The “Jyhad” is the eternal war between ancient Methuselahs in White Wolf’s popular World of Darkness setting. It’s a conflict of clandestine offensives launched from the shadows. Vampires endlessly crave, desiring not just cruor but demonstrable power. Perhaps its their lingering vestiges of humanity, perhaps its a heightened need to control others. Regardless, we Methuselahs take to the streets with tooth and claw when the red sky turns over.
Jyhad was Richard Garfield’s 1994 CCG follow-up to Magic: The Gathering. It later became known as Vampire: The Eternal Struggle and has endured close to 30 years.
And it blew right past me.
In the late 90s I was stuffing my brain with AD&D and my fists with the Star Wars CCG. I wasn’t even aware of Garfield’s post-Magic design work. I spent time playing Axis & Allies, Catan, and Warhammer Quest. But Vampire: The Eternal Struggle and Netrunner? Nope, I had no idea.
But now it’s 2021 and we mend those wounds with the blood of Cain’s descendants. This wizardry is happening due to a small U.K. publisher called Black Chantry. They’re the current publisher of Vampire: The Eternal Struggle and they’re doing things a little differently than Wizards of the Coast. Instead of randomized card packs they’ve released a number of pre-configured starter decks as well as more advanced sets. Now they’re rebooting the game entirely with a “fifth edition.”
That’s why we’re here.
The boxed set features a cleaned up rulebook that’s been through a number of hands, including the skilled Paul Grogan who’s contributed to many a board game over the years. From what I understand, no actual – or at least no significant – rules have been changed. Instead, we’re simply given additional examples and a more thorough explanation for this somewhat complex title.
While a re-vamped rulebook is nice, the real asset here is the five pre-assembled decks. These include new builds for Malkavian, Nosferatu, Toreador, Tremere, and Ventrue. If you’ve never played this game or one of the World of Darkness RPGs then you have no idea what I’m talking about. These are the various clans on offer which is a solid core mix of factions.
As you’d expect, each deck operates in its own creative space. Some are focused on bleeding out your opponents, a strategy of applying physical attrition to your foe’s lifeforce, others embrace the game’s political subsystem where new laws are voted into effect. It feels as though each deck has a long tail as the discovery phase can extend into many dozens of plays. Additionally, it feels as though you can take different paths and utilize alternate strategies game to game. It certainly doesn’t present as though your direction is prescribed to a narrow path.
This game is magnificent. I was absolutely stricken with how fresh and energetic this design feels despite its incredibly long teeth, despite having seen many of these mechanisms in other releases, systems built upon systems in that never-ending river of influence.
While Garfield’s composition may have influenced countless subsequent titles, none of them land so sharply or with such ferocity as this generative work. Sitting there in an extended shadow war with four others, there’s this deep sense that you’re extending your forces through the streets of New Orleans or Chicago, cutting up the city and dividing it for sovereign rule amongst your fellow clans. Interred themes of control and isolation surface through the game’s varied systems and there are moments of legitimate immersion.
True, there are many rough spots in this game. It plays best at five but nearly as well at four. Three participants technically works but you start bumping against the limitations. With a full complement you’re looking at a minimum two and a half hour commitment. Indeed, that’s a bit insane for a collectible card game.
The experience can also be uneven. Part of this problem is inflicted by the game’s strongest innovation: the predator and prey system. This limits you to attacking the player on your left, your prey, and of course being targeted by the player on your right, your predator. You’ve likely played a game that uses this Garfield created convention. Usually it feels as though it’s a way to shoehorn multiplayer into a design that was obviously crafted for only two participants; Star Realms immediately comes to mind.
Not here. Vampire: The Eternal Struggle was crafted from the ground up to support this system. It’s the heart of the game providing the mechanism for players to manipulate tempo and exert influence. The card pool was created with the intentions of supporting these considerations and it enables all of the drama and fireworks that erupt over the length of play.
Combat here is handled expertly. As you deploy vampires to the table you won’t typically target another player’s minions. Instead you will seek to “bleed” your prey by directly deducting from their blood pool. This is incredibly important because a Methuselah is defeated – yes, fully eliminated from play – if their blood is completely drained. But there’s a constant pressure as deploying more warriors to the table requires you to spend that precious blood. It’s a tightrope wound in razorwire and it will leave you in torment.
When you attempt to bleed your opponent they have the opportunity to block your action with one of their own vampires. This intercept maneuver is where the physical clashes occur. The fight system involves playing cards from your hand to execute thrusts and counters and is somewhat complex for the space it occupies. But like most everything in this game, it feels deep and full of subtle considerations.
As you utilize vampires they’re exhausted making them unavailable until your next turn. Again, that dance upon the barbed rope. You must weigh a potential offensive against holding back your minions for defense. Complexity rises when your prey begins to perform well, placing further pressure on you to stymie their position.
It’s a complex and dynamic experience. As you’re sitting there, holding a hand of varied and powerful cards, your mind races. There’s an intense feeling of a layered relationship between the participants, a unique ecology of interaction that gives way to acute negotiation.
Then a player tries to push a law into effect and battle-lines come into focus. One traitor is lobbying for votes while another is shouting that we can’t let this happen. Despite the table housing multiple generations of cold blooded parasitic bastards, cheeks are flush and hearts are racing.
Simply by virtue of being a multiplayer focused heavily interactive design, Vampire: The Eternal Struggle is wholly unique. The fact that it’s damn excellent is important, but it could also be seen as secondary when assessing this work artistically for its historical significance.
Screw the history. This game is wild and entertaining right now.
But as I stated earlier, it’s uneven. You’re relying on those other mongrels sitting around the same wooden altar to perform their duties. There are times when the unpredictable vagaries of human behavior result in petty action and irrational maneuvers. You will lose games because others stumble or don’t apply pressure at the right time – or at least it will appear that way on the surface. Interaction, by its very nature, places responsibility of your game state on the shoulder of others. This experience is more akin to Dune or Cosmic Encounter than to Magic or Spellfire.
And it’s absolutely better for it.
Yet you have to be ready. You have to embrace it. You have to be perfectly fine with suffering elimination and watching your friends perform grisly theater from the cheap seats. That can be a tough sell as culturally games have mostly evolved past player elimination. Fortunately the benefit is an uncommonly heightened set of stakes.
Another challenge is that the text density on the power cards is very high. There are symbols, keywords, and characters stuffed to each edge of the pane and those with reading glasses better not leave those behind. This can eat into the game’s pace, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with your deck.
Every decision also feels rather significant as playing a card allows you to immediately draw a replacement from your deck. This unusual convention forces you to make due with your current options as there is no way to dump a bunch of cards and draw into an entirely new set of options. There’s a creeping sense of inevitability due to this incremental gain that’s both enticing and unsettling.
I don’t have the experience to offer a deep evaluation of the decks in this set. I know they’re constructed of both new and old cards. I also know they feel well-honed and expertly designed.
Coming at this as a newcomer, and judging this game exclusively by this fifth edition core set, I can’t help but appreciate this release not as a CCG begging endless retail pursuit but as a standalone boxed card game. It functions as an all-inclusive title that will likely stand up to an surprising number of plays. This isn’t a Fantasy Flight LCG starter where each player will be forced to buy multiple boxes and then spend precious time building decks and fully committing. This is a one time purchase, albeit a pricey one at $95, where players can simply show up.
You can commit yourself to learning a single deck, pounding your chest and declaring that you will always play Toreador and everyone else can shove it. Or you can swap seats and spend countless hours experimenting with new cards and strategies. There’s a whole world of restless gambits, slick exploits, and endless war to get to lost in.
However, if you shelve it for a year and come back once you’ve grown weary of your latest Kickstarter delivery, well then you may struggle. The rules are dense and players will need to be interested, at least at a surface level, to draw out this game’s best qualities. Like Netrunner or X-Wing, this will continue to give back to those dedicated.
If you ever arrive at a state of content exhaustion, well then you can acquire some of Black Chantry’s additional decks and begin to construct your own. You could even trawl online auctions and pick up cards that are 20 years old as all previous editions are supported. That path is not for me. I’m content viewing the fifth edition a complete set which is more meaningful as an artifact for me and my own.
I also reckon that I’ve avoided some of the significant problems of this game by just sticking with this bottled package. By not feeling a need to expand I’ve dodged years of power creep, imbalanced deck-builds, and inevitable metagame obsession. It’s as if I’ve experienced Vampire: The Eternal Struggle through rose colored glasses fashioned by the game’s most proficient adherents.
There’s so much to say about this game and so many angles I could have approached this article from. I hope I did it justice as my games thus far have been revelatory. This design has its flaws, but playing it feels important, like studying maps of the battle of Thermopylae or the circumstances of the 1860 presidential election. After churning through hundreds of cardboard coffins, that feeling doesn’t come around often.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.