Power vs. Theme: a Problem of Language?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Grey Company’s most recent podcast episode, entitled “Power vs Theme”. The description pretty much sums it up: “Derek, Dan, and Ian discuss the challenges and possibilities of balancing theme and power when building decks.” This is a difficult to write about because a) it’s complex and b) people often do not agree on terminology.

First, let me say as a lover of words (yes, I’m waving my BA in English over my head at this moment), the word “theme” is problematic for board games. No one really agrees upon what it means. Sometimes it means chrome, or the physical pieces themselves. Sometimes it means how mechanics relate to narrative. Sometimes it means that someone just really likes a game. But if we take the word, in the case of LOTR:LCG, to mean “how well the game represents Middle Earth,” then practically the only deck that wouldn’t be thematic is a deck that shuffles encounter and player cards together in an attempt to get goblins and elves to play nice. Most of Tolkien’s literature is about individuals from different cultures and circumstances banding together to fight off the forces of evil. Mordor is represented as a dreary sameness, while the Free Peoples are a riot of diversity. So I’ve never been bothered by decks that mash together different traits. Maybe the only problematic options to date are Grima and Saruman, and even those two aren’t a problem if most of the quests happen before the events of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

A lot of this comes down to the focus in the player’s mind when he or she is piloting a deck. Mentally, I’d divide players into (more or less) two camps: those who are focusing on the story told by their deck’s interaction with the encounter deck, and those who are focusing on the mechanics of the interactions themselves. (And some decks will even lend themselves toward one style or another!) I get, deep down, that some people will not allow themselves to play Steward of Gondor on particular heroes because “they aren’t Stewards of Gondor”. Okay, I understand. But in that case, is it a player choosing theme over power, or just a card design that missed the mark somewhat?

I’m still mulling this over, but readers–does this jumble of thoughts spark any follow-up ideas in your own minds? I’d love to hear you.

How I’m Tracking the Game

As LOTR:LCG has matured, quests have gotten quite a bit more fiddly. In the old days of Passage through Mirkwood, you needed a penny to see if you took the more difficult or easy 2B quest stage. Now we’ve got Archery, Time counters, side quests, ships…it can get a little hairy. So, like many players, I’ve developed a system of tracking effects over time, and everything I need is in one handy-dandy Plano box. Behold!

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This box holds everything I need for tracking the game. Included are the following:

  • Penny gems to track wounds, resources, and progress
  • Six-sided dice to track any “X” number in the game, time counters, and the like
  • A pair of red ten-sided dice to track total threat in the staging area
  • A pair of white tend-sided dice to track total willpower from the players
  • Red and blue wooden discs, stolen from the game Campaign Manager: red tracks forced effects on bad guys, blue serve as reminders on player cards
  • Two threat trackers and a first player token

This has all developed over time, but it works quite nicely now. When my wife and I play the game, I just plunk this down in between us and we can start the quest.

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Let me know how you are sprucing up your game, readers. Until next time, mára mesta: good journeys!

A Brief Foray into Other Games

Though the purpose of this blog is to focus on our beloved game, it’s not the only game that occupies my leisure hours. I thought I’d highlight a few of my other gaming pursuits when I’m resting my LOTR:LCG cards. (You can check out my whole board game collection here.)

With a whole day ahead of me and some equally nerdy board game friends gathered aroundI’ll play Here I Stand, a deep, crunchy card-driven game of politics and religion for six players. Yeah, you’re right–I’ve out-nerded the nerds with this one. The attention to detail in this game is incredible, and the theme is something I’m intensely interested in: the Protestant Reformation.

With a few hours to space and just one nerdy board game friend around, I’ll usually default to one of three war games from GMT. The first is the flawless Twilight Struggle, still rated as one of the best board games of all time years after its release. The second is my favorite iteration of the Commands and Colors series, Napoleonics. The third is the somewhat more abstract Manoeuvre.

With a few hours to spare and my family gathered around, I default to more Euro style games because they avoid direct conflict. Lords of Waterdeep, Power Grid, and 7 Wonders are my top choices.

In short, I’m a card-driven wargamer at heart, one who loves direct competition in games. This runs counter to the personality streak, common in my neck of the woods, to avoid confrontation. However, if I’m not in the mood for direct competition, I’d rather play a co-op game like LOTR:LCG than a game of indirect competition, such as a classic Euro.

Next week I’ll return to the usual fare, but expect sometime in the future a look at my Steam library too. Until next time, dear readers: mára mesta: good journeys!

Deck Terminology

I played Hearthstone avidly for about one year. In that time, I learned the terminology, originally pulled from Magic: the Gathering, to describe certain types of decks.

Over on Reddit, a thread was started about deck types, and in response to the original poster, WingfootRanger wrote a short essay that adapted these M:tG deck terms to our beloved card game. However, the terms don’t really seem to translate properly in all cases. Decktypes like “handlock” don’t even exist in LOTR:LCG, which begs the question: should we be borrowing from another game’s slang to describe our own? Or should we be using our own sort of shorthand to describe LOTR decks?

What do you think? Are there universal terms that are applicable to all CCGs/LCGs? Or do the wise among us need to put their heads together and create some terminology for LOTR:LCG, and use it in such a way that it will stick?

The Gems of Erebor: Or, I Got New Tokens!

A few weeks ago I met up with MD to play our beloved game at the Fantasy Flight Games Center and he had a little present for me: a lovely set of PennyGem tokens from Improbable Objects Inc. I now have about 20-25 of each of the white, green, and red tokens (see here) to replace my original game tokens. I use white for resources, with the blank side equaling one resource and the side with the dot equaling two resources. Green tokens are (of course) progress, with the blank side equaling one progress and the square side equaling five progress. And the red tokens (oh joy!), have one drop of blood on the heads side, and two drops of blood on the other.

These things, simply put, are amazing. They are pricey enough that I don’t think I would have ever sprung for them myself, but after playing with them for a few weeks, I adore them. They stack and don’t fall over, and they grip a card sleeve just enough so that you can pass a card across the table (say Fellowship Frodo) without a whole stack of them falling over. I know I’m gushing, but the tactile feel of them just gives me such a strange joy I had to share briefly.

So, should you get them? They are expensive, but I think, very worth it if you’re looking to improve the visual appeal of the game.

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A Closer Look at the Armored Destrier

With the recent release of Temple of the Deceived this week, we now have access to the Armored Destrier, a powerful Leadership attachment that is already making its way into  my decks:mec50-armored-destrier

At first glance, the Destrier provides situational readying. For a cost of two Leadership resources, you get a readying attachment that can only be placed on two types of heroes and that requires you to defend two attacks in one turn. My very first thought was, “Why wouldn’t I just use Unexpected Courage?” But let’s consider that second sentence, “Then, discard a shadow card…” Ah ha! Now, we actually have readying and shadow cancellation packed into one card. This was enough to pique my interest for sure.

Although the picture on the card shows us a warhorse of Dol Amroth (note the swan motif on the breastplate), which implies we should be attaching this card to Gondor heroes, I actually like it best in a Dúnedain deck. At the conclusion of the Angmar Awakened, I had a lot of respect for how the trait had been fleshed out, but it could still be incredibly risky to engage multiple enemies in order to trigger the Dúnedain bonuses. This can be mitigated somewhat by splashing Lore and running traps, but that dilutes a pure Dúnedain deck quite a bit. Halbarad, Amarthiúl, and either Leadership or Tactics Aragorn provide a strong lineup. However, I’ve had trouble in the past with Amarthiul. First, if you use him as a defender, you waste his 3 Attack, which is a shame. Also, keeping two enemies engaged to trigger Amarthiúl’s two abilities can be a real challenge:

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The Armored Destrier fixes both of these problems! The readying and shadow cancellation allows you to engage two weaker enemies early in the game and block them with ease. Later in the game, after he has been buffed by Dúnedain Warnings or other defense boosts, he can take on larger enemies. Also, since the Armored Destrier’s response doesn’t require you to block the second enemy’s attack with the hero it’s attached to, you can block the first attack, discard a shadow card from the second enemy, block with someone else, and then put Amarthiúl’s 3 Attack to good use. I was playing around with a Dúnedain deck just a few days ago and was amazed at how the Destrier takes a lot of the pressure off in the early game. Gone was the panic I used to experience in turns 1-3 while I set up Amarthiúl as a defender.

Next week I’ll share a great solo Dúnedain deck that features the Armored Destrier as a key component. Until next time, mára mesta: good journeys!

Net-Decking Guilt

Now that I am blogging about Our Beloved Game, albeit infrequently, I feel the pressure to bring my “A game” to every deckbuilding session and quest. It has definitely changed the way I feel about LOTR:LCG, and I’m not yet sure if that’s a good or a bad thing. However, when I’m just too mentally tired to build a deck, I’ll peruse RingsDB for something cool, print out the list, and assemble it while watching television. Then I can save my limited mental energy for actually playing whatever quest I have set up. That leads to net-decking guilt.

Net-decking guilt (n): The feeling a LCG or CCG aficionado gets of having failed in his or her obligation as a player when he or she creates a deck from online sources. Synonyms: net-decking self-reproach, net-decking shame

This week was a study in net-decking guilt. My lovely wife knew I hadn’t been to the Fantasy Flight Games Center in the last few months, so she told me to take Sunday afternoon and head up there. Since I was going to be playing with MD, I did what I usually do: build a pair of decks that work well together and pack the most recent quests. On the night I had set aside to deckbuild, I was mentally fatigued and not ready to create two awesome decks. So I net-decked. And in the one case, I felt terrible about it, and in the other, I felt awesome about it:

Case 1: I threw together Denethor and Sons from the Fantasy Flight Games site. When I piloted it that evening to test it out, I instantly felt net-decking guilt. It was an ally swarm deck that might have been fun to play if I had crafted it myself, but since I had pulled the list off the ‘net, piloting it was boring. There aren’t any interesting tricks, and I felt bad I had put this together.

Case 2: I drifted around on RingsDB until I found Seastan’s Everything Costs Two deck. I also piloted it that evening to test it out, and I loved it. There were interesting choices to be made every turn, and the thing got set up so fast I was giggling with glee. Seriously. My wife asked me what was so funny a few times. There were a lot of fun nuances and so many awesome tricks to be discovered that I felt really good about my choice.

On Sunday I headed to the Games Center with both decks in my backpack, and when MD heard about them, he just ignored the Denethor and Sons deck (probably didn’t sound interesting) and let me play Everything Costs Two while he piloted a Erestor, Haldir, Cirdan deck with a ton of Ent allies. We had a blast. I played Seastan’s deck three times and was still learning new things about it on the last turn of the last quest.

So, why the guilt in the first case, and not in the second? It really does come down to choices. I could have put Denethor and Sons together myself, and I would have been proud of my ability to choose the right cards in order to muster the might of Gondor. However, when I took the easy way out and just built it from someone else’s list, there wasn’t enough depth to the choices to make it fun to pilot. In the second case, I probably never could have put together that deck on my own, and it was full of cards I never play. Because of this, playing it felt like a discovery of sorts. I have a lot of respect for Mithlond Sea-Watcher and The Evening Star now, whereas before I might have just passed them by.

SO. NO MORE NET-DECKING GUILT. That is, as long as I use RingsDB to broad my horizons. Thanks for the awesome deck, Seastan.

Oh, and on my way out of the Games Center, I saw this on the menu. Totally unrelated, but funny all the same:

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Stories Left Untold

As I mentioned in my recent post, A Letter to the Forgotten Heroes, over the past 3.5 years I’ve experienced a lot of life changes that have interrupted my playing time with our beloved game. Welcoming twins, a career change, and traveling for work will definitely cut into the playing time. Here, in the interest of full disclosure, are the quests in the game I have yet to beat (please note that I exclude Nightmare quests, since I do not collect Nightmare yet):

Morgul Vale: Oh, how I long to get to these boss fights!

Celebrimbor’s Secret: I have actually attempted this many, many times, but always in large groups without perfectly tuned decks, and so, alas, I have yet to beat it.

The Antlered Crown: Haven’t even set up the quest yet. Le sigh.

The Battle of Carn Dum: Attempted many times, but never gotten past the first stage.

The Dread Realm: Again, never even set it up.

Flight of the Stormcaller: Set up, but never yet played.

The Thing from the Depths: Never set up.

Just a few months ago, this list was much, much longer, but in April-May I was able to go after some of the Heirs of Numenor/Against the Shadow quests I had yet to beat and really go to it. Some of them were beaten solo, others two-handed, but I can check them off my list. Now my goal is to play both whatever is in the newest cycle and beat one old quest a month. That way, I figure I should catch up pretty quickly.

Okay, just a quick post today. But I’m testing some new decks I hope to share soon. Until next time, mára mesta: good journeys!

A Letter to the Forgotten Heroes

Dear forgotten heroes of Middle Earth:

It’s not you, it’s me. I say that without a hint of irony. When I first began playing LOTR:LCG in December of 2012, it was a more simple time. I had one child. Now I have four. I used to work four miles from my home. Now I regularly travel for work. In the past 3.5 years, these life changes have led to some interruptions in my gaming, and thus some of you have sat, sleeved and yet never utilized. I want to take some space here to apologize to each of you personally:

Elladan and Elrohir: I have twins myself now, and I know I should address you individually because you *are* individuals. But let’s face it; each of you is useless when used alone. I want to apologize for only building around you once. You deserve better. But that one time, when I had to jam every resource-generating card in the game into two decks to try to make you work, I was sorely disappointed in the outcome. Now that we have three more cycles’ worth of cards to work with, I should really try again.

Fatty Bolger: I tried you in one deck with Spirit Frodo and Dunhere. It was a travesty. I apologize, though I will also say this: I will never build around you again. I’m sorry, but you’re just terrible.

Spirit Pippin: See Fatty Bolger entry above.

Mirlonde: I’ve used you in two decks but haven’t looked back since. I don’t carry within my heart the burning hatred that some people do, but your ability is rather boring, and I like flashier heroes. And you don’t seem to help out Silvan decks at all. My apologies for not giving you another try, but I probably won’t change my mind, as I can’t think of a more boring ability than yours.

Brand, Son of Bain: I can safely say I have never built a deck with you in it. Perhaps once the Siege of Minas Tirith is released, because I like the idea of the grandson of Bard the Bowman traveling to Gondor to kill orcs from the walls of Minas Tirith, but not until then. I will say this, though: I have admired you from afar when playing with newbs who only have the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle. You’re cool, but other heroes are more interesting to me at the moment. Also, it looks like you smell something stanky in your picture.

Rossiel: You’re beautiful and green and surrounded by weird magic, and your ability is awesome, but I don’t see a lot of use for you in solo or two-player formats, which I play the most frequently. You’re like an exotic foreign exchange student in one of my college classes; you’re amazing, but I’m way too scared to talk to you for fear it won’t work out.

Well, that’s it for now, forgotten heroes of Middle Earth! Consider this a breakup letter of sorts. Again, it’s not you, it’s me. Maybe if cirumstances change we’ll get back together, but for now…let’s just be friends, okay? (And by that, I mean we won’t be spending much, if any time together. Read between the lines, yo.)

Regretfully,
JR

Voices at the Door: “Hard Fun,” Mental Fatigue, and Why I Play

Just a few days ago John Pavlus published an article in Scientific American entitled, “Why We Love the Games that Enrage Us the Most”, which, if you are a gamer, you should definitely read. Pavlus explores the concept of “hard fun,” which is another way of saying that some of us are wired to return to difficult problems again and again in an effort to overcome them. This happens both in games and in real life, but particularly in games. This might be because games often clearly signal to us when we have overcome a challenge, whereas life is not always so clear cut!

As a long-time LOTR:LCG player, I would definitely put our beloved game in the category of “hard fun”. I fondly remember the eight times my wife and I played Fog on the Barrow Downs and the jubilation we experienced when we finally. won. And yet I am not always motivated to sit down and play. My job often involves completing many different tasks throughout the day in a highly-distracting environment. Every few months I contract with a different client, work in their office space where that organization’s staff and their clients are going about their daily business. I, on the other hand, as a consultant, am engaging in an entirely different set of tasks in the midst of their work space. After a busy day, I can be mentally fatigued (specifically, directed attention fatigue sets in), and the absolute last thing I want to do is break out my cards and get my face smashed in by a quest. But on other busy days, I still want to play even though I’ve been doing nothing but making lots of tough choices at work. Why is this?

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The following paragraph in Pavlus’ article helped me understand when and why I want to play:

According to self-determination theory, these principles boil down to three domains in which humans experience universal psychological needs: autonomy (the urge to be the cause of one’s own behavior or choices); relatedness (the urge to connect with others and identify with a group); and competence (the desire to control or influence the outcomes of one’s behavior). The basic interactivity of most video games confers significant autonomy on a player, and the modern integration of many video games with social media easily satisfies the need for relatedness.

This is really astounding. We have all had days  where we don’t feel autonomous, but at the mercy of other people or external circumstances. Latching on to a game for an hour or two gives a gamer a space where he or she can find the autonomy we all crave. Also, playing a game like LOTR:LCG makes me feel competent. Even when I’m losing badly, I’m still building up a body of knowledge about a game I love. And…here is the true revelation for me: since our beloved card game is cooperative, it helps me feel a sense of relatedness. I really enjoy competitive tabletop games, but not in the way that I adore LOTR:LCG. A big factor in that is that it is a way of connecting to fellow players.

This is why, after a hard day at work, when I am weary with mental fatigue, I might still break out my cards. I may want a bit of freedom or feel connected to fellow players. And for that, I’m thankful; this Living Card Game is nothing more than a hobby, and yet it continues to provide me with some really valuable experiences.

It was fun taking the time to reflect on this. Until next time, mára mesta: good journeys!