Lords of Waterdeep
Category: Worker Placement
Designer: Peter Lee & Rodney Thompson
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Year Published: 2012
Playing Time: 90 mins.
To Play or Not To Play: Play
I’ve reviewed several games on this site that derive from licensed IPs (intellectual properties). Star Wars: Rebellion is the simplest example. Fantasy Flight Games owns the license to produce Star Wars themed board and tabletop games. These licenses come in various shapes and flavors, depending on the contract. For example, Fantasy Flight Games owned the license to produce a Lord of the Rings “living card game,” while Cryptozoic had the license for a Lord of the Rings “Deck-building game” in the early 2010s. But in all these cases, we have a dedicated game publisher licensing the rights to an IP owned by a non-tabletop gaming company.
Lords of Waterdeep is a different beast. This is also a game based on an existing IP: The Forgotten Realms campaign setting in Dungeons & Dragons. If you’re not that familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, well, I just don’t have time to get into it now. In a nutshell, D&D is a set of rules that the players use to tell a shared story. But creating your own world to house that story is a lot of work, so authors and game designers will create “campaign settings,” tomes that provide the history and geography for a living world that players can use as inspiration to tell their own stories. The Forgotten Realms were created by Ed Greenwood, and since 1987 they’ve been an integral and extremely popular world for D&D players.
In fact, The Forgotten Realms are so popular that they transcended tabletop roleplaying games. Many authors wrote novels set in The Forgotten Realms, most notably R. A. Salvatore. Even more impressively, the world made the jump to video games. TSR (and later Wizards of the Coast) licensed the video game rights to various video game developers, resulting in classics like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Neverwinter Nights.
By the early 2010s, European-style board games had become fixtures in the US games industry. Wizards of the Coast owned many valuable IPs through Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons, and other products. Why not expand into a growing market? But where other companies would have licensed their IPs, Wizards of the Coast did not. After all, they design tabletop games too! And so, Lords of Waterdeep was born: a European-style worker placement game set in The Forgotten Realms. This was a dramatic departure from the sorts of games Wizards of the Coast had made before. How well does it hold up? Let's check it out!
In Lords of Waterdeep, the players are powerful elites in the city of Waterdeep, such as clever nobles, criminal masterminds, and religious leaders. Each has their own secret agenda, but to avoid arousing suspicion each makes use of resourceful agents to accomplish their goals. Each round, the players will deploy their agents to various locations in the city. After eight rounds, the player who has earned the most victory points wins.
How do you get points? The simplest way is to complete quests. But why waste your valuable and resourceful Agents on potentially dangerous quests? No, there are plenty of adventurers in town that you could hire instead. Your agents will generally be spent recruiting fighters, rogues, clerics, and wizards. Colored cubes represent these adventurers because some tropes of European-style game design never die. You can then spend these cubes to complete quests and earn victory points. You can also deploy agents to secure new quests, become the first player to act next round, or earn gold. You'll find similar options in any worker-placement game. But two specific places in Waterdeep make this game stand out.
The first is the builder's guild, where you can spend your gold to construct a new building. This is usually worth a few victory points, but more importantly it adds a new space to the board. These spaces are more powerful than the standard ones in the city, and many let players recruit combinations of different adventurers more efficiently. The best part, though, is that once you've built the new location, you OWN it for the rest of the game. You're a rich and powerful lord, it would be absurd to invest valuable resources in a new building unless you expect to earn a profit from it!
When you build a building, you place your colored marker next to it to show that you own that building. If you use the space, great, you got to use it's more powerful effect. But if another player goes there, you get a small bonus as payment. That could be money, extra adventurers, or even victory points. All worker placement games follow a similar structure where more spaces, usually more powerful ones, become available as the game goes on. Lords of Waterdeep ties this mechanism into the flavor. You’re not just revealing new spaces to keep the game balanced or tense, you’re investing in them with the expectation of making a tidy return!
And, it creates interesting and fund decisions for the players. You could get the adventurers you need by visiting your opponent’s building, but that will give them a potentially useful adventurer as well. Is it worth it? Or should you take a less efficient approach that doesn’t help your opponents? Just remember, time is short! The game only lasts 8 rounds, so you can’t afford to dawdle too much.
But the coolest space in the game is Waterdeep Harbor, which has room for 3 agents. When an agent goes to the harbor, the player may play an Intrigue card from their hand. Intrigue cards are the primary source of player interaction in this game. They do all kinds of things to your opponents, from stealing their gold or adventurers, to giving everyone more adventurers in exchange for a benefit to you, to forcing another player to undertake a mandatory quest that they MUST finish before they can complete any of their other outstanding quests. That last one is pretty brutal, if you time it right you can really mess up someone's plans and have them to miss out on a lot of points at the end of the game!
But the harbor has more going on than that. After everyone's agents have been placed, each agent in the Harbor then moves to another empty space on the board and takes that effect. Essentially, you get to take two actions with those agents, but one has to be a card in hand and the other has very limited choices. It's still quite powerful, and something to keep an eye on each round.
As the game goes on more and more spaces will exist on the board. This is good because it creates more options, but it also means that players lose some sense of tension. If they need two fighters, there might be two or three spaces where they can get them. It removes the sense of needing to get to a space now before it becomes unavailable. Don’t worry, Lords of Waterdeep has a solution. Halfway through the game, every player gets one additional agent! Hooray! Now you have more tools to accomplish quests, but everyone has more pieces making the board feel crowded again. This is a simple but elegant solution that helps the game’s tension build as players approach the end of the game. Time is short, and that means it is time to pull out all the stops.
I keep mentioning Quests, but I’ve neglected to explain them in any real detail. Each player begins the game with two randomly dealt quests, and then four quests are laid face up at Waterdeep tavern for players to acquire. Each quest has a cost and a reward. Most quests require some number of adventurers in some combination, and then reward you with victory points depending on how difficult the quest cost is. Some quests may also cost money, while others may reward you with money, adventurers, or Intrigue cards. Skilled players may even be able to chain quests together, so that the rewards from one help complete the next.
Quests also come in five different categories, such as warfare, arcane, or skullduggery. These categories generally inform what type of adventurers are needed to complete the quest. An arcane quest will require several wizards, while a warfare quest will probably require fighters. Of course, each quest is different.
These categories also serve a second critical purpose. At the beginning of the game, each player is dealt a Lord card. This shows which member of Waterdeep’s elite that player is controlling for the game. Each Lord has a particular focus on a pair of quest categories. For example, Piergeiron the Paladinson leads an order of paladins. Naturally, his preference is for warfare and piety quests. Each lord grants several victory points for each successfully completed quest in those two categories.
That bonus can really add up, so most players will focus on their preferred quests. Except, as a wild card, there’s one Lord who doesn’t care about quests at all. She’s a real estate mogul, and she awards bonus points for every building you own at the end of the game.
One last note about quests: they actually come in two different flavors. The majority are standard quests: you complete them by paying the costs, immediately reap the rewards, and that’s it. But some are “plot quests.” These grant some sort of ongoing bonus which you can take advantage of for the rest of the game. Some might grant you bonus victory points for every quest you complete of a certain category. Others might let you draw an Intrigue card every time you complete a quest. One actually grants you a bonus agent for the rest of the game! These plot quests are worth very few victory points, but if you complete them early in the game they can lead to massive rewards.
Mechanically, Lords of Waterdeep is a standard worker-placement game. You have a limited amount of time to complete certain missions and acquire points. But Waterdeep adds several things more characteristic of American games. First, the attention to detail with the theme is impressive. Fans of The Forgotten Realms will recognize characters and quests throughout the game, and the way the mechanics and theme integrate into a cohesive experience is exceptional. But the thing that stands out the most is the Intrigue deck.
Most European-style worker placement games have just one source of player interaction: the jockeying for position in the turn order and for placement on certain board spaces. But aside from deciding where to place your workers to block your opponents or avoid getting blocked, that’s it. Waterdeep’s Intrigue deck lets you aggressively interfere with your opponents, from stealing valuable resources to blocking a crucial quest at the last minute. You can really ruin someone’s game with a well-timed card or two, so you have to be prepared for anything as the game draws to a close. You can view this is the best or worst part of the game, depending on your preferences. Yes, you could have a perfectly precise plan worked out for the last three rounds of the game that will ensure you complete your four remaining quests by your final action. And then a single Intrigue card could throw a wrench into that plan. And that feels awful.
I actually find this to be a good aspect of the game, though, thanks to the theme. This isn’t Agricola, where we’re farmers building up a farm with a tight supply of resources, or Ex Libris where we’re magical librarians shelving books. We are the Lords of Waterdeep! We have power, connections, and secret agents doing our bidding! Why wouldn’t I use every tool at my disposal to prevent my rivals from assuming greater control over the city? Underhanded tactics aren’t just expected—they’re required! If one of my rivals has a strong lead, I need to shut them down while I catch up!
Technically, I could end the review right here. Lords of Waterdeep offers some brilliant variety to a well-established genre of board game thanks to its well-integrated theme and vibrant world. The card art is quite good, though a bit small at times, thanks to Wizards of the Coast’s extensive network of contract artists. The components are quite nice, with high-quality cards and sturdy wooden pieces. And Waterdeep has one of the most impressive box inserts I’ve ever encountered! Everything has its place. Well, unless you do something silly like turn the box sideways. Then it’s a complete mess.
See, Waterdeep’s greatest flaw is actually its box. Aesthetically, it’s beautiful. I love the way it looks like a tome, which matched the style of other D&D products at the time. But the design is also completely impractical. Its dimensions are completely different from any other game box I own. Look at how it compares to a couple other European-style games in my collection:
See how it doesn’t match in any way? Have fun trying to store this on a shelf. And like I mentioned before, you can’t turn it sideways. See, the top of the box doesn’t extend all the way to the bottom. You just don’t have the same sort of friction that keeps other game boxes from spilling open if they are left sideways for a few minutes. You have to store Waterdeep flat, and then there just aren’t other games that fit neatly with it. Well, except for other Wizards of the Coast published board games. Those are the same shape, at least. And the Scoundrels of Skullport expansion is perfectly designed to sit on top of the standard box.
In other words, Waterdeep is annoying to own and obnoxious to transport. You can transfer it to a custom container, but then you lose access to that intricately molded insert. It’s a darn shame. But this isn’t a blog about whether or not you should buy this game. This is about whether or not you should play it. Lords of Waterdeep is obnoxious to own and transport. But it's a delight to play! If someone suggests Lords of Waterdeep at a game night, you should play this game.