Review: Lords of Waterdeep
May 10, 2016 /
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Genre: City-Building, Fantasy
Board Game Geek Ranking: 35
Lords of Waterdeep is a Dungeons & Dragons (DnD) themed gateway worker-placement title. Players assume the control of specialized lords who send out agents to hire adventurers, complete quests, construct a variety of buildings, and enact vicious intrigue strikes against their opponents. The player who gathers the most victory points after eight rounds commands the win.
Spiritual Content: There is a fair amount of supernatural content via the card art. Clerics are workers in religious temples to some sort of gods of the DnD realm. There are also evil spirits and creatures that will be vanquished on various quests. The location of this game takes place in Waterdeep, which, according to DnD lore, is a seedy, gross, town full of scoundrels.
Violence: The concept of the game involves sending people on mostly violent tasks (i.e. killing monsters and ghouls, raiding thieves’ dens, destroying evil spirits, etc.) The artwork on cards in these situations is minor, and not at all gory or over the top. Ultimately, it’s all behind-the-scenes action you never see.
Sexual Themes: Some card artwork does feature women in skimpy clothing, but this is in the minority.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Some card artwork features people drinking in bars.
From the start, players are given quests laden with rife opportunity to score a multitude of victory points. After comparing those with the special quest bonuses granted by their chosen lord, players glance over basic buildings on the board and sequentially play their agent meeples, immediately receiving the printed resource dependent on their placement. This function is typical of the worker-placement genre. However, if a player holds the appropriate adventurers and/or gold to complete a quest, after playing a meeple, he may turn in said quest for its rewards, which could be: victory points, additional meeples, or special free actions/bonuses (plot quests).
Most spaces offer one of the four adventurers: rogues, warriors, wizards, or clerics. Other spaces allow for selecting new quests, gaining gold pieces, or securing first player for future rounds.
Players receive an additional meeple halfway through the game, but after eight rounds, they tally their points, leftover resources, and hidden bonuses, and crown a winner.
Lords of Waterdeep could be just another average gateway title, but what sets it apart are two mechanics that add variety and a little bit of backstabbing: the Builder’s Hall (advanced buildings) and Waterdeep Harbor (intrigue).
As the game progresses, players will pay for and construct advanced buildings using the Builder’s Hall space. These new additions complicate player choices by providing unique and powerful options for gathering resources, quests, and abilities. The catch: by playing an agent on a new building, you also grant the building’s purchaser free resources. Players will have to weigh their choices and decide if the extra bonus is worth it, or too dangerous to risk.
The second, and most interesting mechanic of Lords of Waterdeep, is the intrigue system.
When a player drops an agent off at Waterdeep Harbor, he must then play an intrigue card from his hand. This could do a number of things, including: force players to discard a precious resource, pay gold for extra victory points, or play a mandatory quest on an opposing player. A mandatory quest is a ruthless ploy, forcing a player to turn in hard-earned resources to complete it before returning to their own personal quests. Mandatory quests are worth measly points and stall the afflicted player.
Aside from the potentially barbaric nature of the intrigue cards, another motivator to playing in Waterdeep Harbor is that once all players have spent their meeples, all agents at the harbor will then be reassigned to leftover building spots. This allows both the results of an intrigue card, and the goods of a regular space, all in one turn. Players will hope for strong intrigue card draws and fight for spots in Waterdeep Harbor to keep opponents at bay.
Dungeons and Dragons, originally released as a tabletop RPG in 1974, has since developed decades of rich history and lore. Thematically, the city of Waterdeep is populated by dozens of differently-skilled adventurers and dangerous quests that value specific heroes or gold. Of course, each player commands a grubby lord (with secret motivations) who employs middlemen to hire the perfect set of heroes to bring them treasures and prestige.
When I hear complaints about Lords of Waterdeep, it’s typically: “The Dungeons and Dragons theme is just pasted on. It’s not at all thematic.”
A good game should work hard to tie together theme and mechanics, but I get it. Painted cubes don’t scream “I’m an adventurer! Choose me!” That being said, I’ve also heard equally from DnD players that the quests, intrigue, locations, and lords were all extremely influential in their love for the game — very thematic from their viewpoint. I suppose one must have a firm understanding and love for DnD lore to appreciate it.
As an outsider, there appears to be a reasonable amount of player interaction. Intrigue cards are the most obvious example. In some situations, you can gain a bonus, so long as you choose an opponent to gain with you. Other times, you will find yourself stealing a precious cube under the guise of your enemy throwing a “free drinks” party against their will. Another way players interact is through using each other’s advanced buildings. You might grab an extra quest, but you will grant the building’s owner three free victory points. The most beneficial choice is not at all immediately apparent.
Playing the role of a lord who sends out agents to do his dirty bidding, you never see the action up front. That makes sense, though. Like a good hiring manager, you are just making sure you have the right people for the job. It wouldn’t work to include tactical combat. You just figure out who has a job, and you get it done.
Lords of Waterdeep is packaged in a unique box with a stellar insert. In fact, I’m so impressed with the insert, that it has become the standard that I hold all game inserts to.
The board is an illustration of the city of Waterdeep, with all roads eventually leading up to Cliffwatch Inn, where you will find quests for your adventurers. I’m sure some of the artwork is reprinted from existing DnD tabletop campaign books, but the art style is fun, and feels sort of grimy and fitting to the seedy nature of Waterdeep.
You will be dealing with several cards, and likely a similar amount of gold. Gold pieces are both holed squares and crescents. Victory points come in the form of little crystals, and you will also be purchasing building tiles, with little grooves to fit your personal color, denoting the owner of the building.
Wooden meeples are standard, but the other component to take note of is the wooden, colored squares (adventurers). At some point, I’m hoping to upgrade to DnDeeples. I have no issues with the basic squares, but most players think they are sort of lame.
The rulebook is concise and covers most additional questions with the included FAQ.
Luck is only in card draws here. Your skill shows in how you assume others will play. You might be thinking throughout: “Do I need those two warriors now? Oh, what about the more elusive white cleric? Can I afford to wait one whole turn, when other players have been gunning for clerics all game?”
There is also a balance of politics and tactical position. Some players may not be paying attention to the 25-point Warfare quest you are about to turn in. You notice those points will take you from third to first place, so it might be beneficial to hold off, biding your time, maybe suggesting players focus on bombarding the current front runner with intrigue.
Despite the game’s simplicity, there is a lot of thought to be had on timing, as it quickly becomes everything. While forming alliances is rather pointless, you should take note of what colors and quests they are taking. A few quests that match their lord’s bonus at game-end can go a long way. In addition, players that grab powerful plot quests early on can receive extra points, meeples, and other abilities. These are things you must keep in mind to jump ahead at the last moment.
While gathering intrigue, you might find yourself pulling cards that aren’t immediately beneficial, especially when one player is dumping mandatory quests on you. Regardless, it is important to gauge when to play intrigue and realize how powerful agent reassignment can be.
Because of the variability in cards and building tiles, you likely won’t play too many games that are similar at first. Most games feel sufficiently randomized, even at every player count. After ten plays, however, your time in Waterdeep might grow stale as strategies begin to evolve, and with the same group, specific engines might become dominant.
If you are finding your time in Waterdeep growing stale, you are in luck. Scoundrels of Skullport is a near essential expansion that adds two new modules. Both add huge decks of new buildings, quests, lords, and intrigue, as well as a new set of agents for a sixth player, and new sideboards for building locations.
The Skullport module adds a mechanic called corruption that gives you negative points for corruption you have accumulated over the game.
The Undermountain module balances quests that require huge numbers of resources, but grant big bonuses and paydays. Literally huge bonuses. Huge. Do you get the point?
Okay. Let’s get something out there: Lords of Waterdeep is the definitive worker-placement gateway game. It’s the first game I recommend when newer players say: I like board games! What should I try next? It’s just light enough to play with family members who are only familiar with Carcassonne or 7 Wonders. If you hope to get Eclipse to the table, but your friends are still stuck in the land of Catan, this is one step closer to opening up deeper gaming experiences. The DnD theme also makes it an easy sell for your RPGer friends who don’t yet share your love for board gaming.
This game prides itself on being manageable. Players can see exactly what they need. They know they have to turn in quests with a specific color cube, and it’s so obvious how to get those cubes. There isn’t any need for a tech tree, and the engines you can build are so very simple. These things make Lords of Waterdeep incredibly easy to teach.
These things said, Lords of Waterdeep is not a complicated worker placement. That might be a plus for some, but for others who might share love for Agricola or Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island, this could be an exercise in tedium. In other words, this is great for certain game groups, but for hardcore euro players, maybe not.
A common issue with worker placement games is how easily they can introduce analysis paralysis (AP). Despite the game’s simplicity of strategy, one player might take the building you were counting on. Not only must you wait an entire round to get your needed resource, but you also have to rethink your entire turn, possibly your entire strategy. For a game that loves easy understanding, you might wonder: why in the world are my turns taking so long? This isn’t to suggest Lords of Waterdeep is unworthy of strategic thinking, but with its ease in mind, it seems a bit odd.
To be honest, even though I sing its praises, unless I’m with new gamers, I almost always will choose a deeper game. I’d rather play a hoppy game of Brewcrafters or dig into another round of Viticulture. Those games aren’t horribly complicated, but as a gamer who loves a good euro, Lords of Waterdeep isn’t my top choice.
So play it with your entry-level buddies, and, if you like it, test out the expansion. If you favor deeper experiences, you are better off treading elsewhere.
If you don’t have a gaming group, or aren’t convinced yet, you can purchase the mobile version on iOS.
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