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Top Of The Table – Lords Of Waterdeep

by Matt Miller on Aug 30, 2013 at 11:01 AM

In our continuing monthly look at great tabletop titles to distract you from your digital gaming, we move from last month’s Star Wars RPG to a surprising board game from the folks at Wizards of the Coast, best known as the publishers of Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons. Lords of Waterdeep draws on the fiction of the latter, transporting players to the infamous D&D city of Waterdeep for a game of urban intrigue. However, unlike the ubiquitous role-playing game, Lords of Waterdeep draws strongly on the traditions of Euro games like The Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico, and Agricola, in which luck takes a back seat to careful tactical choices.

While smart and strategic thinking is at the heart of the game, Lords of Waterdeep (designed by Rodney Thompson and Peter Lee) manages to be easy to learn and quick to play – an ideal choice for a gaming night that mixes longtime tabletop gamers with relative newcomers. And the great fantasy overtones certainly don’t hurt. 

Getting Started

Wizards of the Coast has outdone itself with the production value of the components in Lords of Waterdeep. High-quality wooden pieces are deployed across an attractive board that depicts a map of the city. Evocative fantasy art graces the cards and box, and the various cardboard token pieces are sturdy and solidly crafted. 

I also have to give a nod to the developer for its immaculate storage inset, which perfectly fits all the game pieces and serves as an attractive place to keep tokens and pieces in the midst of a game. Longtime hobby gamers are familiar with the frustration of a box that doesn’t hold its components well, but Lords of Waterdeep dramatically improves setup and cleanup time through smart organization and presentation. 

As a result, setting up a new game is quick and largely painless. Two to five players each choose one of the secretive lords and a set of agents that will enact your will in the city, represented by wooden playing figures. Players then take turns sending agents out into the city, recruiting adventurers to join your cause, and sending those adventurers on quests to further their influence. The game plays out in a standard number of turns, assuring that a full playthrough is faster than many strategic board games; my experience has been that a full game plays out in a little under two hours with new players, and experienced players can manage a game even faster. 

[Next up: Recruiting adventurers, completing quests, and messing with your buddies]

Gameplay

Lords of Waterdeep’s core mechanic draws on a staple feature of Euro-style (or German-style) board games: worker placement. Players take turns deploying “workers” on the board to fulfill tasks, and by claiming a particular task, you often block other players from completing the same action that turn. 

In this case, your workers are agents that must be sent to various locales about the city. There are many buildings to visit, and more are added as the game continues. Send an agent to the Grinning Lion Tavern, and you can recruit stealthy rogues to join your cause. Alternately, deploy to Blackstaff Tower to get a new wizard. Each adventurer is represented by a wooden block of a certain color, one for each of the iconic D&D classes of clerics, fighters, wizards, and rogues. Along with gold, these adventurers are your primary resource you’ll “spend” to complete quests and take steps closer to victory. 

Instead of recruiting, you can send an agent to the Builder’s Hall and add a new building to the map. These newly added structures offer opportunities for all players, but anytime someone visits your building, you receive a special benefit, representing a cut of the profits. 

Finally, players can send an agent down into the seedy harbor to play Intrigue cards against other players; these effects run the gamut from a straight-up attack against your fellow players’ forces to diminish their ranks, to unleashing a mandatory quest on an opponent in which the rewards don’t remotely match the cost to complete. 

Taken together, players must balance their limited resources and agents to expand their ranks, gain gold, build new structures, and counter other players’ attempts to do the same. Your lord’s secret identity brings with it secret objectives as well, so you’re left to guess at your fellow players machinations around the city. Why is he building so many new structures? And what is she doing trying to complete so many commerce quests? The second-guessing mixes with the strategy for an engrossing gameplay flow. 

Theme And Story

While Lords of Waterdeep is based in the Dungeons & Dragons’ Forgotten Realms setting, its storytelling is largely secondary to the pure strategic options on hand. In fact, one of the game’s strengths is its ability to let some players engage only on the strategic layers that are interesting to them, while other more story-oriented players are treated to a clever tale of feuding fantasy lords. 

For players who are already familiar with and enjoy D&D, the Forgotten Realms setting, or even more general fantasy tropes, there’s a lot to get excited about. Familiar characters from the fiction are among the available lords, like enigmatic magic-user Khelben “Blackstaff” Arunsun. Quest cards often depict cool events happening in and around the city, like lost artifacts to be recovered or vicious monster attacks to be thwarted. 

Moreover, the mechanics do an excellent job of reinforcing themes of secrecy and intrigue throughout any given session. Lots of fun arises as players get into their roles and begin accusing one another of thwarting the growth of the city, or secretly allying with one another to bring down an opponent who has gathered too much personal power. 

[Next up: The new expansion, and the upcoming iOS port]

Complexity

Thanks to a smartly written but thankfully brief rulebook, Lords of Waterdeep is quick to learn and easy to teach to new players. In fact, the second half of the rulebook is built purely as a reference for clarifying terms, the purpose of each building, and the meaning of different cards, and only needs to be looked at when confusions arise (which, in my experience, is not often). 

Lords of Waterdeep should appeal strongly to gamers who get frustrated at games with too many elements of luck. Clear strategic choices dominate the experience. However, unlike many Euro games, the strategic layer doesn’t leave out those looking for a strong and compelling theme.

What else do I need to know?

Lords of Waterdeep is a fantastic board game all by itself, but if you and your gaming group enjoy it as much as I do, you may find yourself springing for the recently released expansion, Scoundrels of Skullport. The new addition adds two entirely separate and optional “modules” to help expand the game, along with new potential lords to control and a new faction of agents to take as your own – upping the possible player count to six. The Undermountain module draws in the famous D&D dungeon of the same name, and adds new locations for your adventurers to visit, often with higher challenges and better rewards if you succeed. Meanwhile, the Skullport module lets players tap into a new resource called corruption. Taking on corruption can often have short-term benefits, but you are penalized at the end of the game for each point of corruption you haven’t managed to remove. I’m a particular fan of this corruption mechanic, as it adds yet another layer of tension and choice to the equation.

Lords of Waterdeep runs for $49.99 MSRP, but it’s not unusual to find a new copy online for between $33-40. The Scoundrels of Skullport expansion runs at $39.99 MSRP, but expect between $26-$30 at many online retailers. For easy access, I recommend Cool Stuff Inc. or Amazon, but your local comic, hobby, and game store should also have copies in stock, or available for order. 

At this year’s Gen Con, Wizards of the Coast also announced a partnership with Playdek to bring Dungeons & Dragons: Lords of Waterdeep to iOS. No word yet on when exactly we can hope to play it beyond later this year, but this eventual digital release may be a good choice if you’re trying to decide if the full board game is worth the investment. 

Lords of Waterdeep offers deep strategy but accessible rules, and its flexible game system holds up well to many replays. However, if the intrigue vibe doesn’t sound like it is quite up your alley, you might peruse our backlog of other recommended tabletop games, including AscensionTannhauserCastle RavenloftYomiStar Trek: Fleet CaptainsAgents of SMERSHA Touch of EvilMage WarsThe Adventurers: Pyramid of HorusDixit, and Star Wars: Edge of the Empire