[Actual Play Review] Lords of Waterdeep (Wizards of the Coast)

Erin and Katy (former housemates and would-be roleplayers of yore) have spent New Year’s Eve at the Castle von Von. As is their custom, they brought with them games, of a variety not often seen in these hallowed halls.

I’m not a big board game person. I like the idea of board gaming a lot more than I like most board games. They tend toward the ‘too abstract for me’ (most worker-placement/commodity-management Eurogames) or the ‘too clunky for me’ (the Fantasy Flight style franchise games).

But we persevere, because I do like getting people around a table and playing something that doesn’t have the prep requirement of an RPG, and because every so often, I stumble dick-first into actually liking one of these.

So, this week I’m shamelessly ripping off Erin’s review format and posting about five board games I’ve encountered over the New Year. Deal.

Lords of Waterdeep

Basically, this is a worker recruitment Eurogame, under the D&D licence, which inverts the usual process of D&D. Now you get to play the quest givers – the movers and shakers of Waterdeep, sending your agents out into the city to a) read the word on the street, finding out what quest-like activities can be done to serve your agenda, b) recruit adventurers to fulfil said quest-like activities and c) screw around with the other Lords through a little thing called Intrigue.

All of this is done by taking meeple and assigning them to buildings. Some buildings let you buy other buildings, drawn at random from a stack. Some let you collect quests, drawn at random from a stack. Some let you draw Intrigue cards. At random. From a stack. There are four different kinds of quest. Your Lord will benefit from pursuing two of them. Your Lord is drawn. At random. From a stack.

I… don’t know if I like this game. We played it twice. The first run was fine, although I didn’t do well. The second left me feeling a little salty, and I suspect the salt levels would only rise with repeated playthroughs. I wanted to like it, and I didn’t hate it, but I’m not sure it deserves the amount of effort that liking it required me to put in.

Quite often, the D&D trappings are just trappings. The Harpers make an appearance, but there’s no reward for playing them Neutral Good; they’re just a colour of token. I ended up playing the City Guard as a pious den of thieves run by a moneylender Lord because of how the game shook down, and that felt slightly off to me – just arbitrary, I suppose.

As I type it out I nod sagely and start homebrewing an explanation for that, which is fine, but if I think like the kind of person who’s super-into the Forgotten Realms, the potentially inappropriate combinations may bother me a lot more, because that’s not the lore. Being a homebrew kind of guy whose contact with the Realms came through a bunch of turn-of-the-millennium computer games, I was able to recognise some things and go “oh hey, neat, it’s that” but still (mostly) back off and accept that they’re just green meeples and victory conditions and it doesn’t really matter who’s who.

The real problem with all the random drawing isn’t faith to the setting, though. It’s more a matter of agency.

Firstly, Lords of Waterdeep can straight out disengage players who aren’t into the theme of the Lord they drew. This happened in my second run, and while I was able to roll with it, it kind of seasoned all the other ways in which I could feel the game pushing me this way and that.

From the pure Eurogamer perspective it doesn’t matter that the quests are called Warfare and the orange cubes are called Warriors (Katy just calls them all ‘cubes’), but Lords of Waterdeep is going out of its way to attract roleplayers to Eurogaming by invoking themes and yet not affording the agency that I think most of us want. I’m fine with pre-generated characters but I still want to pick which pre-generated character I get, y’know?

Secondly, some of the quest types really struggle for resources unless particular buildings come out early on. In our second run I found my turns becoming very samey. I’ll try to model the reason why.

My Lord wanted to complete Commerce and Piety quests. Hardly any Commerce quests came out, so I had to bed in on Piety. Most Piety quests require at least two Clerics. Clerics were slow to recruit – the base board only provides one per turn, and there weren’t many Cleric-friendly buildings coming out, and the Plot quest that converts other adventurers into Clerics didn’t show its face until near the end.

What this all meant in practical terms was that every turn I’d have to a) hope I was still going first, because otherwise I could be locked out of a quest completion by not having access to two Clerics every turn, b) recruit two Clerics from the same two buildings and c) make sure I had a Piety quest to complete, which locked me in to visiting the tavern. At least I was generating Warriors and Rogues aplenty from the available buildings, so I generally had the other adventuring resources I needed, but if something needed a lot of gold I was generally taking two turns to ramp up to one quest.

It worked, in so far as I came a solid second, but it was a) demanding in order-of-execution terms and b) too easy to derail if one other player happened to want a Cleric this turn. If there hadn’t been a building that let me hijack other buildings I’d have been gimped.

This combination of scarcity and randomness makes the game feel self-solving, in a way that doubles down on the arbitrary assignation of objectives. If particular quests or buildings don’t show themselves, and if one player happens to be the only person who needs to pursue a particular kind of quest, it’s easy for some players to be stuck in a resource war while someone else can bed in on stuff for which there’s no competition.

The game tells me who I am and what my priorities are and, as particular cards and buildings come up (or don’t) how I’ll have to get there. It’s like the difference between solving chess puzzles and actually playing a whole game of chess, and I don’t know if there’s a way out.

If I’m competing with someone for Commerce and someone else for Piety, and if someone else is establishing a clear lead because they’re the only person going for Arcane, then can I win by abandoning the contest (and my victory point bonuses) and bedding in on Warfare instead? I’m not sure.

On top of that… because the game’s assigned me a character, a role to play, I found it harder to do what I did with The Castles of Mad King Ludwig and tell it where to get off because screw the win conditions, I’m in this for the aesthetic.

Ultimately I think Lords of Waterdeep imposes a little bit too much – it’s able to screw you in three different ways and you’re stuck going along with it. I suspect I’d like it a lot more if we could pick or at least draft our Lords rather than just picking one out of the bag. That would restore a measure of control, and make the arbitrary scarcity of objectives and resources during play a lot more bearable: if we end up in a bad place it would at least be one of our own choosing.

The next game I’m going to discuss doesn’t have any of this roleplaying baggage – indeed, it’s the most ‘pure Eurogame’ of the titles we played together – but I found it the most alienating and intimidating of the lot. Stay tuned for fun and frolics with Brass. In the meantime, here’s the true Lord of Waterdeep.


Erin took many wonderful photos of our kittens but this one is my favourite.

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[Event Report] ArmadaCon 28 – Home Town Heroism, procedural megadungeons, and gross capitalism

They say that wizards can never go home.

Fortunately, as a card-carrying storygamer Swine I reject the shackles of class-based character generation, and can go where I damn well please, so I went back to Plymouth to attend ArmadaCon’s twenty-eighth instalment and do a spot of mega-dungeoning.

M’colleagues on the board have spent some time beefing up the gaming side of the convention, and politely asked if I wouldn’t mind hosting ‘something’ in the games-and-dealers room for the three-day weekend. Obviously my first idea was a through-the-ages Vampire chronicle (Dark Ages on day one, Victorian Age on day two, Final Nights on day three), but then m’colleagues pointed out that they had no idea how many gamers would be turning up, also that gamers buy day tickets rather than signing up for the whole weekend, and that putting an awful lot of work into something might leave me sitting around weeping into my Cappadocian clanbook. (I bought a copy of the first edition – which is actually for the game’s second edition – on the Sunday. It sits next to the Giovanni one on my shelf, feeling awkward about the future.)

Instead, I fished out my Tarot cards, Otherworld adventurer models, A1 sheets of graph paper and a motley assortment of monsters (mostly undead, a few North Star gnolls, and some Fireforge historicals to use as hierlings) and prepared to play some Fuckin’ D&D.

What this means in real money is that I had ten set-piece encounters and twelve PCs statted out, but the routes from set-piece to set-piece would be determined by Tarot flips, as would treasure and traps. Players could drop in and out, taking over existing characters or having a new one turn up trapped under a rock fall or something, and I would be quite chipper about killing PCs off since it’s a con game and that shit don’t matter. There was a story – something, something, expedition, something something vast tomb complex below a suspiciously Cappadocian hillside, something something midnight howls, panicking henchmen, people falling down wells and crevasses – but I wasn’t going to make a big deal of it. Mostly, the story was there to get people into play and justify the random appearances and disappearances of new characters.

Although I didn’t actually get to start until after lunchtime on both days (the sessions were down for a 10 a/m kickoff, but most of the folks in the hotel were there for the panels and regular fixtures, not for the games), I did end up running on both days (not originally in the playbook). Play was slow (they did eventually fill one A1 sheet with mapped tunnels) but entertaining, especially on the Sunday when a critical mass of about six players was achieved throughout the proceedings.

Final scores: 8/12 PCs dead, 2/12 PCs resurrected thanks to The Shop On The Borderlands‘ sponsored wandering wizard encounter, 4/12 PCs returned to surface via wishing well, 3/10 set piece encounters actually used, 3/10 sheets of graph paper covered in horrible scrawls, 3 requests to keep going regardless of time and only 1 player feeling it wasn’t his cup of tea.

That’s not bad. Next time I’ll tie it into the charitable causes side of the event and allow PCs to buy themselves back from the dead by bunging a few quid to St. Luke’s Hospice, which I wish I’d thought of at the start of the weekend rather than ten minutes after the doors closed on Sunday.

Currently playing…

It was World of Warcraft, for about a month. Legion isn’t rubbish. The new Demon Hunter class is suitably entertaining. Gold is easy enough to come by that I haven’t actually had to pay for the second month at all (the subscription was wrangled with an in-game token). As we move into the first patch the novelty is beginning to wear off and I am no longer spending six hours at a time “catatonically staring at a monitor” as one wacky bastard of a commentator has it.

At the present moment in time it’s Blood Bowl (PC version), because a new edition of Blood Bowl (tabletop version) is out just in time for my birthday and there’s talk of a Corehammer tournament early in the new year. Sadly my beloved Necromantic team hasn’t made the cut for the first batch of re-releases, but the Nurgle louts have, so I’m currently learning why Disturbing Presence is hilarious and why nobody needs two Beastmen with Leader. Assuming the Nurgle lads get some new models, I’ll finally make good on that insistent Nurgly itch I’ve have for a couple of years now, without doing something stupid like a whole new 40K army.

I have vague itches towards the World of Darkness and will probably muster the Dark Ages group for another one-off or two shortly after Christmas. These episodic ‘tales from Constantinople’ take a bit of adjusting-to, since I’m used to running an ongoing weekly or fortnightly campaign and can afford to have loose ends dangling between sessions. When it might be months between times, events must be more contained and discrete, and I’m still learning how to pace them and make them feel important while still maintaining the proper quotients of vampirism and player agency.

I also have vague itches towards Warhammer. No, not Age of Sigmar, stop that, back that truck right up. I mean Sixth Edition, the Silver Age of Warhammer, the one I and m’colleagues actually enjoyed playing. More on this as details emerge – at the moment it’s taking the form of “actually acquiring a Black Coach and redoing the movement trays and finishing the display army like I said I would two years ago.” Actual gameplay is being negotiated with the learnéd Dr. Shiny and something may occur in that vein before the year is out.

Currently reading…

The odd couple of Eddisons I hadn’t finished. Styrbiorn is excellent – austere and restrained in a way quite distinct from the lavish prose of his Zimiamvia novels. His extended obituary to one Philip Sidney Nairn, which I read purely for completism’s sake, is quietly moving and offers a glimpse of the late Empire and the standards for being a decent chap therein, but is of little direct consequence. I also started Diary of a Drug Fiend, which is a delightfully rambling little confessional but not hugely compelling, which is why it’s only ‘started’.

Currently hobbying…

You wish. The learned Dr. Shiny will be carrying out much of my miniature painting in the future, in return for the free practice of my trade upon the manuscript for his novel. I hate painting, Shiny’s good at it, I like editing and Shiny needs some done. You see how this works?

[Meta Gaming] A Moment of Sanity

Apparently this appeared in the New York Times the other day.

Judge John Hodgman on the Quest of Dungeon Master Dad

Paul writes: “I have a dispute with my son’s friend’s parents. They feel that Dungeons & Dragons is inappropriate for 5-year-olds. I think the imaginative play is good for our boys, but the other parents believe that the game will make their child an outcast. Help these parents see reason and allow their child to play a game of D&D.”

The court agrees that your neighbors are terrible snobs. I suspect, however, that playing D.&D. with your son is more your fantasy than his. Five-year-olds don’t need a lot of hex paper and dice to imagine that they are warriors or elves (or cyborg mermen with rainbow breath): They’re built for it. It is the adolescent who craves D.&D., as it offers the illusion that all of his increasingly terrifying interactions in real life are governed by a secret math that, while occasionally cruel as a vorpal blade, is at least comprehensible. Your moment as dungeon master will come, Dad, but for now I order you to simply let the children play.

I’m not dead. I’m just playing WoW again. I’m also designing a dungeon crawl for this year’s ArmadaCon. Well, I say ‘designing’, it’s more ‘flipping tarot cards and working out how many undead miniatures I can fit in my luggage’…