I was asked within the past couple of weeks when I thought V:TES was at its best. I think the question had to do with when it was at its best designwise. Regardless, that’s how I interpreted the question when I gave my answer.
Before getting to that answer, there are of course various ways to judge best. Most fun is whenever someone likes the game the best, which, in a lot of cases with CCGs, is often in the first year of playing the game. Best environment is more objective. As many mistakes as I think have been made in managing V:TES under WW, there were still many good things to say about the environment. The game did achieve a better balance over time and a lot of things that weren’t viable became so.
Having said that, my answer is prior to Final Nights. Yes, that would be after WW had put out all of one set and not even a fully realized expansion set but a Sabbat redux with a minority of new cards.
Why so long ago?
Because FN began a pattern* that included a number of elements of really poor design. In my usual way of interrupting my own narratives, let me say some good things about the set.
* For full expansions. Sabbat War’s new library cards were not the most brilliant things ever, either, and many of my comments about FN and later sets would apply to SW’s library cards.
There were questions as to the viability of the indie clans prior to FN. Followers of Set? Okay, not a huge argument for viability but still a big question of “Why not play Malks/!Malks?” The other three were considered to have massive problems. At the time, I recall believing that was the case for two out of three and continued to believe that for Assamites even after FN due to how bad the Quietus cards were out of that set.
The one indie clan that I seemed to hold a different opinion on was Giovanni. I was all like, “Dominate plus Spectral Divination plus don’t play the terrible allies is not bad.” Well, there was one more part to the puzzle – Jar the Soul. Yes, Jar the Soul these days is fairly uninspiring. So, why consider it relevant back then? Okay, one more part to the puzzle – The Embrace. Back when The Embrace could get a skill card, virtually anything could be turned into a weenie bleed deck. In the Giovanni’s case, the weenie Necromancers could tap out my prey while my Dominaters Dominated people into oblivion. Or, they could just swarm bleed.
I tried to prove the viability of this strategy in a tournament shortly before FN’s release. I failed. I got to the finals, I got a VP, I scared my next prey so much he Dramatic Upheavaled out of my way, I ousted my new prey (by accident, terrible mistake), and I lost to a tooled up Cailean based on seeding when his controller also got 2 VPs. Of course, one could argue that winning one tournament with 10-12 people was hardly conclusive of the awesome power that is tap and bleed with Dominate.
Interestingly, doing the same sort of thing with Embraces with Assamites, where the Kennies got Obfuscate and maybe toss in some Dominate, would have made about as much sense for showing the viability of Assamites pre-FN.
Anyway, getting to the good things about FN, since I managed to get way sidetracked. FN did massive work for helping Giovanni – Call of the Hungry Dead, Shambling Hordes, Isabel Giovanni and friends, etc. – and Ravnos – The Path of Paradox, Week of Nightmares, Gabrin, Gabrin, Gabrin, etc. FoS didn’t get nearly as much of a boost and Assamites got shafted, even if the Assamites did start developing Dominate as all right-winning clans are apt to do.
Key midrange vampires, if nothing else, was huge. As the first true expansion set, with Sabbat War being mostly reprints, FN also introduced a variety of new ideas, some cool, some good, some both.
So, why did FN begin a downfall in design?
There are multiple elements to good design, of course. Cards that suck are typically poorly designed simply because they could have done much the same thing only better and not suck. But, card strength is not the end all and be all of design by any stretch of the imagination. Cards should be unambiguous. Cards should feel right in thematic or pseudothematic ways that are easier to provide examples for then explain. Cards should work the way people will expect them to work. Cards should be elegant …
What makes for elegance?
Brevity, for one thing.
One can quibble about how to rate specific cards, but here are summaries for library card rares and library card commons where I first used a five star rating system, then grouped three star and above together to form “Good”:
These only address the quality of the cards for constructed play. (I must admit that limited play does exist, but I really don’t care enough about it to rate cards for it.) Get to a couple of other elements of design in a moment, but this should suggest a rather huge problem with publishing crap.
Whether you want to be more offended by bad rares or by bad commons, you can freely be offended by both with this set. Keep in mind that “Bad” doesn’t mean below tournament level, “Bad” really means below mediocre in this case. What criteria did I use for rating the cards? I primarily used a combination of my own views with what I can recollect of prevalence in tournament winning decks; in a small number of cases, where I was iffy on how to rate something, I did a search of the TWDA.
It might be fun to argue over ratings of cards, it might not. But, low card quality isn’t the only problem with the set. Let me pull out a few cards. Sniper Rifle makes my good group, but it has card interaction complexity … no … that’s not really the big problem with it. It has card interaction issues more so because it doesn’t work “comfortably” more so than because of complexity. It’s not actually that complex what trumps it and what it trumps so much as people keep asking. Week of Nightmares is so very long. I still see people misplay Mirror Image.
Some complexity in cards, some nonintuitiveness, some length, some awkwardness of interactions are all inevitable. But, they should be the exceptions. Many of the cards with long text or that don’t work as you first think don’t make for interesting combinations of effects; rather, they just needlessly complicate the game. In other words, besides the power level issues with the set, I perceive a lack of elegance.
But, this was the first real expansion set, one might claim. Aren’t most first expansions for CCGs underpowered and a mess of good ideas poorly executed and bad ideas dominating the few good ideas that are well executed?
Sure, then we got Bloodlines. If I had to identify the time period when I was most excited by the game in the WW era, it would probably be between Bloodlines and Camarilla Edition. But, Bloodlines was a mess. I forgive it quite a bit since it was far more ambitious than anything put out for the game to that point, WotC or WW. If it wasn’t surrounded by the other sets of the time, it wouldn’t really feel like part of the problem. But, at the time, ignoring CE, which was almost all reprints of library cards and crypt cards are never as problematic for producing a bunch of coasters or for design issues outside of power level, Bloodlines was followed up by: Anarchs – lot of junk, awkward mixing in of Gangrel/Protean, poor core mechanics; Black Hand – lot of junk, narrow mechanics, very bland set with few good cards; Gehenna – major shakeup in how the game worked due to Events resulting in highly uncomfortable moments**.
** For instance, Recalled to the Founder did, in fact, once upon a time, burn vampires. It was rather unpleasant for Chicago Circle decks of the day.
V:TES is not an easy game to expand in that there are 30+ clans and 20+ disciplines – just far too many deckbuilding components, nevermind getting into things like sect, to fit coherently into expansions. So, you get a form of expansion rotation. Now, it’s indie time, now it’s Sabbat time, now it’s “we left this out of an earlier set and must play catch up time” (see !Trem and Protean).
No CCG is all that easy to expand after a certain point. Increased complexity is inevitable. It gets harder, if not as hard as companies seem to make it out to be, to find elegant cards.
So, why bitch about V:TES design?
Actually, kind of wasn’t. Was just noting that the design of the game had peaked at a particular time long, long ago. That’s not unexpected. Babylon 5 was a better designed game pretty much before every expansion set, i.e. design likely peaked after the initial set and kept getting worse with every expansion. That didn’t mean that it was optimized in enjoyment prior to the first expansion.
Now, FN could have been a lot better. Bloodlines could have been more focused, creating less mechanics bloat on the game, while having more sensible rarities, more sensible outferiors, better balance, etc. Anarchs could have been less a mix of bringing back the Gangrel while trying to introduce something new, something new that sucked powerwise but introduced the very interesting three-way mechanic. Black Hand could have been less boring, less narrow, less weak. Gehenna could have not saddled us with the more annoying events. And, so on.
At the same time, those sets could have been worse. FN could have failed the Giovanni and Ravnos as much as it did the Assamites. Bloodlines could have been overpowered, more underpowered, duller. Anarchs could have omitted Repo Man. Black Hand could have excluded more clans from being BH to reflect source material biases. Gehenna could have been more like the rules in the Prophecies League, which were far more brutal.
Is there any lesson to be drawn? While there are always lessons if given the chance to start anew, such as with a new CCG, for V:TES the point of this was mostly just to comment upon the history of the game and to remind people that problems with long, complicated, crappy cards have been around for quite a while.