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.