‘They have betrayed me for the last time, inquisitor. Go, into their houses – take your wizards, and lay waste to their homes. Take your priests, and condemn their souls. Take your warriors, and slay their menfolk. And take your rogues, and steal everything that isn’t nailed down. I have spoken – I am your Lord, and you must obey! Don’t ask foolish questions as to why – you couldn’t possibly conceive the complexity of the great game in which I am embroiled’
It turns out, it’s fun to be on the other side of the quest-giver exclamation mark.
Lords of Waterdeep is a worker placement game set in the Dungeons and Dragons world of the Forgotten Realms. We play as the eponymous Lords of Waterdeep – the sinister, secretive figures that work behind the scenes of the city’s political landscape. We pull strings from the shadows, molding the city to our own nefarious, or not so nefarious, ends. To achieve our goals we recruit adventurers – the poor, gullible idiots that in any other game would be the protagonists we control. We send them on quests likely ending in their unpleasant and painful deaths. We alone reap the rewards of their efforts. Don’t worry though little adventurers – Waterdeep is a trickle down economy. I’m sure some of my power and wealth will make its way into your grubby, working class pockets eventually.
Waterdeep is a complex city and we do not have free reign to shape the world around us. We’re challenged at every turn by the other Lords, each of whom is working secretly against us to undermine our efforts and strengthen their own. The city itself is our key battleground, and we’ll leave it fundamentally changed as a result of our passage. We’ll commission buildings, make use of our trusted agents, and ensure a steady stream of intrigue to weaken our foes and embolden our allies.
It’s a lot of fun.
So, let’s talk about the game. The first thing is – it’s a beautiful box. It’s unusually large, which normally annoys me (I’ll go on a long rant about non-standard box sizes one day, but not today). The production values are top notch – it looks and feels substantial and weighty. Inside, there’s an immaculately designed insert that snugly fits every component and keeps it safe and secure:
I know, I know – when a review starts off praising the box and the inserts you have to wonder if it’s because there isn’t much else to compliment. Bear with me though – board games are lovely as actual physical things as well as alchemical engines for converting time into fun. We should acknowledge when they’re especially lovely things.
Waterdeep is represented on a four-fold board which takes up a very substantial portion of a regular sized dining table:
That’s to be expected, because the map is where all the action happens. Marked on the city are various locations – Castle Waterdeep, Builder’s Hall, Aurora’s Realms Shop, Cliffwatch Inn and so on. Each of these is marked with a number of symbols – over the course of the game, we’re going to be placing our agents in these buildings to gain the indicated benefits. For example, a Lord that plays an agent in Aurora’s Realms Shop will earn four gold pieces. A lord that plays an agent in The Plinth will gain access to one adventurer – a white cube, representing a priest. Adventurers are a game currency that we spend to complete quests and earn victory points. They’re the anonymous, faceless hordes that we manipulate into doing our bidding. We’ll never know their names. Our relationship with them ends when we send a condolence ham to the bereaved loved ones they leave behind.
Waterdeep Harbour, and Cliffwatch Inn, are the only two locations in the game that can be occupied by multiple agents in a single turn:
This symbolises the importance they play in the flow of the city’s lifeblood of conspiracy. The inn is the primary location we go if we want access to quests. Waterdeep Harbour is where we go if we want to engage in sneaksy intrigue.
Each player gets a set number of agents at the beginning of the game, dictated by player count. Each round consists of each player alternately placing their agents in the locations they desire, and reaping the rewards of taking control of the area. At the end of each round, all players take their agents back and the game progresses onto the next. There are eight rounds in the game – whoever has the most victory points at the end of the game wins, in the usual fashion.
At the beginning of the game, each player chooses a faction – this is just a thematic way of choosing the colour of their tokens. For those that know the setting though, this is a decision on a par with choosing which sports team will have your undying loyalty until the end of your days.
Players are also randomly assigned a Lord, and a Lord has a secret way of scoring victory points that only becomes known at the end of the game. We keep our Lords secret – we never know, except through deduction and observation, which powerful city personalities are pulling the strings of the various factions.
We have four main activities we can undertake during a round. We can acquire gold and adventurers. We’ll need plenty of those. We can construct buildings by having one of our agents claim builder’s hall. We’ll want to construct lots of buildings. We can complete quests by spending gold and adventurers to meet the requirements – man, we’re going to need to do lots of that. And finally, we can play intrigue cards to slant the city political situation in our favour. All of this is accomplished by using our agents as our proxies, and we’re constantly in contention with other players for access to the especially lucrative resources that are arrayed on the board.
Everyone begins the game with two face-up quests – those are the primary route to victory points. We also get two face down intrigue cards, which we need to play at Waterdeep Harbour. We can get more intrigue and quest cards later by assigning our agents at the appropriate locations:
Three building tiles are dealt randomly into builder’s hall – if an agent is assigned there, the Lord in question places a building of their choice into the game under their control. That building can be occupied by any Lord in the usual way through the normal course of play, but every time someone else makes use of it the owner gets a little something something for their trouble.
Let’s work through a simple example of that. If someone buy The Golden Horn, they immediately put four gold pieces on the tile and place it into the game under their control. At the start of every subsequent round, an additional four gold pieces are placed on it. If nobody claims that building for a few rounds, it can end up being a literal goldmine. But, any time someone other than its owner makes use of it, the owner gets a cool two gold pieces for doing absolutely nothing. Likewise for the Tower of the Order – it accumulates a purple cube (a wizard) every round, and gives its owner an intrigue card if someone else collects. The House of Wonder allows a Lord to spend two gold to get two cubes of either white or purple. The owner, in the normal fashion, gets their two gold just for owning the building. Buildings are powerful, but they are also pricey – they cost an opportunity for your agent, and they also cost the gold they show in the top left hand corner. You need to weigh it in the balance – what’s your benefit versus your reward?
Where does the gold come from? Well, some of it comes from your initial high station in life. The starting player gets four gold. Every time we move to the next player, the starting gold goes up by one. There are benefits here to going last. The first player advantage remains with the same player, unless someone places an agent at Castle Waterdeep. By doing that they can claim the first player marker for themselves, ensuring the first pick of the juiciest plums in the city.
At the start of each round, three victory points are removed from the round track, and distributed equally among the buildings in the hall. You get those victory points when you claim the building, and a building that has gone unclaimed for a long time might be worth buying just for the points scattered over its stone and straw floors. Even if you can’t entice anyone to visit it, it can be the difference between winning and losing in a tight game.
We never reveal our Lord to the table during the game – we keep that secret until the very end. That’s because each Lord gets bonus victory points depending on the composition of the quests they accomplished. Sometimes you’ll be trying to complete quests of a particular type, and so will your opponents. You need to be wary of what quests they’re looking for, and see when and where you need to step in to make sure you get what’s rightfully yours. Mirt the Moneylender for example gets four victory points for each commerce and piety quest completed. Kyriani Agrivar gets extra victory points for each arcana and piety quest. They’re both going to be competing over the piety quests that are available in the inn, and as a consequence, over the kind of resources that are most used to complete those kind of quests. If they knew in advance what each other most valued, they might focus on the quests they aren’t competing for – but they don’t. Picking up the right quests at the right time is vital.
It’s not just in terms of the hidden victory conditions that we need to consider quests, though. Quests picked up in the game have various elements to them – a type, which is used for later scoring (and also influences the kind of resources you’ll need), and a set of requirements in terms of adventurers and money needed. They also have a reward, which is what you get if you complete them.
Placate the Walking Statue for example requires two white cubes (priests) and two black cubes (rogues) along with four gold. The reward for completing it is ten victory points and a free building from the random stack. It’s a pretty nice reward if you get it early enough in the game.
How does all of this work together? Let’s run through the process. The Knights of the Shield are going first. The Lord controlling them decides gold is what’s needed, and places one of their agents in Aurora’s Realms Shop. Four gold pieces, heavy with promise, clink into the coffers of the Knights.
The round then moves on to the Red Sashes. The Lord in control of that faction decides that warriors are most useful to the cause, and assigns an agent to the field of triumph.
Two tough fighters, drunk on their own exertions, stumble into the Sash tavern to await their instructions.
Looking at the quests available to the Knights, the Lord in question decides to broaden his or her options. An agent is played in one of the slots in Cliffwatch Inn – this one permits the Lord to take a quest from the four face-up quests available, and replace it with one from the stack. They also get two gold pieces for their effort.
The Red Sashes decide that it’s time to put a wicked scheme in action, and place an agent in Waterdeep Harbour. This allows them to play an intrigue card from their hand – this is the only way in which players can directly compete with each other.
Our Red Sash Lord plays ‘Bribe Agent’, which allows them to pick a building an enemy agent has occupied and claim the benefit of it for themselves. Deciding that money is a pressing need, the Red Sashes claim Aurora’s Realms Shop and get the four gold from it before discarding the intrigue card.
Once all players have played all their agents, the round ends. Except it doesn’t!
Intrigue is the life-blood of Waterdeep, and the design of the game is such that it actively encourages you screwing over everyone else around the table. All agents that you assign to Waterdeep Harbour get to be reassigned, in order of placement, at the end of the round. Essentially you get two actions from the agent, which is extraordinarily good – you deal out some intrigue, and then you can claim another building. Admittedly you get what’s left over after everyone else has claimed the best stuff, but still – it means that playing an intrigue card is effectively free.
That reassigned Sash agent goes to Builder’s Hall. The Red Sashes decide to invest in adventurer production and purchase the House of Wonder. They place it in one of the blank building slots that surround the map, and assign one of their limited ownership tokens into the corner of it.
Seriously, the production values of this game are just great. Look at the little notches for the ownership tokens! It’s so good.
They then claim the victory point that was laying on the building they just purchases, and add it to the pile they already have – if they have any. A new building is then dealt into that space left by the one that entered the map.
Finally, the round is over and the next three victory points are removed from the round track and sprinkled over the buildings in the hall. Everyone reclaims their agents, and it all begins again.
Let’s skip ahead a few rounds. The Knights of the Shield have been beavering away, accumulating gold and adventurers.
After each placement of an agent, a Lord gets to decide if they want to complete a quest. The Knights have the resources to complete Placate the Walking Statue. They spend the necessary adventurers and gold, and then move their score marker ten victory points around the rim of the map. They also then deal themselves a building from the stack, as per the stated reward, and put it in play under their own control.
The quests in the game are appealingly varied in terms of the thematics, but almost uniform in terms of the structure – each needs a certain combination of cubes and money, and each give victory points and perhaps some other reward. Some quests, known as plot quests, also give an ongoing bonus to the player that completes them.
Bolster Griffin Cavalry is one such quest, indicated by the ‘Plot quest’ marker at the bottom of the art. If that’s completed, the Lord that does so gets an extra warrior any time they take an action that would already provide warriors – pretty nice. Accumulate enough of those plot quests, and every action becomes heavy and laden with profit and potential. However, you need to balance long-term benefits versus short-term requirements – there are a fixed number of rounds, and you need to think through return on your investment. You’re not a meat-headed adventurer – you’re a Lord of Waterdeep, after all.
Intrigue cards have a more varied range of effects, ranging from the collaborative to the mean-spirited. ‘Spread the Wealth’ lets you take four gold, and nominate another Lord to gain two gold. That’s nice! Everyone wins, provided it’s you or the person you nominated. Some just benefit you and don’t disadvantage anyone. ‘Call in a Favor’ for example just gives you an option of something to take from the supply. It doesn’t otherwise impact on anyone. Nobody needs to get upset at that.
And then there are the mandatory quests, which are the Lords of Waterdeep equivalents of tactical nuclear missiles.
Yes, they look mostly like normal quests, but these things are like having your options forcibly and violently amputated while your loved ones watch, screaming. You absolutely have to complete a mandatory quest before you can complete any other quest, which means that if you can’t meet the requirements you’re basically blocked from progressing. To be fair, the requirements are rarely steep, but even if all they cost you is the opportunity to complete a proper quest of your own choice it can be enraging.
The thing I personally find most interesting in Waterdeep though is the opportunity to engage in civic development – building the city through the purchasing of building tiles. The range of buildings is interestingly varied.
The best thing about the buildings is how they change the balance of play. Some tiles become increasingly lucrative the longer you wait before claiming them, making each round tense as you all wonder when someone is finally going to take that growing jackpot of resources. You can wait until it becomes worthwhile for you to collect, but everyone else is thinking the same thing and their thresholds may be different. Others have greatly beneficial rewards that you yourself want. Others have rewards that you know other people want, and you can use them to lure their agents away from the resources you’re collecting. Some you’ll want to play just to ensure that you get the free benefits of ownership, and you’ll make agent plays with the intention of limiting the feasible placements of your enemies. But on top of all of that, you’re always aware that every single agent play is important – time is short, and there’s always so much that needs done. As more buildings become available, so do the options that your opponents have. You might end up buying the hottest nightclub in Waterdeep just to find that nobody is into disco any more. It has been a long time since I’ve been in a nightclub, but I think that’s still how it works. Do you guys like Abba? I like Abba.
So, that’s the game – but is it a good game?
It’s not particularly deep, but it is extremely absorbing – no play in and of itself is extremely interesting, but the contention over resources as it is expressed over the eight rounds of the session all add up to a lot of thought that needs to go into what you’re hoping to accomplish. Having secret objectives means that you can never be quite sure as to what your enemies are doing and why. You’re constantly wondering if they are taking commerce quests because they need them, or because they’ve worked out that you do. You’re weighing up the quests you have versus the resources available, and wondering what you need to do to increase the supply whilst also monopolising it for your own purposes. You’re weighing up the path to completion for quests – you can only complete one per agent assignment, but if you’re clever you can complete more than your agent pool’s worth of quests in a round. Sometimes you’re laying intrigue on your other players just because you want the extra opportunity to complete a quest through the reassignment. You’re deciding whether or not to waste an agent on a resource you don’t need, just to deny it to a player that does need it. All the quests are face up, after all, and you know what they’re trying to accomplish and how many victory points they’re going to get if they do.
It is important to note though that Lords of Waterdeep is a very light game –there’s not a lot of crunch to the mechanics. Quests are all variations on a theme – highly thematic variations, but you’re not going to be doing a dramatically different thing when you are domesticating owlbears versus storming the Undermountain. All that changes are the number and quantity of cubes and coins. There’s more variety in intrigue, but it’s still all ‘do a thing to get a thing’. It’s the same with buildings – they’re almost all ‘get this by moving an agent here’. If you’re looking for something with heft to your game actions, this isn’t it.
There’s also too much consistency to how things are allocated – in many ways, it feels a bit like a game balanced by putting an equation into a spreadsheet. One Lord gets bonus points from piety and warfare. The other gets the same number from arcana and commerce. It all has a tendency to average out, certainly in a two player game. You can’t argue with the consistency, but the taste is a little bland. I would have liked to have seen a little more asymmetry in its design – there is a lord that gets victory points based on number of buildings under control, but that’s about it. What about a Lord that gets victory points for playing intrigue cards? Or for not playing intrigue cards? What about a Lord that gets victory points based on how many adventurers everyone has left in their tavern? That kind of thing would have added an interesting element of additional depth to each session by forcing players into more nuanced optimal play-styles.
And then there’s the blandness of the factions – they’re just token colours. Why not a special power for each? One that really captures the motivations driving them? It seems like a missed opportunity.
All that said though, it’s primarily a game that’s about politics and intrigue, and that’s where the game shines. It’s about the cut and thrust of resource denial and area control, and it’s about mastery of the map as a result of early investment. In later stages, with lots of buildings in the game, it’s hard to meaningfully prohibit anyone’s progress. If you were clever in what buildings you bought though, you can create an extremely satisfying engine of profit. Really, that’s where the fun lies – not in the quests or the buildings or the intrigues, but in how well you construct the mechanisms for ensuring your own success. There’s a serious pay-off for that, both in terms of victory points and in terms of sheer psychological satisfaction. For all the lightness of mechanics, there’s a depth to the social side of the game that compensates for that weakness.
And let’s not forget – the game absolutely oozes theme from every orifice. Everything about it is constantly reminding you of the fantastic context of your actions – you’re not just sending orange cubes into the supply, you’re sending brave warriors to battle evil creatures. You’re not just placing grid squares to generate cubes, you’re assigning a trusted agent to the local tavern to gather allies. You don’t need to know anything about Dungeons and Dragons to enjoy it, but you can find yourself pretty deeply immersed if you’re already familiar with the setting.
Lords of Waterdeep comes recommended – we’re giving it four shadowy daggers in the night out of five. Although, to be fair, the fewer number of shadowy daggers, the better it probably is for everyone. We wouldn’t recommend it if you like complexity to your mechanics, but if you’re looking for a fun way to spend your evenings becoming a powerful and unaccountable master of a complex city-state you could easily do a lot worse.
Note: We’ve also reviewed the expansion, which e consider to be must buy – you can find that review here.
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