Digital Game Review: Lords of Waterdeep
One of my favourite board games is Lords of Waterdeep. It taught me the joy of worker placement/resource management games and served as a gateway to (slightly) more complicated but wonderful games such as Dungeon Lords or Agricola.
A Worker Placement Game
What is a worker placement game? One of easiest ways to describe them is “place a marker, do a thing” as so cleverly described by LudiCreations, but as they also note, its a little more complicated than that.
According to the Board Game Geek glossary worker placement is “a term used to describe the game mechanic which involves a ‘token-based, turn-limited, locking action selection menu’. Players, in turn order, place tokens (aka workers) to select various actions presented on a board, cards, tiles, etc. Once an action is selected, it usually cannot be selected again on that round. Often players may think of this as a supervisor deploying workers on various jobs.”
As my board game collection has grown, unfortunately I have not been able to get it to the table as often as before, so when I finally got my new ‘gaming’ PC (it’s really for work – honest!) I knew it had to be one of the first games I test out.
Worker placement board games can be considered quite dry to the uninitiated (or uninterested!) but both the original board game version and later digital adaptation has developed the wonderful Dungeons and Dragons theme, into a competitive adventure.
Aim of the game
In both versions, the concept behind Lords of Waterdeep is that you are are one of the masked rulers in the city of Waterdeep known colloquially as ‘Lords’ because of the power and influence you wield. These Lords are kept hidden or ‘Masked’ until the end of the game. To progress in Waterdeep, you must complete quests in order to gain victory points. In order to complete quests, you must acquire a team of rogues, warriors, wizards and clerics. In the game these are represented by different coloured cubes. To acquire these…cubes…you must send one of your loyal agent markers onto the specific location on the board that provides that resource. There are also five different types of quests, each typically favouring one type of adventurer; they are Warfare, Skullduggery, Arcana, Piety, and Commerce, which has a focus on the in-game currency.
Order of play in Lords of Waterdeep is one of the key mechanics that keeps the game interesting is the use of agents to recruit the necessary resources you require to complete a quest. Once a player places their agent on a space, no other player can send their agent there for the remainder of the round. A few strategic quests/buildings/cards may circumvent this for a turn, but overall, once that space is taken, its out of your reach until the next round! This adds a good bit of strategy to the game, forcing you to think ahead about what you might need, whilst also paying attention to what the other Lords are doing - and how that may impact on you.
In terms of both the digital game and the original board game, the mechanics do not differ. On the digital game, you are able to click on the various Lords you are competing with to see what resources they have, and there is a setting to allow you to slow the speed down so you can see what particular cards say e.g. quest plot cards which have lasting ability throughout the game. However, this may not be slow enough and it may be prudent to view the card gallery to get a feel for the cards and potential plots/moves available in a game. I did find that after 4-5 plays, I was able to pick up very quickly the types of moves available to me, and what other Lords may play as well.
That all sounds so simple doesn’t it?! Pick you resource, wait your turn, pick another one, complete your quest. What's so interesting about that? Well, don’t forget Waterdeep Lords may not always play fair and as some less than illustrious inhabitants they are all trying to make their mark. In both versions of the game this is most clearly manifested in the use of intrigue cards. These cards provide special effects which can benefit you and attract your competitors. In addition to intrigue cards, some quests have special conditions attached which can provide you with extra moves, resources, and victory point bonuses!
A Faithful Adaptation?
Playdek are the company responsible for adapting Lords Of Waterdeep game to the digital version on Steam. I think they have done a stellar job incorporating the look and feel of the board game, to the PC. Although the UI mechanics aren’t always smooth and players cues can be awkward at times, ultimately these are small sacrifices to pay in order to have such a tabletop favourite available in such a convenient and playable way. However, as I mentioned earlier, the limited time you get to read cards flashing on the screen would put new players at a disadvantage, at least initially. I think adjusting the animation setting to slow down this pace would be a must until you are familiar with the cards. I think this can make it feel like the game is trying to hide things from you, but really taking a bit of time at the start to read through the cards before playing should dispel any mystery.
There may also be some confusion at the end of the game when it comes to scoring. Over the course of the game, some quests, intrigue cards and Lord abilities will award bonus points over an above the traditional quest completions. At the end of the game, the AI plots tallies each Lords individual score based on number of unused resources, money and whatever their Lord powers/game intrigues have dictated. Unless you have been keeping close eye on each Lords resources and once unmasked, know that Lords special ability, it can seem unclear how these victory points are calculated. I think this process could be more streamlined in future updates to give more visibility to victory point scoring.
If you are familiar with Lords of Waterdeep, then the digital version plays like a fast paced but shorter version which hits all the requirements. However, if you haven’t been fortunate enough to put many hours into the tabletop version, you may find the digital adaption a bit of a slog to get through unless you have someone on hand to talk you through the game play so that you can keep the turns ticking along, but there's a better-than-even chance you'll finish the game with only a vague idea of what just happened!
What I enjoy most about the tabletop game is that, in addition to having time to sit pondering your own moves, people you play with will also explain their own. Everyone sees the mechanics of each turn in order to agree that, yes, that's how everything is supposed to work. Although the guesswork all but disappears in the digital version, it also removes the ability for players to learn about how the game is played and appreciated the strategy often involved. I hope in future adaptations, Lords of Waterdeep will be updated with more help for new players to learn and understand it as a worker placement game.
Having said this, I still like Lords of Waterdeep’s digital adaptation. The more convenient format allows me to play when I like, and doesn’t impact on my keenness to still bring the game to the table where I can play with friends and hear their strategies - even if it does take quite a bit longer!