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.
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.
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.
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.
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.