a card game, particularly a role playing world with depth and character, is like trying to create a single meal that captures the essence of European food. The more you include the weaker each piece will be individually, and there is no chance of capturing everything.
    The choice to center the game on the Jyhad, the ancient covert war that is the foundation of so much of Vampire, was not a hard one. The players would then get a chance to take the strategic view of the world, which would mesh nicely with the tactical view that one usually gets in a roleplaying game. Also, elements of intrigue and politics are well suited to a table game, as opposed to, say, elements of romance.”

Me: I´ve heard Garfield mention this a number of times – the original mission stated pretty strongly that Jyhad should reflect the World of Darkness and the essence of the RPG game Vampire the Masquerade. That is why I´m quite surprised he took on the challenge, because what was asked of him was something very different than his creations Magic the Gathering, Netrunner and Roborally. But I guess Garfield was more of a “staff member” on Wizards of the Coast back then – Magic hadn´t exploded yet and he wasn´t a multimillionaire. And we know by now that he likes new, exciting challenges, as he still today make new games and teach game design, even though he (according to CNN) earned over $100 000 000 back in 2000.

Richard Garfield.

“An early version of the game had a structure which was originally suggested by Mark Rein•Hagen. Many ideas were thrown around, and one in particular took my fancy. Two player's vampires were laid in a grid, initially uncontrolled. The object of the game was to make a chain of controlled vampires from your side to your opponents.
    The game was very different from Magic™ but didn't reflect the World of Darkness to my (or anyone else's) satisfaction. Andrew Greenberg commented that the vampires' Disciplines were too important to relegate to an occasional card.”

Interesting. One of the things that people not (yet) hooked on V:TES mention as a drawback of the game is that it cannot be played on only two players, duel style. Magic and Netrunner is distinct duel games.
Lisa Stevens [WotC vice president at the time] told me that modern weapons were the great equalizer, allowing young, upstart vampires to challenge vampires that in the days of yore would have spanked said upstarts soundly. A member of the Seattle Camarilla observed that multiplayer play was really important since politics don't really exist unless you have more than two people.”

This is an important aspect that was very clear in the original game, but I haven´t heard much discussion about it. One might argue that elder vampires shouldn´t be able to use modern equipment such as machine guns and computers, but on the other hand: Elder vampires tend to be very smart.

Another important task I undertook in designing Jyhad™ was distributing a net survey asking what sort of cards Vampire enthusiasts wanted to see in such a game. This sounds like a peculiar question (to me at least) considering that no details whatsoever were given about the mechanics of the game. In fact, the details of the mechanics were still pretty hazy at the time, but I found people already had many ideas of what they wanted to see.
    This exercise insured that the game would pass the fan test; that is, when the deck was fanned would the atmosphere meet people’s expectations? I received hundreds of entries in dozens of lists which included these suggestions:
vampire hunters
Fragment of the Book of Nod
Phosphorous Rounds
Pencils fired from Revolvers
Blood Puppy
Blood Feast
Sun lamps”

We haven´t yet seen any revolvers firing pencil (would be awesome, although silly) nor the Sun Lamp, the very powerful magical item from “The Chaos Factor” that could shoot real sunlight to destroy vampires. The design team have work to do!

“I spent several sessions on the phone with Andrew Greenberg sorting out some of the more obscure words, with Andrew finding the original source of the word when possible. Sometimes he did not have any idea either:
AG: Blood Puppy? Hmmm ... maybe it's a colloquial term for Blood Doll?
RG: No — the person lists Blood Doll also.
AG: Maybe in The Players Guide to the Sabbat?
<After lengthy pause> No, how about Clanbook: Malkavian? <Lengthy pause> No, not there either. Maybe The Vampire Canine Addendum? <Etcetera>”

“The next version of Jyhad™ was less ambitious than the first, looking a lot more like Magic™. It didn't take long to establish that the similarities were cosmetic while the game itself was substantially different. Returning to a more "Magic™-like" frame helped keep me from reinventing the wheel, and also gave rise to much more natural multiplayer versions of play.
    In fact, I decided that it was only proper that Jyhad™ be a multiplayer game from the start, rather than evolve multiplayer variants as Magic™ did. This version was the first one that looked anything like what was eventually published, and I called it Alpha. Beta and Gamma versions were developed before publication, but most of the changes in those games involved changes to cards and not changes to game mechanics.
    Your blood is your power in Jyhad™. You must use your blood to win, but using it depletes it, and so brings you closer to defeat. This is the paradox of the game. In Alpha I began to feel that something essential to the World of Darkness had been captured in the card game.”

The “pay your minions with your life”-mechanic is widely considered as one of the most brilliant parts of V:TES. It´s highly intuitive, an aspect of game design which I cannot praise enough. Especially Magic-players tend to love it – never any mana screw.

“There is a certain helpless despair that comes from being thrust into the blood arms race that exists in Jyhad™. Players spend blood to get themselves ahead of their opponents, which forces them, in turn, to spend blood, and so everyone ends up teetering on the brink of destruction. The game often had long periods of tense inactivity, punctuated by a quick flurry of cards in a decisive combat between key vampires. Politics laced with violence might adequately summarize the game that was evolving.”

Who can resist such a game?!!

“Reports on it varied. Many players instantly liked it, others saw the potential that was there. The most common complaint was over game length; many two-player games were running over two hours. My games always ran from twenty to forty minutes in length, so I was a bit perplexed over the reports.”

This is the one aspect that Garfield (and others) often mention as the big weakness in V:TES: the length of each game. Two hours is indeed the time limit in tournament play, and while some have tried shorter variant like Rapid Thought and Fast Hands, it seem to be the appropriate time span, for now. If the length very shortened, to let say 1,5 hours, the number of different deck archetypes viable for tournament play most likely would be more limited.
“Some explanations for this difference were bandied about. Perhaps people were less familiar with the rules and cards than I was, and were therefore taking longer to play. Maybe one of my playtest group's decks was very powerful, so it was easier to win quickly. Jim Lin even hazarded a guess that I was actually spending two hours, and that it just seemed like half an hour because I was having so much fun (Jim really liked the game).
    In the end I decided it was because I played extremely aggressively, whereas the other groups tended to play cautiously. Jyhad™s rules were evolved to make it quicker even for the cautious players, though its present form still involves a long-ish playtime. It was fine that a five- or seven-player game lasted a few hours, as this is comparable to other multiplayer games and the game's interest easily holds for this length of time.”

And this is the heart of the matter: V:TES is a strategy game. It should be compared to playing poker for a couple of hours, or a classic board game like Risk or Diplomacy, not “normal” card games like Magic or Star Realms. This is very hard for some people to understand.
    Many casual players play without time limit, and that is of course a reason for the game taking longer. If invited for a casual game of V:TES, most persons don´t bring their aggressive, high stakes stealth-bleed-deck, because you want to stay in the game right? Not just watch it after you have been ousted, because you played a too ballsy deck right? (This is related to another obvious “deficiency” of V:TES: it´s a player elimination game. But this is also why it´s so exciting – you do NOT want to get ousted, so each action you take become more critical, because there´s no catch-up feature.)
    Some playgroups “solves” this by applying time limit and promoting those high stakes-decks, because they know that they can play several shorter games instead of just one longer, maybe in a small tournament-ish way.
    But again: V:TES is not a fast-paced duel CCG. It´s a social strategy game with a bring-your-own-deck-feature.

Finding decent mockup-artwork was obviously very hard!

Making Jyhad™ a multiplayer game was an interesting task. It is easy to make a bad multiplayer game. I use the term bad in a somewhat personally defined sense, since it is really easy to have fun with just about any game, and with multi-player games in particular. You can even make an evening of Rock, Scissors, Paper enjoyable if your players are giddy enough (trust me on that one). So what makes a bad multiplayer game?
    If players can interact too freely with one another, then the winner becomes a matter of pure negotiation. You know the routine: "I'm not the threat, SHE's the threat!", or better yet, watching two ninnies argue over which one is the bigger threat. The game may be fun if you like these politics, but I believe all the games are the same once you learn how to really judge for yourself who the threat is. The game then becomes a vehicle for the omnipresent diplomacy. On the other hand, if players can't interact enough you have multiplayer solitaire on your hands, a game which may be fun, but which leaves the players dealing more with the system than each other.”

Very interesting, and also one thing many new players react to with V:TES: The game sometimes becomes all about pointing out someone else as a threat, and convincing others that you yourself is weak and not worth any attention. Sure, this can be very frustrating and unfun if you play with the wrong people, but it can also be VERY funny and exciting – the “fly under the radar”-tactic with a crappy deck, relying much on your strong table talk or general no-profile is one of my favorite tactics, even though I´m not very good at it :)
    And again, players that are not very good at table talk, or just don´t like that playing style, can instead choose a more heads on approach, playing a high-profile but very strong deck (often also a fast deck), like low/midcap stealth-weenie (for example G4-5 Kiasyd/Lasombra) or bigcap stealth-vote (for example various Unmada & Lutz-decks). These decks usually requires at least some amount of table talking at some point during a game, but you can take it even another notch further, to “combo decks”, often with Soul Gem of Etrius or Una. These decks allow it´s player to in like turn 3 or 4 go: “Do anyone have a counter to my combo? No? Sad for you, you are now all ousted! MOAHAHAH!!”
    Sure, I´ve been voicing my opinion that these decks should not be in the game at all, as they are one-trick-pony “solitaire decks” that really don´t fit in a social game like V:TES, but on the other hand I like diversity in viable decks, and diversity in players :)
    Anyway, back to Garfield, how did he solve this problem of diplomacy versus solitaire back in 1994?

For that - check out part 2 here!

2 kommentarer:

  1. Very interesting look at the original design of the game. I've never read the VTES strategy guide, so I really like hearing Garfield's take on the early development. I also appreciate your own thoughts on the matter and agree that the pay for minions concept (life = resources) is extremely elegant and I find it odd that more games haven't picked up on that.