With the exception of some “hidden gems” features or “best [x type of game]” lists, it’s not often that I take a look back at some of my favourite games. It’s not that I don’t get to play games that aren’t brand new – but going back to an old friend is far less frequent than I’d like, to be honest. I’m going to start sort of formalizing revisiting “older” games by having a look back at games that came out 5 years ago (give or take – the BGG listing for a game doesn’t mean it was available everywhere then!) Looking at my shelves, I saw the poor dusty Lords of Waterdeep box; although I’ve played games through on the app a number of times, I haven’t unpacked the cardboard version since early last year. It’s time for me to remember what I love about this game and neglect it no more!
Lords of Waterdeep is a strategy/worker placement game designed by Peter Lee and Rodney Thompson, released in 2012 (like I said above, 5 years give or take!) and published by Wizards of the Coast. That last bit is important, because it drove the theme and art (by a huge team of WotC artists) of the game. There had been a few Dungeons and Dragons board games in the years preceding LoW’s release – co-operative play thematic miniature games (set in a variety of domains, including Ravenloft and the Forgotten Realms) – but for me, this was the first board game that seemed to be more of a “German-style” strategy game, based on a campaign setting I enjoy, so I was intrigued.
You likely know of the game, even if only through the app. It’s well-designed and put out by a large publisher. It’s no hidden gem, ranked #51 on BoardGameGeek.com – and in the category of worker placement games it’s 12th on the list, just behind Caylus, the OG of worker placement. Interestingly, the only couple of games that are higher up that list that are older than Lords are Agricola and Le Havre. Lords certainly is influenced by Caylus – I’ve heard it referred to as “Caylus Lite”, either with derision or praise. I see it as the latter, personally – it can be really accessible due to the more enticing/popular theme, and a great strategy gateway due to the streamlined nature of play. There’s been a good deal of worker placement games that have come out since the late 2000s, and this is really still one of my favourites. It’s light, straight forward to learn, and it can be fresh and enjoyable each time due to the combination of Lords, quests, player count and the like. It’s surprisingly good at 2 players, for instance! The challenge of making the right combinations of moves to churn through quests and get all sorts of bonuses hits the right buttons for me, it’s a great puzzly strategy experience. Seeing as I really love worker placement games, and own so few others, it really is odd that I can’t get this to the table more, or just don’t think of it as something to suggest more often.
The aim of the base game is to – as a randomly assigned Lord – assign your agents to a variety of locations in the city of Waterdeep. These will give you quests and other cards, as well as resources and the opportunity to build new locations for agents to visit. Over 8 rounds, you’ll be combining sets of the resources to complete quests for points and other bonuses – and at the end of the game, hopefully bonus points from your Lord for completing certain quests and the like. At its heart, it’s a worker placement and resource management game, that could really have any theme – but even if it’s slightly pasted-on, I love the setting of the Forgotten Realms so much of the feel of it is familiar to me.
And I feel that even if you’re not super familiar with the Forgotten Realms setting, that if you’re into D&D/fantasy settings this would have a fun overall flavour for you. While cards and quests and the like are fairly functional, I do enjoy the nice overall hints of D&D you get out of it – and the art’s certainly something that you’d find in D&D manuals and the like, which only adds to that. With the eponymous Lords, there’s functional aspects (end game bonus scoring) as well as their assigned personalities to match: Mirt the Moneylender gets bonuses for commerce & piety quests, and “to outsiders, Mirt appears to be little more than a drunk and a braggart. This disguise hides his true cunning and wit.” Brianne Byndraeth gives bonuses for Arcana and Skullduggery, the “widow of a crime boss who was also a Lord of Waterdeep, Brianne has close ties to the wizard Randulaith, a member of the city’s social elite.” At no point in-game do you reveal your Lord, nor roleplay any aspect of it, but I like the nod to thematic play.
While the flavour text is a little on the bland side for the Lords, I find it’s much more fun on the Intrigue cards that players can activate throughout. ‘Tax collection’ gains you some cash, with the quip “Death and taxes? The only thing certain in Waterdeep is taxes!” Following on from the tie between theme and the Lords, ‘Ambush’ reminds you “The Lords of Waterdeep play games with both diplomacy and daggers” as you lure adventurers from opponents. And the card ‘Call for Adventurers’ goes with the tongue-in-cheek “Adventurers needed for slightly dangerous opportunity. Must supply own magic items. Inquire within.” None of this is at all necessary for gameplay, but I like that they’ve taken the time to fluff up the setting by the use of this flavour text. Leaning more into the theme, the quests that players will be aiming to complete for points and bonuses certainly have the fantasy influence. I certainly like the arcana quest ‘Domesticate Owlbears’ and the warfare one ‘Confront the Xanathar’, both of which reference well-known monsters of the D&D world (the latter being a beholder that is a playable Lord in the expansions). On the more nefarious side of things, there’s a skullduggery quest that has you “fence goods for the Duke of Darkness”, which certainly paints more detail into the picture of what type of city Waterdeep can be. Beyond the wordsmithing, the quests themselves require just the right mix of adventurers for the task (be they clerics, rogues, fighters or mages), have some great rewards that vary nicely from adventurer mixes to money, buildings, cards etc; on top of all that, you can really work combinations of Lord’s requirements, plot quests and the like to get a nice little engine going of the types of resources you find you need more of, if you’re lucky.
Of course, there’s downsides to the game – it’s a good one, but it’s not perfect. The downsides aren’t enough to be the reason it stays unplayed on my shelf (I’ve become a little more cut throat at culling the games I feel have downsides outweighing the upsides) – but there’s some things that can be off putting especially for new players. I’ve spoken about the efforts to really spice up the theme with cards in the game, but it’s tough to really feel like you’re a lord plotting your way through 8 rounds of a game, when players end up saying “okay I turn in 4 orange and 2 white guys” instead of using their ‘adventurer’ terms. Such is the curse of a somewhat Euro-style strategy game, I suppose – I recall this happening a lot in Caylus with the resource cubes too. In any game with decks of cards, randomness will be somewhat of an issue – I don’t mind it with this game because I’ll just play things as they come, but that can be frustrating for some. The bigger overall sticking point, I really think, are the mandatory quest Intrigue cards. I will often house rule the removal of these cards in a two player game because it can be really punishing; these cards are played against an opponent and they are forced to finish it before they can continue with the quests they’d already been working on. It’s usually just a few adventurers needed, but it can be enough to put a player behind to lose a decent chunk of points. Like I said – none of this has been enough to put me off keeping the game – and, in fact, I’ve got some pretty great upgraded components (little adventurer meeples and metal coins!) because there’s so much to love and want to make awesome about this game. (And oh boy are there some great upgrades and modifications folks out there have created!)
I mentioned above there’s expansions for the game: the box Scoundrels of Skullport adds two of them, the Undermountain and Skullport. Both add new Lords, intrigue and quest cards, as well as extra location boards for new places to assign your agents. Undermountain’s fairly innocuous, but Skullport adds an entire different resource with ‘corruption’. The results of certain actions, card plays, locations and the like can either gain you or lose you corruption tokens, which are negative points at the end of the game. Of course, gaining them comes along with some really tasty stuff so it can be hard to say no. It’s an interesting addition to the balancing act of the game. I’ve played with both (together and separately) and really enjoy what they add to the game. I haven’t found them essential just yet, but perhaps if I can get on the train of playing more, it would be a good investment! Perhaps to start with I can get the expansions in the app. I mentioned earlier that I’d played the app version more recently than the cardboard one – it’s a nice implementation (and available on Android!). It’s fun to play through games quickly in this medium, either against AI or online against friends – but it does feel a little more detached for me, rather than pushing the agents and adventurers around as necessary.
When I was looking at my shelves thinking “hey, what’s not super old, nor super new, but something I love still?”, Lords of Waterdeep was something I had honestly placed as older in my mind. It burned very brightly for a good while (I even played in a local tournament!), and though it follows a strong pedigree of worker placement games, it sits solidly as something that will remain popular and interesting, as years pass. And I believe that the expansions do add some spice to keep things interesting and keep the box from gathering dust, like mine! Have you played Lords of Waterdeep, and think it’s a keeper? Do you think it’s a strong enough design with a decent theme to warrant it being a favourite now, 5 years after its release? I would like to hear what folks have to say about this!