If you were to tell me that Wizards of the Coast was going to make a D&D game about ruling the city of Waterdeep, I would not have been surprised. But if you told me that game was going to be a worker-placement Euro-style game, I would have laughed at you and told you that you were insane. A dry Euro game can't be a D&D game! Euros are only supposed to be about farming and making recipes and delivering the mail! The granddaddy of dungeon crawl games is not supposed to spawn Euros. It's supposed to spawn violent games with too many rules, and with the right crowd, sexual innuendo and half-naked women with gigantic metal weapons.
Obviously, the guys at Wizards did not ask me for my opinion. Which is good, because otherwise they would never have made Lords of Waterdeep, and I could not have played it, and I would not have discovered how much fun it is. On the other hand, I would not have been forced to admit that I don't know everything. Of course, that's easier to do at 41 than it was at 19, when I would rather put my hand into a wheat thresher than admit that I was not actually smarter than my parents.
I'll get this out of the way, right off the bat - Lords of Waterdeep is definitely a Euro-style game, and it's definitely dry. Sure, you can recruit a band of warriors to purge tentacled horrors from the sewers of the city, but mechanically, you may as well be preparing a recipe for chili pie.
The theory is that you're in charge of some ruling group in the city of Waterdeep, and stuff comes up and you have to protect the city. You send out your agents to recruit adventurers and build taverns and find worthy quests, but you never actually get your hands dirty and kill something. You sit back in your ivory tower, drinking mimosas and dabbing at your guyliner while you send your minions into the city to do your bidding.
Happily, the minion-sending part of the game is actually very compelling. You've got all these things you can do, and places you can go, but you're in constant competition with your opponents. If you need a cleric, for instance, but the Harpers get there first, you'll have to send an agent to go pull some dirty tricks that let you steal guys from other people, because otherwise you're going to have to wait until the enemy agent goes out back to take a leak.
This results in the first layer of semi-artificial interaction - blocking your opponents. This is the most passive-aggressive game idea ever invented, and for some reason, Euro people don't mind that. I suspect they also learn how to let out heavy sighs and specialize in making you feel guilty when you ask them if they could pay for their own coffee this week. If this was the only interaction in Lords of Waterdeep, I would hate this game an awful lot.
There is, however, a second layer of interaction that is a great deal less artificial - the intrigue cards. Using these cards, you can directly screw with your friends. You can swipe their adventurers and steal their gold. You can sneak in behind them when they think they've blocked the builder's hall. You can assign them jobs that they have to complete before they do anything else, which ends up costing them resources and time. In a game where you never have enough resources or time, that's pretty damned mean-spirited. So I loved that.
The combination of blocking your opponents and directly hosing them makes for a game that has just the right amount of interaction without being so nasty that your wife won't play it with you. If the D&D folks are going to make a Euro, at least they made one that isn't some boring, solo circle-jerk. Where many games of this nature have you pretty much ignoring what everyone else is doing, the key to enjoying Lords of Waterdeep is in carefully scrutinizing the other players. Is the City Guard building an army for a massive warfare quest? Quick, give them a mandatory job that will kill off half their fighters! Is the sneaky mage chick running magic jobs like they were going out of style, revealing that she is almost certainly hiding a bonus for arcana gigs? Better run up there and reset those quests before she can snag another one!
I'm not going to pretend that your average blood-and-guts fan is going to love Lords of Waterdeep. The interaction is there, and it's exciting, but there's no disemboweling warfare. There's subtle intrigue and careful maneuvering, combined with reading your opponents and guessing their moves before they can pull them off. You'll have to plan ahead and build contingency plans for when those nasty Red Sash assholes steal your high-dollar mage's tower or hire all the thieves. You must be prepared to counter the underhanded attacks on your own grand designs, and keep an eye on every other player, all the time. And don't count the money until the game is over - in one game, right as the game ended, one player revealed a hidden bonus and shot from last place to a huge winning margin. She snowed us all, kept her head down and avoided looking like a good target, and snuck past us to make us all look like drooling chumps.
I really enjoyed Lords of Waterdeep, and can see myself playing it a lot more. It has some problems, like the fact that it could just as easily be about filling orders for potted plants, but in terms of providing the kinds of things I like to see in a game, the game delivered. Heck, it may give Flash Point some competition for family game night favorite. So what if it's a D&D Euro - it's a fun game.
Requires good planning and clever execution
A sweet spot of interaction that's not too nice, and not too mean
A Euro game that actually requires you to read your opponents, not just stare at their cards
Perfect for family game nights or weekend gaming clubs
A theme as rich as D&D should never, ever feel pasted on
Matt Drake is a regular contributer to Fortress: Ameritrash and the author of the Drake's Flames blog, where you can read more of his crassly opinionated reviews.