Love and Agony in Utrecht

Let this be taken as the complete and true retelling of Benedict B. Fox’s very first foray to the European VTES scene.

The story begins, like many such things do, with an ending of another, as the death of FFG’s final competitive LCG left the globally renowned Team Cork seeking a new setting to experience the joy and camaraderie of the card-playing tournament scene. Discovery of the unlikely story that is VTES blossoming into a new edition somewhere in the shadows quickly leads to some card purchases, some messing around on Tabletop Simulator, and an inevitable commitment to try it out in meatspace.

Preparation

Preparing for the event we first had to identify the full travelling quorum and from that establish the goals of the trip. Unfortunately Coach, Maverick, and Singer couldn’t make it out on this occasion, so just the Fox would have to find a way to represent Ireland solo. 

The first goal is simple and obvious, this being the very first event, and that is to get a true sense of what VTES is like in reality. Like plenty of games may have all kinds of appeal: Magic with its legions and players and breathtaking art is always a temptation, but far far too often ends up bringing out the worst in people on the tournament scene. 

The second one is perhaps unusual in the scope of ambition, but having had the team previously firmly plant the country flag in the hearts of the Netrunner and Game of Thrones scenes, we set off to mark the rebirth of the Irish VTES scene, reintroducing it to the European tournament circuit, setting off to represent what we bring to a tournament setting.

The latter set off some requirements in deck preparation, kicking off the search for the most Irish vampire to front our deck. The bold Dónal O’Connor stepped up from the annals of the game’s history, and we immediately heard his theme song welling up in the background as the card approached the sleeve (https://youtu.be/HLkHKdVN_Yw). The outline of the nation quickly filled out with the Peace Treaty as a key event for the State, Disputed Territory as an everyday reality on the island, our Heroic Might, global influence with the likes of Power Base: Montreal and New Carthage, and of course creative use of Torn Signposts:

Father Ted - Channel4 Sitcom - Father Ted and Dougal Protest
Creative use of Torn Signposts

The rest of the deck was more the stuff to round it out to approximate a good deck VTES people might run. 

To help understand the true flow of VTES games and events and more smoothly integrate into the meta, we reached out to today’s tournament finest to draft up a tournament bible, to guide the prep, table manner, and overall strategy.  The community’s generosity was truly overwhelming and the following guiding principles (in no particular order) were formed:

I – Fun = mandatory II – Slay the sinister
III – The guys tell lies
IV – Defense wins Championships
V – Blessed are the meek
VI – Gotta know when to hold ‘em
VII – Fight Forever!
VIII – Closers get coffee (https://youtu.be/QMFwFgG9NE8)
IX – Be Cool (this one deserves to be waaay higher on the list, should it ever emerge sorted by importance) X – Friends from the other side
XI – Luck be a lady
XII – All is not as it seems
XIII – Reading is fundamental
XIV – No gifts from the wicked
XV – Pay the hand that feeds you
XVI – Can’t get bitter (https://youtu.be/cX5U8dnRLH8)
XVII – Sweep the leg
XVIII – Pics or it didn’t happen
XIX – Time ain’t nothing but time
XX – Let your no be No
XXI – In vino veritas XXII – No truth without name

Mulling over all of those, we get the first plot twist: event is in danger of turning into a multi-deck one, so a panicked search for another Irish vampire kicks off, finally tracking down Aisling Sturbridge, who seems plenty keen to have a bonfire night of her own, and seems well positioned to lead a rag-tag band to some explosive neutralisation of much grander targets. Third deck doesn’t seem as easy to locate, so with hours vanishing before us, we just go with Giovanni, coz they’re green, and Guillaume is one moustache trimming away from looking like he might try to sell ya a gate. 

(The following two sections are more general musings on prepping for tournaments as a fastidious card player, and travelling between countries in the apocalypseish age we find ourselves in, so feel free to skip to the Game Day section. Ed.)

Accoutrements

Sleeve choice for decks comes down to planned purpose of the deck. Deck 1 gets steady as a rock grey from Dragon Shields, accompanied by crimsons from the same company. Deck two, that may need a quick burst to the finish, gets fiery crimson, with gold crypt, creating a symphony of purpose. Finally should the final table need to be played, the third deck gets the stability of greys, paired with golds for the crypt to fit in with the surrounding champions.  All double sleeved, which is a bit of an extravagance, but I like the substantial feel this gives to cards, make each feel important. 

Glass beads seem the dominant choice for classy methuselahs, so I procure some from a Polish decoration shop. 

Playmat options are few so far, but that certainly doesn’t take anything away from BCP’s Bleeding With Style offering.

V:tES - Love and Agony - Coins

My custom box with the 103 double-sleeved card capacity arrives, with the Fox knot proudly engraved on the side. 

I managed to procure a membership card from time immemorial, get the excitement of acquiring my number from perhaps my favourite country to card game in (Team Cork have over the years repped in 15+ countries over the years from California to Bangkok and all kinds of places in between). 

Additionally now that Amazon Prime’s American Gods has outed the constitutional provision that we have to hand over a coin from our horde to the person who defeats the biggest leprechaun they have ever met, I set some aside for the table winners ahead of time, avoid the risk of accidentally handing over my lucky one.

V:tES - Love and Agony - Rules Reminder
Rules reminder card to not bring great shame to my people.

All of this may seem trivial but in my experience of tournaments (especially ones where one is less prepared) it can be quite valuable to build a sort of home away from home on your side of the table to help settle in, reduce impact of trivialities and environmental hiccups (like I have seen people get rattled, completely lose their flow from a cheap sleeve breaking at an important moment).

Travels

First trip since the apocalypse, so no idea how comfortable sneaking off abroad was going to be, just planned the short trip, with the closest hotel to the venue to get good sleep. Serious masks for travel, comfy masks for play, antacids, power bank to avoid being stranded with no juice in foreign lands: all plans to eliminate personal stressors as much as possible. In the end could have actually used more masks to rotate during play, or accept the protections of being vaccinated, around vaccinated people, outside… but I think the onus is still on me as the traveler not to take any risk to extend the apocalypse. 

Airports (or at least people at the airports) seem to have bounced back in the worst ways: reluctant masks aside, people are cramming together like social distance was never a thing, and basically no setup has changed in the airports from the Before times (This was later discovered to not be a universal reality once landed in the grown-up countries. Ed.).  Forms to fill in certainly added to the stress of the trip prep, like whose grand idea it was to proclaim a need for a form proclaiming vaccination status, when a vaccine certificate also needs to be carried? It’s like asking one to submit a form asserting the possession of money as part of a transaction buying a soft drink at a store. 

Airport security fail to pull over any of the decks, no matter how peculiar the storage format, which seems a bad omen, getting me to doubt their explosive opening potential. 

Immigration likewise accept my verbal confirmation of vaccination status without a second thought, leaving me with uncertainty if my bluffing is up to scratch, that I am not getting the respect as someone who *could* be bluffing.

Taxi drivers in the Netherlands are great, with solid partitions for safety, hotel is great, and come the morning, get to deploy to an absolutely breathtaking beer garden an hourish before the event to chill and familiarise myself with the offerings and facilities.

Game Day

People start gathering for the event, and what a spectacular crowd it is: erudite, exciting people from every corner of the country, and initial horrifying misconceptions of being British are quickly cleared up. 

Cool promos are generously arranged as participation prizes thanks to BCP’s strong support of local play, though playmats for the winner are conspicuously absent.

Tournament software seems to not be the smoothest, to the point where the European Authorities are confirmed to be working on a replacement as a human rights issue, but the heroic organisers persevere, and soon have us ready to shuffle up and deal! 😀 

First table I am a table of 4, so quickly sketch out my notes to keep track of what I’ve played against, noteworthy events, and any noted errors I can try to cleanup in future play/deck building. I also luck out in my very first game getting on a table with former European Championships finalists, who take the time to vocally reason through tournament scoring strategy with me, which is hella generous. 

Decks are as follows

Prey The unnamed
Prey-to-beTremere animalism wall
Aggressive preyLasombra psychobleed
(I have it on very high authority that the classical term is “power bleed”, but I prefer it my way. Ed.)

I get Dónal in the opening crypt, which is great for the kickoff game, along with Anvil, but none of my lads who can reach out and touch somebody, which is a bit unfortunate. 

Seeing The unnamed, I totally know what I gotta do in this game, since no one brings a guy that big without trying to say something without talking (https://youtu.be/g7QBS0O7gT0). Defense is struggling as Second Tradition is unable to keep up with 3+ Stealth 3+ bleeds. Here I might have a need for a bit of Library-side redundancy for the crypt-side fixers not showing up to still slow down the aggressive prey, or maybe should have chanced dealing out another Crypt card, with 50/50 chance of getting one of the Lads, but maybe time wasn’t there for it. Being under this pressure I fail rule XXII, and The unnamed gets its Enkil Cog. 

Looking to clean this up after the fact, the time comes to fight the fight he knew to be right (https://youtu.be/IB79pKUJN-o) and the bold Dónal heads over for chats with The unnamed. 9 damage and a Disarm later, The unnamed gets its one-way ticket to torpor land, where it is summarily consumed by the least needed minion of the wall deck. 

Large bleeds keep getting hurled my way, which leads to a complicated decision of whether to bounce them to the neutered Baali who is still on 10ish pool, or chance eliminating some of the main pressure by lobbing the Lasombra into the woodchipper that is the wall deck, with the much higher intercept. I think this works, but will be one of the key moments I will need to review after the event. 

I eventually succumb under the pressure (legit, no bleed came in at under 3), sadly before outing my initial prey, but this turns out to be a blessing in disguise, as I get to witness a fascinating consideration in the follow-up. The lethal bleed launched into the 3-pool Baali player is a 4+ one from the Lasombra, and discussion opens up as to whether there is a value in the Baali playing Archon Punishment. I’ll leave the readers the freedom to make up their own mind, maybe surrender the experts’ consensus in the comments. 

The Lasombra don’t got what it takes to finish off the fascinating Tremere deck and are in turn ousted, so scoring from me clockwise ending 0-0-2-2, with me handing over the coin to the Tremere as the points-be-damned winner, what with being the last man standing.

V:tES - Love and Agony - First Game

Get to learn more about my great table mates, grab a bite to eat heading into the next round, and straight into the next table announcement. 

I am lucky this time, getting to experience an actual 5 player table, which I can now conclusively say is an unrivalled way to experience the game, opening up diplomatic options I did not anticipate from just studying the mechanics. Altogether a lovely place to be.

Decks are as follows

Prey Ventrue voting block
Prey-to-beMama Odie combat deck, ambushing everything in sight with her snakes and such wrecking folks for environmental damage if they got too close, and Freak(ish) Drive to multi-task
Penultimate preyLasombra paychobleed from the first table
Aggressive preyNosferatu big-cap

Dónal leads the way to represent. Table is incredibly polite in allowing a restrained but consistent level of bleeding, so most get to share the edge. 

With a couple of vamps each and a solid hand I decide to test the predator to understand the threat he brings a bit better and close off cooperation. A touch of blocking and bouncing and it seems he doesn’t have what it takes to breach my defenses, so shifts to neutral. 

Meanwhile while we were assuming Mama Odie (Apologies if this is not the correct VTES name, but I am still new, and much more familiar with The Princess and The Frog version. Ed.) is just getting the spices ready, she suddenly heads down the Bayou to the Lasombra with an overflowing pot of whupass gumbo, sending his main vampire to torpor, and then proceeding to bleed with the recipe Codex for outright unfriendly amounts. 

This shocks the table into considering how she could be slowed down a touch. I follow Rule X to rescue the Lasombra from torpor, the Ventrue vote down the Anarch Revolt, and a tense unease settles on the table, as we witness Lasombra’s frantic attempts at survival. 

With the action however being far away from me, I focus on Rule II, and find myself shockingly disrespected as my prey over-relies on the friendly arrangement we have of some casual bleeds to keep the edge moving, and sends all his vamps off on errands, be that bleeding, come casual harassment of Mama Odie, returning overdue library books… basically anything other than standing guard over the border that feels like it should be shown to be more important. So Beast (who clearly, like all Americans, claims to be at least half Irish, starts to sing the song of his people (https://youtu.be/gbn3IvQzvjI) to settle these open borders into a permanent arrangement with Dónal & Co. bleeding, while Beast encourages respect from the Ventrue themselves.

To ease the war on too many fronts, a specific arrangement is made with Nosferatu on his use of Govern, avoiding too large a field being built, but allowing him to use it to accumulate more pool off his Information Network and such. 

The Lasombra runs out of solutions, and Mama Odie takes aim at Nosferatu, who is sitting quite pool-comfortable, but more than a little concerned about the voodoo set to be unleashed upon it. With the Ventrue at 3 pool, me on a strong board, Mama Odie low on actual blood it is a moment where a slight imbalance could easily lead to a full board sweep. I am missing a Torn Signpost in hand to feel comfortable with Beast popping over to the Bayou for an impromptu spot of attempted murder, but building in the right direction as his Celerity has been upgraded. 

Mama Odie proposes a very short term non-aggression pact to give us both a shot at closing out our prey before we do our grand showdown. I have Theo coming in as backup, and could use a moment to try and find a Torn Signpost, on top of worries that getting into a premature conflict with my Prey-to-be would violate Rules II, VIII, and X, with the risk of missing the victory point that is within reach by focusing on one that may eventually be on the table. The talk of this deal seems to either genuinely upset the Nosferatu, or empower an exceptional victim act performance, with a ceaseless tirade on the lack of wisdom in the deal, and the unfairness of it happening at the table, etc. It seems to fall on equally deaf ears around the table, and play proceeds. 

Rolling over to my turn, the decimated Ventrue end up with validating my concerns about all kinds of things being possible as per rule XII, and manage to hold me off on 1 pool, at the cost of having naught but a mandatory hunt for their turn. Alas I make what I believe to be a major misplay here, bringing in a Theo that is not yet needed, leaving myself at 4 pool rather than the much safer 7, a little over-focused on the perceived efficiency of using all transfers/Master Actions as game mechanic choke points (Should have really noted this not being in the Rules), and over-confident in a hand with Second Tradition and Divine Intervention. 

Meanwhile it seems that the Nosferatu, while still extolling the victim status, has been able to completely stall Mama Odie, drawing Obediences like it’s his job. Two whole turns disappear into nothingness, and he is then able to toss a 3+ stealth power bleed my way to get me off the table, eventually using that head of steam to sweep the rest and claim his coin. 

Really awesome game with a mass of twists, and even a cool turnaround of having the seemingly marginalised Nosferatu digging out the win, but leaves me wondering whether the approach of multi-turn victimhood claims, even seemingly without an audience, is the right path to victory. Checking over the rules and no Win At Any Cost rule, leaves me content that for me Rule I would dictate that some non-wins are better.

V:tES - Love and Agony - Second Game

The moment it all went wrong

V:tES - Love and Agony - Second Game Where it went wrong
Where it went wrong

So finals were not for me (this time).

But that opened up an opportunity to play friendly games through the day, which were perhaps less scrutinised, but in no way less fun than tournament ones, offering me the joys of experiencing my first Emerald Legionnaire encounter, lots of deck concept talk, Bartholomew Jonah Jansen proposing a fireside game where a burned vampires would be burned for real-real, and even a chance to share a deck list of mine with somebody who was interested in it at my very first event. 

V:tES - Love and Agony - Friendly Game

Some overall unsorted thoughts

  • It was great to see the pre-tournament favourite take down the event, showing that the multiplayer nature of the game doesn’t force the situation where the leaders would always be ganged up on. 
  • The player base was incredibly welcoming and accommodating of a new player. Folks were incredibly open to share ideas, even while I might not have much of value to offer in return yet, and full of great tales to make one want to dive much deeper in the tournament scene. 
  • The game is FUN! I walked away buzzing with the thought of playing the decks I brought to the event, perhaps tweaked, but mostly better, and also with a notepad full of new deck ideas. Always a great sign to go to the point of exhaustion, but nothing short of a determined wish for more once the body is once again able. 
  • The full scope of the game is vast and unfathomable for even the most seasoned veterans. This one might sound silly, but shows the lack of absolute need to learn all the thousands of cards: everyone is super-open with details of what their vampires do, so the important part seems to be more to read the cards and focus on the game within the moment. This also means that it has the scope for literal decades of novelty. 
  • Decklists weren’t nearly the sacred secrets the internet would imply them to be.  The games themselves showed the pacing and negotiation to be a much bigger deal in the result, once a certain level of focus on the deck’s key objectives was reached. 
  • I haven’t come near figuring out the value of early discards to filter vs providing the table info about your deck. 

Oh! And there were prizes! Bartholomew already put up the main treasure trove, but even the participation and a random door prize was a bounty my playmat seems amazed with, and it was fun to open boosters from time immemorial. 

V:tES - Love and Agony - Playmat, Promos and Booster

So for anyone on the fence about going to an event, my recommendation is yes, absolutely, plan it today, do it tomorrow, and you’ll be hooked for the many tomorrows yet to come.

Huge thanks to Bart Jansen for organising the event, Hector for all his table banter coaching, Jonathan for sharing so many deck building principles, and everyone else who turned up to help form what seems most likely to become a new addiction. 

Will see ye at a next one!

B.