Review: Vampire: the Eternal Struggle 5th Edition
Back in the 1994 Richard Garfield—creator of Magic: the Gathering—published a follow-up to his revolutionary collectable card game (CCG). This game was called Jyhad, and it was made in conjunction with White Wolf Publishing (WW), the creators of the highly-successful RPG Vampire: the Masquerade. Jyhad was published by Wizards of the Coast (WotC) and was the third CCG ever created (behind Magic, and TSR's Spellfire). It was created as a multiplayer card game, long before EDH or Commander took the casual Magic world by storm, and was known for its complex rules, and dark imagery. In 1995 it was renamed to Vampire: the Eternal Struggle (VtES), and in 1996, after the Sabbat expansion, it was dropped by WotC. WW took up production in 2000, and the game continued until 2010, when WW announced it was ceasing production. In 2018, three years after WW was acquired by Paradox Interactive, Black Chantry Productions (BCP) was leased the rights to continue production of this game, and in 2020 they released the starter set to the new edition, which I'm reviewing here.
Vampire: the Eternal Struggle is a multiplayer card game where each player represents a Methuselah, an ancient vampire whose powers have become almost godlike, but whose presence remains shrouded and hidden. Each player is attempting to oust their prey (the player to their left) from the game, while trying to evade their predator (the player to their right). A Methuselah uses blood pool as a resource to control younger vampires, and power their disciplines to enact their goals. Cards represent now only vampires, and weapons, but political actions and disciplines (supernatural vampiric powers).
The game is meant to be played by multiple people sitting around a table. Though it is playable as a two-player game, most of the fun comes from the subtle alliances and maneuvering players can engage in. You see, most of the cards you have and the actions you can take can only affect your prey. Therefore you're constantly putting yourself in a better position than your predator, all the while keeping an eye on the other players at the table, for should your predator become ousted from the game, another player will take their place.
In the past, VtES was a CCG which, if you're not familiar, meant that players collected packs of random cards from various sets, and used these cards to build decks. Unlike a lot of CCGs, VtES required its players to build two decks of cards: a library (a collection of items, allies, and abilities much like any other CCG), and a crypt (your unwitting vampiric pawns).
What's New With the 5th Edition?
In this edition of VtES, the random assignment of cards is gone. Instead, BCP sells themed collections of cards, whose contents are known, and players are able to build decks from this collection. While I love buying boosters and seeing what I get, I understand that this model is becoming increasingly hard for unestablished companies to do, and less desirable for players and collectors who may already have one or more other games they collect that follow this model. There was a period where I was collecting multiple CCGs and finding it increasingly hard to stay up to date collection-wise with all of them at once.
Other than the change in collectible format, and some tidying up of some wordings/errata, the game is largely the same as its always been. In fact, your old cards are still usable (though you should check the updated wording).
BCP also got rid of the Deckmaster logo on the back of the cards. Now this may not seem like much, but it actually means that in official events, if you're using cards from different sets you'll have to play with sleeves. This was already the case, however, as the third edition of the game (2006) had the backs of the cards printed upside down.
What I Like About It
I love how atmospheric this game is. It's a quintessential Richard Garfield game in that it is thematic, and the mechanics of the game simultaneously work as a game and enhance that atmosphere. Not only do the cards look hard and elegant, but the mechanics reflect the jockeying for power, and the Machiavellian tactics that go into becoming the supreme Methuselah in the modern nights. I loved the art of the original set, and lamented that in its later expansions the art suffered somewhat due to the game being an afterthought of WW. This edition collects some of the best art throughout the game's run when it doesn't have new art that matches VtES' legacy.
The Starter Set
So what do you get in this box, and is it worth it? If you've never played VtES, or your getting back into it after years of absence and don't have any cards left, then it's a great way to get started with your pals right away. There are five pre-constructed decks that won't take you to the final round in a tournament, but are great for some first games. You also get a ton of cardboard, punch-out, tokens, and a full rulebook.
I'll admit that I'm not as aged a Methuselah enough to know how good or fun these decks are at first blush, but they cover five of the major Camarilla clans (Malkavian, Nosferatu, Toreador, Tremere, and Venture), all in cardboard deck boxes and with their new reimagined logos. I also believe these are available separately. The cards inside look basic enough, and look varied enough as well.
The rulebook is well-written and laid out; better than it's ever been. I always thought it funny that even when the third edition starter set came out in a similarly-sized box, it still had that classic '90s-era tiny rulebook that fit inside the deck box. This one is A5-sized, in color, and is easy to read. You also get some handy cheat sheets (enough for each player).
My only complaint would be the cardboard tokens. They're fine as far as cardboard goes, and I get that unlike the third edition boxed set I'm going to compare this to these are full-sized decks, but I really liked the blood-colored glass beads of the third edition set. I still have them, and intend to use them. I guess a lesser complaint would be that once you punch out all the tokens and you stick them in a tiny sealable bag (not included) you can't get them back into the box! I guess I could just toss them in there, loosely but that doesn't appeal to my sensibilities. I also don't see how I can get the cards and decks back into the box once I sleeve them. This one is a complaint I wish more board and card game companies would address, but I actually understand why they don't.
So Whaddya Say?
I've always thought VtES was a superb game. It's complex, probably the most complex CCG out there right now, but if you can get a full table of people invested in the game, then it's worth it. And what better way to get people invested in the game than to teach them with a handy starter set? Now I won't mince words: it's an expensive set. It cost me $100 Canadian retail. However, considering the decks themselves retail for around $27 Canadian, it's a good deal. If you're not sure about spending the cash yourself, maybe ask your game group if they wouldn't mind chipping in and splitting the set. If the responsibility of building a group doesn't fall to you, or you already know of a group that plays, it might be a better idea to buy another pre-constructed deck that BCP offers, or seeing what the prospective group has to lend or trade to get you started.
+ Check out Black Chantry Productions website for details on how to get the cards, and more info.
+ Check out the free full rulebook here.
+ There's a fan site called Vampire Elder Kindred Network, who I believe, also run official tournaments.
+ Because it's the 21st century, there's also print-on-demand cards available through DriveThruCards.