Context of Document
This is not a review of this game. You will find the review linked in the introduction.
Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.
Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then please stop reading now. This will not be the blog for you, and we have no interest in debating with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.
Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.
We really enjoy Lords of Waterdeep here at Meeple Like Us. Despite its light mechanics it has a social depth to it that really makes it shine. We gave it four stars in the review, but how is it going to fare in a teardown? Let’s see what our shadowy agents have to say as we assign them to the various categories.
Do I even need to say it at this point? Colour blindness is an issue.
No matter the category of colour-blindness you have, there are colour combinations that will be very difficult to tell apart. This is a problem for scoring, of course, but it’s also a problem for strategy. You don’t often interact directly with agents that have already been assigned, but you do on occasion and it’s important to know which of the players you’re messing around with that. Similarly with agent placement in Waterdeep Harbour, knowing who is going to reassign and in what order can make a difference in terms of how you want to handle your own placements.
More significantly, the cubes that represent adventurers are not particularly well discriminated – you can tell them apart, but it needs a closer visual inspection than should be required. There are only four colours, and centimetre cubes comes in a wide panoply of tones as standard. There is absolutely no justification for the indifference the game shows towards colour blindness.
For the rest of the game it’s fine – all the cards and buildings have sufficient redundant detail provided that no information is lost. While the art looks a lot less appealing, the art is entirely set-dressing. The game looks great because the art is there, but individual pieces of art are of that peculiarly sterile fantasy style – the kind of thing you could imagine being painted on the side on an aging heavy metal rocker’s touring bus. It’s technically proficient, interesting to look at, but you’ll forget it instantly the moment your attention wanders.
For colour blindness, we offer a tentative recommendation – it’s playable with care, but you might have to make some modifications in terms of provided meeples and cubes to ensure an enjoyable experience.
Let’s begin the visual accessibility discussion with a positive note – Lords of Waterdeep handles tokens very well. Each has a different tactility to go with it, and the two denominations of coins have radically different shapes to aid in differentiation.
It’s a simple thing, but it makes a difference, and it’s handled consistently throughout the box. So, well done there.
We start with a positive, because there are a lot of negatives to cover.
First of all, the board is large and can be difficult to visually scan. That’s a problem in letting you work out what your options are – luckily, while the city map changes, once buildings are placed they remain placed. It’s possible to build up an incremental mental map of where the key points of interest are. This is in comparison to games such as Carcassonne where good spaces one turn may be gone by the next.
The rewards for each building are mostly clearly expressed in terms of symbolic language. There are though serious contrast issues when dealing with certain combinations of reward type. The Tower of the Order for example shows a purple cube on a brownish background, which has a contrast ratio of about 1.4:1 – that’s well below the 3:1 you’d be wanting for text and colours of that size. The white text too hits a contrast ratio of about 2:1 depending on where in the mottled colour background you check it – that’s also far too low. Even minor visual impairments are going to find parts of the text difficult to read.
To be fair, this only impacts on buildings that have a ‘at the start of the round’ mechanic to go with them – the rest of the buildings are fine in terms of contrast and ease of reading. Contrast problems persist through the game though – the flavour text on the Snap Out Cultists mandatory quest for example is black on a dark yellow background, and has a contrast ratio of around 2:1. Gold coins on a yellow background can have a contrast ratio of about 1.2 : 1. These are only representative numbers – I did the contrast checking making use of an eye-dropper tool in a paint application, and this handy online guide: http://webaim.org/resources/contrastchecker/. Depending on where you sample, and the light under which you’re viewing the pieces, it may be better or worse. It is a general, and easily preventable, problem though in terms of ease of reading.
That contrast issue compounds another problem – there’s a lot of text on the cards, and some of it is punishingly small. Most cards have a little bit of flavour at the bottom, in a tiny font with a poor contrast. Sure, you don’t need to read the flavour text to play, but if you want to ignore that stuff it should be out of choice, not necessity. Intrigue cards sometimes come with a short paragraph of instructions. It’s in a bigger font than the flavour text but it can still be a lot to go over just to work out what you’re going to accomplish by playing it. If you need a visual accessibility aid such as a magnifier to read the text, you’re going to perhaps subtly suggest a nefarious deed is in the offing if you’re poring over your intrigue cards in full view of everyone at the table.
We can’t recommend Lords of Waterdeep in this category. If you wanted to make the effort to play it, I’m sure you could – but the aesthetics of the game are actively working against you every step of the way, and font/contrast issues make even minor impairments a problem for ease of play.
Mechanically, Lords of Waterdeep is light – there are a few places where there are conditional effects, or intrigue options that may be somewhat more complicated than normal. For the most part though it’s ‘play a thing to get a thing’. However, there are some more complicated rules that need to be traversed. These include agent reassignment, when owner bonuses come into play for buildings, the role of the ambassador, mandatory quests and so on.
That’s about as complicated as it gets for building allocation, but in this we see something of an issue – some of the building effects are expressed in a symbolic language, and some aren’t. The symbols are mostly skeumorphic – white cubes on a card represent physical white cubes. Meeples on the card represent agents in the game. There is though something of a shorthand used that must be understood. The Three Pearls for example allows you to return two cubes of your own choice to collect three cubes of your own choice. You can get rid of two black cubes in exchange for three white cubes, or a black cube and an orange cube for two purples and a white, or whatever combination you like. Smuggler’s Dock lets you spend two gold to get four cubes, each of which can be black or orange. It makes sense, but it’s also a cognitive challenge for those with impairments.
This dovetails into another issue – there’s a relatively large amount of reading required for some cards, and the writing is – not transparent.
Look at, for example, Bidding War. What it’s saying is ‘draw enough quest cards for everyone at the table, and then do a card draft’. It’s such a long-winded way of phrasing it though, with symbols stitched throughout, that it’s a little opaque until you crack the code. Recruit Spies gives you two rogues, and then every opponent can choose to take a rogue in exchange for giving you victory points. Ambush forces a discard of warriors, but for everyone that can’t discard you get a warrior of your own. None of it is overly complicated, but it’s quite a lot to read and parse for those with cognitive impairments, or even those just unfamiliar with the jargon of the game.
Most of the text too is on the intrigue cards, which need to be kept secret from other players – you can’t just ask other people for help understanding without giving away the composition of your political resources. It’s a bit like that perennial problem in poker, when a new player says ‘What does it mean if all my cards are the same suit’ and everyone folds in response.
Memory wise, there isn’t a major burden – all the key information you need is available in front of you. Those gameplay stages that you need to remember (distributing victory points, gaining an extra agent at round five, placing ‘at the start of the round’ cubes on buildings) can be handled by a single person without game impact. All the quests you’re trying to complete are thankfully relatively simple to understand. ‘Spend this and you’ll get something in return’. All you really need to remember is what the symbols mean, and how to interpret them. We’re happy to recommend it for those with memory impairments.
Lords of Waterdeep does have some good things going for it though in terms of its cognitive accessibility. There is relatively little synergy of game rules, meaning almost every action you take in the game has an output that can be easily expressed. Aside from a few anomalous conditions, the game flow is relatively constant – first player advantage will likely shift from round to round, but the rhythm of ‘play an agent, complete a quest, pass control to the next player’ remains mostly constant. There are some intrigue cards that allow you to assign agents in advance, or add a temporary agent to your pool, but not so many that you can’t rely consistently on what you’re doing and when. There’s no requirement to have an awareness of the theme in order to play – nobody gains an advantage from knowing trivia about the Waterdeep setting. And the ‘blandness’ issue discussed in the review is actually a hugely beneficial thing from a cognitive perspective – there’s very little asymmetry in terms of Lords and none in terms of factions. The game plays the same each time you play it, meaning that once someone has developed a working strategy they don’t need to approach the game anew the second time it’s put down.
However, the negatives here outnumber the positives – not in terms of sheer quantity, but in terms of the cognitive impact they have. We’re not going to recommend Lords of Waterdeep for those with fluid intelligence impairments, although we suspect it could be played with help and assistance.
The only real emotive issue in the game is associated with the playing of mandatory quest cards. There are plenty of intrigue cards that result in you losing gold or adventurers, but the impact of this isn’t significant in any given instance. There are few cards that let you explicitly target another player for a negative effect – Free Drinks allows you to steal a cube of your choice from an opponent of your choice, but most cards are ‘Do this, every opponent does this’. If there is a targeting of an opponent, it’s usually to nominate them to receive a small reward while you reap the larger one.
Mandatory quests though – yeesh. They stop you completing any other quest until you’ve cleared the all the mandatory ones from your hand. None of them have very difficult conditions, but they do require three cubes of the right kind, If you don’t have them not only are you prohibited from completing the quests you want, you also need to waste agents getting access to adventurers that you don’t otherwise require. A single mandatory quest is an annoyance, but they are explicitly targeted and there’s no limit on how many players can give one to any other player. If someone is well in the lead, a good strategy is to weigh them down with mandatory quests until others catch up. That’s sensible, but it’s also rage inducing. See for example Lords of Waterdeep as it is played on Tabletop. Skip to 703s in to see the mandatory quest cards begin to make their way into play.
Look at how annoyed Wil gets when he’s got a mandatory quest in his hand. Watch it to the end to see how that annoyance deepens when he gets a second one. Having said that, it’s well worth it for the comedy value of watching him screaming ‘Eat a dick’ at Felicia Day, and you have to suspect that a portion of his reaction is ‘playing to the camera’. Not all of it though – there is, I think, an obvious undercurrent of sincerity. That’s the host of a very successful web series on board games, in front of a camera, in the company of various Z-list celebrities. Now imagine it in your house, without the threat of an international audience. If emotional outbursts are an issue, we’d recommend a house-rule here to limit each player to a single mandatory quest at a time, or perhaps even removing them from the deck entirely.
However, this single issue aside, the game is actually more likely to be relaxing than it is to be infuriating. The general ebb and flow of the game is gain cubes and coins, cash them in – that’s quite calming and satisfying. There are some other minor issues though – for example, contention over scarce resources, or competition over particular types of quests. Given the fundamental symmetry of the game lords and quests and cards though, play tends to be reasonably smooth without the kind of peaks and troughs that may trigger anger, sadness or tantrums.
We’ll recommend Lords of Waterdeep in this category, but bear in mind – mandatory quests are the thing you’ll have to deal with if playing it in a group that contains players with emotional or behavioural disorders.
The most significant issue in terms of physical accessibility is the fact the cubes are tiny and you spend so much time dealing with so many of them. You’re picking them up, counting them out, and using them as payment for victory points. You’re doing this with potentially dozens of cubes of four different colours. Similarly with coins – you’ll acquire a lot of these as you play, and they’ll constantly be in circulation. As with many issues of physical accessibility, this is an issue primarily of agency – you can have someone else do cube and coin manipulation for you, but we prefer it when that’s not necessary.
There is some limited card management, but all of your quest cards are played face up and you rarely have enough secret intrigue cards for it to be uncomfortable –a card holder, in the usual fashion, will serve you very well here.
Other issues stem from the size of the board, which is considerable, and the fact that points of interest may be very widely distributed across the map. It’s entirely possible one turn you’ll want a building in the centre, then one on the far right flank, and then one on the far left. The board is large enough to make stretching over something of an issue, and is a solid single-piece thing that doesn’t allow for easy repositioning for the comfort of multiple players.
You’ll also want to be able to keep an eye on the cards other players have, and the size of the board almost mandates a significant separation of space between each player. It’s open information, so you can just ask them what quests they’re on and what resources they have, but that’s a signal you may not want to give. ‘So… what quests are you doing that involve warriors?’ ‘Why are you asking?’ ‘Oh, no reason’.
If you can get close enough to another player’s cards to read them, you can silently assess how their goals impact on yours. Otherwise, you need to reveal some information in querying.
That said, we recommend Lords of Waterdeep in this category, provided at least one person at the table is able to do the manipulation of cubes and agents for those that may be physically impaired.
As discussed above in the cognitive accessibility section, there is an assumed reading level for the game – if you can’t read English, the game isn’t for you. However, there’s no required negotiation, no need to verbalise any instructions as part of normal game flow, no need to communicate strategy, and no lying or bluffing as a part of the game. You could play the game in serene, uncommunicative silence if you wanted.
Recommended, with the caveat about reading level.
Before I start here, I want to make one thing clear – this is not a problem with Lords of Waterdeep. This is a problem with the whole genre of fantasy. Lords of Waterdeep is going to take the brunt of this because it’s the game I’m currently looking at.
Fantasy, as a widely popular genre, has a problem with women. Fantasy, as a widely popular genre, has a problem with race.
Not all fantasy, not all the time – but enough fantasy enough of the time for it to be a deep, corrosive problem that seeps its way into otherwise laudable and worthy content. For Lords of Waterdeep, the problem is in the art. To be fair, Lords of Waterdeep is less egregious in this respect than many other fantasy franchises, but it still leans into the comfort zone of sexism too easily and too readily.
The gender balance is seven male lords to four female lords. That’s not great, but let’s leave that aside. The fact that one of the women is a femme-fatale courtesan, another is known as ‘kitten’, and another is a ‘master of manipulation’ is a little more troubling. We’re going to leave that aside too. The problem is in how women are artistically represented – in positions of power, sure. In positions of authority, definitely. But also in positions designed to titillate a male audience, and in outfits that sacrifice feasible functionality for erotic form.
The best you can say about some of this art is that it’s very small and difficult to make out on the cards, but on the cover:
Well, she is at least fully armoured. That’s a plus. But she’s fully armoured in the kind of boob-plate that is actually more dangerous than normal plate armour. See, plate armour isn’t form fitting – it’s not designed to be figure hugging. It’s designed to absorb shock and deflect cutting blows, and you don’t do that by ensuring that it neatly hugs the curve of your tits. No warrior woman goes into battle thinking ‘Okay, I need my sword, my horse, my shield, and that armour that really shows off my implausibly large breasts so that the boys will like me’. It’s laughable really, but also endemic. And in the manual?
But there’s more – there are the impossibly slim waists and the artfully exposed thighs that make adventuring thoroughly impractical:
I mean, if you’re a brave adventurer fighting deadly monsters in the streets of Waterdeep, why wouldn’t you want your dangerously frail mid-riff to be left exposed for the world to slash at?
Perhaps you’re a secret agent for the Harpers? Remember to make sure that people can see your cleavage while you hide in the shadows. A barbarian warrior? Don’t bother covering your legs, your fur-lined panties will be protection enough for anyone. What evil sorceress would meet a foe without showing abundant side-boob? And what tavern wench is complete without having her huge tits shoved into a laced up corset?
Do you know what a strong woman looks like in an action setting? She looks like this:
For God’s sake, cut it out. Strong women are way, way cooler than the regressive stereotypes we see in this kind of artwork.
And now we move on to another issue fantasy has – with race. Remember in the review when I showed a Lord of Waterdeep and said ‘This is going to come up’? Well, here it comes. It may not be intentional racism, but you do have a racial problem when the most evil and depraved antagonists of your franchise happen to be black skinned. There are racial connotations you simply cannot disclaim responsibility for perpetrating.
‘Oh, cool – there are black elves? That’s really awesome and diverse, I never knew that!’
‘Yeah. But here’s the thing…’
If a cosplayer has to arrive at a convention slathered in black-face, then maybe think twice about what that’s saying to people of colour. True, you need to know what the Drow are in order to understand why this is a problem, but if you’re playing Lords of Waterdeep I’m willing to bet that the majority of you you already have a reasonable idea. Dark Elves are a problem.
You can absolutely dismiss this as oversensitivity – I don’t mind, and in this particular case you’re probably even right. After all, there is nothing explicitly about the Drow Lord in Waterdeep that suggests she is anything other than ‘a master of manipulation’. That’s a problem in term of female stereotyping, but it’s is not realty an offensive stereotype that I think would come to mind for most when thinking of people of colour. But there’s a whole world of context behind that portrait – imagine being a young woman of colour, not knowing the setting but playing the Dark Elf Lord because ‘it’s someone that looks at least a little bit like me’, and then out of interest reading up on the dark elves in the Forgotten Realms campaign. It’s a grim read – you might not be very happy with how it goes.
In terms of the cost… wow, that’s an awkward segue. Lords of Waterdeep, for all its heft and production value, is a reasonably affordable game – an RRP of £35 is perfectly fair given everything you get. It likely doesn’t have the replayability of many games, given as how the fundamental symmetry of the setup doesn’t offer opportunities for startlingly new experiences. You won’t have any difficulty getting your money’s worth though.
I’m going to give Waterdeep a borderline tentative recommendation here – I think it’s less problematic than many games that draw on fantasy conventions, and the problems it has are out of laziness rather than intentionality. Mrs Meeple remarked that she hadn’t even noticed it, which was interesting – sexist portrayals of women in such settings are so ubiquitous that it’s possible to become numb to it. If you are prepared to be forgiving, you’ll find little evidence of actual malice in Lords of Waterdeep.
Finally we come to the intersectional issues. We have the usual suspects here:
- The large, contiguous board can be an issue for those with physical and visual impairments.
- The hidden hands can be an issue for those with visual and cognitive impairments.
- The need to communicate proxied physical intervention of play is an issue when there are physical and communicative impairments.
There are other issues though – it’s a game that doesn’t support dropping in and out to any extent. Turns are interleaved, not sequential. You can’t even play your turn and then go away for a few minutes. It’s a design that makes for interesting give and take in agent placement, but means that physical discomfort is just going to have to be endured unless you give up your place at the table.
The game is entirely deterministic, which means that it’s possible to do some state management in your head if you suffer from visual impairments. If you also suffer from cognitive impairments, that’s going to be much more difficult to do. The complexity of the game state isn’t huge, but knowing what your options are for generating resources is a key consideration. Visually scanning the board is fine, if feasible. Remembering the key buildings locations works, if you can. If you can’t do either, the game is likely unplayable.
The tiny cubes are problems in terms of both physical and visual accessibility, but obviously compounded if there is an intersection of impairments – there’s just so many of them being manipulated constantly through the game that everything becomes much more difficult to do.
For those with cognitive and visual impairments, the abstract symbolism on the cards can be a serious issue – not only can they be difficult to read because of poor contrast, the symbols themselves require mental evaluation to assess the impact they have on the game. Much of the game might be spent working out what a tile says and what it means. Obviously other players can support in this, but ideally we’d prefer that they didn’t have to.
My little birds tell me that Lords of Waterdeep has a lot to recommend it as a game, but some significant problems with regards to its accessibility. Let us view their reports:
I have had my scribes mark out the areas of its influence on this city map:
We gave Lords of Waterdeep four stars in our review, because it is bags of fun and a favourite for game night. Those with visual or cognitive impairments are going to find it very difficult to play – not impossible, but very difficult. Those that are concerned by sexist portrayals of women, or problematic portrayals of race, will also find reason to dislike it. For everyone else, we suspect you’ll find little cause to regret adding it to your game library.
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