Over the past two years, Wizards of the Coast has produced numerous Dungeons & Dragons-themed board games, but none quite like Lords of Waterdeep. Past efforts were well received but undeniably played things safe, serving as distilled versions of D&D 4th Edition or re-themed war game designs. Now, Wizards has thrown their hat into the ring of European strategy, where games are judged only according to their traditional definition: as a test of skill.
It's out of character to say the least.
Euro strategy games are often bemoaned for their lack of theme, challenging players to lose themselves in the worlds of crop farming or resource bartering. The Forgotten Realms of D&D are a world apart from these bland experiences, but will strategic gamers appreciate the setting? Can thematic gamers embrace an economic competition?
Wizards of the Coast is walking a tightrope with Lords of Waterdeep: gamers want the best of both worlds, strategic and thematic. A few compromises were required, but surprisingly, Lords of Waterdeep manages to please gamers of all types.
Just the Facts:
Playing Time: 60 minutes
Age: 12 to adult
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Release: March 20th, 2012
As the game's title suggests, players each take on the role of one lord in the city of Waterdeep. Depending on which lord card you are dealt, you will earn bonus points for completing tasks of a certain type. These points are awarded at the end of the game, allowing players to keep their lord cards (and strategic objectives) hidden from other players.
True to its Euro-strategy roots, Lords of Waterdeep defines the winning player purely in terms of victory points. Throughout the game, players will be faced with a common challenge: meet the requirements of quest cards to earn points, bonus resources, and special abilities. In order to complete a quest, though, a player must assemble an adventuring party as specified on the quest card. This will require players to assemble a pool of five different resources (clerics, fighters, wizards, rogues, gold) and spend them to earn the quest's reward.
A full setup of Lords of Waterdeep, on turn 3 of a 4-player game.
The beauty of Lords of Waterdeep is that it uses a very simple turn structure to keep things moving; players will take small actions to earn their resources and quests cards. Turns center around the worker placement mechanic, which is another standby of the Euro strategy genre. Here, players are each given a small number of "agents," pawns that they can place on various spots on the board. Placing an agent in a spot will trigger the action printed there, such as "gain 2 warriors" or "draw 1 quest card and gain 2 gold." It will also close off that space for the rest of the turn, meaning no other player can place an agent there once you have. After all agents are placed, they are given back to their owner and the next turn begins. After 8 turns, the game ends.
Wherever the Agent symbol appears on the board, a player can trigger the effect pictured to its right. Here, two of the more advanced space show wildcard cubes, which let players collect a cube of any color. A small chit in the lower-right corner shows which player built the building, and will receive the "owner" reward.
Another positive factor for this game is that it weans players onto the concept of worker placement. During the first half of a game, players have only a few agents, and there is not much variety in the available placement locations. However, by using the "builder's hall" space, players can pay money to construct new board spaces for future turns. Once turn 5 hits, each player also gets an additional agent. This all adds up to create a nice ramp in complexity that strangers to strategy titles should have no problem following.
Constructing buildings also gives players another chance to earn victory points. Because there is a large stack of potential buildings, but only a market of three random choices to select from, buildings that are passed up will earn a small bounty of victory points as the game progresses. At the start of each turn, unconstructed buildings in the market each receive a 1-point chip, making even the most useless building a strong option by the game's end.
You won't forget to add points to the buildings or take your extra agent. The board forces you to lay everything out in advance for each of the 8 turns, streamlining gameplay in the process.
Lords of Waterdeep isn't all dry economics of recruiting a party and completing quest cards, though. There is also an Intrigue card deck, which serves to spice up the game. Various spots on the board allow you to draw or play these Intrigue cards which can have one of the three following effects: benefit you and one other player of your choice, screw with all opponents a bit, or really screw over one opponent. These can be a bit of a turn-off for Waterdeep players coming from the cold, calculating Euro strategy side of gaming.
All of this ties back into the Dungeons & Dragons theme when you actually go to complete a Quest card or play an Intrigue card. The cards have descriptions of D&D-related tasks on them, and set their requirements to make sense when considering the action depicted. The big secret here is that Lords of Waterdeep isn't actually very thematic at all. It plays off of familiarity with the setting to trick role-players into bringing the theme with them. These are role-players after all, they are used to crafting a story in their head!
Each player gets their own small mat, helping them track their agents, adventuring party members, gold, active quests, and completed quests.
- 5 card stock player mats
- 121 Intrigue, Quest, and Role cards
- 130 wooden cubes, pawns, and score pieces
- Wooden player markers
- Card stock tiles and tokens representing buildings, gold coins, and victory points
- Game board
Production value also matters in a game, and Lords of Waterdeep delivers.
Let's start from the outside in. The box itself is the only negative point here, as it is uses a stylish half-depth lid that succeeds at looking cool, but has half the grip of a normal lid. Don't tip this one over, or you might be stuck picking up the pieces. Still, it looks pretty sexy on the shelf (or about as sexy as a board game box can get).
Notice the two box halves that slide over a center portion. Unique, stylish, but not quite functional.
Going one layer deeper, you'll see the insert is made from vacuum-formed plastic, and literally has a separate compartment for every single type of component in this game. This is the king of inserts, comparable only to the one included in Dungeons & Dragons: Conquest of Nerath. The card compartments also have rounded bottoms, meaning you can push down on one side of the deck, and the whole thing will pop out with ease. No more cards or counters getting stuck on the flat bottom of a tiny compartment!
Seriously, everything has a spot.
As for the components themselves, there's a lot to love here. The cards are top notch quality (these are the people who make Magic: The Gathering, after all). What I really liked, though, was the use of wooden cubes. A stalwart component of the European strategy genre, little wooden cubes are typically used to represent inanimate resources. Here, they are used as the actual members of your adventuring parties.
There are also little wooden people (known among gamers as meeples) that act as your agents in Waterdeep. I commend Wizards for resisting the urge to use less expensive cardboard counters and more expensive (yet more thematic) plastic miniatures. The publisher picked and chose its battles in making a hybrid thematic/strategic game, knowing that premium wooden bits were likely to give strategic gamers a level of comfort, while thematic gamers with existing bias against "cube games" would still press forward due their engagement with the D&D theme.
Although not mentioned elsewhere in this review, the two denominations of gold currency deserve a special callout for looking so cool.
Lords of Waterdeep feels like a tight design. The turns move quickly, and the game reliably plays within its advertised 60-minute length. It uses enough game mechanisms to make players feel as though they've accomplished something, although when it comes to their sense of competition, that smattering of game mechanisms can feel a bit chaotic.
Between the hidden roles, the card-based quests, intrigue card effects, the building marketplace, and more, it's hard to walk away with the feeling of having played a tournament-worthy strategy game. However, that is not to say that Lords of Waterdeep lacks fun; the game is actually a joy to play. It just might provide a more hollow joy.
I realize we're splitting hairs here, so why should all of this matter when I've already deemed Lords of Waterdeep to be a fun game? Because you should understand the niche that Waterdeep fills in your board game collection. Gamers are constantly after the next big "gateway game" that will help them convert their non-gaming friends, slowly weaning them onto big meaty titles such as Agricola, Puerto Rico, and Caylus. This game is not going to be your next "gateway game," but it will still get a whole new crowd of board gamers to the table.
Lords of Waterdeep is a Dungeons & Dragons game, and like it or not, that comes with a certain stigma. "Gateway games" are used to convert non-gamers, but there will definitely be a portion of this crowd that is allergic to the D&D name. At the same time, existing D&D fans that don't like Euro strategy are never going to advance to that next tier of complexity, no matter how many rounds of Lords of Waterdeep you play with them. Therefore, you should make your decision on whether or not to purchase Lords of Waterdeep by judging the game on it's own merit, not by viewing the game as a cog in some grand scheme to expand your gaming group.
Wizards of the Coast set out to make a game that can please two disparate crowds. They succeeded, but with a title that will be fun for everyone yet nobody's favorite. In the right setting, though, Lords of Waterdeep is indisposable. It will take a group of incompatible gamers and give them one enjoyable game to play together, which is much better than having zero games to play. That's a good thing.
Disclaimer: MTV Geek received a complimentary review sample of this game