Have you ever had that feeling that something dangerous lurks just beneath the surface of the world around you? Almost as if the night holds unseen terrors beyond our understanding. As we humans squabble over our petty interests, dark forces laugh at our struggles from the shadows. Welcome to the World of Darkness. Let’s take a look at Vampire: The Masquerade – Rivals, a tabletop expandable card game from publisher Renegade Game Studios, designed by Dan Blanchett and Matt Hyra.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Rivals is playable by two to four players, and a run through will be roughly 45 minutes to complete. In it, players take control of a coterie of vampires bent on seizing control of the city of San Francisco. And what better way to do so than to crush your rival clans into dust? In that simple question lies the thing that makes Rivals absolutely fantastic to play.
Unpacking the box you’ll find four pre-constructed card decks, each with 49 cards, a 27 card deck for the city, 63 “crypt” cards, 4 player reference cards, a first player token, four “rival” tokens, as well as a handful of other indicator bits such as the currency of the game — blood and prestige. As a nice bonus, there are even a dozen card storage dividers to make setup and teardown easy.
The four included pre-built decks represent four of the many clans present in the Vampire universe – specifically Brujah, Toreador, Ventrue, and Malkavian. Further expansions are obvious as the first one gives us Tremere and Thin-bloods, but we’ll focus on what’s in the main box today. Each pre-built pack has 49 cards in it, already balanced for new players. The crypt deck has a warning that you should probably play through the game a few times before you crack that open as it will allow you to mix and match to create your own deck.
Your objective in Vampire: The Masquerade – Rivals is to take control of the city of San Francisco through political influence, violence, or destroying your rival clan. During setup your rival is assigned randomly, and a “city” is set up. In the city are mortals as well as the Special Affairs Division (SAD), a human faction focused on vampire elimination. The goal of the game is to either kill your rival vampire clan, or to reach 13 influence by utilizing title cards and your deck’s agenda. Let’s play and see how that comes together.
Your deck is split in two — your clan deck which contains your lieutenants that you’ll bring out from your Haven and into the streets, as well as your faction deck which has effects and powers you can unleash. It’s up to you how you draw from these decks, giving an opportunity to create your own playstyle. The City deck is filled with quite a few humans that can serve as food, be made thralls, or otherwise tweak the round. There are also the aforementioned Special Affairs Division (SAD) in here, representing a serious threat to fledgling vampires. The City deck is rather small, smaller still when you are playing four players, so there’s less reliance on RNG than you might otherwise expect.
Round play proceeds like this — each player is issued an “Agenda” card, which serves as that clan’s primary motivation and what they need to accomplish to achieve a political victory through acquisition of agenda points. They’ll also be issued a Haven which grants protection for your clan, as well as bestowing a leader ability. Fishing the vampire with the highest blood rating out of your deck, you’ll designate them as your leader. Using your pool of 20 prestige markers, you’ll pay the blood cost to bring that vampire into the haven — these markers are double sided, so you’ll just flip them over. With your leader identified, you’ll then randomly draw your rival identifier — you can win if you slay them, or amass 13 agenda points. Conversely, if you run out of agenda markers yourself, your clan has been wiped out, and you die.
To start, each player draws their opening hand which includes one vampire from the faction deck if they are the first player, or two if they are player 2-4. On their turn, players will get to take two actions – recruit a vampire, draw a card from either deck, play an action card, or claim a title. Recruiting depletes that 20 points of blood/agenda markers, as does healing them. Running out of either means instant failure as your clan has been eradicated, so simply fielding all your lieutenants might be ill-advised. Drawing a card, playing a card, and claiming a title seem straightforward, but there are some nuances.
Drawing a card is about balance. You can draw from either pile, but having a handful of expensive lieutenants that you can’t afford to field is fairly useless. It also means you aren’t drawing cards that can help you further your goals, such as schemes that we’ll get into in a moment. Drawing a bunch of schemes is dangerous as, if you only have your leader in the street doing all the work and they get killed, it’s game over. Claiming a title is almost always beneficial as they grant you some advantage, either in power or influence, with the “Prince of the City” title being the most valuable, and therefore most dangerous. Claiming Prince of the City doubles the speed at which you can gather influence, and it makes you an instant target. Worse, when you lay claim to it, all other players (including your rival) get to take a swat at you to stop you from claiming it. If they are successful, it can be a huge setback, and if you manage to claim it, you might come out so wounded as to not be able to hang onto it. I’m certain that there will be reams of strategies written about precisely the right time to claim this particular title, but I’ve found it’s best to do so early when the other coteries aren’t strong enough to stop you.
When you engage in battle, your vampires will take damage. If they lose all their health, they slip into a torpor state. They are returned to the haven and regenerate blood (again, from your limited pool) every round until they are restored. There is a secondary type of damage that cannot be healed, however, and that’s called “aggravated damage”. This damage is often a corrosive flask of acid, fire, or the like, and that damage is permanent. Worse, if it does the last point of damage, it’s fatal and that character is removed from the game.
Attacking another character is reliant on three stats – social, physical, and mental. They are effectively interchangeable, offering no special boons or special traits – they are essentially just divided to balance the clans. You’ll match that up to the character you are attacking, or just their blood total if they are human, having to meet or exceed the matching stat. Boosting your attack value can come from titles, or more frequently, event cards from your hand which come in two flavors – standard events are played and discarded immediately, and ongoing events. Ongoing events are persistent through the entire round, only being removed when the player who either played them or had them inflicted upon them starts their next turn. Once you’ve done the math, you’ll likely knock the other player’s vampire into torpor, or you’ll have claimed the human, making them your retainer. This grants you an agenda point in most cases, and you now effectively have a “meat shield” for that vampire for when you end up in combat again.
Just because you are in your haven doesn’t mean you are safe. Each haven grants you 1 point of “secrecy” protection. For every point of secrecy you have to overcome, you’ll have to discard one card. Given that you have such a small pool, that can be problematic, but it does mean that a well-constructed deck might offer an opportunity to strike at the heart of a player, even when they think they are safe. Of note, wearing the crown is always dangerous – you’ll have a secrecy of 0 once you claim the Prince of the City title. Tread lightly.
The real power, as you would expect from a Vampire game, is about schemes and conspiracies. Schemes and conspiracies are how you’ll create a hidden blade that you can use to destroy your opponents through espionage and mistrust. These cards often tell the player to show it to whomever they wish, asking them to contribute resources from their own blood pool to whatever that scheme is. For example, a Malkavian opponent using conspiracies plays these cards face down. They show these cards to players they want to directly involve, and that player has to decide to “buy in” to the conspiracy by spending their own blood pool tokens, or not. In a two player game, you can do this with a wicked smile, not offering the opportunity to read the card to the other player, but asking them if they want to contribute just the same. Maybe it’s something that would benefit them, and maybe it’s something that would drive a knife between their shoulder blades – there’s no way for them to tell. In a four player game, you can pit people against your rival, or let them goad their rivals into spending points they don’t have to spare. Toreador are great at amassing large amounts of resources, so they can spend it more freely, but perhaps that’s a luxury their opponents can ill-afford. It’s a delicious secret bidding mechanic that is so purely on-brand Malkavian that I’m surprised to see it work so well here.
There is one thing that puts the breaks on the game, slowing the action from a murderous fever pitch to a dead stop – terms. One the second page of the 20 page manual is a glossary of terms. While most of it is straightforward, there are some nuances with keywords that might change the way you play. Questions like “Can my character have more than one title? What if they have the Prince of the City title? Can they get another one?” are answered here, for the most part. There were a few moments where things were undefined, but house rules tend to fix that easily enough. On page 17 is a list of card-specific rules, as well as a handful of minor miscellaneous things of note to answer questions like “What happens when we run out of cards?” and the like. Every time somebody drops a scheme or conspiracy into the mix, everyone grabs for the rulebook to understand the implications. Routine play will solve this, but it makes the game challenging for new or casual players. That said, this is a game that is easy to play, but has a depth you might not see up front. A second or third playthrough might start to reveal synergies of when to use specific strategies, or better still, when to involve players in conspiracies to drive a wedge between the other clans.
The second issue we ran into had to do with vagrants. Vagrants can be tapped and used as meat to absorb damage headed towards your bitey compadres. These shiftless hobos aren’t removed from play, making them an inexhaustible source of hobo-shield. When combat maxes out at just a few points of damage, reducing it by one can be a huge thing. Perhaps additional playthroughs will clarify the best way to defeat it, but currently they feel a bit overpowered.
My favorite thing about Vampire: The Masquerade – Rivals is that the clans feel completely different from one another, and well within their pen-and-paper archetypes. The Brujah focus heavily on physical combat, whereas the Malkavian are all about secret schemes within plans and conspiracies. Each clan has an apparent focus, at least in the pre-built decks, and being able to expand on that in new and exciting ways is enticing. What’s on offer is a taste of the World of Darkness, and I like it.
Vampire The Masquerade: Rivals
Backstabbing, power shifting, deception, and death are the trademarks of any good Vampire game, and Vampire: The Masquerade - Rivals delivers all of those in spades. With a compelling conspiracy system, balanced clan pre-builds, and approachable play mechanics, it’s accessible while holding deeper synergies to discover. While it may take you a bit to learn all the terms, when you do you’ll be killing in no time.