Ah, Lords of Waterdeep. One of the rising stars of the board game world. When I walked by it in the game store, I wasn’t expecting much.
“What is this?” I said to myself, “Another dopey Dungeons and Dragons tie-in game? Pfffffffffft. Why would I trust a licensed product like that? The last good DnD licensed spin-off was Baldur’s Gate 2!” I then proceeded to buy Tanto Cuore instead. This may or may not have been a good decision.
Still though, the game kept catching my eye. Stranger yet, I saw it linger in “The Hotness” chart on Board Game Geek, clinging tenaciously to a position that informed me it was a game of interest. So, I finally clicked over to read the board and was surprised to see love and adoration flowing through the boards. These people love Lords of Waterdeep! They think it is an excellent game!
So, I went out on a limb and purchased it. After all, Board Game Geek had yet to let me down.
What was the final result? Well, let me just say that I am not particularly surprised to see Lords of Waterdeep appears set to join the likes of Ticket to Ride and Catan in transitioning from pure geeky board gaming to a game that shows up in big name stores and unexpected locations.
Lords of Waterdeep is, at its core, a worker placement game. For those unfamiliar with them, it essentially means that players have a number of Action Pawns that they take turns placing on certain sections of the board that will allow them to take specific actions. The trick, of course, is that the number of Action Pawns that can inhabit a given space is limited (one per, with the exception of Waterdeep Harbor, in Lords of Waterdeep). This means that you have to choose the actions you want to take carefully, as other players could well take a space you need before your turn comes back around!
So,, what do you do with these actions in Lords of Waterdeep? Primarily you gather followers (which come in four flavors: Orange/Warriors, Black/Rogues, Purple/Wizards, and White/Clerics) so that you can send them off on Quests, which score you Victory Points (and, at times, other, more specialized rewards). Of course, there are other options as well: taking on more Quests, playing Intrigue cards (a hand of cards you keep that gives you specialized actions), collecting Money (primarily used to complete certain Quests and buy Buildings), buying Buildings (provide additional, and often powerful, locations to place Action Pawns and a reward to the Building owner whenever someone else uses it), or altering turn order.
The game starts with each player being dealt a random Lord (which they will keep secret). These Lords provide additional victory points at the end of the game for each quest of two specific types (or, in the case of one Lord, for each building you own). Each player is then dealt out two random Quests, two Intrigue cards, and some cash (depending on where they are in turn order).
The game will then continue for 8 rounds, at the end of which the one with the most VP is declared winner!
Lords of Waterdeep is an easy to learn game with a fair amount of depth. Although most of the game’s conceits will be new to novice board gamers, they are kept simple enough to be easily accessible and quickly learned. Similarly, the core strategy (acquire cubes for the classes you need to complete the quests you have) is transparent enough that they’ll at least be heading in the right direction at the start.
The Lords are nicely handled, with each one (with the exception of the Building Lord) possessing two quest types that they get additional points at the end of the game for having completed. This allows you to concoct a solid gameplan and execute it, as well as adding some depth to Quest choices and providing opportunities for counterplay.
The different Quests types are themed well and actually tend to synergize nicely. Arcane Quests are tricky, Military Quests provide more manpower, etc, etc. This allows you to, with proper planning, execute some pretty nifty combos. It is entirely possible, with clever play and proper quest synergy, to win a game with non-favored quests.
Buildings add a nice wrinkle to the game. Not only do that add additional (and often somewhat unique) spaces to the board, but there is also the question of whether you want to use your own buildings, reap the benefits for free as other people use them, or risk giving your opponents bonuses by using their buildings.
The game, especially for its genre, plays fairly quickly, making it great for short game nights.
The box insert is pretty damn fantastic and stores everything nicely.
Mandatory Quests (a type of Intrigue card that forces the player it is played on to complete it before any others) and Intrigue cards that require you to give things to other players or to the player playing the card add a nice level of player interaction beyond stealing spaces.
See that thing up there about the game being easy to learn? Well, the other side of the coin is that it isn’t as deep as other worker placement games (such as Dominant Species or Dungeon Petz). Strategies tend to be fairly transparent and straightforward.
Some of the rules interactions, particularly those related to Waterdeep Harbor, work out a little strangely.
Randomness plays a notable role in the game. Lords are handed out randomly (making it entirely possible to have several Quest types shared between multiple players) and Quests are revealed from a deck. There are options to mitigate this, but it is worth noting.
The theme is tacked on. Admittedly, it is tacked on WELL, but it isn’t integral to the game.
Mandatory Quests can end up being seriously aggravating at times, especially if you get focused by people. Perfect play can get stuffed pretty quickly by spite.
Buildings can detract from the general flow of the worker placement, as it provides too many spaces to cut people out of certain options (a problem further exacerbated by Intrigue cards). In the last few turns, it is unlikely that you’ll be able to prevent specific plays unless there are no Buildings in play. Beyond that, there are some potential balance issues related to them (some building costs, first player/first turn advantage – our group is still debating a couple points, so take this with a grain of salt).
Lord and Quest randomness can lead to some ridiculously stacked situations (starting with the Quest that gives you +2 whenever you complete a Quest of a certain type and having it sync up to your Lord). It is possible to deal with these situations and counteract them, but there are just going to be times where everything comes up roses for one player.
Although I don’t have issues with it, a fair number of people have complained about the box design.
My Final Verdict
Lords of Waterdeep is a game that has earned its popularity. It is easy to learn, accessible, deep enough to bear repeat plays, plays decently across its entire player count, nicely blends Eurogame and Amerigame sensibilities, and is fun! The game is similar to Blood Bowl (which I reviewed last week) in that, if my group doesn’t have a ton of time, wants to play a couple games, or just wants to think a little bit, we are happy to pull it out and play!
It is definitely not my favorite game, but it is one that I’m happy to play whenever we don’t feel like pulling out a heavier title.
So, if you’re only into the heaviest games alone and generally sneer at lighter games, then Lords of Waterdeep is probably not going to have the depth you’re looking for. If you can get behind something that has half the calories of a Eurogame (but the same great taste!) though, then Lords of Waterdeep is definitely worth looking into.
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