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.

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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Voices at the Door: Time to Build a Ranged/Sentinel Deck

Every few weeks I head over to the Fantasy Flight Game Center for this weekly LOTR:LCG meetup. It’s a great chance to meet other players in the area, play quests together, and see how other folks are building decks. Because of the large group size, we are playing 3-4 player games, which is a new experience for me. Luckily, the gentlemen over at the Grey Company have prepared me for these larger games, which led to the creation of my Swift and Strong Steeds deck. I always pack this deck (or something like it) so I can be “location control guy,” which is usually appreciated.

However, last weekend I was reminded that I need to build a good Ranged/Sentinel deck and pack that as well. I played alongside paired Dwarf decks last weekend, while I ran Arwen, Graima, and Cirdan in a location control deck. We gelled pretty well together, but it became apparent throughout the afternoon that my deck’s inability to deal with stronger enemies, when combined with the Dwarf decks’ lack of Ranged and Sentinel, meant that my allies were being wiped off the board quite often. Right now I’m thinking of a Beregond/Legolas/Erestor lineup, so I can quickly dig for lots of strong Tactics attachments while still dishing out healing, but I’m not sure if that will work. Stay tuned for a decklist, which I’ll bring to next week’s event.

Very short post this week as I contemplate what that deck might look like…Until next time, mára mesta: good journeys!