Lords of Waterdeep Review

Kyle & Nate

What does this rating mean?

Posted by Kyle & Nate on Jun 3, 2015


KM: Lords of Waterdeep attempts to make worker placement games sexy. No longer are you min-maxing your pawn placements with optimal efficiency in order to please some scowling monarch. Now you’re dispatching clandestine agents to gather up adventurers. They’ll go forth and slay fearsome monsters, explore dangerous dungeons, and foil sinister plots hatched against the City of Splendors! A worker placement game without a horribly dull theme, yes? Well, for me, the thin veneer of setting caved in on itself so quickly, it may as well have been “trading in the Mediterranean.”

NO: It’s interesting that you call Lords of Waterdeep an attempt to make worker placement sexy, because its greatest appeal is how unadorned the game is mechanically. There’s the setting of gathering adventurers to go on quests, and getting to those quests before the other players, and I think this setting is actually pretty well-realized. But the reason Lords of Waterdeep is good is because it does what it does with hardly any friction at all. It’s not filled with loads of turn phases and lots of nuanced auctions. It’s worker placement in its most basic form, with all of the tough decisions and planning intact, but without any unnecessary mechanical flim-flam, and with a whole lot of interaction. It seems to me like that’s a pretty good reason to enjoy this game over, say, Caylus.

KM: I’d agree that the design’s crystal-clear focus is a strength. It’s a worker placement game, and that’s that. It’s not worker placement with a twist of a twist thrown in for good measure. With every new game vying for attention with more and more bloated gimmicks to get gamers to part with their hard-earned cash, Waterdeep is refreshing in that every aspect of the design exists to support the central mechanism.

I think I’d part ways with you on how much interaction is integral to the design here though. While mandatory quests throw in a little “take that” flavor on the side, the primary engine only sees players butting heads over the most efficient spaces, and that kind of passive-aggressive blocking seemed as dull to me here as it does in other modern Euros.

NO: Well, I’m not sure I’d say it’s integral, but I do believe it features pretty heavily. The Intrigue cards are more than just the mandatory quests. There are cards in there that give cubes to other players, that take stuff from them, and gives that stuff to you. Let’s also not forget the buildings, which can be used by other players at a price to the owner. I’ll grant that outside of the intrigue cards and buildings the interaction is limited to blocking and doing things before other players, though I think that comes with the genre. My point is that the game makes an effort to acknowledge the other players are there. That seems like a low bar to clear, but it’s more than a lot of other worker placement standbys can claim.

KM: Look at something like Sons of Anarchy, where a super-efficient engine one player sets up is going to get torn to shreds by the other players. I’d like more than a simple nod to the other players’ existence at the table. I do get that some people want that kind of heads-down semi-interaction, but I want my Eurogames to force me to truly consider the larger schemes of the other players, and I don’t get that sense here.

NO: I’m curious to hear some of your complaints on the setting. The players all take on the role of one of the titular lords, sending their agents to recruit adventurers. Those adventurers then go on the quest and then give all of their hard-earned spoils to the player. It’s not a particularly compelling setting, but I do think it makes sense in the world of Dungeons & Dragons.

KM: I suppose it’s more internally consistent in this setting than in a lot of other games where worker placement has just become the default, regardless of whether or not the motif fits the narrative. My real beef here is that everything just feels a little too “cut-and-paste.” Other than the flavor text, is there a single element of the design that’s inseparable from the rich Waterdeep setting? Wizards, fighters, rogues versus wood, ore, wheat--there’s really no difference once the game gets going. I even tried to have players read their quests out loud, and enforce using the correct nomenclature for the cubes, but I gave up after a few plays. Ultimately, we’re shuffling resources around to convert them to victory points slightly more efficiently than everyone else.

NO: The closest you come to the game being really inseparable from the Waterdeep setting is probably in the mandatory quests, which you can throw on other players to sidetrack them for a turn or two. So on balance, that’s a fair criticism. I do agree that Lords of Waterdeep lacks for distinguishing characteristics. Without any real mechanical flare, the setting is basically the only thing that separates it at all, and even that isn’t really distinctive. Its biggest selling point for the average gamer is reliability. That sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, but I do think reliability is an underrated quality. Here’s a game you can slap down on the table in just about any setting, and it works. I normally wouldn’t want to play worker placement anything with strangers, but Lords of Waterdeep has proven itself to be stable in just about any setting. I have played with strangers, and we had a fine time.

The interaction, though not constantly cutthroat, is sharp enough that I sense I am at least playing with other people, but not so aggressive that planning becomes frustrating. After all, planning is basically the whole point of worker placement. You mention Sons of Anarchy, which I haven’t played, but I also thought of Alien Frontiers, a game that had a better setting but where everything was altogether too impermanent. There it made the game go long, and kept things artificially close. Lords of Waterdeep finds just about the right balance between “am I playing with other people” and “why bother to do anything at all”.

KM: My one real disagreement with its reliability is its variable length. Even with seasoned gamers, upper player counts really drag the game into 2-hour plus territory, which is just far too long for what’s on offer here. I do like the rather loose 2-player game to pass the time, simply because it’s pretty compact for a worker placement. But pull a new gamer into a 5-player matchup, and you’re going to have eyes glazing over as the session slogs into the seventh and eighth rounds. Otherwise, I think you’re spot on there. Waterdeep is going to play out essentially the same way each time, with minor variation based on the buildings and quests available.

Really, that’s the most significant flaw in the game. Everything is just so even in our games that when you’ve played it once, you’ve played it a hundred times. Sure, gamers who enjoy tactical decisions from turn to turn will find an interesting challenge each round, but there isn’t much long term strategy to speak of, nor is there any notable engine building in sight. Every aspect of the game is “too balanced,” if that’s a thing. I had a friend post a photo of a session where he had tied his opponent, with their scores in the 200-300 point range! At some point, if every action is essentially equal plus or minus a percentage point or two of efficiency, we’re just going through the motions.

NO: I’d challenge the “too balanced” assertion, if only because my score is frequently WAY back there, and I’ve never quite been sure why. But it is true that the dark side of variety in games is fragility, and if you want a game to be more stable you need to remove some of that variance. Lords of Waterdeep definitely falls on the “stable” end of that category. That’d be a problem in a highly social game that involved a lot of player-to-player interaction, but that’s not something I necessarily want or even need with worker placement. One place where I do think the game needs more variety is in the hidden lords, which are passed out at the beginning of every game. Almost every one of these give you extra points for completing certain types of quests, and if someone is following their quest it’s very easy to figure out what they’re going after. There is one Lord who makes extra points for owning buildings, but that one is even easier to figure out, and also easier to stop. It’s clearly meant to inject some kind of static into why people are doing different things, but in practice it’s basically just another way to score bonus points.

KM: You’re right in that every game won’t be neck-and-neck-and-neck in victory points, and there is a subtle learning curve in figuring out the timing of taking on quests both big and small. So you should see a disparity between the skilled and the unskilled, but it’s nowhere near the gap that exists between, say, a top-level player in Tigris & Euphrates and a first-timer. Even so, the progression of the game itself is predictable, even, and to borrow a term from you: reliable. This reliability is its greatest feature and its most annoying bug. I could tell you about a huge coup I performed of American Hotels in my very first ever game of Acquire several years ago, but I’d be hard-pressed to think of a single moment of real upheaval in any Waterdeep session I’ve endured.

NO: It occurs to me as we go back and forth like this that a lot of my opinion on Lords of Waterdeep has been improved by its expansion, Scoundrels of Skullport. I know we aren’t here to review that one, but I do think it addresses the static nature of the game by allowing for bigger risks, bigger failures, and a weird “negative” resource that needs to be managed. I bring it up because I think it actually shows some of the weaknesses of the base game, which as you point out is a pretty controlled environment.

KM: I can’t comment with too much credibility on the expansion, because my one play of it was dreadful--but I do think it was a fluke brought on by mixing in both halves of the expansion in a six-player session with some newbies. I did really like the concept of being able to take much more powerful spaces with some risk, but in our game it didn’t turn out to be much of a risk at all. What’s more, I got the Lord whose bonus involved getting a bunch of corruption, and the math didn’t seem to add up to make his bonus as lucrative as the other Lords in play. Actually, I think I’d be willing to give Waterdeep another shot with the expansion and a small, experienced playgroup, since it does seem to address some of my concerns on paper at the very least.

NO: The best way to think of Lords of Waterdeep is as a stripped-down worker placement game, one that hits on the high points of the genre without facing many of its pitfalls. That at least seems like its intent, since that squares with other board games released by Wizards of the Coast. They have a pattern of releasing games that seek to distill a genre down to its most straightforward form. That was certainly the case with Nexus Ops and Conquest of Nerath which took on large conflict games, and the D&D Adventure System’s take on dungeon crawlers. Lords of Waterdeep takes a less radical approach than any of those games, perhaps because it’s based on a style of gameplay that was already pretty straightforward. But its no-frills approach is still welcome, because it runs so smoothly and manages to give enough interaction and strategy to justify itself.