Saturday, September 11, 2010

At the End of the Eternal Struggle

Yesterday White Wolf announced that they have ceased production of the Vampire: the Eternal Struggle (VTES) card game. VTES has been a preoccupation of mine for many years now. The news marks, for me, of the end of an era. Production of the greatest game ever has ceased.

“Greatest game ever” may sound excessive. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise to people who know me. I’ve been in involved as a player, playtester, designer, writer, author, international competitor, and fan of VTES for 16 years now. If there was a game I regarded as superior, I like to think I would have had the good sense to play that instead. But no. It’s been VTES. I’ve spent a lot a time, creative energy, and no small amount of money on this game. And my efforts have been rewarded.

I remember my first game. It was 1994 shortly after the game was introduced. It was called Jyhad then. The name was wisely changed to Vampire a year later. Erik had a bunch of cards and taught me and few friends how to play. I brought out Don Cruez, the Idealist and Dre, Leader of the Cold Dawn, and got ousted quickly. I left the game with my head swimming, attempting to come to terms with its complex mechanics and deeply intrigued by it’s endless permutations, enthralled by the creative and strategic possibilities.

The core group of friends from that first game-- Jeff, Keith, Matt got hooked and we stuck with it. We each built up a card collection. We alternately cursed and saluted the player fortunate enough to own a Dreams of the Sphinx or a Torn Signpost. We developed our signature decks and play styles. Gangrel-Malkavian hybrids and Toreador-Ravnos team-ups were reoccurring themes. Individual cards came to invoke little songs and catch-phrases “Igo to torpor”. “He makes me Ig-nauseous”. We only played against each other. We were a closed ecosystem developing our own mutations and eccentricities, playing in isolation - unaware of the wider VTES world. When Wizards of the Coast stopped publishing the game in 1996 we just played on. For added variety, we designed our own leagues and rules variants. After these games we wrote bits of fiction to explain the outcome, celebrate the victor, and taunt the vanquished.

In the year 2000, as my sister is still fond of reminding me, I declared myself the Vampire Prince of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. My regular group had dispersed. White Wolf had acquired the game and was printing cards again. VTES was back and I wanted to play. The prince system, in addition to bestowing gamers with a goofy title borrowed from the source materials, serves a useful purpose. With any group activity someone needs to organize, schedule, promote it, run events and resolve the inevitable disputes. The Princes takes on these duties and have been crucial to the game's longevity.

I wasn’t much of a prince. My interest are in the playing and designing. Not so much in the organizing and promoting. I spent a few lonely evenings a a local game store - waiting and demoing the game. I ran a few events. The chief benefit of this was that a few players from Boston showed up. I because aware of the the vibrant community there and, through them, the wider world of VTES.

I quickly abandoned my local organizational duties and became a regular player with the Boston group. I began a routine that continued for almost a decade. During that time, I changed jobs four times. My second son was born and grew to be a formidable gamer himself. But my routine was constant. Most every Monday night I drove for over an hour down to Davis Square in Sommerville, grabbed a burrito at Anna’s Taqueria and then headed over to Your Move Games to play VTES. I would play as many games as I could until the store closed at midnight. Then I headed home, typically arriving something after 1am. I got a few hours sleep and got up, bleary-eyed, for work the next morning.

One day the system administrator at the tiny technology company where I work mentioned that, on-line, she had met “the Prince of Pittsburgh?”. I blessed their union and they were married shortly thereafter. When John Eno moved to town there were suddenly two hard-core VTES players in Portsmouth and John joined me for our weekly gaming expeditions. We swapped news, game and movie reviews, newsgroup gossip, and deck-building theories during our many long trips to Your Move Games.

The Boston group has grown and shrunk over the years, with an interesting cast of characters coming and going and coming back. It also maintained a remarkably stable core of players, good friends with whom I’ve shared innumerable games. Something about the combination of complexity, depth, and social interaction means that the people drawn to VTES tend to be interesting, fun, well-adjusted and intelligent. We’re definitely on the nerd spectrum but, as a rule, VTES players a quite high-functioning. Around the world, the game draws a consistently enjoyable crowd. These good people crowd my Facebook lists and have been crucial to my enjoyment of the game.

Early in my competitive VTES career our family vacation to Paris was fortuitously scheduled to coincide with the VTES European Championships. Upon meeting the French side of Christine’s family for the fist time, I had to explain to them why I would be abandoning them for several days. It’s a card game. It has a vampire theme. No we don’t dress up. No, I’m not going to win any money.

“These are the moments that make up a fulfilling life. This is the thing that dreams are made of.” That’s what I told Christine a few years later, trying to explain why I should fly off to Budapest for an extended weekend of card games. I was right. It is wonderful to have a hobby that takes you to other countries and allows you to meet interesting people. To compete in a European Continental Championship, to strive to be among the best in world at a competitive activity, however obscure- these are worthwhile pursuits, memories I hold with pride.

Earlier this summer Your Move Games closed it doors, uprooting the old Boston VTES group. Now, the game has been canceled. The last Vampire card has been printed. It is the end of era. But 16 years is one hell of a run. I’m glad I was part of it, and grateful for the little card game that became part of my life.


  1. If there's anything I missed out on from the Boston playgroup, it's the conversations you and Eno undoubtedly had while driving to and from Boston. I bet they would've made for great podcasts. :)

  2. A few months back I was talking with a new player and I mentioned that I had been playing since 1994 and he looked up at me quizzically and said, "I was born in 94"...

    It really has been a great experience, and I look forward to continued play, but I do have a sense of finality here, which I did not have in 1996.

  3. Ben, one can't help but take a little nostalgic look back. I had only 2 children when I first started playing. I bounced my last two on my knees while trying to hang onto my cards and continue playing. The last of those two kids is 14 and just won his first tournament. Thanks for the recollections.

    I agree with you, David, on the sense of finality. It just seems that the situation is too complex to overcome. That said, I am very hopeful for the future for players despite the lack of print expansions.

  4. Some of my favourite times playing vtes was teaching people to play with my huge(small by today's standards) collection.

    I actually had a player say he was sorta happy this happened, because he felt he could just build the decks he wanted to know, instead of trying to just keep up all the time. He has a family and many little ones at home, so I understand the sentiment.

    I can't see the game vanishing, the community is much larger and stronger than we were just a few years ago. I am still shocked given the enormous player base in Europe that CCP would shut them out, they seem to really care about being seen as a European game company.

  5. Ben, you know I miss those conversations too. They were kind of like podcasts. Every week I would keep track of what I was playing and watching to be sure to have some new "material" for our trip.

  6. Yeah, 16 years is a long time. An amazing thing about VTES. It just hooked people for a big chunk of their lives. I mean that in a good way.

  7. Nice article Ben, thanks.
    I've also been playing, off and on, since '94...never thought about how long it has been.
    I'll be shocked if no one buys the rights to the game; I really feel it is one of the best games I have ever played, and certainly the best ccg period.

  8. I played from the start. Much like your little group, ours was the same. Every week we used to meet and play for several long hours having fun every minute.
    I will miss VTES greatly. Our group has long since strayed away from the game instead choosing to play L5R but I will continue to annoy people with my Ventrue deck for years to come.