Lords of Waterdeep Boardgame - Merric's Review

Lords of Waterdeep is a board game released by Wizards of the Coast, designed by Rodney Thompson and Peter Lee. After three co-operative dungeon games and one four-player war game, the board game team within Wizards turned to something entirely different: a Eurogame.

I was sent a review copy four weeks ago, and I've managed to take it through its paces sixteen times, playing games with all the numbers the game is designed for: two to five players. What do I think of the game? It’s a really enjoyable game.

So, what is the game about, how does it work, and how does it play?


The Basics
Lords of Waterdeep is a Eurogame for two to five players that is part of the worker placement genre. It is reminiscent of games such as Caylus and Agricola. Each player is a secret Lord of Waterdeep, who uses their agents to recruit adventurers and collect gold so that they can complete Quests to advance their cause.

The game normally plays in about an hour. A five-player game takes a little longer, perhaps 80 minutes.

Each player in turn places one of their "agents" (a wooden meeple) on a building space on the board and immediately resolves the effects of that building. A player may not place his agent on a building space if it has already been taken. The round ends when all agents have been placed, and a game is exactly 8 rounds long. The number of players in the game determines how many agents each player has: two players have 4 each, three players have 3 each, four and five players have 2 each. Halfway through the game, each player gains an additional agent.

Most of the buildings on the board give money or adventurers. The adventurers are represented by coloured wooden cubes: orange for fighters, black for rogues, white for clerics and purple for wizards.

After an agent is placed, the player may choose to resolve one of their quest cards by paying gold and/or adventurers to gain a reward, which is generally a combination of victory points, more adventurers and/or gold. Some quest cards have more advanced effects or may give an ongoing bonus for the rest of the game.

Players can gain more quests by placing agents on the Cliffwatch Inn.

Player interaction comes in two forms. Players can block each other by placing agents into buildings other players want and there is also a deck of Intrigue cards: you can play an intrigue card by placing an agent in Waterdeep Harbour. The effects of the Intrigue cards are quite varied, but might be played to slow down another player, give yourself more resources, or take an action not normally allowed, such as returning an agent to your supply for reuse in the turn.

At the end of the game, each player gains additional victory points for adventurers and gold remaining, as well as a substantial reward for completing requirements on their secret Lord of Waterdeep card. Whoever has the most points at the end of the game is the winner.

So, those are the basics of the game. Let's look at some of the game elements in more detail.

Buildings
Each game begins with the same basic building actions available to the players. As the game progresses, new advanced buildings may be constructed using the Builder's Hall action – normally only one new building can be constructed each turn, but Quests or Intrigue cards may allow more buildings to be constructed.

The selection of available buildings to construct is limited: only three of the twenty-four advanced buildings are available at any time. As a result, games vary greatly in feel. In some games, gold might be very hard to get; other games it is everywhere. Priests and Wizards can be very hard to acquire or very easy.

All of the advanced buildings give their owner a bonus when used by another player: an adventurer, gold or victory points are the most common bonuses. Thus, constructing the first building is an advantage, as you’ll have more time to get the owner bonus.

Most of the advanced buildings provide resources to the players, while others allow some special tricks to be used, such as the Palace of Waterdeep (pictured), which gives you an extra agent on the next round that is placed before all other agents that round.

Quests
Although the buildings available change the character of the game, far more important to how the game plays are the Quest cards. There are five types of quest, each of which needs a particular primary resource to complete: Commerce (gold), Warfare (fighters), Skullduggery (rogues), Arcane (wizards) and Piety (clerics). Very few quests require just one type of adventurer, most require a combination of the various types.

Your hidden Lord of Waterdeep card is important in which quest types are best for you. Ten of the eleven Lords list two quest types, and give a four VP bonus for each quest of those types you complete. (The final lord gives six VPs for every building you construct). This is a very useful bonus, and your Lord card is likely to provide structure to your game.

Just as importantly, the quests provide you with a purpose: they show the gold and adventurers you need to collect to gain victory points. The quests are the chief difference between this game and other worker-placement games such as Agricola and Caylus. They also make the game extremely accessible to new players. The steps you need to take to win aren't obscure; you just need to get the adventurers and gold necessary to complete the quests you have.

If the Quests just rewarded you in Victory Points, they'd be pretty boring, but they don't. Different quests give combinations of gold, adventurers and VPs. Certain quests - the Plot Quests - provide an ongoing bonus. For instance, "Bribe the Shipwrights" allows you take a bonus rogue whenever you gain gold from an action. Potentially the most powerful is "Recruit Lieutenant" that requires eight adventurers to complete, but gives you an additional agent for the rest of the game. This is a powerful bonus, but it's challenging to recruit all the adventurers you need for the quest - especially in a four or five player game.

I especially enjoy chaining quests together: if one quest requires 4 rogues to complete, but the previous quest provided me with four rogues, I have been rewarded for my foresight.

There are 60 Quest cards in the game, divided evenly amongst the five types. 15 of the cards are Plot Quests with ongoing effects.

Two Quest cards are dealt to each player at the beginning of the game, and you can acquire new quests by sending an Agent to the Cliffwatch Inn. It's important to control the quests you have. Four quests are always available (shown face-up) at the Inn, but it is possible to discard them and redraw through one of the Cliffwatch action spaces. This can be very important to the game play: I lost a recent game because another player cleared away a couple of quests that I really needed to take (and I hadn’t gotten to them in time).

Incomplete Quest cards are always visible to the other players, allowing players to act based on that knowledge. Blocking tactics - especially in the final turn and in two-player games - are not uncommon.


Intrigue Cards
Each player begins with two hidden Intrigue Cards, and additional cards can be drawn at Castle Waterdeep, the Cliffwatch Inn, and through various advanced buildings, quests or intrigue cards. To play an Intrigue card, a player must take an action at Waterdeep Harbour. There are 50 Intrigue cards in the game.

The cards have a variety of effects. Of particular note:

Mandatory Quests: You play a mandatory quest on another player; they must complete the quest before any other quest, and it takes a few cubes and gives a minimal VP bonus.

'Friendship' cards: A few cards give you a bonus (say two fighters) and a smaller bonus to the player of your choice.

'Mishap' cards: These cards take away a particular adventurer cube from all other players, and give you a bonus for each player who didn't have that type of adventurer.

'Recruitment' cards: You gain an adventurer, and then every other player can give you another adventurer of that type for a VP bonus.

There are also cards that allow you to break the rules in interesting ways. For instance, you could use a building already taken by another player, return an agent to your pool from the board (freeing up that space and allowing you another turn), or even take two turns in a row.

The intrigue cards provide unexpected surprises for the other players during the game. They are one of the primary reasons the game works so well with more players. Some can be used to slow down the leader, and others are just more effective with more players. In a two-player game, Intrigue cards are nowhere near as important to the players as in a five-player game!

I particularly like the 'friendship' cards, which give you and another player a bonus, because they really add to the diplomatic manoeuvrings of the game. It's a small mechanic, but it has brilliant ramifications.

Only three Intrigue cards can be played each turn (due to the limited spaces at the Harbour), so the mechanic doesn't overwhelm the rest of the game. It does, however, provide spice to the game.

I was very worried that Intrigue cards would cause too much disruption: this hasn't eventuated. It's actually a really well-judged mechanic that adds a lot to the game.


How many players?
The box says the game is for two to five players. How accurate is that? Well, my experience - fourteen games so far, with at least two games with each number of players - says its absolutely correct. The game plays brilliantly with each of those numbers. However, the nature of the game does change.

With a two-player game, you have far more control over your actions. There's only one other player who can block you and you have more actions each round as well. I very much enjoy the two-player game, and it's probably my preferred way of playing the game. Typical scores in a two-player game seem to be in the 160-200 point range. (Advanced Building and Quest availability can cause quite some variance).

However, there are several of my friends who much prefer the group dynamics of the four or five player game. At this point, the intrigue cards are more imporant, and you have to be even more careful choosing your actions as you have so few of them. Our scores for the four or five player game have been in the range of 80-120 points.

One thing is certain: I've enjoyed every game I've played of Lords of Waterdeep. The game presents different challenges depending on the number of players, and I've enjoyed facing them.

An approachable game
As I've mentioned before, Lords of Waterdeep is a very approachable game. The rules of the game are not difficult and are well-explained in the rulebook. If you've never played a worker placement game before, this is an excellent one to start with.

In particular, the game doesn't really have 'traps' that the new player can fall into. I love Agricola - it's one of my favourite games - but I find it very difficult to play with new players because there are so many parts of the game that you only can execute well with experience. For instance, the mechanics of Family Growth require a lot of preparation to execute properly. This level of pre-planning is absent in Lords of Waterdeep; you need to plan ahead, but not that much.

Lords of Waterdeep isn't an engine game, although the choice of quests and advanced buildings can affect the flow of the game in your favour. However, it isn't hard for a new player to see that because their quests need rogues, constructing a building that provides rogues will help them.

Of course, this means that the game doesn't reward familiarity with it as much as Agricola or Through the Ages. Knowing the game does provide you with an advantage (particularly in identifying the best quests and buildings), but it's nowhere near the challenge of successfully negotiating a game of Agricola.

If there’s one trap in the game, it’s that of undervaluing the effect of constructing a building: if players let one player build all the advanced buildings, that player has a very good chance of winning.

Theme and Mechanics
Lords of Waterdeep is very much a Eurogame. However, it's inspired how the designers have integrated the theme of the City of Waterdeep into the game. I have the original Waterdeep supplements for AD&D, from when I used the city in my campaigns in the late 80s and early 90s, and this game is really evocative of that setting.

For instance, the Yawning Portal allows you to recruit any two adventurers. I remembered from my old D&D days that it was the inn above the great dungeon of Undermountain where many adventurers gathered - of course adventurers of all kinds could be found there! Meanwhile, Paul recognised the name of a crimelord from his play of the Eye of the Beholder computer game a couple of decades ago! The rulebook and cards have many links on them to the setting.

Quest cards provide their own thematic links. Perhaps my favourite of them is "Domesticate Owlbears", which requires the use of some wizards, and rewards you with a fighter (the tamed Owlbear). The requirements and rewards of each of the cards match the theme of the card. Intrigue cards are similarly themed. For a game that is mainly moving cubes, meeples and VPs around, the theme manages to shine through!

Mechanically, a few of the advanced buildings work like resource spaces in Agricola, gathering extra resources every turn until they're taken, and all advanced buildings work like the stone production buildings in Caylus, providing a bonus to the owner when someone else uses them.

However, the game departs from Agricola and Caylus most by the use of Intrigue and Quest cards; they make the game feel very different from other worker placement games. It's a brilliant combination of tried-and-true mechanics and new ideas.

Conclusion
I honestly didn't expect to enjoy Lords of Waterdeep as much as I have. The game is fun, plays quickly, and my friends love it. It's a game that requires you to think, and your decisions are meaningful. Good players will keep in mind both what they need and what their opponents need, and play accordingly.

I would categorize it as a game mainly for beginning to intermediate Eurogame/Worker-placement players. As your very first Eurogame, it's a fantastic game. In my case, even though I've played a lot of Eurogames, I find it a very enjoyable game.

I don't enjoy Lords of Waterdeep as much as Through the Ages, but I haven't regretted playing it yet.

That said, Lords of Waterdeep is going to be a game that will hit my table more often than either Agricola or Through the Ages. That's because more of my friends enjoy it and its short playing time (about an hour). It has impressed everyone I've played it with.

I’m still unsure of how balanced all the game elements are. How much of an advantage is it to get Recruit Lieutenant as one of your first two quests? Are some Lords easier to win with than others? Is it too much of an advantage to build the first building of the game?

However, at this time, it looks like the game balance is pretty good. The random elements of the game primarily give you the challenge of managing chaos: you still have a good degree of control over your game. Each game provides you with new challenges based on the buildings, quests and intrigue cards that are available, and the replayability of the game is high as a result; this also means that the chance of there being a consistent winning strategy is low. You need to adapt for each new game.

Wizards of the Coast have produced a real winner here: Lords of Waterdeep is a very entertaining game which is well worth playing. Rodney Thompson, Peter Lee and their development team have to be congratulated: they've fused D&D with the Eurogame, and the result is fantastic!
 
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Comments

Fast Learner

Visitor
Great review! I was just looking at reviews on BGG, was a bit disappointed at what was there, and gave up to come here for other stuff. Surprise, exactly what I was looking for! (Are you going to post it at BGG?)

I was very worried that Intrigue cards would cause too much disruption: this hasn't eventuated. It's actually a really well-judged mechanic that adds a lot to the game.
This is the best news of all and what I was most concerned about. I don't mind "attack" rules if they're fairly minor in effect and don't create huge imbalances if one player decides to go after another due to a grudge or such, but I'd play a wargame if I wanted to spend my time attacking and defending.

Thanks!
 

MerricB

Eternal Optimist
Great review! I was just looking at reviews on BGG, was a bit disappointed at what was there, and gave up to come here for other stuff. Surprise, exactly what I was looking for! (Are you going to post it at BGG?)
I actually posted it at BGG first - it's just taking a bit to go through geekmod. :)

Cheers,
Merric
 

TarionzCousin

Second Most Angelic Devil Ever
You can't domesticate Owlbears!
An important distinction: you cannot domesticate Faerunian owlbears, but the sub-species Euro-Faerunian owlbear is well known to find wizards particularly delicious. It will often allow itself to be tamed for even a mere mouthful of pointy-hatted mages.
 
Great review. I'm missing a key bit of definition, though -- what's a Eurogame as you use it in this context? I'm afraid the phrase "It's a Eurogame" doesn't conjure a specific image or expectation for me.
 

MerricB

Eternal Optimist
Great review. I'm missing a key bit of definition, though -- what's a Eurogame as you use it in this context? I'm afraid the phrase "It's a Eurogame" doesn't conjure a specific image or expectation for me.
From wikipedia:
"German-style board games, frequently referred to in gaming circles as Euro Games or Euro-style, are a broad class of tabletop games that generally have simple rules, short to medium playing times, indirect player interaction and abstract physical components. The games emphasize strategy, play down luck and conflict, lean towards economic rather than military themes, and usually keep all the players in the game until it ends. German-style games are sometimes contrasted with American-style games, which generally involve more luck, conflict, and drama."

Classic eurogames include Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan, Agricola and Ticket to Ride.

Let me know if you'd like more detail.
 

Hussar

Legend
Merric - great review as always.

A question - how language dependent is this game? I'm always looking for something to use with my monthly board game club in my English as a Second Language classes. My bunch have no problem with Catan and Endeavour. Are the cards really heavily language dependent or are there lots of visual cues?
 
From wikipedia:
"German-style board games, frequently referred to in gaming circles as Euro Games or Euro-style, are a broad class of tabletop games that generally have simple rules, short to medium playing times, indirect player interaction and abstract physical components. The games emphasize strategy, play down luck and conflict, lean towards economic rather than military themes, and usually keep all the players in the game until it ends. German-style games are sometimes contrasted with American-style games, which generally involve more luck, conflict, and drama."

Classic eurogames include Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan, Agricola and Ticket to Ride.

Let me know if you'd like more detail.
Thanks! I have to say that I haven't played any of those games, so the description provides a philosophy but not a concrete reference for me. Have you played Diplomacy? That sounds a bit like that description -- if so, would it fit the EuroGame category?
 

MerricB

Eternal Optimist
Thanks! I have to say that I haven't played any of those games, so the description provides a philosophy but not a concrete reference for me. Have you played Diplomacy? That sounds a bit like that description -- if so, would it fit the EuroGame category?
I've played a fair bit of Diplomacy, and while elements are similar to the EuroGame, it'd be categorized far more as a wargame than a Eurogame. In particular, the way actions are written down and resolved is very much *not* like a Eurogame. Likewise, player elimination is not part of most Eurogames.

Have you ever visited boardgamegeek.com? It's well worth checking out if you'd like to learn more about the popular (geek) boardgames.

Ticket to Ride and Lords of Waterdeep are both very good introductions to the European-style of wargames, despite both being by American designers. Both handle 2-5 players well, and play in about an hour.

Cheers!
 

MerricB

Eternal Optimist
Merric - great review as always.

A question - how language dependent is this game? I'm always looking for something to use with my monthly board game club in my English as a Second Language classes. My bunch have no problem with Catan and Endeavour. Are the cards really heavily language dependent or are there lots of visual cues?
The board and most quest cards are language-independent. Most intrigue cards are language-dependent, but aren't actually that complicated.

Currently it's rated on BGG as: Moderate in-game text - needs crib sheet or paste ups (it's about half-way down the page).

(Note that you could sleeve the cards and put paper translations of the most difficult ones).

Cheers!
 
I've played a fair bit of Diplomacy, and while elements are similar to the EuroGame, it'd be categorized far more as a wargame than a Eurogame. In particular, the way actions are written down and resolved is very much *not* like a Eurogame. Likewise, player elimination is not part of most Eurogames.

Have you ever visited boardgamegeek.com? It's well worth checking out if you'd like to learn more about the popular (geek) boardgames.
Ah, OK. I've mostly been a wargamer. Sounds like I haven't experienced a proper EuroGame yet.

I've visited the site for some of your reviews -- guess I should drop by again!
 

MerricB

Eternal Optimist
Ah, OK. I've mostly been a wargamer. Sounds like I haven't experienced a proper EuroGame yet.

I've visited the site for some of your reviews -- guess I should drop by again!
I'm a wargamer, eurogamer, and theme-gamer! :)

Ticket to Ride is available as an app for the iPad and iPhone, incidentally. A recent article indicated that the app significantly increased sales of the actual boardgame!

Cheers!
 

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