Review: Lords of Waterdeep

By Kelsey Rinella 21 Nov 2013 0
John Ratzenberger has at least a small role in every Playdek release. That's the real reason I don't own Tanto Cuore. Milking an owlbear isn't exactly a picnic, but once you pick the hairs out, it's very nutritious.

When they announced the strategic alliance between Playdek and Wizards of the Coast to bring Dungeons and Dragons board games to iOS, my mind initially flew to the Adventure System games and I couldn't wait to play Castle Ravenloft on my iPad. I had heard of Lords of Waterdeep (henceforth LoW), but it had never had much connection to D&D in my mind. Indeed, it makes no attempt to replicate the experience of roleplaying, but it's a stonking worker-placement game with a dash of fantasy theme.

Disclaimer: I don't really know what "stonking" means. This whole trans-Atlantic thing is tricky.

If you're familiar with Caylus, much of the basic structure of LoW will give you déjà vu: you collect resources of various kinds by placing workers in basic buildings from a common pool, but slowly build better buildings which accelerate the late game. LoW adds missions, which are not only the primary means of scoring victory points but also have a variety of other useful consequences, some of which endure for the remainder of the game.

Each player is secretly allocated an identity at the beginning of the game which incentivizes the completion of particular types of missions. Because different identities and different missions substantially alter a player's goals, LoW avoids some of the problems of similar games in which everyone's decision tree is essentially the same, which limits bottlenecking and makes it tremendously replayable. While the competition for valuable spaces is often fierce enough in worker placement games that I've never found the player interaction too subtle, LoW also has cards which allow you to directly attack opponents' resources or dole out bonuses to specific others. Due to the lack of in-game chat, this seems less likely to result in interesting dealmaking in online or solo play than it would in person, but it's still a clever addition to the genre which supports the theme.

Ah, the theme. You play an important personage in a city with an richly imagined backstory, orchestrating parties of adventurers to accomplish various missions with consequences for politics, economics, mystical research and power, and this is represented by moving cubes. It's like watching a gifted dungeon master sit down to run a game after weeks of careful preparation only to face a party of Bob the Rogue, Bobby the Barbarian, and Presto the Magician. It's not awful, but rather than maintaining a consistent narrative, I ended up playing an engaging, if largely abstract, game which was periodically interrupted by moments of hilarity or nostalgia. It's tough not to imagine domesticating owlbears as the sort of task which would largely fall to apprentices, the unpaid interns of medieval fantasy.

Why, yes, I did produce a miracle for the masses, and all I did was unbutton my trousers. The era of instant replay has dawned. Traditionalists decry the ruin of the game.

The interface, though portrait-only, is otherwise state-of-the-art: lots of lovely little touches and animations, audio which is briefly snazzy and then gets turned off, reasonable menu structures with the options you expect from Playdek, and the information you need but a tap or scroll away. I keep hoping someone will find some way to make a game approachable without hiding some of the information in a slide-out tray or second screen, but I've certainly never thought of one, and LoW does pretty well in that regard. On the iPad, there's perhaps enough room to put more of this onscreen at all times, but it's about as crowded as you'd want on the phone, and there's value in a unified interface.

I've enjoyed my time with Lords of Waterdeep so much that I'm strongly considering picking up the physical version. Despite a number of small innovations to the worker placement genre, it's only a little harder to learn than Stone Age. Though its core is a pretty abstract exercise, the theme it's loosely connected to is so rich that it's easy for it to shine through in more playful moments. Perhaps it's even for the best that there's no personality to hang on these cubes--you might feel a little bad about sending even a character as thin as Bob the Rogue on a suicide mission to raid the Undermountain. But you play one of Waterdeep's often unacknowledged oligarchs--probably you ought to feel toward your minions about the way I feel about innocent wooden cubes.

Review: Lords of Waterdeep

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