Sunday, September 15, 2013

Lords of Waterdeep Review

Lords of Waterdeep is a game I picked up on short notice before a beach trip with a bunch of friends.  It was getting a lot of hype on the message boards I frequent, and there was a fantastic sale on Amazon for it.  So I figured why not!  I took a ton of games with me to the beach that year, and Lords of Waterdeep saw a good amount of play.  But less now, over a year later.

Lords of Waterdeep is a worker placement game that takes place in the Dungeons & Dragons setting of the Forgotten Realms.  It was published by Wizards of the Coast in 2012, and was designed by Peter Lee and Rodney Thompson.  It supports 2 to 5 players, and plays in about 60 to 90 minutes.

Rule Summary

To set up Lords of Waterdeep, first you lay out the board.  Then shuffle and place the Quest deck, Intrigue deck and Building tiles in their labelled spaces on the board.  Fill the 3 Builder's Hall spaces with face up Buildings, as well as the 4 Cliffwatch Inn spaces with face up Quest cards.  Fill each of the 8 round spaces with 3 of the hexagonal victory point tokens.

A setup board

Next, give each play their sets of pieces.  They should get their Agents, their player mat, building control markers, 1 Lord card, 2 face up Quest cards, 2 Intrigue cards, and 4 Gold.  They will also place their scoring token on the 0 space of the score track, and a spare Agent at the bottom of the board.  The number of Agents is determined by the number of players, with more players getting fewer Agents per player.  It helps control the length of the game.  Also, the further back in the turn order a player is, the more Gold they will receive to start with in order to compensate them.

A player's area at start.

The game will take place over a series of 8 rounds.  At the beginning of each round, you will take the point tokens from that round space, and place 1 on each building in the Builder's Hall.  On the 5th round, every player gets the Agent they placed at the bottom of the board during setup.  This helps fill out the new buildings players have probably purchased during the first 4 rounds.

Adventures cubes and Gold
During a round, players will take turns placing their Agents on a building.  Most of the buildings simply provide Adventurers of some sort, Gold, or Intrigue cards.  The types of Adventurers are Fighters, Rogues, Clerics and Wizards.  In general, Fighters and Rogues are easier to get than Clerics or Wizards.  Some of the buildings that come out later can get creative in how they award resources.  A few of the beginning locations do require special mention.

When a player places an Agent in the Builder's Hall, they get to purchase a building.  They pay it's cost in Gold, and then place it on one of the empty building spaces around Waterdeep.  They place a building control marker on it, and score any points that had accumulated on the building.  Every building that can be built has an owner bonus.  This meanings that every time another player uses that building, the owner will also get the bonus.  After a building is purchased, you immediately replace it with a new one from the stack.

Builder's Hall

Another important location is Cliffwatch Inn.  This is the primary means of acquiring new Quest.  It has 3 different spaces.  One allows you to take a Quest and 2 money, one allows you to take a Quest and an Intrigue card, and the last is really good.  It allows you to discard all the Quest from Cliffwatch in, and draw 4 new ones, then take one of those.  Whenever you take a Quest from Cliffwatch Inn, you immediately replace it with a new one.

Cliffwatch Inn

The last location of note is Waterdeep Harbor.  This is where you play Intrigue cards, and it has 3 spaces.  At the end of the round, once all the players have used up their Agents, the Agents on Waterdeep Harbor get to take another action, starting with the first one played.

After a player has placed their Agent on a location, they may complete 1 Quest.  To do this, they pay the cost of Adventurers and Gold listed on the Quest, then take the reward, and place the Quest face down on their player mat.  Some Quests are Plot Quests, and they will stay out, and provide players with a bonus for the rest of the game.  For example, every time they take a Mage, the Plot Quest may also award them with an Intrigue Card.

The many Lords of Waterdeep
The game continues in this manner for 8 rounds.  At the end of round 8, players will add up whatever points they may have from extra Adventurers (worth 1 point per cube) and Gold (worth 1 point per 2 Gold).  Lastly, they will reveal their secret Lord of Waterdeep that they received at the beginning of the game.  This Lord will usually lists two favored Quest types, for example Warfare and Piety.  The players will then earn 4 victory points for each of those quest they completed.  One Lord is different, and instead rewards 6 victory points for each building the player owns.  At this point, whoever has the most victory points is the winner.

Timelapse of play.

How accessible is the game to new players?

Waterdeep is a very accessible worker placement game.  One of the most accessible in fact.  It has a relatively simple structure.  Your Agents gather Quest and Adventurers, which you combine to earn points.  It's just a 2 step process.  Which is in stark contrast to other worker placement games like Agricola or Le Havre.  Many of the Euro style worker placement games have complex resource chains and abstract notions of what is worth points at the end of the game.

Step 1: Get Adventurers.  Step 2: Get Quest.  Step 3: ???  Step 4: PROFIT!

It's also almost completely deterministic, unlike other entry level worker placement games that use dice such as Stone Age or Alien Frontiers.  This provides a more stable, and less frustrating play experience for new players.  This will be appreciated by players who have not learned how to mitigate the randomness of dice as adeptly as other people.

What could have been done better?

I cannot think of a single thing that could improve how new player friendly Waterdeep is.  It has a clear victory condition, with a clear path to get to it.  It has extremely unfrustrating play.  I've yet to see anyone just completely knocked out of contention, and grow despondent in their corner.  It also has a good mix of public and hidden scoring.  The public scoring lets you have a good idea of how well you are doing.  Then the hidden scoring lets you hold out hope of pulling ahead in the end.

And the hidden scoring is balanced just about right as well.  In many games the hidden scoring can completely overshadow the public scoring to the point where the public scoring doesn't mean much.  This has happened numerous times in Stone Age for us.

How does the new player versus experienced player match up go?

This is a fantastic gateway game, and scores across experience levels tend to be neck and neck.  There isn't a lot of room for experienced players to bully new players.  Nor is there really room for players to get themselves in a corner, or screw up too badly.

This is partially because each resource seems to have a fairly fixed base utility.  What I mean by that, is Adventurers and Gold convert to points through Quest at a pretty consistent rate.  The only exceptions to this being plot Quest which give permanent bonuses to your actions, and other Quests which provide exotic rewards like free buildings or cards.

A lot of quest are worth fewer points, but provide rewards that are well worth it

The only ways to really leap ahead of the competition is to abuse the powers of your secret lord, and synergize quests aggressively.  Get some great plot quest early, and use them as much as you can the rest of the game.  Or dump the rewards you got from one Quest straight into another.  But the availability of these Quests comes down to luck for the most part, although there are some ways to mitigate it with the location that allows you to draw 4 new Quest cards, and then get first pick of them.  That puts you in a position to look at 8 of 60 Quests.  Not horrible odds when it comes to digging out something useful.

What could have been done better?

Sometimes Lords of Waterdeep can feel like it's on autopilot a bit.  That rate of conversion from Adventurers to points can be a little too consistent.  The forces that explain why one player outperforms another are subtle.  Perhaps a little too subtle.

For example, certain types of cubes might be scarcer than others because of which buildings get bought.  This makes them harder to get, but not worth any more points in the end.  This could hamstring someone who's lord requires a lot of those cubes.  Or perhaps it came down to luck of the draw, and a statistically unlikely shortage of the right Quest cards occurred, afflicting one player more than others.

The bottom line is that there appears to be a rather low skill ceiling to Lords of Waterdeep.  The goals you are trying to accomplish are right in front of your face, 2 steps away.  The things that interfere with your efficiency in accomplishing these goals are mostly uncontrollable, and with a muted impact.  If you sat at a table with a mixed group of players, you'd be hard pressed to pick the hardcore gamers from the casual.  Unless perhaps someone was sticking their Agents up their nose.  A low skill ceiling can be a wonderful pro to a game, but it can also be a terrible con.  Not all games need to trade away rewarding skill for accessibility.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

The game really hums along.  It just feels good completing that simple two step process.  Get a quest, get some cubes, combine them for points.  Now do it again for more points.  Now do it again for a cool bonus.  Now do it again for some free cards.

There are broadly 3 types of Intrigue Cards. Left:  Attack.
Center:  Mutually Beneficial.  Right:  Surprise Resources
The Intrigue cards also provide a good amount of player interaction beyond merely blocking action spaces.  Now you can steal things from people directly.  Or afflict them with Mandatory Quests which they must complete first, and which have an awful exchange rate of Adventurers to points.  Or maybe you'll just get some free stuff.  And if everyone is lucky, maybe they'll get some free stuff too.  Less than you of course, but something.

There are only 3 spaces to play Intrigue Cards at.  This keeps things from getting too carried away, but still maintains tension.  You'll worry about the integrity of your play area, especially going into a new round.  But eventually all the spots fill up and you can relax.  It's actually a great system of rising and falling tension that occurs every round.

What could have been done to make the game more enjoyable?

Waterdeep has a hard time holding my interest.  It's colorful, and has a strong reward mechanism.  But the shine wears off quickly as you realize the reward mechanisms are extremely shallow.  The utility of any particular move just feels a little too fixed.  And the simple 2-step point crank gets a little boring.

With so many powerful buildings out
it's impossible to really block anyone.
This is especially pronounced late in the game when a lot of buildings have been put out.  It's more or less impossible to block anyone from knocking out at least one more Quest.  There are ample resources for everyone, and it's a race to finish as much as possible and math out maximal points.  Except the valuations are constant and the math is dirt simple.

I'm not sure what Waterdeep could have used to give it that last little bit of an impact.  Something to really make it stand out, and make you feel truly in control of your course through the game.  Something that would reward picking a strategy and committing to it.  Something where there is a risk of failure.  The risk of failure is almost completely absent from this game.  Which makes the success seem hollow.  Perhaps my inability to come up with even a guessed at solution is why I'm a blogger and not a game designer.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

Lords of Waterdeep strikes me as a primarily tactical game.  There is some potential for strategy in the Plot Quests.  But grabbing a useful card or two on the first turn and then using it the rest of the game does not constitute a strategy.

Plot Quest are great, but using one for 8 rounds straight is not "Strategy"

So I feel the game is very tactical.  It consists mostly of evaluating which spaces are most valuable to you right now, and grabbing them first, so that you can turn your point crank slightly faster.  The Intrigue cards give you some interesting tactical options as well.  Either to hinder opponents, or gather resources that people didn't think you could get.  Additionally you get to reuse that person at the end of the round, on whatever locations are still available.  Intrigue cards probably offer the most interesting tactical space of the game, as well as potentially the greatest utility.

Ultimately it's a war of inches though.  Trying to get that one extra cube, that one extra money, those 2 extra points.  Over the course of the game, they slowly add up to victory.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

The dilemmas in this game are fairly mediocre.  The consequences of your actions mostly seem to average out over the long term.  You'll never end a game thinking back to that one turn, and how everything would have turned out differently if only you'd chosen a different location.  It's unlikely you will end the game feeling like you learned something either.  In same ways, Waterdeep feels more like a ride to me.  It sometimes seems that the people who win almost accidentally optimized their many decisions better than the other players accidentally optimized theirs.

What could have improved the dilemmas?

Part of Waterdeep's problem, as I see it, is that very little you do has any permanence.  There are plot quest, and that's about it.  But they are rarely dilemmas at all.  You either know right away you want them in the early game, or you know they aren't worth it at all in the mid to late game.  Players aren't being pulled in two directions at all.  They don't have to choose between two fundamentally opposed options.

Other worker placement games pit building up your capabilities against surviving challenges or gaining points.  In Waterdeep you mostly just gain points as efficiently as possible.  And I think that is what's responsible for the somewhat lackluster quality of the decisions.

I think Waterdeep could have benefited from more aggressive control over buildings.  Something that made them more personal than a space that gives you a token benefit whenever someone else uses it.  Because the fact of the matter is, the benefit they give another player almost never outweighs your need for what they provide, so it's not a dilemma.  Perhaps the owner of the building could have denied you access.  Or the person using the building would have to pay the owner out of their own supply.  It's a tried and true mechanic other games have used which really ratchets up the quality of the dilemmas.

Waterdeep now has an expansion, Scoundrels of Skullport.  It's corruption mechanic especially appears to have broadened the dilemmas of the game.  But I haven't tried it yet, so I can't speak to how well it makes you sweat your long term goals.

Physical component design and limitations?

The graphic design of Lords of Waterdeep is phenomenal.  The board, player mats, buildings, quest.  Just everything has a very clear, concise, and easily understandable graphical language.  There are outlines of components everywhere they should be placed.  There are pictures of whatever it is you are supposed to take.  There are copious arrows and boxes directing your vision to the relevant sections of the board.  It's really fantastically designed.

I donno about this...

That being said, I have a long list of complaints for Lords of Waterdeep, with respect to it's component quality.  Personally I dislike the half-lid of the box, which never feels securely closed.  I also dislike it's odd shape, and how hard it is to fit onto a shelf full of relatively standard sized game boxes.  Additionally, my board began warping almost as soon as I got it, which is garbage.  Although after a year, the weight of the boxes on top of it appears to have flattened it back out.  The cards also feel cheap.


The insert I at first loved.  It starts off fantastic, with a perfectly molded spot for every game piece.  But one issue has occurred so consistently that it's all I notice any longer.  The Gold constantly falls flat in it's trench, and is impossible to get back out without severe difficulty.  Plus the cardboard Gold tokens seem to stick to one another as well.  So you need one Gold, and you have to pull out this log of tokens, break it apart, then put the remainder back.  This is possible because the Gold tokens have a glossy finish, and are pushed together pretty firmly by the insert.  But the Gold is just the worst offender.  Everything is in there just a little too snugly, and has a tendency to explode out, or not have adequate space to get your fingers in after it.

What could have been better?

All around, Lords of Waterdeep would have benefited from higher quality materials.  It's not nearly as bad as the Wizards of the Coast edition of Acquire.  But it's clear to me that Wizards thinks they can skimp on component quality in their board games.

While I appreciate the effort on the insert, and the half-lid is creative, ultimately I think both fail to really work.  The novelty wears off, and then you have to deal with the reality of their underwhelming usability.

Lastly, I want to point out the fantastic custom meeples that you can order to replace the Adventurer cubes.  An intrepid user on BoardGameGeek will laser cut and paint these for you, for a modest fee.  It's little touches like this which can raise a game from mediocre to good or great based entirely on immersing you in the theme.

Long term prospects?

I like Lords of Waterdeep well enough.  It's the worker placement game I like to play when I don't have the brainpower or time for Agricola.  In every dimension that matters to me, I prefer Agricola.  But sometimes we don't always get to play the game we want, and for those days, I own Waterdeep.  It's just more friendly to everyone else at the table, where as other worker placement games tend to leave people destitute and miserable when their plans don't work out.

I'm planning on getting the expansion this month if possible.  I wasn't planning to initially, however it seems like it genuinely improves the game.  It looks like it has more tactical options, although it still seems pretty devoid of strategy.  Plus the corruption mechanic looks like it adds some actual dilemmas to spice up your pros and cons.  But for me, vanilla Lords of Waterdeep is a good gateway game, but lacking in staying power.


  1. Great review thanks! I especially like your suggestion on having to pay from your own supply to use the buildings. You also mentioned Agricola, will you consider doing a review of that game?

    1. I want to review Agricola. I just haven't gotten enough plays of it in recently to feel confident writing a review.