So how “new” does a game need to be? Does it need to bring something to the table that has never been seen before? Or is it simply enough to work well and engage the players? On one hand, there’s already a lot of bloat in the board gaming hobby. Games are often endless rehashes of the same ideas, if they aren’t full-on expansions in the first place. But if the game is enough fun, it hardly matters if its been done before. I find myself asking this very question with Lords of Waterdeep.
Wizards of the Coast has been pushing the Dungeons & Dragons brand hard over the last couple of years. The success of the D&D Adventure system, which began with 2010?s Castle Ravenloft, has emboldened WotC to release games of several genres using their IP. Aside from the three adventure games, there was last year’s Conquest of Nerath, a streamlined dudes-on-a-map game that I still haven’t played. And now we have Lords of Waterdeep, a D&D Eurogame in the tradition of Caylus and Pillars of the Earth. The players each control a couple of agents (or “workers” for “placement”) who will perform tasks on the board, mostly recruiting adventurers to go on quests, which will net the player victory points. You can also build buildings to add new actions to the board, and action cards will make sure that the other players can be kept in check if anyone should start running away with the game.
Up until now, you may be thinking that Lords of Waterdeep sounds like any number of worker-placement games, and that’s correct. There’s not a thing in this game that isn’t instantly familiar. It feels like a “greatest hits” compilation of worker-placement. Everything in the game can be explained in the context of another game that the person is familiar with. There is no sense of risk or even a lot of creativity. It’s content to look at the most common trends in modern Eurogames and to put them together in a particular combination.
But there IS a sense of polish that is hard to resist. Because while Lords of Waterdeep operates entirely in the realm of what has come before it, it does it so effortlessly that it’s hard to care when the game is going on. Instead of 5 or 6 workers, the player only has to place two in the first half of the game, and three in the second. That means that even when the game bogs down it’s over quickly. Games of this type tend to crawl along when the logistics get complicated. In Waterdeep, the logistics really aren’t very advanced. You get what you can get when you can get it, then move along. The pacing is probably the single best thing about the game. Usually games will take 45 minutes when everyone knows what’s going on. This one gets in at that level from game one.
It can get away with having so few actions because there just isn’t a ton that needs to be done in this game. You’ll have enough actions to complete 5-6 quests, which seems about average. There’s obviously some variation there, but the tension comes from the other players and not from the system. It doesn’t feel like work. It doesn’t amount to much, but neither does it command much from the players. It’s designed to just be a solid, if unspectacular, Euro.
In addition, there is a level of player interaction that is almost never there in worker placement. If someone looks like they are doing too well, it’s not difficult to play a card on them that will pull them back with everyone else. In a game where turn-order and decision making are so important, it’s nice that someone can just play mean and probably do pretty well. I want to be careful about praising this aspect too much, because truthfully it’s not a very strong form of interaction. It depends a lot of what cards you have, and whether you can even take the action to play them. But a little interaction is better than none at all, and what’s there works quite well.
The best thing is that it never makes you wrestle it to the ground. I don’t mind when a game requires a certain struggle to play well, but in something this light straightforward is best. It’s not difficult to see what you need to do, and you won’t often have to deal with smug jerks who give clever smiles when they think they have made a brilliant move, since it’s easy enough to just gang up on them and put them in their place. That’s very satisfying. And it must be said, the game looks really good. Wizards of the Coast has a lot of capital to invest in their productions, and it really shows.
But every time I find myself getting excited about Lords of Waterdeep, I am reminded of the fact that there are about 200 games that do pretty much the same thing. True, none of them have a Dungeons & Dragons theme. And that does make at least a little difference. It’s undeniable that it’s more exciting to defeat a coven of witches than it is to sell a bag of cinnamon. The illustrations make a big difference here too, because like the rest of the game they look great. But it’s still pretty much just trading cubes for victory points, and the fantasy trappings don’t do much to disguise that.
The various D&D board games have all taken established genres, and then simplified their take on that genre to something that is wonderfully straightforward. But in this case, I think that the result just doesn’t stand out very much. The D&D Adventure games are so lean that it feels like a revelation. They are just about the ultimate dungeoncrawl. Likewise, Conquest of Nerath is supposed to make a huge epic game (think Runewars) that can be played with minimum overhead and in just a couple hours. Even though Lords of Waterdeep is a good example of a clean, simple worker placement game, there are plenty of other games that do the exact same thing. As a genre it’s just not that complicated to begin with. Remember playing Castle Ravenloft for the first time? In its simplicity it felt like a revelation. Lords of Waterdeep just blends in with the crowd, although I actually think the game is a little more reliable than any of the adventure games.
So the question then becomes, is it worth checking out? I would say that it absolutely is. It may be in a crowded genre, but it’s still a very solid game. If you don’t already own Stone Age, Pillars of the Earth, Alien Frontiers, Tribune, or any other games like them, this one has more to recommend it than almost all of those. I don’t actually own my own copy, and I’m considering picking it up myself. But the fact is, it just doesn’t stand out very much. Many people will prefer this one to the countless other options available in this genre, but the opposite is just as true. I really wish that it could have been a bolder game, but if you gave up on Eurogames a long time ago this might be a good entry point to jump back in. As long as you expect reliability and not innovation, you’ll be in good shape.