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Lords of Waterdeep Review

Lords of Waterdeep - a European style worker placement game made by an American company for a fantasy setting

I don’t like worker placement games. It’s the most tired, overused and systematically abused board gaming mechanic on the planet, and while it has produced the odd important game in the past, the monotonous regularity with which new and entirely derivative games based on it continue to appear is beyond parody. It was therefore with some trepidation that I discovered Wizards of the Coast had decided to continue their triumphant re-entry into the board gaming mechanics by releasing a Dungeons & Dragons game using worker placement, Lords of Waterdeep. More so when I got sent a copy to review.

One of the signature issues with poor worer placement games is a startling lack of connection between theme and mechanics. There’s no particular reason that this should be the case: the basic principle of having a limited pool of workers and assigning them to carry out a variety of different tasks each turn would seem to have a variety of real-world applications. And clearly the people who designed Lords of Waterdeep understood this and went to a lot of effort to buck the trend. Each player represents one of the secretive lords of the greatest city in the Forgotten Realms, and sends agents into the city in order to accumulate resources such as gold and adventurers to complete quests that help keep the city from harm. It hangs together well as a cohesive whole, aided by sensible choices about the things needed to complete different tasks: recruiting for the city guard requires your agents to muster a few fighters together, for example, while exploring the caverns underneath the city to clear out a nest of Beholders requires a large, diverse and well-equipped party. Cards and other requisite materials are lavished with quality art and thematic quotes to help get and keep players in the right frame of mind.

So given the effort that has been expended on overcoming this oft-lamented obstacle in the genre it’s a shame to see that it’s largely wasted. All the right ingredients are there but the game portrays action at a level so much higher than the meat-and-potatoes of quest fulfillment that it tends to just get ignored. A player might need to send secretive agents into the city to recruit three thieves and two clerics in order close a portal into a nether dimension of unimaginable evil, but what he’ll actually say is “here’s three black and two white cubes, someone add twenty victory points to my track please”. If you can find a group of players who are deeply familiar with the Forgotten Realms setting, and enthusiastic enough about it to really put the effort into making the theme come alive (and Dungeons & Dragons has sufficient devotees to make this a plausible scenario) then it’ll probably work. But for most gamers, all that detail will simply pass over their heads.

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Lords of Waterdeep board in play

I’m pleased to report, however, that similar ingenuity has been employed in other areas of the design to much better effect in pursuit of the apparent goal of attempting to sidestep or improve on pretty much every single criticism that’s commonly aimed at worker placement. For example, a frequent problem with games of this type is the repetitive deployment of the same tactics in game after game, leading to rapid disinterest and disillusionment amongst the players, almost as if the game has been “solved” in a mathematical sense. Against this, Lords of Waterdeep deploys the effective weapon of variety. It lifts a mechanic wholesale from another (and infinitely duller) worker placement game, Caylus, in which players can pay to create new buildings with a wide variety of different effects: new resource combinations, the ability to sidestep rules, the potential to swap resource types are the most common examples. If other players send their agents to these buildings then the owner gets a small bonus effect for free. There’s also a lot of variety to the quest cards. While the majority simply require you to pay adventurer cubes and gold in return for victory points some are labelled as “plot quests” and give you a permanent bonus for the rest of the game such as bonus victory points for certain quest types, or the ability to get bonus resources when you take particular actions. In two cases the reward is an extra agent which can be a game-breaking power-up if acquired early on, although this is rare. But for the most part these innovations work together to make sure that the strategies the players need to employ to win have to be changed from game to game to make best use of the available buildings and plot quests, and thereby stop the game from getting jammed in a tactical rut.

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Another frequently-cited issue with these sorts of games is that there’s little meaningful player interaction. In the name of trying to ensure that players can’t gang up on one another and unbalance the game, interaction in worker placement tends to revolve around watching other people’s developing positions carefully and blocking their access to key resources by taking them yourself. And again, this is certainly something you can do in Lords of Waterdeep, although the availability of different buildings and the limited number of different resource types (five: four different kinds of adventurer and gold) means it’s less effective than in some other titles. But the game makes up for this, and more, by adding intrigue cards.

Intrigue cards are perhaps the very best thing about Lords of Waterdeep. They have a wide variety of effects which range widely across the interaction scale. Some of them give you useful extra abilities, like the chance to assign an agent to a space already used by an opponent. Others give you free resources but allow the other players a smaller freebie of the same type. Some permit you to discard or steal the resources of other players, sometimes giving them the option to swap these for victory points. There are mandatory quests, irritating low victory point tasks that you can assign to other players to complete before they can finish their existing quests. In short they offer a huge variety of small ways you can screw with your fellow gamers, into which is mixed more tactical choice and none of which unbalance the game. There’s even an interesting mechanic used when you play them: you have to assign a worker to do it, which seems steep just to lay a card, but you get to reassign him again at the end of the round, adding all sort of interesting issues around tactics and timing to the mix. They’re a brilliant, yet very simple innovation, and it highlights the staleness of the genre that no-one else has attempted to add anything similar to worker placement games in the past.

Lords of Waterdeep player mat with adventurer and gold resources

Indeed it’s possible that from this review so far you’ve got the impression that Lords of Waterdeep is a complex game. Not so – the rules are actually very simple and it’s very easy to learn and teach. It also plays in around an hour, with 90 minutes being the absolute maximum with a full load of slow players. Scales well too: more is generally merrier, but it’s still fun with just two. So you might well think it’s a suitable family game and indeed some players have reported that it works well in this role. Me, I’m not so sure. In common with a lot of games that manage to thematic and or reasonably deep off the back of a straightforward set of rules, Lords of Waterdeep pulls the trick of moving most of the theme and mechanics from the rulebook and onto the cards. Whilst the mechanical actions you go through in a turn are easy for anyone to grasp, actually playing the game in even a vaguely effective manner requires players to simultaneously digest and remember a fairly large amount of inter-related information regarding their quests, other player’s quests, available quests, a hand of intrigue cards and the available buildings. It’s a breeze for anyone who’s used to playing modern European-style games, but it’s a world away from mass market titles, and non-gamers are likely to still struggle for several sessions before they get the hang of it.

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Lords of Waterdeep battered at my inbuilt prejudices regarding the genre and eventually won a hard-fought victory. It helps that addressing common complains about the mechanic seems to have been a guiding principle behind the design and that, for the most part, the solutions employed have been successful in producing a relatively thematic game that allows enough player interaction and variety to continually keep things fresh and interesting while still retaining most of the balance and strategic depth that are the hallmark of worker placement games. It’s still worker placement at heart, of course, and occasionally things drag a little, but on the whole it’s a solid and enjoyable design that should offer something to gamers of pretty much every stripe. Someone asked me recently what my three favourite worker placement games were: in point of fact I could only think of three that I would bother playing, but when he asked the question, Lords of Waterdeep was the very first name that came to my lips.

Matt Thrower

Matt is a board gamer who plays video games when he can't find anyone similarly obsessive to play against, which is frequently. The inability to get out and play after the birth of his first child lead him to start writing about games as a substitute for playing them. He founded FortressAT.com and writes there and at NoHighScores.com

14 thoughts to “Lords of Waterdeep Review”

  1. Your outlook as someone who hates the worker placement aspect is appreciated, my friends and I are in still in a phase of worker placement is awesome Puerto Rico being a prime example. So if it shores up some of the weakness in that genre I can’t see it being anything but a boon for our table.

    1. Yeah, I like PR too (see below). I like the way in which it gives the players a tiny decision tree every turn, but makes it very hard to pick the best choice – the result is a fast playing and unpredictable but still has a lot of depth.

      LoW is lighter than PR, so if you’re fond of lots of analysis it may not be for your group. Otherwise go for it.

  2. Good review Matt. Nice to see an alternative point of view

    What are the other two worker placement games you tolerate, if I might ask?

    1. Puerto Rico and Alien Frontiers.

      Technically speaking I can see why Agricola is as feted as it is, but it leaves me cold. There’s too much predictability in it: the way you can often work out exactly what everyone is going to do a couple of turns ahead, especially at the beginning and end of the game. But mechanically it’s a masterful design for people who like that sort of thing. I’m just not one of them.

  3. Good review.

    I just couldn’t get into this one though..for many of the reasons you stated. I never once felt like I was sending fighters, wizards, and rogues out to do my bidding. I just felt like I was getting colored cubes to nab me victory points. I appreciate the way the designers tried to inject some variety in this with the Intrigue cards and such, but it still never really took off for me. If I’m going to play a worker placement game I’ll just stick to Stone Age. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but that’s really my one and only go to WP game. LOWD didn’t do enough to pull me away from that. With that said I know there are some that just hate Stone Age. To each their own I suppose.

  4. The thing about this game is that you’ve got to keep it in perspective. It’s not intended to be an incredibly narrative RPG experience. It’s a Euro-style worker placement game with A LOT of fat trimmed out to make for an imminently accessible, easy-to-play and FUN experience for a broad audience. If you go into it chafing about the wooden cubes representing adventurers or that it doesn’t “feel” like you’re fighting beholders (like a game could make you feel like that anyway), then it’s going to fail because you’re ascribing the wrong agenda to it.

    As for Bill, the man doesn’t even like Dungeons and Dragons. What does that tell you.

    1. Damn right. Blood for the blood god, bitches.

      Cubes, figures, I really don’t care. Why would I ever play this over CitOW?

      or Age of Empires III
      or Alien Frontier
      or even Troyes

      All are vastly superior games.

      Would this game get good reviews if it were another dry goods shipping Euro? I doubt it. I don’t think it’s fair to slam a Euro for being a dry cubes pusher, and then a D&D game comes along that is as dry as Melba toast and everyone fawns all over it.

      Screw this game and all who enjoy it! Ok that last part might be the pain meds talking.

      1. Mmm. Melba toast. A major fixture in all my childhood Christmases …

        But anyway, the point is that I don’t think this is as dry as most other worker placement games. OK, so the theme fails, but it does make a game attempt and it does have some meaningful player interaction. You can’t seriously compare this to something like Stone Age or Le Havre and say that it’s dry in the same way, because it’s not.

        1. Stone Age or Le Havre: those suck too. 😉

          I’m all for game attempts Matt, and I agree with you on that point.

          But who wants to take the time to play and the spend the money on a game attempt? Why do that when you can play games that are better w/ similar mechanics?

          1. Because there are very few that are better with similar mechanics. You struggled to come up with three.

            Alien Frontiers is very good and, on paper, a more interesting game than LoW but it’s very prone to repetitive tactics. Everyone crowds the space dock for extra dice, and then goes for the same colony bonuses. It’s also prone to producing draws rather then tense finishes.

            I haven’t played the other two: several people have told me to try Age of Empires III so you may have something there, but even you aren’t trying hard to make a realistic case for Troyes. And this is just it: in the interests of variety, of trying different mechanics, different approaches, it’s worth playing worker placement games even though they’re inherently dry. And while LoW is sometimes dry, it makes a good job of not being dry most of the time, partly due to the interaction and partly due to the fact it’s lighter than most worker placement fare (and thus more accessible).

            I’m not saying you ought to like it. I’m just not sure the reasons you’re giving entirely stack up: I suspect you just hate worker placement games even more than I do.

          2. Well, like Mathew Modine said in that movie about AIDS: “How many (in this case dead hemophiliacs) do you need?”

            If I’m going to play a worker placement game, I’m going to go for AoE3, Troyes, AF, and I forgot my fav of the bunch, Lancaster. So that’s 4.

            In fact I’d rather play Pillars of the Earth.

            At that point my experience dwindles. I haven’t played stuff like Fresco, etc.

            Still, my point is that I have other games that scratch that itch and scratch it sufficiently enough that I don’t feel the need to ask for a better massage afterward.

  5. Of all of the Worker Placement games, “Dungeon Lords” remains my favorite. I just love how elegantly the worker placement part of the game dovetails into the dungeon invastion/puzzle aspect of it. The two parts are very different, but very well inter-connected.

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