As a longtime fan of Vampire: The Eternal Struggle, I was hopeful for Rivals. The concept is a 45 minute multiplayer card game of intrigue, politicking, and violence. In addition to the World of Darkness setting, it’s clear that many of the foundational elements also share a link to that famous Richard Garfield CCG. It’s a cool sell. Who doesn’t want an abbreviated and streamlined take on VtES?
While it’s easy to identify the genesis of this design, it’s much more difficult to understand its final form.
This is not Vampire: The Eternal Struggle. And not in the obvious way of swapping out the frustrating collectible format for the more friendly LCG model. No, this game’s identity is a significant departure from that earlier design.
The issue is that I can’t quite determine what that identity is. I’m not sure the game itself knows.
Rivals has a complex rules width which doesn’t quite fit its weight. This isn’t Kanban or Oath. It’s a little sub-hour card game, but it’s trying to stretch itself in a very awkward and unbecoming manner.
Typically, complexity is built from a very simple core structure. Imagine an unremarkable skeleton with ample strength and maximum efficiency to support layers of muscle, what I’d call depth. Think of something like the COIN series from GMT. The underlying structure is an area control game where you flip an event card and a player either triggers the card or passes. The complexity then is placed atop that core format by providing asymmetric orders for each faction and intertwining logistic and political dependencies.
Think of Twilight Imperium. The basis for play is the Puerto Rico inspired action selection mechanism. Each player takes a turn picking a strategic action they will trigger. The heft then arrives via how these selections interact and the decisions ripple, how each fuels the military industrial complex, and how your faction’s peculiarities texture these interactions.
You start simple and push out.
Rivals has this all inside out. Instead of a simple and sleek skeleton it’s an amalgamation of fused bone, its structure jutting out in unpredictable fashion. Atop that scaffolding is a taut skin, stretched to its limits and without a measurable sense of density.
As it looks, it feels; uneven and clunky.
But it should be simple. You take one of the four included clans, each outfitted with their own uniquely built deck, and then take quick turns performing two actions. You can deploy new vampires, press the attack against your foes, or trigger events more capacious in scope. The goal is to be the first to amass 13 agenda points, or alternatively possess the most when a player is eliminated ending the game. Yes, there’s no spectating or loitering here.
And it does feel simple at first. Vampires have three stats, each used in combat with an enemy. Your cohort can exist in one of two board positions: in the streets where they’re more vulnerable or in your haven where they have a measure of protection. Turns fly by as you’re generally playing a card or two, possibly drawing one to dig through your deck.
Then things to start to unfurl and it gets more cloudy. You learn about your Agenda, a card which highlights how each faction pursues those victory points. You dive into the City Deck and learn how there are neutral parties, some of which want you dead and others which serve as meat dangling on a spit. There are also straight events which can cause consternation or delight.
Next is Prestige, your total health of sorts which you must protect in order to survive. Aha, but you spend Prestige to expand your coterie and bring new vampires into play. Oh, and there’s this thing called the Prince of the City title. Titles are a separate subsystem that really only one of the prebuilt decks embrace.
Wait, there’s many paths to victory?
Why, yes, of course. It’s the most promising aspect of Rivals.
There’s attacking, obviously, with offensive cards and counters, regular and aggravated damage. Torpor too for when a vampire is defeated but not burned wholesale. There are Schemes, which are neat little moments of democracy as players exert Influence to vote for mid-game rules modifications. Then there are Conspiracies which you will likely confuse with Schemes from a terminology perspective, but they work completely differently.
There’s more. Vampires are grouped into parties in an attempt to add depth to the combat mechanisms. This matters, but only in specific circumstances, at least with the base pool of cards. There is also mending, retainers, attaching weapons, ranged attacks which are an exception to normal combat, and a few other things I may have forgotten.
The very name of the game comes from a core tenet of assigning you a specific enemy you want to defeat. This is very similar to the conventional Eternal Struggle predator/prey approach, but it can’t quite get there without taking a wrong turn and refusing to ask for directions. Instead of merely attacking the player on your right, we randomize each other’s rival from a pool of tokens. It’s possible you draw your own and there’s an explicit process for when only two players remain with their own tokens in the pool. It just feels clumsy when it shouldn’t.
In trying to do so much, Rivals never finds its identity.
All of this would be forgivable, even celebrated, if these various systems produced a rich and engaging experience. Unfortunately, each of these different mechanisms is shallow. Worse yet, to succeed you need to construct your deck entirely around one of these trivial strategic vectors, with secondary consideration arising mostly from your selection in supporting vampire cast.
Let me explain. If you choose to build a deck around the agenda that rewards executing Conspiracies, you will need to commit entirely to this. With only two actions a turn and an abbreviated playtime, half or more of your actions will be playing Conspiracies or trying to juggle resources to push them forward. There are interesting action cards and a couple of neat flourishes which surprise, but there’s no real strategic anguish. Instead, you sort of repeat the same process over and over. It’s effectively a race to that 13 victory point threshold so you’re never braking.
Meanwhile, another player may be engaging their own engine of amassing titles. This is happening in their slice of the table and provides little interaction with your position. If you’re lucky, another player will be utilizing a combat focused deck so you can actually tussle a bit. The counter-play to that is turtling and trying to build up defensive combat cards with as little effort as possible. You don’t have time to try and snipe a weak member of the aggressors team or split their forces, however, as that won’t help you win.
While the overall system feels as though it has much to explore, it’s disappointing in that you engage just a subset of those mechanisms with each play. It almost feels like the intention was to provide a wide scope because the depth of any individual element is simply not there. There’s just not enough strategic variation to hold up if repeatedly playing the same deck over and over, so you end up swapping to a new one and trying to experiment with a component you hadn’t driven before.
This stands in stark contrast to Eternal Struggle which offers a very lush experience, albeit one costly in time. Rivals also performs poorly in comparison to other similarly structure LCGs such as Android: Netrunner. A solidly built Netrunner deck demands at least five plays to begin to understand the more nuanced considerations. I’ve played Terminal Directive, a Netrunner campaign spanning 12 plays, utilizing the same deck with minimal swapping of cards between sessions. I can’t imagine taking a Rivals deck and sticking double-digit games in a row with similar circumstances.
No matter which way I turn, it feels off. You bring seven vampires into play, drawing them intermittently from a separate deck, but the cost to deploy one is so high that you will usually only spin up two or three. The City Deck is neat, but the execution is poor as it causes rules confusion and clutters up the table. The requirement for a player to mark an ongoing event with one of their tokens so we can remember to later discard it – effectively after every player has experienced the event once – is a perfect microcosm of the design’s clumsiness.
Even the social aspect is underwhelming, mostly because the brevity of play undercuts any need for long-term planning or alliances. Negotiation is entirely circumstantial and for near-term benefit, which isn’t altogether terrible but it becomes just another shallow element to toss in the barrel.
Since everything is so momentary and devoid of permanence, there’s no really emotional fallout or impactful narrative from play. It’s difficult to become invested in what’s happening because what’s happening feels inconsequential. If you attempted to explain what occurred in any particular play of Rivals, the story you presented would be one note and devoid of twists or drama.
It’s easy to read these words and write off my criticisms with the notion that I’m judging this game on the basis of Vampire: The Eternal Struggle. I quickly abandoned that approach and sought to evaluate Rivals for what it was. But it isn’t doing the work, it’s not meeting me half-way.
Perhaps it feels unfinished and rough because that’s exactly the case. Maybe much of this is the groundwork for future card-sets which will add depth and vibrancy. I’m not overly optimistic at this point because it will be difficult to provide more room to maneuver in such a constricted and tight action and Prestige economy.
I mentioned earlier how I couldn’t quite define Vampire Rivals‘ identity because it was so scattershot and confused. I’ve come to settle on such a quality – utter bewilderment – representing the work’s character. Rivals is sadly a gangly and twisted creature, one encompassing an awkward and imprecise state of being.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.