[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.

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

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