One of the feelings familiar to anyone who is invested in a customizable card game (other than Magic: The Gathering, perhaps) is the fear of their favorite game being discontinued and the player base subsequently drifting off, their investment becoming all but worthless. But some CCGs persist afterward, sustained by strong communities not ready to drop their hobby. As one example, I recently joined a local play group for Vampire: The Eternal Struggle, a game that like its namesake creature has managed to survive, even thrive, despite its “death” in 2010.
Set in White Wolf Publishing’s World of Darkness universe, where their popular role-playing games such as Vampire: The Masquerade take place, Vampire: The Eternal Struggle (or VtES, as it is commonly abbreviated) is a game designed by Richard Garfield. Two or more players—ideally four or five, as the rules of the game were designed with a multiplayer setup in mind—take on the roles of Methuselahs, ancient vampires of immense influence, who are each trying to deplete the influence of the player sitting to their left (known as the player’s “prey”) while defending themselves against the player to their right (their “predator”). The influence itself, beyond representing a player’s “life” in essence, is also used to recruit younger vampires to one’s cause by moving the requisite number of tokens from one’s pool onto the desired vampire, which until it awakens remains face down in an “uncrontrolled region” of the Methuselah’s playing space. This parlaying of life into table presence feels very vampiric and macabre, as the stronger your board becomes, the closer you are to defeat.
A Methuselah’s network is vast and far-reaching, and these mighty vampires are never out of options. To reflect this, whenever a card is played from a player’s hand, the player draws a new card from their deck to replace it. Upon first glance, this mechanic manages to avoid the feeling of helplessness that comes when someone is down to one or two cards and has nothing to do except play optimally with what is already on the table. In practice, though, it means far more in that the increase in options available at any one time allows the player to build decks with more convoluted and complex strategies than in other games. This is important, as the overall flow of play depends heavily on who a player’s predator and prey are. Someone whose deck relies on calling referendums may find it difficult to bring anything to a vote when their every move is intercepted by the opponent, so it never hurts to include cards to deal with any combat that might ensue. Vampires by their very nature are difficult to kill, but the more a deck devotes itself to violence, the easier it becomes to remove threats from the table—and the less capable that deck becomes at doing other things, such as “bleeding” one’s prey of influence. If a player ever runs out of influence, they are ousted, their predator earns one victory point, and the ousted player’s prey becomes the predator’s new prey. It is therefore possible for a player who has been ousted to win in the end: after all, running out of influence is well worth it if it means the Methuselah’s goals in uit are ultimately resolved.
While the game is no longer being published by White Wolf, and cards on the secondary market are in limited supply, the player community known as the Elder Kindred Network has designed PDF-based sets to continue the game. Self-printed proxies of cards are allowed in open play as well, and custom and premade decks using them are available through the deck-building website Amaranth. Moreover, earlier this year Black Chantry Productions obtained the license to print new and previous cards independently in fixed sets and is currently doing so via print on demand through DriveThruCards, with plans to move to traditional distribution in brick-and-mortar game stores, offering beginner-friendly products in the future. If the meantime, for players seeking to get into the game immediately, Black Chantry recommends seeking out a starter deck (still available in some stores) or borrowing a deck from someone in your play group, and I agree with both of these recommendations.