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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.

Cracked LCD- Manhattan Project in Review


Minion Games’ Manhattan Project, designed by Brandon Tibbets, is a great-looking $40 title blessed with much better-than-usual visual style that works to sell its general theme of nuclear bomb-building. The mechanics are rather staid but inoffensive Eurogame fare, focusing on passive-aggressive worker placement and resource conversion processes. However, the game has the balls to let players go aggressive-aggressive and send in bombers to cripple the economic engines of others or deploy spies to hijack personal property. Make no mistake- although Manhattan Project is a very good and sometimes exceptional example of the post-Princes of Florence Eurogame style it’s also a game that doesn’t write player interaction out of the equation.

It’s a little vague, but each player represents the atom bomb program of an unspecified country in what appears to be a roughly 1950s/1960s setting based on the visual kitsch. Players will use three different types of workers (general employees, scientists, and engineers) to man a variety of stations on a mainboard that generate resources, recruit staff, or perform other functions. Some features require a certain type or combination of the three workers, and there are also temporary contractors that may be hired for the turn when the workforce runs low.

Each player also has a tableau upon which they can build up a personal infrastructure of facilities that tend to be more advanced or efficient versions of those available to the public. Most significantly, buildings can be constructed that convert mined uranium ore (“yellowcake”) into plutonium or enriched uranium that can in turn be used to manufacture bombs. But to get to where you can build a bomb, you’ve got to have plans. Placing a scientist and an engineer on the design spot distributes a face-up display of bomb plans among players, each requiring a different set of workers and fuel to build. Once built, they’re worth points and there’s a bonus if you can pay to load them on an available bomber. Plutonium bombs can also be tested, sacrificing their full point value in exchange for a higher VP yield from future completed plutonium bombs.

There’s some really neat stuff going on in the design, particularly in the more interactive portions. There are some typical Puerto Rico-style “everybody benefits” actions, where you’ve got to weigh the overall effect of an action but that’s kind of boring. More compelling are the points where the game lets you very directly screw with and interfere with others- I can hear the Caylus crowd’s collective beard curling up. Players can commit workers to Espionage, enabling them to use- and block- other players’ buildings. Even better, bombers can be built and sent out to drop damage tokens on personal facilities until a single-space repair action can be taken. Fighters are the counter, and can be built to destroy other players’ bombers. Actions are fairly tight in the game, and it takes a full action to retrieve all of your workers from their stations so it becomes a major decision to instigate hostilities that may detract from your ability to compete economically. But that aggressive edge may give you as much of an advantage as this game has over similar games in its class.

The general flow of deploying workers, amassing resources, and converting resources to meet goal cards is exceptionally well done and I think Mr. Tibbets has a very firm grasp on what works and what doesn’t in this genre- and I especially appreciate that he seems to understand that this kind of game needs some friction to avoid devolving into little more than a mathematical contest. It’s a touch more complicated than Lords of Waterdeep so it feels less accessible, but I like that the bomb plans give players a framework to manage the disparate elements in the game. It seems at first that there’s a binary approach- go for either plutonium or uranium bombs- but over the course of the game situational opportunities arise, bombs are dropped, and plans change. So there is a need for some agility and flexibility in working out how to build the high-dollar bombs.

I have a couple of substantial, design-level grievances with the game, which I would definitely recommend to players that like worker placement and resource conversion games regardless of any misgivings. I’m not comfortable with the level of repetition in Manhattan Project in particular. The general process flow of acquiring resources and workers and changing them to other resources or workers can begin to feel quite tedious, and in a game where you may only build two or three bombs it can feel somewhat grating to have to rebuild your plutonium or uranium stocks. And if you’re in a nasty shooting war with another player, it begins to feel less fun when you’re constantly tit-for-tatting and scrambling for the repair spot ad infinitum. More pervasively, there is a lot of repetition in the cards. There are a lot of buildings that are just slightly different from one other, and all but the refining structures duplicate functions on the public board. You can see this in the bomb cards as well- lots of slight differences in resources and point values. There’s a sense that these decks could have been edited to make a more focused- and less redundant array of choices.

I’m also not fond of the endgame, which tends to be sudden and decidedly non-dramatic- especially if you’ve not kept pace with other players. Since the bombs have widely varying point values, you may see a player build two and out of nowhere win the game. Sure, it’s possible to interdict their efforts with bombers or espionage actions, but the ending of the game too often feels inevitable and foreshortened.

Fortunately, some of these problems are likely to be allayed in an upcoming expansion and there is already a “Nations” one available that takes care of another issue I have, the oddly missing “who am I” part of the game that casts everyone as faceless, nameless countries. I don’t think any of the issues are necessarily deal-breakers and there is definitely a very good game in every Manhattan Project box. Beyond the fun gameplay and slightly more agro elements you’ll find a title that touches on some ideas that by rights should innovate and evolve the worker placement genre away from its multiplayer solitaire roots.


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.