Thursday, March 30, 2006

I Build, I Bleed, I Barter (Carcassonne - The City, Jyhad CCG and Santiago)

Well, it finally happened. The strike which was keeping my wife off course for nearly a month has finally ended. Good news for her, but bad news for gaming! The month off from WAGS I spoke of earlier will finally happen.

Lucky for me, it was my pick.

While waiting for Kozure, four of us played Carcassonne the City (Luch, Shemp, Sonja and I). Sonja hadn't played, but she was familiar with Carc Hunters and Gatherers, so she caught on pretty quick. The abstraction of the game defies session reporting... but let's just say that Shemp showed a knack for picking the right walls to guard. He won.

With Kozure ready and willing, I broke out the Jyhad CCG (now known as "Vampire: The Eternal Struggle" CCG).

To those not familiar with the game, it is a collectible card game (CCG) where each player takes the role of a Methuselah (an ancient and powerful Vampire) vying for ultimate control by destroying the influence of his opponents (measured in "blood pool"). Everyone has two decks: the first holds the cast of vampires which the Methuselah will use as pawns and the second holds cards representing the various actions those vampires may take. As the game was designed for multiplayer from the ground up, a number of design decisions help to keep the game from devolving into a slugfest where the least involved player inevitably wins. First is a "Predator - Prey" mechanic which forces a player to focus most of his atention to the player on his/her left. This means that your forces must be balanced to be offensive enough towards your prey while being defensive enough towards your predator at all times. It also means that any player more than one seat away from you is potentially your ally, since the pressure they place on your predator or prey makes life easier on you. Of course, things can't get too friendly, because as players are eliminated that player who used to be 2 seats away might now be your new predator or prey! Finally, a well implemented political system allows certain referendums to take place which can effect the whole table at once (and this is one of the key places where short term alliances across a table can really pay off).

The basic turn order works as follows:

1. Untap

2. The Methuselah can play a MASTER card, if he/she has any. This represents the Methuselah taking DIRECT action in the world, rather than through a minion.

3. The Methuselah can direct his minions to take action:
A damaged vampire can hunt to replenish him/herself
It can attempt to bleed his Methuselah's Prey
It can call a political action
It can equip itself with equipment or a retainer
It can engage an ally (non-vampire minion, like a werewolf or street gang)
An "ACTION" card can be played and the vampire does what the card says

4. The Methuselah transfers up to 4 points from his/ her blood pool (the "life" total of the player) to uncontrolled vampires he has waiting to enter the game. For this reason, a player must constantly balance his/ her well being with the need to employ minions in order to survive and thrive. (side note: blood pool is extremely hard to replenish, and is also the currency for playing MASTER cards, equiping minions, etc. Since being reduced to 0 blood pool eliminates a player from the game, these expenses must be carefully considered... it's not uncommon for a player to spend a good portion of the game teetering on oblivion)

ACTION MODIFIER cards can be played by the acting player to alter the action, and REACTION cards can be played by another player to counter the action (to be specific, the player's minions are playing those cards).

ACTIONS can be blocked. Actions have an associated STEALTH rating, and if the target METHUSELAH can muster enough INTERCEPT to match they can stop the action from happening. For this reason, STEALTH and INTERCEPT are the most fundamental ACTION MODIFIERS and REACTION CARDS.

If an action is succesfully blocked, the acting vampire and the blocking vampire enter combat. Combat has it's own subsystem, but all cards played are COMBAT cards. Vampires first determine range, then exchange strikes, and then determine if the combat will go to another round. Combat doesn't necessarily end with a defeated vampire.

* end of edit to add game description *

This game holds a special place in my heart because back in university I started playing it as soon as it came out. It quickly replaced Magic as my CCG of choice (I had also played Magic CCG, Illuminati CCG, Shadowrun CCG, Star Wars CCG and Dr. Who CCG). I lived with Luch at the time and we played it pretty much every chance we had. I wound up amassing a pretty large collection of cards and making quite a number of very good decks. At the time, Kozure and Shemp also played on occasion, but never got into it as much as we did.

Now, 10 years later, the introduction of Vampire: Prince of the City rekindled my interest to make decks and play again. I still counted it as one of my favorite games, despite it's long moratorium... I was very curious to see how it would go.

The answer is: Like a lead ballon.

Jyhad is a wonderful game on many levels. The game mechanics are very good. The theme is very well integrated into the game. There is real tension. The multiplayer aspect is extremely well implemented. Sadly, there are three very big downfalls:
1) The rules, though individually clear and straightforward, are complex due to sheer volume.
2) The game features player elimination.
3) The game is pretty long.

Now, when you combine a game that has lots of rules with the inherent complexities of a CCG, you wind up with quite a beast. Each card must be read and understood. Many have a fair bit of text on them, with different results in different circumstances. Most, by their very nature, are intended to allow something not normally allowed by the rules. That's a lot to take in. Make it a 5 player game, and it gets even more complex! Me and Luch were still pretty comfortable. Kozure didn't comment much, so I don't really know, but Shemp said he wasn't quite comfortable and Sonja was obviously buried in information overload. She had never played a CCG before, and it didn't help that I let her play a commercial preconstructed deck without being terribly familiar with it... The Ravnos deck she played turned out to be heavily defensive and reliant on tricky cards to get their job done.

But like I said, there is so much to admire! The central mechanic of giving up your own life essence to influence your minions (and other such things) is brilliant. The Predator/ Prey relationship gives order to the chaos which can result from multiplayer CCGs. That being said, the political system prevents the players from ever being able to ignore the players they are not directly involved with... "My enemy's enemy is my friend" is a concept which can really be turned to your advantage in Jyhad through the various referendums which come and go. The rules and card types do a great job of building a slow tension as everyone jockeys for position while hanging on to a very slim lifeline.

Our game pitted several clan specific decks against each other. The Nosferatu (me) preyed on the Ravnos (Sonja), who preyed on The Lasombra (Kozure), who preyed on the Brujah (Shemp), who preyed on the Tremere (Luch), who preyed on me.

Things were shaping up well. I started out quickly with a 4 capacity vampire, who soon equipped with a set of hand claws for increased combat damage and found a handy hunting ground (through a master card I played). I then influenced a larger minion to the table… a prince no less, and got ready to start doing some damage. Meanwhile, the other clans were readying their minions. There was a brutal battle between the Brujah and the Tremere which saw the 6 Tremere vampire reduced to 0 through 2 shots by a 22 magnum loaded with manstopper rounds. I managed to tear up one of Sonja’s big hitters myself, sending it to torpor after a few rounds of “growing furies” and the like. My referendum to force all players to lose 1 blood pool for every tapped vampire was also successful… Kozure, being neither my predator or my prey, had little to lose backing my position and the motion carried. We both lost 1 and the others lost 2-3 (to those who haven’t played the game, that difference may seem low, but every point is important as it’s not uncommon to spend a good chunk of the game trying to hold on with +/- 5 blood pool left!).

Although Shemp’s deck was doing fairly well, it could not do anything to prevent the stealthy Lasombra. One turn before I was going to eliminate Sonja, Kozure took out Shemp. Since the game was going long, and some weren’t really comfortable enough with the system to enjoy it, we called it at that point. Despite the good things going on, it was clear we weren’t firing on all cylinders. I guess it was too much too soon.

I think it’s fair to say that it wasn’t a success (though for me, I can definitely say the magic is still there)

We had a quick conversation on our preferences for types of complexity afterwards. It was very interesting! As I said before, CCGs are complex by their very nature because no matter how simple the rules are you are faced with a hand of cards and each has an effect which can change the environment, nature of rules and play. That said, each game system is likely to highlight different complexities.

Let’s take Jyhad and compare it to Illuminati CCG and Shadowrun CCG (since those are the other CCGs we play on occasion)

In Jyhad, there are many rules to cover the many phases and aspects of the game. It is rules complex.
In Illuminati, there are also a fair number of rules, but they tend to be variations on a central mechanic so it’s not too hard to pick up the basics. It’s rules moderate.
Shadowrun is a little more like Jyhad. There are several phases and subsystems, with cards specific to each. Still, it's significantly simpler overall.

In Jyhad, Your individual decisions are not to overwhelming, because you tend to be limited by the situation on the table and the cards in your hand. Once you understand the rules, gameplay is pretty straightforward (and the system has very few ambiguities, which is nice). Internalizing the rules is the main challenge.
In Illuminati, a fair bit of effort is required to understand what is on the table at a given time. There are countless modifiers through the cards in your hand, the cards on the table, the current “New World Orders”, etc. To complicate things further, on most turns any other player is free to get involved. Gameplay cannot be simplified without accepting that modifiers will be missed (that's probably the point, but it feels wrong to me). Typically, after trying to determine the possible outcome of a possible move, I give up and resort to "What the hell, let's see what happens".
In Shadowrun, you neither have too much to consider, nor much difficulty determining what to do on a round. Unfortunately, instead of resulting in a better game than both the other entries it kind of feels a little bland. It's a good game, but the least engaging of the three for me.

Since I am typically willing to absorb a lot of rules so long as the game plays smoothly afterwards, Jyhad suits me fine. Illuminati, on the other hand, I typically find overwhelming (though still enjoyable). Put a different way, once you "get" the Jyhad system, there isn't much to it. I feel I can focus on my objectives, weigh my options, try to manipulate the table, etc. Picking my action is an important decision, but figuring out the outcome is simple. In Illuminati, I will always have to stop and read all the cards on the table and do the math every turn (as does anyone else who wants to get involved). It's the same issue I had with Arkham Horror... I need to draw info from too many sources at one time to figure out what's going on at any given time. There are too many rules which need to be remembered and taken into consideration AT THE SAME TIME. More often than not, something gets forgotten. Again, in Illuminati I think that's part of the point, it's a humorous game after all. In Arkham Horror, it's just a problem (IMHO).

I’ll definitely try to bring this out again, but maybe with a smaller group and strictly with the decks I made up (as they were meant to be simpler than the preconstructed ones). Hopefully the audience will still be willing!

We finished off with a game of Santiago. I angled for a big potato farm, but didn’t quite make it. For a while, I was a contender! (I blew any chance I had in the second last round by going high on a bid and still winding up third… leaving me broke and with no good plantation to show for it). Luch was looking good with a few big stakes in a few fields, but in the end it was Shemp who carried it on the strength of some good representation in many fields of varying worth. On an amusing note, Sonja was endlessly perturbed by our group’s lack of interest in bribes. We all typically shunned the money and went for the strategic move on the board… which not only makes us very different than her other gamer friends but also pretty cheap (of course, if she thinks we are cheap at Santiago, she should see us at Traders of Genoa!).

See you in a month!


  1. I enjoy Jyhad/V:tES a lot - but with a maximum of four players (generally, experienced players could push it to five) and a open-ended time limit of 2-3 hours AND another game for the eliminated players to play once they're out.

    Player elimination is a harsh mistress.

    I think White Wolf's World of Darkness is one of the best RPG settings (thematically) only beat (possibly) by Shadowrun. This combined with a CCG system which has both tactical and strategic depth, makes for a game with a lot of meat.

    A lot of meat... bloody meat.

    Mmmmm... .blood...


    It's a fiddly rules system, but I think you could reasonably get it down after two or three plays and at least one read-through of the actual rulebook.

    It had been quite some time since we had played (probably longer for me than for Agent Easy), but a five-minute scan of the rulebook and I felt like I was back in the know. Then again, I tend to be able to pick up new systems fairly quickly.

    Major criticisms of the game include long down time, especially with novice players, and player elimination. Artwork, theme and gameplay tends to be above average.

    Deck design can be tricky - it's clever that WW is putting out the pre-themed clan starter decks.

    Santiago - I'm getting better at this game. Not bad, actually a good tool for teaching risk management and simple multiplication - too bad about the bribery element.

  2. Kozure,

    glad to hear you like the game... I'm really hoping to get it back to the table soon.

    With practice, a 4 player game should only run an hour and a half (or so). Games between me and Luch in university were about 20 min! An idea might be that we each take "ownership" of a deck and get to know it (and obviously we would modify them to make improvements as weaknesses became apparent). This would speed things up considerably.

    You are right that one of the flip sides of the predator/prey relationship is that any player not to the left of the acting player has very little to do (unless a vote or special directed action comes out). In the end, I think the trade-off is worth it, but I can definitely see how it would bother someone.

    I actually had brought Lord of the Rings: Confrontation for any eliminated players to play, but decided to go with Luch's suggestion that we stop the game. In retrospect, since Sonja and Shemp were going to be exiting at about the same time it might have been possible to go on. Oh well.

    As an aside... not a fan of Santiago? Personally, I think it's pretty good, but not great. The system is simple, there's good interaction and there are reasonably interesting decisions to be made throughout. Still, it falls a little short of being really engaging. Not sure why.