A Question of Theme

Recently, we had a LotR night at our local games shop. The plan was to test the relative merits of Elves vs Dwarves.

legolas-gimliInevitably, there were issues – I was providing the decks for three players, and the other two don’t deck build. One guy came by himself, and another two came with a pair of decks. In the end, we split into two threes, our table had a single dwarf deck and a pair of elves (although not the matched pair that had been built to go together), whilst the other table had the matched pair of dwarf decks and a lone Elven offering.

Aside from the inherent difficulty of deciding which was “best” we uncovered some fairly fundamental differences of understanding around what constitutes a “theme” deck. As I commented last time, I’m not happy building a Rohan deck with a non-Rohan hero in it (not that it can’t be a good deck, it just isn’t a “Rohan” deck). Equally, I’d raise an eyebrow or two at a deck where all the heroes, but none of the allies, attachments or events keyed into the particular theme.

Beyond that though, I think there has to come a point where practically being able to play the game overtakes questions of pure theme. My Dwarf swarm, to my mind, was a legitimate dwarf deck – Dain, Thorin and Ori, with allies including Fili, Kili, Gloin, Longbeard Elder, Orc-Slayer and Mapmaker, Erebor Record Keeper and Hammersmith. Legacy of Durin and Hardy Leadership are the key attachments, whilst it was Lure of Moria that enabled me to smash through two guardians before they knew what had hit them on stage 3 of the Three Trials.

However, at no point in the building of this “dwarf” deck, did I feel under any obligation to leave out Gandalf – in a deck without spirit, threat reduction is always an issue, and when you have access to sneak attack, leaving him out feels even more bizarre. I also threw in a Warden of Healing or two (although the non-unique character hate in Three Trials made this invariably a waste of time). The only characters I actively avoided were Elves in the Dwarf decks, and Dwarves in the Elf decks.

Northern-TrackerBy contrast- at the next table, a player was rebuked for having a Northern Tracker in their deck (a deck I had built, using the logic above), and when they drew Gandalf were instructed to discard him and draw a replacement. The Errand-riders, who could have smoothed the distribution of the resources being generated by Steward of Gondor, were also ruled out – although interestingly, Steward of Gondor itself was allowed to remain within elf-land (I had almost swapped it out for Ian’s “High Kingship of the Noldor” which does the same thing, just with a different thematic twist).

In large part, the issues we had are about how organised play works – if one part of a group has a discussion about what to do next time, a second group (containing some, but not all members of the original discussion, plus a few extras) then talk about it on the Facebook group, and a third group (containing all the previous folk plus a few more) turn up to play, then obviously there are going to be communication issues, but what I’m wanting to think about, is what makes for a good “theme” deck.

Part of this will, inevitably, tie-in to difficulty – if you are one of those unusual folk who find this game too easy, then deliberately tying your own hands to impose a very narrow limit on what you can include in a deck could be a good way of doing this: If you are playing Passage Through Mirkwood, with a matched pair of well-honed decks using the full card-pool up to the end of the Ringmaker cycle, then a ban on any character other than a Dwarf might be a sensible option. On the other hand, if you’re going for a three-player pick-up game of a Gen Con scenario, or something out of the Ring-Maker cycle, then this level of difficulty probably isn’t necessary.


Fly you Fools!

As far as the thematic relevance of these odd characters goes, the issue gets a little fuzzier. Gandalf was quite prepared to shove his nose in wherever he felt like it, and seems a fitting figure in any deck, whether it be themed around Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves, Rohirrim or Gondorians. Even the most marginal deck-type, such as Eagles can accommodate Istari amongst their ranks comfortably. It has always struck me as ironic that the Gandalf from the Hobbit box is more like the Gandalf we see in Lord of the Rings (here for the long-haul, very powerful, but likely to attract the attention of the enemy) whereas Core Set Gandalf clearly draws inspiration from The Hobbit. (shows up, fixes things, disappears again).

Others could be considered on a case-by-case basis. A group of Silvan elves wandering the wilds of the North could easily have one of the Dunedain amongst their ranks (maybe they’ve been taking the advice from Thranduil at the end of the last film…) On the other hand, you have to admit that a Warden of Healing is probably less likely to go wandering in the woods, more likely hanging back in Minas Tirith – but even then, the presence of this old man on your journey is no more improbable than the Steward of Gondor and a Hobbit together facing down Smaug the Golden.

This, I think is where the difficulty lies – for this game to allow us to play as our favourite heroes from the books, it requires us to suspend our disbelief somewhat. Consider Passage Through Mirkwood, in which the players are delivering a message from Tranduil to Galadriel (or is it the other way around) – this is just the sort of task you might assign to Beravor and Thalin, possibly even to Elladan and Elrohir, but you can’t really imagine Theoden and Denethor doing it.

Personally, I still plan to keep building “thematic” decks. By thematic, I mean that the heroes, and many of the allies / events / attachments will fit into that theme. However, if there’s a card that makes a deck work that much better, but comes from elsewhere, I’m not going to leave it at home. Horn of Gondor will be in my Rohan decks and my Silvan decks (although possibly not my Gondor decks…) Steward of Gondor will continue to crop up in any deck with Leadership in.

My approach to this game has always been that having fun is more important than strict adherence, either to the rules minutiae when it comes to timing, or even to the more extreme constraints of theme on deck-building. I’d be interested to know others thoughts on these issues, but ultimately, I don’t plan to change much any time soon.


One thought on “A Question of Theme

  1. Master of Lore

    I would break down the definition of a “thematic deck” into two different types — one being a “faction deck” and one being a “fellowship deck”. I think that both types are true to the spirit of Tolkien’s works while also saying that your particular definition actually lies on a spectrum between the two.

    A thematic “faction deck” would be incredibly strict. Dwarves only. No Steward of Gondor. No Gandalf. No Northern Trackers or Wardens of Healing. Anything that is not specifically related to Dwarves or generically related to anything is out.

    A thematic “fellowship deck” would play on the idea of diverse factions uniting for the sake of the quest. Here you might play a Dwarf, an Elf, and a Man of Rohan as your three heroes and anything that relates to those three factions would also be playable. The deck is “thematic” in that each ally and attachment hails from the faction of the heroes so Warden of Healing and Steward of Gondor would still be out but Gandalf and possibly a Northern Tracker might fit.

    Personally, I’ve usually played “faction decks” for my thematic builds, but I’m warming up the idea of “fellowship decks” (and still enjoy building strategic mechanic decks regardless of theme as well, especially on newer scenarios). I like your idea of coming up with thematic custom cards for staple cards (like Steward and Horn) that would work wonderfully with other factions. I’ve been playing a Silvan faction deck without the Horn of Gondor for thematic reasons, but perhaps I’ll just rename it “Elven Feasting” and still use it to gain a resource every time a Wood-elf vanishes from play.


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