Lords of Waterdeep is an action management game strategy game for 2-5 players aged 12 and up. The game simulates the management of fantastical city Waterdeep, primarily by accumulating adventurers and sending them on quests to acquire resources and/or victory points.
It is a European-style game in that there is a finite end, and everyone stays in the game the whole time; players cannot be eliminated.
The game was published in 2012 by Wizards of the Coast and is part of the Dungeons & Dragons product line, even though it is a board game, sharing only a thematic skin with its more famous role-playing game sibling. The credited designers are Peter Lee and Rodney Thompson, both of whom are lead design employees at Wizards. This is the first game credited to each of the designers.
It is a heavily-designed game. Every bit of it. Not just the game play, but also the game pieces, and the game box, and the game rules, and … well, you get the point. Everything is heavily designed, sometimes overly much so; the design can get in the way.
And yet, in spite of all that design, a pretty fun game emerges. Quite fun, actually.
Lords of Waterdeep is a progressive board building game. The board consists of actions; it is in this way similar to Agricola, in that there are a limited number of actions available and only one player may perform each action. Also similar to Agricola, the number of actions increase as the game goes along, with more powerful actions becoming available later.
As the game begins you are dealt a random Lord, a couple of Quests, two Intrigue cards, a small handful of gold, and four movement tokens.
Each of the movement tokens can be used to secure one action. Actions primarily consist of gaining gold or “adventurers”, which are a form of currency that can be used to complete quests. Completed quests yield victory points. Some quests also yield more gold, or more adventurers, or other special effect. A few provide a bonus rule that gives the completing player a minor game advantage.
“Quests” are actually cards, and come in a variety of types, such as “Piety”, or “Skullduggery”, or “Warfare”. The categories also describe the type of adventurers that apply; Piety quests will probably require Clerics. Warfare quests indicate Fighters. And so forth.
Your “Lord” is kept secret; he or she will reward you with bonus victory points at the end of the game for each quest of a certain type that you have completed. For instance, Khelben “Blackstaff” Arunsun awards the player who has completed quests of type “Arcane” or “Warfare”.
Intrigue cards are minor game effects that you can play to accelerate your growth or hinder an opponent.
It is possible (actually, required, if you want to win) to chain these elements together tactically. Some of this will occur even if only by accident. Wise choices make this happen faster but it will happen regardless; your side will be much more capable at the end of the game than at the beginning
Or as my Gamer Girl puts it, “right when you start to feel like you can accomplish things, the game ends”.
During your turn you take turns placing movement tokens and performing whatever action is indicated by the space your token occupies. Board spaces fall into categories: some provide adventurers, some provide gold, and some provide Quest cards. Special spaces allow you to play an Intrigue card, or to build a building.
For the most part, only one token may occupy each space, and some of the spaces are better than others; token placement is a constant race/balancing act where you trade-off actions that are most important to your current plan versus actions that are likely to be taken by other players before you can get to them. Going first can be an advantage. Fortunately, there is a space for that too, and if you occupy it you will be the first player in the following round.
Assuming you get there first.
One of the key mechanics is the space that allows you to buy and place new buildings. Each building tile is really another space on the board, with another unique action that is henceforth available to all players. As the player who placed the building, you receive a small fee whenever someone else uses that action, in the form of an adventurer, or a couple of gold pieces, or maybe even victory points.
And here we encounter our first instance of over-design. In the building image above, note how the corner of the building card is notched, allowing ownership indicators with matching notches to neatly dovetail into a combined piece. A nifty design idea, but it is an idea too far. The pieces do not stay aligned properly no matter how you try. The ownership indicators are strangely shaped to accommodate the notching, meaning they squirt all over the place when you try to stack them.
It would have been far better to just have rectangular buildings and give us chips or colored indicators we can place on the buildings.
Bits and Pieces
This is a premium game, and it has premium pieces. The board is full-sized and full color, nicely printed, with a glossy protective coating of some type. The pieces are either wood, or thick cardstock, but those that are cardstock are also nicely printed and coated.
Best of all, the cards are plastic-coated! Yay! I cannot imagine why this is such a rarity, but it is, and Wizards of the Coast comes through. Excellent production values throughout.
It is not an accident; every part shows the intent to deliver quality. Even the box is thoroughly designed, with a specific place for every single piece. So thoroughly designed that designers have supplied a diagram to show the owner how to properly pack the game.
So much design. In the case of the packing box, brilliant design. In other places not so much. For instance, the gold. It comes in two denominations, one (a cardstock square) and five (a large cardstock crescent). A square? And an unwieldy large crescent? Why? Was “round” already taken?’
The victory points are the most annoying instance of over-design. Some sort of elongated, thick cardstock hexagons, it is simply not possible to stack the victory points. You have to spend time carefully aligning them just to put them in the box. It seems so … over the top. The game would be significantly improved by replacing all of the fiddley bits with differently-colored bingo chips.
But with that said, the plastic-coated cards and the well-designed packing box really snap. The game delivers value for cost; you get your money’s worth.
The fact that the quests are cards mean that they appear in random order. Similarly, buildings are randomly shuffled tiles. The game has an element of luck that you don’t find in other action management games. It also means that one cannot really plot out a game-long strategy; adaptation is key.
For instance, one of the quests rewards the player with another movement token. A 25% increase in action capability! If this comes up early in the game, it provides a huge boost, but one cannot really include this in a strategy; it may never come up at all.
Similarly, your Lord provides a significant victory boost for completing specific categories of quests. But they may never come up, or your opponent may be trying to stockpile the same category.
The ability to see combinations in cards or actions seems key. For instance, completing a quest that provides fighters as a reward can be a means to the end of completing another quest that requires a lot of fighters.
The synergistic possibilities increase with “Plot Quests”. These quest cards provide game-long effects, such as bonus victory points for completing Piety quests, or granting the player bonus gold whenever she acquires Rogues.
Playing In Your Own Space
The game provides a mechanism where players can effect each other in the form of Intrique cards. Acquiring Intrigue is not easy, it requires actions that one could instead spend on building your own position. More, the effects are not game-changing, primarily consisting of ways to acquire a small amount of resources, or deny a small amount of resources to an opponent.
Small effects, yes, but a well-timed Intrigue card can cost your opponent a quest at a key time. Plus, once you’ve gone to the trouble and expense of acquiring an Intrigue card, they become sort of free to play. Not really free, you lose your position in the turn action, but you do not lose your turn. It is just delayed. That sounds complicated, but it is enough to remember that Intrigue cards are sort of free to play.
Nonetheless, you will spend most of your efforts building your own position.
It is a race, and no one dies. The Lords of Waterdeep will appeal to players who prefer to play within themselves, and especially those who dislike war games.
In three games, My Gamer Girl and I have essentially played to a draw. No one has ever won by more than a few points, even though victory point totals have ranged from 170-ish to just over 200.
My favorite, so far, was a game where she managed to acquire the Lieutenant on turn one. The Lieutenant is the extra action token mentioned above; what a huge advantage! Meanwhile, my Lord wanted me to complete Skullduggery quests, meaning I would need a lot of Rogues. Coincidentally, there were two Plot Quests visible; one of type Commerce that gives the owner a gold bonus whenever Rogues are acquired, and another of type Skullduggery that provided an extra Rogue whenever gold was acquired.
While my Gamer Girl worked towards her Lieutenant I quietly acquired and completed the two Plot Quests.
Such synergy! Much tactics. The final score? 184-185.
I don’t think the game is designed for virtual ties; I think it is more that my Gamer Girl and I are well-matched. I also think the game would play very differently – very differently! – when three or more players are involved.
- The Lords of Waterdeep is a premium game and it looks and feels the part
- There is enough luck involved to add variety, but tactics rule the day. Brainpower overcomes randomization
- One can finish a game in an hour or two. Turns are brisk and everyone is involved; between-turn boredom does not occur
- There clearly is no single optimum strategy: you will have to think afresh every game
Board Game Geek rates Lords of Waterdeep at 7.82 out of ten; a ridiculously high rating that puts the game into the top five percentile. But I agree; this is a really good game, in spite of a handful of over-design issues, it plays smoothly and interestingly.
Wizards of the Coast has a real winner here.
My Gamer Girl and I agree: play the game as soon as you can, and buy it if you don’t already own it.
Four thumbs up.
🙂 😀 🙂