Some Thoughts on Lords of Waterdeep

At just over five years old, Lords of Waterdeep is a modern classic — which is a polite way of saying that, in boardgame years, it’s kind of old. On the other hand, considering that it’s still being played five years later demonstrates that it’s withstood the test of time thus far; personally, I’ll rarely turn down an opportunity to play it.

We had six guys at our recent game night — slightly more than our usual four or five. Most of the games in our respective collections top out at five or less. Furthermore, Ty was joining us the first time, so we wanted to avoid jumping too far into the deep end right away. These parameters narrowed down our options pretty significantly. Fortunately he did have some prior gaming experience (including playing D&D), so Lords of Waterdeep fit the bill perfectly.

At its core, Lords of Waterdeep is a fairly straightforward worker-placement game. Each player, taking on the role of one of the hidden (as in, secret) lords of the City of Splendors, sends their agents out to various locations around the city to recruit adventurers to go out and complete quests. The rewards for completing quests normally come in the form of influence over the city, represented by victory points, but they can also take the form of gold or even additional adventurers. Taking a page from Ticket to Ride, each player is randomly assigned a lord at the start of the game which gives them bonus points at the end, typically based on types of quests completed, but there are a few exceptions.

There are five basic resources in the game: four types of adventurers (fighters, rogues, clerics, wizards) and gold coins. Each quest requires a specific group of adventurers, and frequently a sum of gold as well. Gold is also used to purchase buildings — other locations around the city where agents can be sent in order to recruit adventurers, earn gold, or gain other types of benefits, ranging from the relatively mundane to the quite powerful. Of course, this being a worker-placement game, there is also a sixth resource, the most precious one of all, hidden in plain sight: the number of actions available to you over the course of the game, represented by the number of agents under your control. Each player has the same number of agents throughout the game, but there are a few ways to do some “sequence breaking” and acquire additional actions.

Everything functions within a fairly tight set of parameters. Although not explicitly stated, there’s a firm exchange rate in place on the relative value of adventurers, which can be seen with a little effort by comparing the number of adventurers required to complete a quest with the rewards that it yields. Essentially, two coins equals one fighter or rogue, and two fighters or rogues (or one of each) is equal to one cleric or wizard. The starting locations also bear this out, as you can recruit fighters and rogues in pairs at their usual hangouts, but only a single cleric or wizard at their respective locations. There’s also a starting location that earns you four coins.

There is a clear effort in the design to balance all of the moving parts and for the benefits of each action to be incremental and sometimes even beneficial for multiple parties. For example, when a player sends an agent to building, that player receives the reward for placing their agent there, but the owner also receives a small bonus as well. Likewise, Intrigue Cards will frequently provide a bonus to multiple players, not just the one who plays it. Even Intrigue Cards that attack other players aren’t terribly punishing.

The board is reasonably sized, but you’ll never have too much space available to play this game.

 

For those steeped in D&D lore (specifically, the Forgotten Realms campaign setting), the game takes on extra flavor and immersion. The quests themselves are fairly thematic. For example, a mission to break into an ancient crypt is primarily rogues’ work, but a wizard or two may be necessary in order to assist with any magical dangers that may be present.

On the other hand, a common criticism of game is that the theme feels tacked-on. This is a fair assessment, and something that will be felt most acutely by those who are not familiar with the setting. Extrapolating from the name of a quest why a particular group of adventurers is needed requires a little imagination on the parts of the players, and being familiar well-versed with D&D, or fantasy tropes in general at the very least, is definitely helpful in this regard. Making the extra effort to refer to the cubes as the type of adventurers that they represent (not simply by their color) along with reading the little bits of flavor text that are present on the Quest and Intrigue cards will also go a long way for creating a sense of immersion.

The tight design of Lord’s of Waterdeep, whileone of its greatest strengths, is also an easy target for criticism. For all of the flavor present in the quests, there really is no differentiating one type of quest from another. Sure, Piety quests will typically require clerics and Skullduggery will require rogues, but they’re all simply worth points in the end based on a fairly straightforward calculation and they are mechanically identical; the only reason to choose one over another is based on the particular lord you’ve drawn and the types of quests they earn bonus points for.

The burdens that accompany the role of being one of the hidden lords of Waterdeep proved to be too much for Spike.

 

Expansions
Lords of Waterdeep has two expansions available (or “modules” as they are referred to within the game, a nod to classic D&D lingo): Undermountain and Skullport. Both come in a single expansion set called Scoundrels of Skullport (a questionable marketing move since by focusing on “Skullport,” the name downplays the fact that there are two expansions present in the package).

Undermountain is basically what Prosperity is to Dominion: no changes to core mechanics or gameplay, just more of it, bigger and better. It adds a new section to the board with several powerful areas where lords can send their agents, along with bigger quests that require larger groups of adventurers going for bigger payoffs, and more expensive buildings that provide greater benefits to their patrons. It adds a new layer of decision-making: is it better to complete several lower-point quests, or go for more difficult but higher-value ones? Worker-placement games are fundamentally about action economy and determining optimal moves. It takes fewer actions to complete a single higher-value quest, but it requires more actions to recruit the requisite number of adventurers, so it’s not always clear which is the better decision.

I’m not sure if there’s a direct Dominion analog for Skullport. Alchemy would probably be the closest because, as with Alchemy, Skullport also adds a new resource type and with it, new mechanics: corruption. “Resource” is actually a misnomer because, while it must be carefully managed, it’s a negative side effect that comes frim sending agents down into Skullport, the seedy (literal) underbelly of Waterdeep, represented by another separate board with new starting locations, or by participating in particularly unsavory actions (new quests and Intrigue Cards). The payoffs for sending your agents to these places is significantly greater than for sending them to the more reputable parts of the city, but they come at a steep price — represented by subtracting victory points for every corruption token that you possess (or does they possess you?) at the end of the game. In a really clever example of game design, the tokens start out on a corruption track and are removed as players earn them, revealing a progressively worse negative value for each token. A small taste of corruption can help an ambitious lord get ahead; too much will easily bury him or her in the end. As with Undermountain, Skullport introduces its own set of new buildings, quests, and Intrigue Cards.

Each expansion adds three new lords to the game, with benefits that are more interesting than the standard “earn 4 victory points for these two types of quests” from the base game. In our gaming group, we have a house rule where we divide the lords according to whether they come from the base game or the expansions. Each player is randomly given one from each group and chooses the one that they wish to play as. My personal favorite is the beholder crime lord of Skullport known as the Xanathar.

In a nearly complete inversion of the corruption mechanic, and one of the rare instances where the mechanics and theme of using a particular lord converge, the Xanathar actually scores 4 VP for each corruption token at the end of the game. The catch is that he still takes the penalty as well. Effective play with the Xanathar comes down to making the most of locations and quests that confer corruption, carving out enough of a lead over the other players during the game in order to still be in the lead even after lords are revealed and bonus points for quest type are awarded. This is decidedly not how it turned out for me during my group’s last game.

I got the Xanathar! Oh, happy day.

 

We played the full version of the game, using both expansions, and I was thrilled that I drew the Xanathar as one of my lords. However, I ended up struggling to score many points during the game, due to a combination of some sub-optimal choices I made early on, as well as the vissicitudes of the game, particularly which quests came up. There was a relatively low number of the big 40-point quests that showed up, which meant that they were even more valuable when someone was able to score one. Despite having a fairly high number of completed quests none of them were of the coveted 40-point variety, and I finished in fourth place.

My resources and completed quests at the end of the game. Needs more points.

 

For almost the entire game, it appeared that Nick was going to finish closer to the bottom than the top. Nick has earned the reputation of being our resident game shark, so no matter who wins, it’s always at least a minor victory for everyone else as long as it’s not him. [Just kidding, Nick, you’re awesome! Please don’t take umbrage and destroy me even worse in whatever game we play next!] However, in the last round, he pulled off an impressive combo involving a couple of different Intrigue cards and Quests, rocketing past several other players on the score track, and finishing tied with Joe at a respectable 124 points after bonus points were tallied. Of course, being Nick, he ended the game with more coins in his tavern than Joe, winning the tie-breaker and the game.

Although it wasn’t a very good showing for me, I got to make some fun plays over the course of the game. I drew an “Open Lord” Intrigue Card early on. Playing it meant that I revealed to everyone that I was, in fact, the Xanathar, but it also made me immune to Mandatory Quests and other attacks from the other players for the remainder of the game. I was also able to complete the “Unleash Crime Spree” quest during my final turn, true to form for the Xanathar and a (im)moral victory at least. I may not have won, but I got to tell a fun story with the quests that I completed.

It was an enjoyable game with an exciting and unbelievable ending, and I’m happy to have logged another play with this classic.

 

#100: Sir Conlan

For my 100th post I thought I’d wax nostalgic for a bit about one of my all-time favorite miniatures: Sir Conlan, from Reaper’s tabletop miniatures game, Warlord. The game itself has been dead for some time now, but they still sell the miniatures. Most of the sculpts are fairly high quality, and there are some standouts, but to be honest, most of it is the standard stuff that you’d expect to find in a range of fantasy minis. All of that aside, Sir Conlan holds a special place in my gaming history.

In the fall of 2004, I found myself at a Hobbytown USA in Pittsburgh, PA. At that point, I had been away from any serious tabletop gaming for several years. I was staring at a display wall of metal minis, many of which were part of something called “Warlord.” The blister packs contained not only the minis, but colorful cards with an image of a painted version of each miniature as well, and on the back was a a list of the figure’s stats and abilities. While I had painted plenty, I had only dabbled in miniatures games before, but I was genuinely intrigued by the Warlord minis, and I chose Sir Conlan as my first purchase.

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Sir Conlan 2004 (metal version)

I painted Sir Conlan over the course of the next week or two, at the same time trying to find out more about Warlord. I was already familiar with Reaper, but I didn’t know that they were making a fantasy miniatures game. I soon acquired the core rulebook for Warlord and, over the next several months, got a few games in with my wife and some of our friends. Sir Conlan was from the Crusaders faction, so that’s what I started collecting and painting. I didn’t have many official Warlord minis yet, so we proxied about 90% of our armies.

I also got back into playing D&D with a short-lived campaign that one of my friends ran during this time, and I liked the Sir Conlan miniature so much that I used him to represent my character, a half-elf fighter/mage. It wasn’t a perfect match, but it was close enough to work.

Today, while I still have a good portion of my collection of Warlord minis, it’s considerably smaller than it once was, and I haven’t actually played Warlord in several years. It’s a fine game, and I’m sure I’d enjoy it if I played it again; but the reality is that gaming is a social hobby, and it’s much easier to play games that already have an existing player base and not one that you have to build yourself.

Although it’s in my past now, I owe a debt of gratitude to WarlordLooking back, I can pinpoint the exact moment of my serious return to gaming; it took me several years to get as deep into tabletop gaming as I am now, but getting into Warlord, beginning with Sir Conlan, is where it started.

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The plastic Bones version, painted in 2016

Bones Iron Golem

A quick paintjob on the new Iron Golem, one of my favorite miniatures from the Bones 3 Kickstarter, and one of my favorite D&D monsters. Sometimes, you just want the satisfaction of finishing a project in a short amount of time, and minis with simple paint schemes are great for this. I’m fairly certain that I spent more time prepping it and finishing the base than I did actually painting it. I opted for a darker metal color to make him more imposing.

Reaper produced a complete set of the four basic golems types in the first Bones Kickstarter, but I always felt that that iron golem was kind of puny. This time around, they’ve gone in the complete opposite direction, and this one positively towers over adventurers and even the other golems. As I commented before, this mini actually seems a little too big at first, but it actually fits the description from the Monster Manual (whichever edition you choose).

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So THAT’S why werebears are chaotic good.

I’m half-listening to my wife reading The Hobbit to my daughter and me while  working on a different post. We’re in the chapter with Beorn and it just dawned on me why werebears in D&D are chaotic-good (at least in Second Edition, not sure about any others) when just about every other type of lycanthrope is chaotic evil. And it’s not like I’ve never read The Hobbit before, it’s just that I din’t put two and two together until now. That’s a thing that I had wondered about since first browsing all of the entries in the 2e Monstrous Manual*. Not even going to look this one up.

*For those of you who’ve never played Second Edition, yes, that book was called the Monstrous Compendium and, later, the Monstrous Manual (which was subsequently followed up by further volumes called Monstrous Compendium Appendicies. Oi.).

First Quest

first-quest

Years ago, Dragon Magazine ran a series of guest editorials entitled “First Quest,” in which members of the industry recalled their introduction to gaming. The name was a reference to a line of D&D products that TSR released under the “First Quest” banner which were designed to help new players learn the game. The title of this piece is an homage to that series of editorials, although I do not claim to put myself in the same category as those game designers who made an indelible mark on the gaming world.

 

My introduction to gaming took place on my 12th birthday. It was the capstone experience of the day and one that would have an immeasurably profound impact on my life, but I didn’t know it yet. It took place during the lull between an awesome birthday party at an indoor amusement park/arcade earlier in the day, video games at home that afternoon, and ice skating that night. The one common denominator in all of these activities was my cousins. They’re a few years older than I am, which made them and the things they were interested in awesome by default.

We were at Anthony’s house. He’s always had a great sense of humor and a certain low-key cool that made me really enjoy being around him. Also, when we were kids, I could always count on him to bring his NES (and eventually, his Super NES) to the New Year’s party at our aunt and uncle’s house, transforming what would otherwise have been a boring evening into a solid block of hours and hours of playing Nintendo.

Dave was the oldest of the three of us. He was the smallest in terms of physical stature, but he carried himself with a wry, confident attitude. This, combined with the fact that he was a whole three years older than me meant that I tended to approach him with a level of respect and deference, despite him once describing me as being “ten times bigger” than him.

Dave took on the role of Dungeon Master and described the scene for Anthony: “You’re sitting in an inn.” And so, the adventure began, using what has become the ultimate cliche for D&D adventures, but which was still new to me at that point.

“The serving wench brings you your drink and then goes over to serve another customer, a mean-looking dwarf. All of a sudden, he starts loudly berating her for some reason that isn’t clear and then he starts beating her savagely.”

Anthony had an affinity for mages, but the character he was playing that night was more of a fighter type — probably something whipped up on the spur of the moment just for that adventure. In any event, he quickly sprung into action, drawing his blade and coming to the girl’s rescue. The malicious little bar patron turned his attention to Anthony’s character. A brief fight ensued, and he easily dispatched the dwarf.

The game had only been going for about three minutes, but I was already enthralled. The concept of free-form, collaborative storytelling wrapped up in a game was a completely new concept to me. Furthermore, in an experience no doubt shared by countless neophyte RPGers before and been since, I was also fascinated by the strange, multi-sided dice that my cousins used to determine the outcome of the fight and which conferred a sense of arcane, esoteric wonder to the proceedings. Who knew that dice could come in so many different shapes?

 

With the dwarf slain and lying in a bloody heap on the tavern floor, Anthony turned his attention to the serving girl. The dwarf had managed to inflict serious injuries in a short period of time and she was unconscious. Seeing her condition, he scooped her up and went searching for a healer in the town.

He barged through the front door of the nearest temple, interrupting the priest during the middle of a morning sermon. The cleric was irritated by the interruption, but was willing to help in exchange for a random item from Anthony’s pack. (Even non-adventuring NPCs want treasure.) Anthony agreed, and the priest cast healing spells over the girl, bringing her back to consciousness.

The callous priest collected his payment. Reaching into Anthony’s pack, he pulled out a gaudy-looking necklace and was instantly immolated by magical flames that engulfed his body the moment he placed it around his neck.

I was blown away; this game was like nothing else I had ever experienced before.

To drive home the point of just how free players were to take the game in any direction, Anthony and Dave reset the scenario back to the tavern with the serving girl waiting on Anthony. This time, they role-played a conversation which quickly degenerated into the two characters haggling over the price of sexual favors. (Hey, I had literally just turned twelve and my cousins were in their early teens, remember? What else would you expect?) I was in stitches, and my cousins had made their point effectively.

That was the end of the short demo adventure, but this game was the most amazing thing I had ever experienced and all I knew was that I wanted to play more.

D&D was always high on the priority list whenever I got together with my cousins after that point, and it was some time before I was able to play D&D without them. The main impediment was that my parents had become aware of the moral panic surrounding D&D which still existed at that time. They generally didn’t like the idea of me playing and resisted my efforts to do so to different degrees at various times, but they were certainly never supportive. Eventually, possibly due to my persistence, or possibly to them realizing that there really wasn’t anything to be concerned about, they officially let me try out my new hobby. In an uncharacteristic show of support for anything that interested me, my father was actually the first person to drive me to my closest FLGS, 20 minutes from our house.

The store was small, but I remember being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books and other gaming material: “There’s an entire *COMPENDIUM*¹ full of monsters, and this big binder is only the first volume?? This one city gets a whole book² written about it??!” I found a copy of the one book I was already familiar with and selected two sets of plain opaque dice, one blue and one black.

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A treasured relic from my earliest days as a gamer. The amount of time I’ve spend pouring over the pages of this tome is orders of magnitude greater than I’ve spent with any other single book.

Armed with my brand new Player’s Handbook and dice, I set forth on my first quest: recruiting new players.

My sister was the first person I DMed for. Being four years younger than me, she was in second grade at the time of her first adventure and couldn’t quite read all of the words on her homebrew character sheet (i.e., a sheet of loose leaf with boxes drawn on it), much less the actual rules of the game. We rolled up her first character, a dwarf fighter that she named Rosella Thogard. The adventure got off to a rocky start, with Rosella being killed by orcs in the first encounter, so we started over and things improved dramatically on the second try. I made it my mission to introduce as many of my friends to D&D as I could, and I was finally able to put together my first gaming group during the summer in between eighth grade and high school.

Having written all of this, I realize that in both of my “first quests,” I didn’t actually participate as a player: I was an observer when my cousins introduced me to the game, and when I did ultimately find other people to play with, I took on the role of Dungeon Master. Furthermore, not only did I run games for my friends, but with only one exception, I was also the one who introduced them to the game; it wasn’t until early in my freshman year of high school that I became friends with someone who already had experience playing D&D (a fact which I became aware of when I saw him reading the PHB while waiting for English class to start). This is a pattern that continued in my adult life, after a long hiatus from gaming, when I introduced a new group of friends to the game and ran a campaign for them. Upon reflection, I realize that I find both this approach and the DM’s chair are where I am most comfortable.

Today marks twenty-five years since my cousins opened up this new world to me, one that not only became a hobby, but which has impacted almost every aspect of my life in more ways than I can describe, including the real-life adventures I’m now engaged in. Thank you, Anthony and Dave, for introducing me to the game that would have such an incredible impact on  me, and for giving me what is, other than life itself, probably the greatest birthday gift that I have ever received.

-John

 

  1. The poorly-conceived Monstrous Compendium. You know, the one where they decided to put the monsters in a three-ring binder instead of a hardcover book because it gave you the flexibility to expand and customize by adding new monsters, but which only stayed alphabetized (in other words, usable) as long as you didn’t expand and customize by adding new monsters. Not to mention the poor durability of three hole-punched sheets.
  2. Volo’s Guide to Waterdeep