Lords of Waterdeep earns broad appeal and is hailed as a hybrid game with both European and American design styles. But does it live up to the hype? Waterdeep is a worker placement game that can accommodate 2-5 players and take about 90 minutes.
Image courtesy of Boardgamegeek user mikehulsebus
The biggest attraction of Waterdeep is that the flow of play is very streamlined. Not just simple, but decidedly well polished. There are no jagged edges. To get started you don’t have to explain complicated exceptions or irregular departures.
Here’s the rules:
1. Place a dude on an unoccupied spot.
2. Collect the stuff from the spot you landed on.
3. You may optionally cash in the stuff you’ve collected over the course of the game.
That’s mostly it. It’s admittedly an oversimplification, but that covers most of what you need to know. The action spots on which you place your workers will gain you different variations of cubes, money, or quest cards.
You can also dabble in the intrigue cards (referred elsewhere in this article as Thwacking cards). Some action spots let you draw them, and you have to assign a worker in order to play them. These have a nice mix of screwage to thwack your opponent and self-enrichment.
They often have decisions around selecting the victim of thwacking. And the non-thwacking cards often give decisions on who will join you in the enrichment. To make this choice, it’s never immediately clear who the front runner is. The current high score at any given moment is a misleading indicator.
So you’ve collected 4 white cubes, 2 orange cubes, and 8 dollars. What you going to do with all that junk? Well, you have quests to fulfill. Luckily for you, fulfilling a quest does not involve depositing jewelry into an active volcano, instead you simply discard some of your cubes. Each quest card will specify its prerequisites. For example, a quest may require 4 white cubes, an orange cube, and five dollars. You’ll complete many quests each game. Most quests give you points. Many will also payout cubes or money. Some may also grant an ongoing special ability.
Waterdeep gives you good control on quest selection. To even have a quest available in your to do list, you have to do the whole dude-on-a-spot thing to obtain a quest card. There are always 4 quests available to choose from when you take this action. And if those four choices don’t suit you, you can take the action spot to flush the 4 available quests and flip out 4 new ones. You’re bound to find something that takes you in the general direction you want to go.
Each player also has a secret lord card. This lord serves as a player’s hidden agenda. The lord will tell you a couple of keywords that you’re supposed to care about for some reason. Each quest is linked to one of these keywords, such as Piety, Skullduggery, Warfare, etc. The lords will give you bonus points at the end of the game for each completed matching quest. For example, you might get 4 points for each commerce quest and each arcana quest.
The positive feature of lords is that it results in a mixture of open points and hidden points. At the completion of every quest the player usually scores points. Then at the end of the game they get the bonus points based on their lord. These bonus points may comprise somewhere in the ballpark of 15-25% of your total score. So while there may be a front runner on the scoring track now, you may never really be sure who is truly in the lead.
In addition to the pre-printed action spaces on the board, there are buildings that players can purchase. A purchased building goes on the board and is available for all players to place their dudes upon. These add new spots to collect stuff. These are often more powerful than the pre-printed spaces. However, every time an opponent takes advantage of a building, the original building constructer will earn a kickback. The buildings add an interesting twist in that each game will have a unique combination of possible action spots.
Now, dear reader, I must issue a warning regarding the content that follows. Fanboys be warned, the remainder of the review will contain criticisms, point out flaws, and may even be derisive of the game. If you cannot emotionally withstand being exposed to an opinion that does not validate your own, then I suggest you play it safe and read only comments from folks who gave Waterdeep a rating of 10.
The failings of Waterdeep largely boils down to one overriding issue:
The game just isn’t tense for me.
A big reason for the lack of tension is because of the lack of challenging decisions. The primary decision most often faced is which action spot to select.
So which action spot do I take?
Well, you should probably pick the action spots that produce the cubes mandated by your quest cards.
So which quests do I add to my to do list?
Well, you should probably pick ones that match the keyword on your lord card so you can get an enormous amount of points at the end.
So a randomly assigned card during setup all but pre-programs my quest selection, which then all but pre-programs my action selection.
So in what order should I do my quests?
Well, this is a little more interesting, but not much. Let’s say one quest, if I complete it, pays out a bunch of orange cubes. This other quest, requires me to spend some orange cubes. Well, you should probably do the one that yields orange cubes first.
Not only are the decisions not challenging, but the decisions aren’t accompanied by an exciting payoff. The actions spots don’t have a significant differentiation in what they allow you to do. So you can go here, and get orange cubes. Or you can go there, and get black cubes. Or maybe I can go to this spot, and get white cubes. And to make things really interesting, I could possibly also place yonder, and get purple cubes.
Worker placement games by their nature tend to have tension built in by the fear of getting blocked out of an action. Let’s say there’s 3 actions I want. I have to decide hard which to select, since the other 2 will probably be snatched by someone else. With each choice you make, you risk being denied the opportunity to go in another spot you need.
Buildings increase variety, but at the expense of decreasing tension. Overall, the availability of possible action spots become more and more plentiful as the game progresses. Generally, there will be one new building per round. As more buildings come out, the ratio of workers to actions spots results in more elbow room for dude placement. Since there are more and more possible action spots you can usually find a spot that fits your needs.
The game mitigates this somewhat by releasing more workers to all players at midgame. This causes a sudden tightening in the worker to spot ratio. However, the overall trend in the game is that there’s more and more sports to place on, meaning there are more options. This means if the space you really wanted gets taken, there’s usually a decent backup spot. This sucks all of the tension out of what is normally naturally present a worker placement game.
So this game is often hailed as a marriage between the euro worker placement world and the thematic American style. But where’s the meaningful theme? Yes, it’s in an ameritrashy setting, but as the game unfolds, it does not lend itself to effortlessly create a story. And it doesn’t have anything to do with the abstraction of collecting cubes representing recruiting specialists for a quest. It doesn’t matter if you’re collecting black cubes or little plastic ninjas, you’re making a series set collections and cashing them in for points.
When I finish a session, there was negligible story that unfolded in the game. Without narrative, I find a game to be less engaging, and I’m less likely to get emotionally invested in the outcome.
And then there’s mandatory quests. These are Thwacking cards that you can slap on any opponent. They cannot complete any quests until the mandatory one is done. This is a huge downer. And it’s not because I’m thin skinned and cringe when other players don’t play nice. Generally, I think Thwacking cards is an attractive feature. I like it when a game equips me to bash the leader. That’s why there are leaders: to bash them. The problem with mandatory quests isn’t that they’re too powerful or too nasty. It’s because in a game with a low density of interesting decisions, when these cards get out, the receiving player has now virtually no decisions. It’s a mandatory quest. You have no choice but to complete it. Forcing fewer decisions while thwacking a player is adding insult to injury.
I must say that the Scoundrels of Skullport expansion greatly mitigates my criticisms. Once we started playing with the expansion, I actually found myself with a few interesting decisions to make. I won’t go into great detail, since the intended scope of this article is for the base game. But it’s fair to point out that the Waterdeep experience is much improved while maintaining its simplicity.
Despite finding more to criticize than to hail, I still find myself often willing to play Waterdeep. It’s easy and fast paced. And even if it isn’t a perfect fit for my tastes, I can sincerely endorse it to those with different preferences: if you don’t like heavy games, if you don’t like brain burners, if you are averse to complexity, or if you are a hospital patient recovering from surgery.