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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.