When I first heard that Wizards of the Coast was developing a standard Euro-like game I was both excited and skeptical. Due to the large marketing forces behind the company, it would get plenty of exposure for our niche (in the US anyway) market, but I feared the worst. If the game simply combined the Dungeons and Dragons brand with a sub-par game to capitalize on the growing Eurogame market, it would only be another reason for newcomers to shy away from the hobby. Fortunately, Lords of Waterdeep is not a poorly designed game. While it doesn’t break new ground in mechanics or play style, it is an easy to learn, enjoyable game that serves as a great way to present a cube-pushing worker placement game packaged up in a unique theme.
At its heart, Lords of Waterdeep is about controlling people. Players take on the role of a Lord of Waterdeep, complete with hidden motives to be revealed at the end of the game. During the game, each Lord places their agents (2-4 worker tokens) onto the board to accumulate colored cubes, money, buildings, intrigue cards, and quests. The cubes represent adventurers and come in four flavors: black are rogues, orange are fighters, white are clerics, and purple are wizards. Wizards and clerics are approximately twice as difficult to acquire as rogues or fighters. The primary focus of the game is to accumulate the correct number and types of adventurers to satisfy the conditions of a Quest card. Finishing a quest grants points, and may confer other benefits such as more resources (cubes), money, or even ongoing special powers (such as collecting extra cubes, money, or points for specific actions.) Quests also come in several categories such as warfare or piety and thus tend to require larger numbers of fighters or clerics respectively. A single game round consists of all players placing their agents onto the board (agents activate the power of their location upon placement.) At the end of eight rounds, players score final points for leftover adventurers and money and then reveal their secret Lord role card. These cards typically grant additional points for each completed quest of two different types (such as +4 points for each Arcana and Commerce quest completed) and can significantly change the final scoring of a game.
Sounds like a simple enough game, but of course, the devil is in the details (or should I say Mephit?) The game board starts with just a few simple worker locations from which players can choose. Since agents cannot share locations, the best locations are soon full. One location, accessible only once per round, is a building space where players can purchase a new building (out of three on display) to place onto the game board. Buildings serve as additional locations for agents that provide a unique or simply better ability than the starting board spaces. However, when a player uses an agent to activate another player’s building, the building’s owner gets a small benefit, such as extra adventurer cubes, money, or points. Initially, the board can become quite crowded, but new spots begin to open up and things are more relaxed until midway through the game when players are granted an additional agent token and good agent spots become harder to come by. While there is a constant need to collect adventurers to satisfy Quest cards (and score points), players also need a way to get new quest cards. Three agent locations allow players to select from six face-up quest cards, so players are not simply tied to whatever quests they may draw from a random deck.
Perhaps the most unique mechanic within the game is its use of intrigue cards. These will make or break the game for most Eurogame purists. Intrigue cards are the designers’ way of adding in direct player interaction within the game. By placing an agent onto the Waterdeep Harbor space, a player may play an intrigue card. While typically not very powerful, they can be useful or spiteful when played at the appropriate time. They allow players to steal a small amount of cubes or money from other players, acquire new resources directly from the bank, or even (slightly) bend the rules of the game. Some of my favorite cards are ones that allow a player to gain some small number of resources, but also choose an opponent to gain resources at the same time! Finally, the intrigue card deck also contains Mandatory Quests. These can be played on other players and they are forced to complete them before they complete any other quest. As a whole, the intrigue cards are not worth an entire agent placement. However! The (up to three) Agents placed at Waterdeep Harbor are ALSO moved to an empty location at the end of the round. This makes playing an intrigue card almost a free action (it does require a delay in final placement so you might not get exactly what you wanted). Judicious use of intrigue cards can give a player enough of an edge to ramp their overall production just a little higher. When used offensively (to hinder an opponent), intrigue cards are a hit or miss affair. If players play a conservative game, they will probably not notice spending a few extra resources on a mandatory quest or an intrigue card loss. However, a well-times intrigue card played near the end of the game can disrupt a player who is shaving their quest completion margin razor-thin. I once missed out on over 20 points (roughly 1/3 of the final scoring) due to a malicious mandatory quest card played the final round that prevented me from scoring a very large quest. Had I been more cautious by finishing that big quest first before some smaller ones, I would probably have been OK. (Since a player may only finish a single quest per agent placement, being hit by mandatory quests can slow down a player’s overall plan.) In most games, the intrigue cards will not play an unbalanced role. However, they can be used effectively against players who do not leave a bit of margin in their plans for possible disruption.
I have played Lords of Waterdeep with many different groups of 3 to 5 players. It makes for a very good game for new or non-gamers. It went over very well with some non-gamers at my high school when I was first trying it out. Without any prior experience of worker placement games, they quickly picked up how to play and some basic strategy involved. The more gamer-y high school groups with which I played also enjoyed the game and asked to play again at future meetings. However, the game met with a bit more of a lukewarm reception among the more hardcore gamers of my local gaming club. We played several times and I think Lords of Waterdeep didn’t manage to stand out as particularly deep or unique enough to catch their interest. A 3 player game begins with 3 agents per person, while a 4 and 5 player game begin with only 2 agents at the start. This helps to make the game board (which always has the same number of agent locations) more crowded in a 3 and 5 player game. Because of this, I feel the game is slightly better with 3 or 5 players.
The theme and components come together to make a very good quality presentation. Everything, from the picture-heavy rulebook, to the game board, to the “authentic” crescent shaped cardboard Waterdeep coins help to set the theme. The rulebook even contains a section explaining just how you can pack everything back into the custom molded plastic box insert. (Those poor OCD game component baggers will have to struggle to decide how to approach repacking the box.) While small, my one complaint about the components is the fancy game box. Sure, it looks great that it looks sort of like a giant tome of knowledge, but that means the box top is really only about 1/3 the depth of the box and so it irritates my OCD-ness and I feel as if it will pop open during transportation (it hasn’t).
My first (and subsequent) impression of the game was of a very clean, fast, easy to learn worker placement game. It is far easier for a designer to add in more complex bits to a game than it is to distill a game down to its bare essence. While I don’t consider Lords of Waterdeep to be a sort of skin-and-bones ideal stripped down game, it does come across as a very clean design. When teaching new gamers, I can set the game up and have things running in just a few minutes. After a turn or two, nearly all the players have a grasp of the rules and are already trying to plan out some long-term strategies. If anything, the game’s biggest shortcoming may be from a lack of diversity of winning strategies. While points can be earned from buildings and other actions on the board, the game will nearly always go to the player who can best complete their quests. However, this still leaves plenty of room for strategy and choices since players can attempt to complete a few big quests or many small ones. A player could commit to pursuing a set of quests in linked order (if a quest happens to provide a reward that matches up with the requirements of a different one), but then runs the risk of exposing their longer term plans and thus can be a larger target for disruption. If the trade off for a fast, solid game is to have fewer scoring options, the designers have probably made the right choice.
This probably isn’t going to create waves in the hard-core eurogame scene, nor do I expect it to shoot up the BoardgameGeek rankings, but it is a very solid, approachable game. With its atypical theme (No pushing little cubes of food or cotton here, each cube represents an ADVENTURER and you, you’re a Lord of Waterdeep secretly sending them out to do your bidding!) it makes a pretty good “gateway” game for new gamers. Offhand, I can’t think of a more approachable and playable worker-placement game that fits the “Gateway Game” category of being easy to teach, learn, and play. Sure, there is a small amount of negative player interaction, and while that might be a negative in some circles, I expect that to be a net positive for many people in the target (mostly American/non-eurogamer) audience. Wizards of the Coast has succeeded at creating a game of which I am satisfied to represent the Eurogame hobby to a broader market. Here’s looking to a new batch of gamers (role playing or otherwise) who might be drawn into the broader Eurogame scene through the promotion and placement of Lords of Waterdeep.
Opinions from the Other Opinionated Gamers
Nathan Beeler: Two thirds of the way through Waterdeep I was contemplating whether or not it was quite good enough to buy. That’s fairly high praise from someone whose game buying is at the one-game-per-many-months level. I was enjoying it as a mid-weight euro with special abilities: something right up my alley. Then the mandatory quests came out and pooped all over the fun I was having. I hate any aspects of gaming where I have to convince someone not to attack me in order to win. Whether they do or don’t, I just hate having to do that. This is what mandatory quests require, unless you have such a huge lead that you can withstand them and don’t care. That’s not going to be the case in most games. In my four player game, I got hit with two out of three of them that came out. One of the times was by a player who was not in contention, and who would only have kingmade by doing so. Totally unfun. Ugh. I could still see owning this someday, but only if I could be convinced that the game works without the mandatory quests that I would have ripped out and burned. For now, I have to rate it as shipped.
Lorna: Perfectly fine worker placement game but nothing very innovative. The mandatory quests are annoying.
Greg Schloesser: Interestingly, my thoughts on Lords of Waterdeep are a strange combination of those expressed by Matt and Nathan. The game is a pure worker placement game that forces players to make some interesting choices. There seem to be numerous strategies to pursue, and choosing which actions to select and when is critical. Wait too long and a desired action will likely be scooped by an opponent. The game is tight and filled with those tough choices I really enjoy.
Like Nathan, however, the “mandatory quest” cards can be a game-breaker. Ideally, they can and should be used to hinder the leader and allow others to close the gap. Unfortunately, they are more than a mere speed bump or nuisance. They can truly cripple a player, especially in a close game. Yes, in rare instances they can be overcome – especially if a player has built a considerable lead – but in most cases they can be catastrophic. I would prefer to play the game without them, or at least modify the rules to restrict the target of their use.
Ted C.: Unfortunately, I just do not see Wizards, Warriors, Clerics and such. I see cube collecting to make sets to score various points. That said, it is extremely straight forward, short duration with only eight turns, and a nice little ride. It is a keeper.
Dale Yu: I found this to be a nice “entry-level” worker placement game as well as a nice bridge towards more complex Euro-style games. I say that because I perceive the target audience here to be not necessarily hardcore gamers. Like others here, I am not a fan of the mandatory quest cards, but that’s the Eurogamer in me talking. I like the fact that you don’t get too many workers each round, only 2! in a 5-player game, so you really have to look around and make sure you’re getting the most out of each action choice. I don’t think this will replace Caylus in my collection, but I wouldn’t say no to another game of it either. (Hopefully with a house rule that takes out the mandatory quests)
Dan Blum: Generally I thought this was quite good – better than I was expecting when I sat down to play it the first time. I like a lot of what it does – the building ownership benefits work well (they’re borrowed from Caylus, to be sure, but there’s nothing wrong with that) and the fact that you need to take certain actions to get Intrigue cards and delay others to play them means the game does not in general devolve into “take-that” card play.
However, I do have two reservations about the game. One is the same one almost everyone else has: the Mandatory Quests. These did not seem to have a huge effect in either of my games, but I can easily see how they could. I don’t see any reason you couldn’t simply play without them – the Intrigue deck has lots of other interesting (and less swingy) cards.
The other is the Lord who, unlike all the others, gives bonus points for buildings instead of quests. Opinion on her seems to be divided pretty evenly between those who think she is too powerful and those who think she is awful. Unfortunately I don’t think the truth is that she is in fact well-balanced. What I suspect is the case is that she is powerful when playing with new players, or players who simply aren’t paying enough attention to buildings, and otherwise she will have a hard time scoring well. The number of players may also be a factor. (Though I did win with her in a five-player game; then again, we were all playing for the first time.) However, I don’t think her presence in the game is a huge problem since it is simple enough to simply play without her.
Jonathan Franklin: I enjoyed my three plays. I’ll be interested to see how non-Eurogamers feel about the mandatory quests because it might be the take-that helps the game bridge its two target audiences (D&D theme + Euro-style mechanisms). I don’t understand the use of cubes instead of minis given the theme, unless that was value engineering.
The game is short enough and I don’t take it seriously enough to argue against mandatory quests if everyone else want to play with them, however, I would prefer to permit the player receiving one to be able to complete the other quests they already have in any order while requiring that they tuck any quests they get after receiving the mandatory quest under the mandatory quest until the mandatory quest is completed. This would prevent the final round zinger that leads to a 25 points swing.
Given that the board already has six spots for player tokens and currently plays five, I look forward to seeing how WotC expands it and what new direction they push the worker placement genre, unless it is PvP, in which case I’m bailing.
Josh Miller (1 play): I don’t think I’m the target audience for Lords of Waterdeep. To me, it felt like a generic, paint-by-numbers Euro worker placement game with very little originality. However, I think this game is aimed at fantasy gamers who probably aren’t as immersed in the tropes and lexicon of Eurogames as I am. Consequently, the makers have emphasized conformity and smoothness rather than innovation and subtlety. That’s not what I’m looking for in a game, but I can see it filling a niche for someone who is not as jaded as I am.
I didn’t dislike playing Lords of Waterdeep, I just thought it was workmanlike rather than inspired. I would like to have seen more opportunity for tactics and planning. The most enjoyable part for me was the logistics of sequencing the quests you hope to complete, making sure you have enough money and adventurers at the proper times. Some of the other reviewers didn’t enjoy the intrigue cards, but I actually thought they added a welcome splash of flavor and unpredictability that isn’t always present in this style of game. They were the only feature that made Lords of Waterdeep feel a bit different than all the other light worker placement games on the market.
Matt Carlson (Final Comments): Thanks to all the Opinionated Gamers for their opinions… I thought I’d make a brief final comment now that everyone has weighed in. Clearly the mandatory quests are an issue for many eurogamers. The designers have stated they always intended to have the intrigue cards support player interaction to prevent any complaints of multiplayer solitaire from cropping up. I, too, have been burned by the mandatory quests cards but that was only one game in six, and I was pushing my luck by trying to be exactly as efficient as possible. Yes, one player became a kingmaker for the 2nd place player (I was leading), but to be fair – I was the only player who would have been hindered by the mandatory quest. In all games but that one, players generally tended to finish off all their main quests around turn 7 and were only looking around to pick up a minor quest here or there on turn 8. I even played an entire game holding onto my mandatory quest card(s) in order to mess up other players at the end (payback and all that) but failed to find any opportune targets, as again most players finished off any big quests before the final round (not to mention I was even blocked out of the harbor space to play my quest cards.) I suspect that experienced eurogamers may ride the fine edge of efficiency in this game and thus be greater targets for the small bumps that mandatory quests can provide. I am willing to play with or without the mandatory quests, but perhaps a less drastic solution would be to rule out any play of mandatory quests during the last two rounds. This eliminates any kingmaking but still preserves a bit of the interplay between players provided by the intrigue cards. As for the Lord who wants to focus on buildings, I’d miss him if he wasn’t available for play but think Dan nailed it when he said that Lord seems to be possibly overpowered if allowed to build almost every building and underpowered when playing with experienced gamers who won’t let that happen.
Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers
I love it!…
I like it… Matt Carlson, Greg Schloesser, Erik Arneson, Ted C., Dan Blum, Jonathan Franklin
Neutral… Lorna, Dale Yu
Not for me… Nathan Beeler