Friday, May 13, 2016

Games from the Abyss: An interview with Call of Cthulhu Champion Tom Capor (Part One)

In the fall of 2014 I was introduced to Call of Cthulhu: the Card Game. In the fall of 2015, the game was discontinued after ten plus years. It was one of the few games in which I played tournaments and was pretty upset when it came to an end. As a huge H.P. Lovecraft fan, I could appreciate how this game had mechanics that perfectly matched elements from the books... not to mention the art on the cards was captivating. I met some pretty amazing people through this game, including multi-World Champion winner, Tom Capor. He has the experience of play-testing for Fantasy Flight Games, creating customized lists for expansions, and even has his face featured on a few cards. More than any other player, he has helped shape the community and is so strongly tied to the game. I recently had the chance to talk with him about his love of the game and wanted to ask if there is any reason to play a dead Living Card game. 

Just a heads up, this goes into game play on a much more intricate level than usual. Tom goes into just enough detail for those who haven't played before that you can follow along. I, for one, recommend checking out Call of Cthulhu: the Card Game, but I'll get to that in Part Two.

(CF) When were you first exposed to Call of Cthulhu?

(Tom) "To be honest, I can’t recall the first time I was introduced to Cthulhu. It popped up through so many different mediums, I guess I just absorbed the basic knowledge of what Cthulhu was about over the years. Which is pretty appropriate if you think about it. As for the introduction to the game itself, I owe that to Ron Kotwica and the local meta-gaming at his store, Mr. Nice Guy Games. If I recall correctly, Greg Gan (eventual 2005 world champion), introduced it to Ron and few other locals. As a regular at his establishment, it didn’t take long for me to catch wind of the new game in town."

What elements of the game were most attractive to you?

"At the time, I had fallen in love with a game called Duel Masters. The closet relative to it, Magic the Gathering (MTG), utilizes specific resource card called lands. If you have enough lands and enough of the correct color of lands, you can play the card(s) you want. MTG is the standard by which all other games are measured and compared and by all rights is a great game. As a person who enjoys the aspect of out playing my opponent in order to win, I don’t get to experience the joy of trying to accomplish that goal if either my opponent or myself functionally cannot play the game due to a system imbalance that is mathematically out our control. To solve this perceived problem, Duel Masters allowed any card to be turned into a land. Elegantly eliminating the mechanical issues I had with MTG while simultaneously increasing the depth of this game.

Call of Cthulhu, took that fix and then took it to the next level to where not only did you have to the difficult choice of which card to transform, but where and when to place it! Cthulhu’s resourcing system operates under areas call Domains. Each Domain holds its own resource pool in which you can add cards to increase the amount of resources and which faction (color) matches that Domain provides to play a single card. Since each player starts with only 3 of these Domains and no built in mechanic to create more without a special effect, it creates a soft cap of only being able to play 3 cards per turn. This made each card you played more impactful, as opposed to MTG or Duel Master’s ‘you can play as many cards as long as you have resources to spend’ motif.

Which, overall, is what allowed me to fall in love with the game. Everything mattered. From what cards you put in your deck, which cards you resourced, when you resourced them, where you resourced them, what you played, and when you played the cards…. Even how you attacked with your cards was a fresh new experience that took a level of thought beyond “this cards attack value is higher than that one, so I should attack.” Now, don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a simple combat system. In fact, one could argue that it’s a superior option. For me though, I prefer deep gameplay that focuses on a player’s skill with minimal outcomes based on luck without it being a full information game (ie Chess). Cthulhu was and is the only game I’ve ever seen hit all those points and avoid all of the negatives the other games had fallen prey to."

What part of the game kept your interest enough to want to participate in tournaments?

"Competing tournaments was something I’d had been doing since I was a kid playing sports. Games, or card games in general act like giant puzzles to me. Your ‘completed picture’ or goal is to formulate a stratagem utilizing only a certain number of pieces. I imagine, it would be a similar high to creating a work of art. Something you pour your soul into creating and improving. Then to take your work engage in several contests of wit against an array of opponents. When you succeed in doing well or even better win the tournament… it’s an awesome feeling.

Really, it’s an addiction. I got hooked when I was young and I had decent success in tournaments early on in my gaming career. For Call of Cthulhu, I won my first world championship in 2009. That alone meant I was going to be involved with the game till its death. The prize, an opportunity to help design a card with my likeness on it to be inserted into the game… meant that I’ll do what I can to keep it alive for as long as possible.

Being able to create a card, allowed me to put a piece of myself into the game. For better or worse, I was a part of it and it was a part of me."

What is your favorite faction(s) or favorite list(s)?

"I would have to say Yog-Sothoth was my favorite faction. Mechanically it was full of card advantage and surprises. Thematically, under the guise of Lord of Time and Space the faction focused on Sorcerers and advanced alien races and dealt with realms existing beyond our reality. As for favorite lists… that’s a tough call. Prior to 2015, I would’ve told you that my 2012 yog/shub deck that focused on bringing in some efficient Ancient Ones to overwhelm my opponents was the most fun deck I played. It was overpowered to be sure, but at least it felt fair when compared to some of the shenanigans a few of my other decks would pull. However, in 2015, the final tournament, I started the day not caring if I won. I mean, I made my mark, I had nothing more to prove and just want to enjoy the event instead of stressing out. Instead, I just built a deck with as many of my cards as I could competitively and in a style that I would enjoy playing. However, the deck ended up being good enough to take home the eternal trophy anyway. So, now I have a deck that featured nearly all of my favorite cards in deck that I love to play that is responsible for one of my most cherished memories. Okay, so maybe it’s not that tough of a call. Haha."

How long did it take you to respect the Black Dog?

"HA! For those of you that don’t know. Black Dog to this day is the greatest designed card I’ve ever seen for any game, ever. With my help, it single-handedly changed the way people played in the game. And it did so in a non-invasive nor destructive manner. In Cthulhu, there are at least 3 stories cards in which you could commit characters to or attack if you will. Since you could only play so many cards a turn, if you wanted to attack more than one location at a time, you’d have to spread your forces pretty thin. Prior to the Black Dog, you could do this with relative impunity. So, often enough a single character would be able to net you a quick 2-3 points at that a particular location. The Black Dog, for the cost of 1 resource, you could temporarily put it into play at a story in which your opponent only committed a single character.
Black Dog provided a conundrum: do you risk a lone character getting bitten to try and grab a few points or make a minimal commit on a block? Taking the risk was a choice as you could simply commit an additional character to wait until you had a beefier character. It added a layer of depth to the game without upsetting the balance The best part though is that you didn’t even have to have Black Dog in your deck. As long you left at least one of your typically 3 domains open with at least 1 resource on it, the Black Dog was a threat (or bluff). Thus the question became, “Do you respect the Black Dog?”  

If not, you ran that lone character in there. Sometimes it’d work out. Often it wouldn’t (because I always have the Black Dog in my hand!) and you’d lose a potentially valuable asset then for the rest of the game be playing around it (which is obviously harder to do if you just lost a character). If you did, your pacing wouldn’t be as fast as it could be as you’d be making the choice to doubling up your commits.

As for the actual question. I was pretty early adopter when I saw the card in playtesting. When I first saw it, I came up with a bunch of positive things to say, but after I first played with it… it was like I was struck by a lightning bolt. I couldn’t shut up about the card. After it was released, I put it into every deck I could, and sung it’s praises to the community at large at every event and online.

Honestly I could talk for days about Black Dog. The intricate levels of positive impact it had on the game were near endless. I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite card, but it’s the one I certainly respect the most." ;)

You’ve won the title of World Champion multiple times, do you have to change your approach to playing Call of Cthulhu when you’re playing for a title?

" 'Have to' may be a bit inaccurate, but more or less, yes. When preparing for a tournament, you focus shifts from how to win the game to how you’re performing in the game and the difference between the two can be massive. When playing, I would try to ‘always be on’ regardless of it being a casual game or not. You don’t keep many friends this way, but it kept my technical skills levels at a constant high. As a living example, I proved that to myself while playing Cthulhu.

I stayed diligently from 2009 till about my NA championship win in 2013, the birth of the Y-Train. Aka, Yithain Mill. After the event, I fully expected the neft bat to slam the deck I used. When it only bunted instead, I spent some additional time updating the list and attempted to find a strong counter. However, believing I had already found the best deck and felt very comfortable playing it. Thus, I began to not treat every game super seriously until the Y-Train’s demise after the NA championships in 2014. While this improved my health, not focusing on serious gameplay severely degraded my technical play.

In the months leading up to the NA Championships in 2014, I felt like, and I was playing terribly. Luckily I got myself back into shape before then so I could at least keep my Gencon victory streak alive, but it made it very clear to me that not unlike athletes, you need to keep practicing. Really though, tournaments aren't that bad. You don't need to be super serious gamer to compete. It's serves to exist as a common arena for people to enjoy their game if choice. If you're competitive, you have your goal. If you just want to improve, its the best place to do it. If you just want to play against some different people for a change, no better place. Just because your meaning of fun is different than someone else doesn't mean you can't have a good game."

Are there any benefits competitive players can learn from taking a more relaxed approach to gaming?

"Most certainly. The largest benefit is of course the lower level of stress. Doing deep analysis on your deck/yourself in preparation for a tournament can be nerve wracking and create a state of paranoia. Unfortunately, that is something that is VERY easy to do and something I often feel prey to. In fact, in my case it’s physically noticeable. On the left side of my face, there is a constant bruise. In reality, it’s the extreme version of having dark circles under your eyes as result of not sleeping well. I never sleep well anymore so it’s always there. Depending on how stressed I am, I often get even less rest when I sleep. As a result the bruise gets larger and darker. This is not healthy. When you’re not healthy, the odds of making mistakes increase. So, taking a more relaxed (as long as you’re not too relaxed) approach could actually lead to a better performance. Obviously I’m not saying anything exactly revolutionary here, but it really is all about finding what works for you. Your own zone if you will. " 

You were given the honor to be featured in several expansions, writing a suggested list for decks. How were you able to create a list that not only worked for you, but you were confident could work for anyone?

"Being restricted to 1 copy of the core and an expansion limits how crazy you can get. So, I merely just built what I would build for myself if that was the entire card pool. Aside from ultra-complicated effect interactions that damn near break the metagame, I usually strive for a solid deck (especially when I’m new to a card pool) with a few tricks that can handle as my different problems as possible. This simple approach can also be ideal for new players as since they’re not trying to complete some combo, each card is often a solid option in its own right. This limits the number of bad plays a player could possibly make while simultaneously giving them solid options off the top nearly every turn. Thankfully in Cthulhu, for the most part, solid is enough to keep you fighting in the game for a long time even against some of the powerful options held by players with larger card pools. " 

Thanks for reading Part One! Next in Part Two, we will be talking about community, Call of Cthulhu's discontinuation, and if there's an afterlife for this complex, beautiful game. In the meantime, have fun playing out there!

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