A thing that you should know about Lords of Waterdeep is that it looks incredibly boring.
The box (which is a weird space-box that only closes halfway) sells Waterdeep as a Dungeons and Dragons adventure set in the “most fantastic metropolis of the Forgotten Realms®,” and it has the cheesy fantasy art to match. But if you can get past the packaging - which thank god I did - you’ll find an easy to learn, well organized game with deep strategy and agonizing decisions that will capture your imagination for game after game.
My copy of Waterdeep lives in the prestigious first cube of my board game shelf, next to Puerto Rico, Agricola, Carcassonne, 7 Wonders, and Catan. I don’t know if Waterdeep stacks up to those games, but I can tell you it is almost certainly the best board game of 2012, and one that I love teaching to other people.
Although it looks like a dry Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game, Lords of Waterdeep is actually a brilliantly designed euro-style strategy game designed by Peter Lee and Rodney Thompson and published by Wizards of the Coast. It’s for two to five players, it takes about fifteen minutes to learn and an hour to play.
In the game, you play as one of the titular Lords of Waterdeep. As Lords do, you control a few agents, and each turn, you can dispatch them to locations around the city to do your bidding. The ultimate goal is to gain the most influence (points) by recruiting adventurers and sending them on quests.
The most important mechanics are worker placement and resource management - Waterdeep isn’t reinventing the wheel here - but there are a few brilliant twists that make the game special.
FIRST, each player starts the game with a random, secret “Lord of Waterdeep” identity. This identity gives players a bonus for completing certain categories of quest. This gives you a secret incentive to collect specific types of quests, and keeps you on your toes by making it hard to predict exactly what everyone else will do in the game.
SECOND, though the game starts off with a scant 10 locations for you to place your workers on, you can send an agent to the Builder’s Hall to add a new building to the map. Creating a new building provides a new location on the map for any player to use, but it also gives you ownership over that building, and you collect a toll every time a player uses it. The Builder’s Hall lets the board grow and change in a new way every time you play the Waterdeep, and the toll mechanic gives you great rewards for investing in buildings early.
THIRD, the most important and innovative part of the strategy in Lords of Waterdeep is a location called Waterdeep Harbor. The harbor has spots for three players, and lets you do two things: 1). You play an intrigue card, and, 2). At the end of the round, once everyone has gone, you remove your agent from the harbor and re-play him on an empty spot.
Now, neither of these actions are powerful on their own. Intrigue Cards generally give you a small benefit (a few resources) or let you stick it to another player by assigning them a mandatory make-work quest, and the spaces left after everyone has gone are usually table scraps. But among the often-overwhelming 429 cards, cubes, tiles, pawns, and other components in Waterdeep, the only resource that matters is your time. You have to accomplish more than everyone else in a very limited amount of time.
Waterdeep games are notorious for being very close. Players will constantly switch in and out of the lead, sometimes by as much as 20 points, but usually finish the game within a single point of one another. Those three spots at Waterdeep Harbor are often key to gaining that one-point edge over other players, and knowing how to turn intrigue cards and table scraps into those points is (in my experience) usually the key to victory.
Lords of Waterdeep draws on worker placement and resource management mechanics that experienced gamers will be familiar with, but the real strategy in the game involves managing your priorities. Waterdeep calls for a delicate balance of playing boldly for immediate benefits and setting yourself up for long chain reactions that can change the dynamic of the game in your favor.
The tension in the game usually comes from waiting to see if an opponent will take a space you need on the board. It’s agonizing to see your plans fall apart after you get blocked by another player and exhilarating to spring a plan into action that nobody else saw.
This is the most important source of player interaction in Waterdeep. Although there aren’t many ”take that” moments, every game I’ve played has been wonderfully and subtly social and interactive, with players applauding each other for taking great turns and cursing each other over ruined plans.
In addition to the player interaction through worker placement you’ve got:
Every design choice in Lords of Waterdeep game is clever. Clever clever clever. When that kind of design works, it’s brilliant. When it fails, it’s incredibly frustrating - like Wizards of the Coast went out of their way to personally inconvenience you.
For example: Each building tile has a little space cut out of it on the lower-right corner. This not only helps you keep the buildings oriented when you shuffle them up, but when you play a building, you slide a little player token into empty space to mark that you own it. That’s not only a practical design, it reinforces the idea that you own the building, and get to personalize it with your sigil and color. Adding buildings to the map in Waterdeep is very competitive, and it feels great to play one and deck it out with your token.
Also for example: I mentioned this before, but the box is a weird shape. It has a kind of half-cover that exposes bare box midriff in the middle when fully closed. I guess the box is designed this way to help Waterdeep stand out on a store shelf, but it’s clearly confusing to people. On the top of the official Lords of Waterdeep FAQ page, right below “What is Lords of Waterdeep?” is the following Q: “The box on my copy doesn’t fully close! The insert doesn’t seem to completely connect! What do I do?”
Inside the box, there’s a complicated vacuum form insert that is custom-made to keep the pieces in the game in place, accompanied by a chart in the rules to show you where everything goes. There’s only one catch: it doesn’t actually keep the pieces in place.
Mainly though, the clever design of Waterdeep works well, and I wish every game was this bold in its choices.
Waterdeep has a clear and consistent visual language helps people learn and play the game. In other games with worker placement mechanics, players are perpetually asking me, “Can I put my guy here?” Not so in Waterdeep; once you learn the visual clues everything makes perfect sense.
Finally - and I’ve saved the best for last here - I mentioned above that the resources you collect to complete quests (black, white, purple, and orange cubes) actually represent adventurers. This is a brilliant choice. Those little cubes could have been anything (different types of trade goods, for example) but they made it so that each quest you “spend” a group of adventurers on is analogous to a sending a tiny group of Dungeons and Dragons players on an epic quest. See? Clever.
Lords of Waterdeep is a game full of surprises. First, you will be surprised that it’s not a boring D&D thing. Then you will be surprised by how easy it is to learn, and how concise the rules are. Then you will be surprised by how much you care about each action in the game, and how intense it gets by the end. Finally, you will be surprised when you take the the box off the shelf for your second game and the pieces spill all over the floor.
I was supposed to interview Waterdeep’s designer Rodney Thompson, and I got as close as being introduced to him by some mutual friends and telling him how much I liked the game. But I quickly learned that Wizards of the Coast has a lot of policies and procedures about talking to media giants like Playtest, and found myself mired in bureaucracy. After much badgering, someone from a company called “360 Public Relations” offered to let me send him a list of five to eight questions which he would vet and pass along to Rodney.
I just wanted to ask the Rodney what makes his game is so good, and talk to him like a person (by all reports he is a funny smart guy), but the alternative was so unappealing that I abandoned the interview idea entirely.
The final surprise for me here was learning about the corporate culture that Lords of Waterdeep was produced in, which could have easily destroyed everything that makes the game great. I’m happy to report that packaging issues aside, Wizards of the Coast has nonetheless made a very special game, and one that is absolutely worth a spot on the good shelf of your board game collection.