My Favorite Game This Month: Lords of Waterdeep

4 May 2014 | 31 Comments

Lords boxI first played Lords of Waterdeep, a Euro board game set in the Dungeons & Dragons universe, almost exactly 1 year ago at Geekway to the West. I thought it was a super boring cube-pusher, and I didn’t see myself playing it again.

I was wrong.

I’ve played it more than I’ve played any other game over the last few months thanks to the iPad app (and once with the “real” version). My experience with Lords of Waterdeep during that time has reminded me that you really can’t judge a game after 1 play, even if that game has cubes in it where it should have custom tokens. It’s also a great learning tool for game designers, as I’ll describe below.

If you don’t know how to play Lords of Waterdeep, watch this episode of Tabletop, especially since Patrick Rothfuss is one of the guests.

Here’s why I’ve come to love and respect this game, and why I think every game designer should play it:

  1. lords-of-waterdeep-empty-boardThe Clarity of Economy: In some games (including games I’ve designed), it’s really hard to tell how much one resource is worth in relation to other resources. This clarity is important when you’re making choices about priorities, value, and goals. Lords of Waterdeep has a really simple economy, and it explains it not with a key off to a side, but rather through the action spaces themselves (see image on the right). 2 black cubes are worth 1 purple cube. Simple as that.
  2. Increasing Complexity: When you start a game of Lords of Waterdeep, there are a manageable number of actions on the board (11, I think). Most are self-explanatory. Thus the game is really easy to teach–you can start playing after a 5-minute explanation. However, once you start playing, you can build new actions (usually 1 per round), allowing for a slow increase in complexity. This also changes the economy a bit–now you can place a worker to get 1 purple cube OR you can place a worker to get 1 purple cube and 2 orange cubes (but the person who built that action gets a cube too). Thus every game starts out simple and grows into this beautiful map of interesting decisions.
  3. Short-Term Goals:/End-Game Uncertainty: I’ve written about this before, but now more than ever I appreciate games that give you short-term goals to point you in a direction–any direction–and also give you some long-term goals to consider without completely shaping your strategy for you. In Lords of Waterdeep, you start out with a few quests in hand, giving you direction early in the game. Many of these quests have residual benefits that will help you over the course of the game (plot quests). Also, each player has a secret lord card that gives you extra points at the end of the game. Sometimes when you’re choosing a quest in Lords of Waterdeep, you don’t know which one to choose. The lord cards help you make that decision, and they also provide uncertainty as to which player is truly in the lead at the end of the game.
photo credit Mark Raciborski
photo credit Mark Raciborski

The more I play Lords of Waterdeep, the more I respect it as an exemplary example of worker-placement. I highly recommend the iPad app if you want to give it a spin, or if you’re attending Geekway to the West in St. Louis in 10 days, I’d be happy to teach you how to play.

The only qualm I have about the game (as alluded to earlier) is that I wish the cubes were custom pieces. I understand why they’re not–it would be easy for new players to confuse worker tokens and adventurer meeples, not to mention the additional expense–but they add a lot of flavor to the game when you play with them (the play-to-win versions of Waterdeep at Geekway have the custom meeples).

What are your thoughts on this game?

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31 Comments on “My Favorite Game This Month: Lords of Waterdeep

  1. If my memory serves, once you have the base game, in that app is the option to get the expansion. So it’s all part of the same app, like Ticket to Ride.

  2. So far, they only released Undermountain for iOS but hopefully Skullport will get added soon. You may find the manner in which it gives great instant rewards but with a negative future cost interesting.

  3. Glad to see youve come around on this, Jamey. This is probably the game I can get my gaming group to play the most, thanks to it’s simplicity and player interaction. I also agree the iOS port is a ton of fun. Can’t wait to play Viticulture on my iPad!!!

    The Skullport expansion adds a new layer of complexity while the Under mountain expansion I’ve found to be more like an addition to the base game, where the points per quest may rise but you don’t have to learn a new mechanic or strategy. I’ve even taught new players using the Undermountain expansion already added in. I probably wouldn’t with Skullport simply to allow people to get used to the base game first.

    1. I’m still really enjoying the base game, but I look forward to adding in the expansions at some point (hopefully on iOS; otherwise in real life) per your recommendation. Thanks!

  4. Mandatory quests are definitely my favorite. Like I said, the emotional response from both sides are usually pretty entertaining and it’s really a self-balancing mechanic that semi-prevents a runaway leader. Semi-prevents in that the leader could gain mandatory quests and play them on the runner up.

    I’m interested why you don’t like the bottom intrigue listed. Do you think it’s too great of a benefit for the player using it?

    1. Jacob: I agree that the mandatory quests are a great way to slow down the leader without ruining their game.

      As for the bottom option, it’s just a type of interaction I don’t enjoy. I may have spent an entire turn to get that token, and you take it away? It also slows the game down and can create AP–I’ve planned for my turn based on my assumption that I’ll have the purple cube I used my last turn to get, and suddenly it’s gone, so I have to rethink my plans and priorities right before my turn–it undoes hard work and planning, and it moves players backwards instead of forwards. Honestly, if I ever get the cardboard version of the game, I would remove those cards. :)

  5. The thing I enjoy most about Waterdeep is the player interaction. Not a lot of Euro board games (worker placements especially) I’ve played has the player interaction that Waterdeep has. The intrigue cards add a great mechanic that allows players to effect another players game plan. The required quests are great and the emotion that gets thrown around when one is played is terrific. They’re definitely a ‘screw you’ card but not enough to drastically change the outcome of the game. In most cases anyway. :P

    1. Jacob: I agree, the player interaction in the game is really well balanced. There are a few different types of interactive cards:

      –mandatory quests
      –I take 2 specific resources and choose another player to get 1
      –I take any 2 resources and all other players get 1
      –I gain a resource and all other player may pay me that resource to gain points
      –I draw a number quest cards, choose my favorite, then the other players choose from the leftovers

      I might be missing some, but I like the broad array of choices. The only one I don’t like is this:

      –I gain a resource, and all other players must discard 1 of that resource.

  6. I just grabbed this on iOS 3 nights ago.
    I agree that it’s really well done, but I wish that instead of just porting the board over directly to the iPad app, they would have modified it so the entire board is visible on a single screen without having to scroll or zoom. There’s lots of space between action spaces on the board, and it feels like I can’t take in the whole game at a glance like I could with a real board.

    I think that’s one thing that does need to be taken into consideration with iOS ports – that a mechanically exact port doesn’t need to be aesthetically exact.

    It’s a fun game though :)

  7. I like this game for a number of reasons. It’s a good game for an evening in which your group just isn’t up for a brain burner, or something during which the AP prone players will frustrate the quick decision makers. It’s fairly light, easy to teach newbies because of its progressive nature, and generally fun. I do agree that it screams for custom meeples, which is probably why there are several places to get some. Something that always bothered me is that even with the new expansions, they never did address the fact that your faction means nothing at all. They could have brought more flavor, but you are really just playing “the blue guys” or “the red guys”.

    If you like this style of game, you should check out Yedo. Very similar mechanics, but a great deal more depth and complexity. The Japanese underworld theme is well done. Our group doesn’t use a number of the event cards because some of them are kind of brutal. But you can tweak it to suit your group.

    1. Josette: That’s an interesting point about the factions. I think there’s probably some thematic connection to the quests, but I haven’t been able to find it.

      Thanks for the recommendation about Yedo. I’ve read up about it and it seemed really fiddly…but once I learn it, I bet it’s the kind of game I’d really like. And I have a close connection to Japan. I’ll try to find a way to check it out!

  8. This game is the first the Girl and I played together – that and Galaxy Truckers were mainstays when I recovered from surgery. The game is pretty approachable for new folks (quests are recipes, you place workers to get ingredients), but some folks lament the lack of depth. The expansion adds some different elements to the mix, though, which adds to the complexity/replayability. .

  9. It is indeed an excellent game. I wouldn’t want to add anything to your analysis, it is thourough and well written.
    The only thing I want to stress out Jamey is the impact the iOS app has. I play the board game regularly, but I’m also addicted to the app. It’s polished, easy to use even using an iPhone and the AI can hold its ground.
    I really hope the Tuscany app will be of similar quality. It’ll really help sales of the boardgame even further.

      1. Yeah, Viticuture is what I meant! It’s 3 in the morning in Athens Jamey, I should probably call it a day :)

  10. Waterdeep is one of my favourites. Sure, it’s a basic stock standard cube pusher (do this to get these, trade these for delicious points over there) but it is pretty much my go-to introductory worker placement. I don’t feel it’s very thematic, but it’s a fun game anyway. You can try to read the flavour text on the cards etc, but it very rarely feels like you are actually hiring adventurers and sending them out on glorious quests. The DnDeeples help a bit, so I do recommend getting them.

    I do like some of the points you highlighted, Jamey, like the slowly expanding array of choices to place in (via buildings) and the quest cards shaping your initial strategy. It’s a step up from there to more challenging and open worker placement games like Agricola or Snowdonia.

    the iOS app is a great port too.

  11. This is the first “worker placement” game I ever owned and it’s still one of the best, and easiest to get into. The theme, although initially looks pasted on, is quite engaging once you get into it and see beyond the cubes. You know the friend of yours, who likes video games like Skyrim and Final Fantasy but still dismisses board games as belonging to Monopoly era? Yeah, this is the game that’ll get him hooked.

  12. I played it once and didn’t really enjoy it. I’m not a fan of worker placement nor fantasy theme so there isn’t much drive to play it again. I can respect that it’s well designed though and the name is awesome ha ha. It sounds very epic but for me felt more tedious rather than epic. I’ve met plenty of gamers who love it so there is plenty to learn from the game.

  13. It might cost a bit, but there was a recent Meeple Kickstarter that had specific Meeples for the Lords of Waterdeep game. I think they’d add a ton to the theme aspect and you’d play the game a bit better because instead of saying I want a purple cube, you’d actually say I’d like to have a Wizard join me on this quest or instead of a orange cube, I want a Warrior, etc.

  14. Thanks for the recommendation! This game has been on my radar for a while, but continues dropping on and off of my ‘want’ list for various reasons. I was not aware there was an iPad version, but now that I know I’m definitely going to give it another look. Although I prefer the tabletop version of most games, the quality of iPad offerings over the last 2 years has really impressed me; Ghost Stories translated well into a digital version, and I also enjoy being able to play Small World on the go now.

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