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Now Playing: Lords of Waterdeep

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

At a pre-Christmas gathering, I ended up chatting to a friend about worker placement games, as you do. He’d enjoyed a lot of Puerto Rico and Agricola with his family but, it transpired, he’d never played Lords of Waterdeep, which I’d been playing loads of on the iPad.

So the next time I visited, I took it round, Skullport and all. We threw in both expansions and played a six-player game. It turned out to be quite a ride: I drew a lord card that got a bonus for each building owned and focused on that instead of quests. As a result I lagged way behind the leader for the whole game, was able to deflect attention away from myself when take-that opportunities came up and then got a truly massive end-game bonus that tied me for the win, only to lose the tiebreaker.

Stupid tiebreakers.

The family were about to go on holiday and begged me to sell them the game to take away with them. Although it’s a game I’ve extolled the virtues of in the past, I readily agreed. Why? Partly because I knew I could just play on iOS if I wanted, partly because I knew I could pop round to the families’ house for a game if I wanted. But partly because all that time on iOS convinced me it’s not quite as good as I originally thought.

Don’t get me wrong. I still think it’s good. I still think it’s about the best worker placement game around. I still think it’s a game anyone with a passing interest in the genre, or indeed with sampling a diverse range of game styles, should play.

But what repeated exposure to this, my most-played worker placement game has convinced me of that is worker placement games are fundamentally not as exciting as they should be. The game state just isn’t fluid enough, and there’s not enough interaction. Sometimes, you’ll take a turn and wait in tense anticipation to see if someone grabs a space you need before you. Sometimes you’ll artifice a delightfully creative plan to work around the game and steal a boost over your opponents. Sometimes, but just not often enough.

It doesn’t matter how many “gotcha” cards, or how many on-board variables you throw into the mix. Lords of Waterdeep integrates both with great skill and gleeful abandon. It’s just struggling manfully against the drab, weighted straitjacket forced on it by the fundamental mechanics. Sad that I’ve ended up in a hobby where these things are celebrated as the pinnacle of entertainment.

Brakketology Plays Waterdeep, Muses About Theme

Lords of Waterdeep Cover

I’ve bee playing a bit of Playdek’s Lords of Waterdeep on iOS ($7). This wholly competent boardgame adaptation should be right up my alley. It’s D&D-themed, which I like. It’s a worker-placement game, which tends to be the sort of thing I appreciate and excel at. And yet it’s ultimately rather hollow. Not bad, mind you, the core game mechanics are very good and faithfully translated. Playdek, from whom I received a free code to download this game (full-disclosure and all), could not have done a better job of translating this for iOS. The problem is that the D&D aspects of it don’t add anything to the game. At all. And yet, as an iOS port of a game that doesn’t have many Apps Store counterparts, I can’t help but recommend it for fans of worker-placement games. It’s good enough to be worth your time.

More on Waterdeep, as well as thoughts on the PAR closure and some new Elder Scrolls Online trailers, after the break…

Lords of Waterdeep Zoom Out

Waterdeep is a game in which, on behalf of a randomly assigned patron, you must complete quests using hired henchman of the fighter (orange), rogue (black), cleric (white), wizard (purple) variety. In any given turn you have three or four avatars (or whatever they’re called) that you can place in one of a host of locations on the game board. Put one on the inn and you can choose a new quest to pick up. Put one on the Fields of Triumph and you can pickup a couple fighter cubes. Put one on the Builder’s Hall and you can add a building to the town. Build the Yawning Portal and you can grab any two cubes of your choice, paying the owner a bit of rent (in the form of a cube). There’s variety to be sure, but mostly it’s about amassing cubes and gold.

Cubes are color-coded to their class, but the game’s biggest problem is that, ultimately, you’re never going to think about them as rogues and wizards. They’re a collection of colored cubes that you acquire and dispose of to complete a quest. (Completing quests, if you haven’t guessed already, is how you acquire victory points for the end game.) That’s not really what characters in D&D are all about. The fact that neither they nor the various places on the map are particularly memorable is telling. I’m not putting my little avatar guy on Waterdeep Harbor, I’m just putting it in that spot that gives me an Intrigue card.

For me, it all makes an interesting contrast with the Firefly boardgame, which I’ve played a few times of late and that Michael reviewed here last week. Firefly is so strong in theme that it makes everything about the game better. The captain I choose for my ship matters and affects how I go about hiring my crew. The jobs I take impact where I go on the board and what kinds of equipment I need. The mechanics are wonderful too, but flying ’round the ‘verse and picking up crew with characters from the show and items from the series all enhance those mechanics. The whole is worth more than the sum of it parts.

Not so with Waterdeep, where my cubes could well be anything and the locations could be replaced with a modern set or a sci-fi set and it wouldn’t make much difference. That’s rather shocking, given how rife with potential the source-material actually is. Imagine if all those little cubes weren’t so disposable. If they carried some kind of more unique identity (as D&D characters should) and the system allowed them to level and grow more useful over time. There are no, “Hey, look, I just got Drizz’t for my party. You guys are so screwed!” moments to cling to here. It’s all generic and replaceable cubes all the time.

Lords of Waterdeep Close-up

This is not said in an attempt to play amateur designer. It’s just that there’s so obviously a great D&D game lurking in this design, but the team of Peter Lee and Rodney Thompson, despite coming up with a very solid worker-placement game, failed to bring it out out as fully as they needed to. Because of that it really doesn’t so much matter how good a job Playdek did of implementing it for iOS. And, as noted, they did do a good job of that. I haven’t touched the online multiplayer, mostly because this is not the sort of game that suits asynchronous play. But as a pass-and-play game it works well and the AI opponents (set to one of three difficulty levels) do a credible enough job to make any game a challenge, especially while you’re still learning it. (The tutorials, which Playdek has sometimes struggled with in the past, also do a swell job of explaining the game to you. One run through the tutorials and one practice game should be all you need to get comfortable.)

If you like worker-placement games and want a competent one to play on your iPad the, by all means, buy this. It’s solid and competent and, in the absence of much competition, it’s worth owning. Just don’t go in expecting a unique D&D experience.

Elsewhere…

PAR, closed for business. I was shocked (SHOCKED!) to point my Feedly subscription at Penny Arcade Report this weekend, to find an article from Ben Kuchera announcing that Penny Arcade had closed up shop on PAR. (The official explanation from PA, here.) That’s depressing. I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Ben’s take on games and the industry at large, but I’ve followed the man since he was at Ars and the fact is, he wrote stuff I was willing to read. Most gaming sites I follow via RSS I click over to read about 1% of what they post. Maybe 3%. PAR and RPS are the exceptions (probably more like 10-20%) and now I have one less reliable place to find quality coverage of the industry that isn’t lumped in with sixteen posts of pure dreck. I doubt you’re reading this, Ben, but you did great work at PAR and we’re all hoping you find a solid place to land in the very near future!

Hey, look! A fantasy MMO! Yay? Speaking of depressing, Elder Scrolls Online has a new trailer:

There’s also this one on class building:

There is nothing about these that tell me why I should be interested in this game. Though it’s true that I’m not an Elder Scrolls guy at heart, I’d sooner load up Skyrim or Oblivion than this.

On the other hand. This Apotheon trailer looks rather nifty:

Makes me think of Mark of the Ninja… in a good way.

Around the web: Telltale will bring us Borderlands and Game of Thrones-licensed games next year. There are trailers for them, though the one for Borderlands shows little and the GoT shows basically nothing. Evidently Telltale aims to monopolize all of my free time next year. Galactic princess looks interesting. Zombie-survival RPG, Dead State, is getting a demo. There’s also a video. GOG wants to let you return your purchased games if they don’t work. I’ve never bought a game from them that hasn’t worked. This actually happens? (rhetorical)

Cracked LCD- Why Waterdeep?

Lords of Waterdeep board in play

I was going to write up a review of Scoundrels of Skullport, the recent expansion for last year’s surprise hit Lords of Waterdeep, but at the risk of miffing the press handlers at Wizards of the Coast that sent me a review copy, I’m not going to do that. There are lots of reviews out there already. The thing about it is, if you like Waterdeep, you probably already own this outstanding add-on. If you didn’t like Waterdeep, the addition of some new gameplay areas and new oh-so-tempting corruption mechanic that greases wheels and makes some quests easier to complete isn’t going to change your mind. For my part, I’ve found both elements of the expansion to be very welcome and I’d rather not play without them- especially since the game now supports a sixth player and still stays under two hours.

What I’m more interested in writing about in regard to Lords of Waterdeep, now that we’ve had over a year to play it and some expansion concepts bolted on to it, is why this game has become so popular and widely played. Because believe it or not, there are some folks (such as NHS’s very own Bill Abner) that just don’t get the appeal of the game. Every time the game is mentioned, there tends to be at least some dissent among the high praise it earns from some quarters. For my part, I awarded the game a seat on my Game of the Year shortlist, and I’m still playing and enjoying the game and looking forward to more. In some ways, it’s the perfect post-Ameritrash Eurogame- as long as you’re willing to buy in to its level of abstraction and can accept that it’s a dead simple, no bullshit worker placement design and not the expected Dungeons and Dragons fare.

The theme counts for a lot, even if it exists in this game primarily as place names, nomenclature, fluff text and artwork. Many have accused the game of being just another themeless “cube pusher”, and to some extent that is correct although I think the D&D property attracts more hobbyists than it repels. The abstraction is more of a problem to those who might have grown up with THAC0 and Greyhawk. With that said, I’m able to accept the level of abstraction that tells me that an orange cube is a fighter and a purple one is a wizard, and I need X amount of the former and Y amount of the latter to complete a certain kind of quest to earn its rewards. It’s an extremely zoomed-out view of D&D.

I can also accept the normal abstraction of worker placement mechanics, wherein I’m one of the titular lords of a faction sending agents out into Waterdeep to conduct business. If I’m playing the Mind Flayer character, I can make up a narrative in my mind that I’m just a chaotic neutral Illithid trying to make good in the world and run a legitimate operation- at least until the corruption points start to pile up. I’m not made out of stone.

But the theme and reliance on meta-narrative is also something of a liability, because the D&D brand carries with it certain expectations of storytelling and setting, which are admittedly thin in terms of the game’s actual content. If you put D&D on a box, some people expect to be rolling a dice and picking up a +1 sword to directly fight a Beholder. This game doesn’t do that. Instead, it offers the usual kind of passive-aggressive competition for placement characteristic of the worker placement genre. But the designers wisely understood that there needed to be a little more gristle and grit, so they added in a big stack of take-that cards.

This is one of the key reasons that I really like the game. I like that it has the stately, processional quality of a worker placement game, but with the eff-you of a take that game. Competition feels meaningful and there is definitely more friction than in other titles in the worker placement genre. And another key element of this game’s success as a design is that it successfully weds the passive-aggressive competition style with aggressive-aggressive gameplay- without burdening the game with a bunch of rules, exceptions, or process.

I love that the game is so simple and quick-playing and I think that’s a big part of its appeal. It’s fuss-free, with low administration and very little rules stricture. I’ve had people up and running five minutes after setup and rules explanation. I love that you have a board full of options and tactical possibility, but you only place one man, do your business, and done. That’s it. There’s not a gamey, complicated system holding it together or getting in the way, and I think others appreciate its straightforward approach. All you’ve got to do is to look at your mission cards and work out how to get them wrapped up in a timely fashion- all while adjusting for unexpected unavailability or a nasty card play.

This is a tremendously accessible game with very immediate goals and very easy to understand pathways to get to them. It’s refreshing that the game is so ordinary in a way, that it doesn’t try to get cute or do anything fancy. There’s no bloat or bulk to its simple economics and routines. It’s almost as easy to play and parse as Ticket to Ride, but it offers a lot more variety from game to game with different buildings, cards, and agendas in play each session. I think a big part of its appeal has been that it has the depth and gameplay of an earlier worker placement game like Caylus or possibly even Agricola, but with a much smoother, simpler process with very little downtime that pares everything down to core actions- placement, resource gathering, activation, conversions, and completions.

But of course, some people want every game to be more “advanced” and have more moving parts. For these people, I’d highly recommend Pandasaurus’ just-released-in-English Yedo, which will be getting a full review in the coming weeks. It’s a really good design that plays a lot like how I think Waterdeep would have if it were designed five or six years earlier. It’s also a much less approachable, much less immediately entertaining game.

I think the reasons why people like this game are fairly clear- it’s a lightly D&D flavored game with a great balance of simple rules, immediate goals, playing ease, and some take-that friction. The genius of the design is that it’s just enough of all of those things to build a great game on without fattening the design up. The abstraction is inevitably an issue for some people, but given that all games are ultimately abstract I think that the Dungeons & Dragons branding might be misguiding expectations.

I’m actually kind of surprised after a year that the game has remained talked about, widely played, and apparently an ongoing concern. I loved it on release, but I kind of thought its simplicity and the slight disconnect between its genre and its subject matter would alienate both hardcore Eurogamers and dogmatic Ameritrashers. That has happened to some degree, but ultimately Lords of Waterdeep has revealed itself to be universally appealing and it’s become my favorite release among the great D&D board game titles that have released since Castle Ravenloft. Scoundrels of Skullport just made it even better.

 

Thrower’s Tally: Board & iOS Games of 2012

It’s the time of year for lists. Lists of things from the year that’s about to end. Most especially of things that you’ve found to be of surpassing excellence. I am no dissenter, no maverick, not strong enough to resist the pull of seasonal traditions. So here is mine.

Thanks to my slot at Gamezebo I feel, for the first time ever, qualified to make not one list but two. Both in the same article, o lucky reader! First there will be my favourite iOS games of the year, and then my favoured board games. With so much to write there is no longer time for seasonal waffle and chit-chat. On with the picks.

5. Blood of the Zombies

The Fighting Fantasy franchise was something I remember fondly from my childhood 25 years ago, so it’s astonishing that author Ian Livingstone and studio Tin Man Games have managed to ensure it remains relevant and thrilling today. It turns out that Blood of the Zombies makes a superb candidate for the app treatment, having a stripped down combat system and more inherent challenge and replay value than the bulk of the series. And Tin Man didn’t disappoint with their implementation. It’s all spelled out in detail in my Gamezbo review plus more. I’ve enjoyed previous iOS gamebooks but this is the first that was truly special, and made me excited about more Fighting Fantasy and Sorcery adaptations coming next year.

4. Punch Quest

Endless runner games are, in my opinion, a showcase for everything that’s wrong with mobile gaming. Shallow and repetitive, they offer little but the pavlovian rewards obtained from completing arbitrary goals and leaderboard positions. It is therefore a bit of a shock that Punch Quest turned out to be so brilliant. What makes it so is simply depth: there is tremendous variability and enormous skill in this. With a cavalcade of different enemies, items, terrain, bosses and branching paths and the ability to buy and recombine power ups to suit your play style, I’ll quite possibly be running this one endlessly.

3. Summoner Wars

Playdek rarely disappoint in terms of their apps, but I still think this game redefined the bar for board adaptations to mobile. The underlying game is a superb candidate for the treatment in any case being short and having perfectly encapsulated player turns to reduce to-ing and fro-ing. But the app built over it is flawless, looking good, playing smoothly, offering all the functionality you could possibly want. We might have had to wait post-release to actually get a copy but boy, was it ever worth it.

2. Battle of the Bulge

I’ve really said everything I can about this in my Gamezebo review, so go read that. I will add that what makes it better than Summoner Wars is just that Shenandoah Studios didn’t adapt a board game to iOS: they took board game mechanics and created something amazing that actually worked better on a tablet than it would in real life. Can you imagine fiddling with all those ever-changing VP combinations and goals in a real-life game? No, and that’s just the thin end of the wedge in terms of how this app does all the heavy lifting, leaving the gamers totally absorbed in the experience.

The awesome battle academy from Slithering software - a massive, meaty game on a mobile device

1. Battle Academy.

I reviewed this one too, on F:AT. There was never going to be another choice for number one slot: I’ve played this game regularly, as in several times a week, since it was released in late spring. No other game on any platform has managed that feat. It might be expensive, but it’s so, so worth it.

What’s the overarching theme here? Strategy. The strategy genre might be (XCOM excepted) pretty much a dead duck on other platforms but its undergoing a massive renaissance on mobile. That’s not surprising: touch screen interfaces are actually pretty clumsy for most twitch games but they’re perfectly suited to strategy. I suspect there’s going to be some more stellar work in this area in 2013 from the studios behind my top three picks, plus Games Workshop finally entering the mobile market with Space Hulk and Warhammer Quest. Going to be an exciting year.

So, on to the board game picks.

5. Lords of Waterdeep

I’ll probably get some stick for this, but I don’t care. It’s not the cleverest, most innovative game on the block but it made a sterling demonstration of how building on previous designs in a genre, looking at what words and what doesn’t then skimming the cream off the top and recombining it into a single game can create a brilliant thing. Balancing accessibility and fun with some solid strategy, and bringing dreadfully needed interaction into the staid, dull worker placement mechanic, it’s easily the best European-style game I played this year. More details in my review.

4. Android: Netrunner

This earned its slot on the strength of its emergent theme. When you’ve got games like City of Horror that can stick some zombie pictures on top of a generic negotiation mechanic and calling it a theme, Netrunner offers a primal lesson in communicating a sense of place and being through mechanics alone. Playing this you’re no longer a gamer, but for 60 minutes are transfigured into a global corporation or sly hacker. The other stuff, the clever intermarriage of strategy and bluff, the customisation and deckbuilding, is just gravy as discussed in my full review.

Star Wars X-wing miniatures game in action

3. X-Wing

And from one game with wonderful emergent theme to another. It’s much more of an ephemeral thing here, but it’s odd how this game simply *feels* just as it should. Pitch perfect in terms of weight, production, theme and ship handling. Opponents have remarked how they suddenly find themselves humming the Star Wars theme or imagining green and red laser bursts as they play. Personally, every time those little plastic ships come out I’m a child again, even if only for a moment. The game might be a money pit, but how do you put a value on that? If you like, you can put a value on my review instead.

2. Merchant of Venus

I’m still kind of reeling from the fact that thirty years ago someone managed to design an interesting pick up and deliver game and yet virtually everything that followed in its wake was dull as arse. Thus, old as it was, this game came as something of a revelation and a breath of fresh air. That’s why I’ve enjoyed it so much. That and the wonderful manner in which it offers a variable setup that ensures both rich narrative and keeps repeat strategies at bay. Every game re-engages both your logical centers and your imagination anew. Amazingly, here is my review.

Wiz-War Eighth Edition by Fantasy Flight Games game in progress with wizard figures

1. Wiz-War

Remember this, from back close to the turn of last year? I do. It’s so easy to forget early release games when compiling these yearly lists but this has stayed with me, popping out again and again with different groups and in different places, the only game I’ve probably collected a physical dime of plays this year. And every time it’s been ridiculous fun. Hilarious, enthralling, varied, entertaining. Every single time. It’s ticks all the boxes I could want for a short, light game, even offering just enough strategy in the card and position combinations s to keep your brain engaged. An absolute joy: itching to see an expansion. You will be unsurprised by now if I link to my full review of the base game.

The overview on the board game front is a little more troubling. Three out of the top five are reprints. They’re nicely modernised with streamlined rules and high production values, but they’re still reprints. So while it’s great that Fantasy Flight are getting their act together as regards their updating of classic games, and its great to see old material back in the limelight, it’s a bit alarming that so many of the best games I’ve played this year have been reprints rather than fresh designs.

I’ve never been one much for the hype machine. But what I’d like to see in 2013 is some more quality new designs. A deep, interactive deck-builder would be a nice start, something that really makes good on the achingly unfulfilled promise of that genre. In terms of actual titles, the only ones I’ve got earmarked at the moment are story-telling game Story Realms which looks fresh and interesting, Bowen Simmons’ long awaited Guns of Gettysburg, the world war 2 tactical block game Courage from Columbia and the multi-player card driven game Cuba Libre from the designer of Labyrinth. Seeing as it’s felt like a relatively lean year for wargames this year, that’s a nice slice of history for the near future.

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.

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.

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.

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.