Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A review of Lords of Waterdeep....

It seems like at least 5-10 worker placement games get released every year now.  And rarely do they interest me.  I own the ORIGINAL worker-placement game Caylus and I still believe it to be the best.  Now, I have played a few like Stone Age which I enjoy due to the clever die-rolling and Agricola which pushes the tension through the roof but most just seem like rehashes of what has already been done (as an aside, I haven't played my copy of Kingdom of Solomon yet but I do plan to give it the old college try very soon). 

So when someone comes along and tells me that Wizards of The Coast has created a fairly simple "Dungeons & Dragons"-themed worker placement game that steals the owner bonuses and buildings from Caylus and the escalating points on unchosen buildings kinda like Small World or Puerto Rico, I get annoyed.  And then they try to tell me it's really good.  Right.  So I took a look at the rules and confirmed that, yes, there really is nothing all that original in this game.  It's just a hackneyed mix of modern mechanics, most of them from Caylus, all wrapped up in a completely extraneous D&D package.


The awesome storage tray!!!
And yet against my better judgment, I decided to see what the fuss was about and give it a try.  3 weeks and 8 games later, I am happy to say that all the fuss is well-deserved.  WOTC has released one of the simplest and most enjoyable worker-placement games yet:  fast-paced, highly interactive, and just about the perfect amount of tension.   And it's also one of the nicest productions I've seen in awhile considering how utterly abstract the gameplay really is.  This game really feels like Caylus' younger brother in that it's hugely simplified, more tactical than strategic, and allows and even encourages players to back-stab to their heart's content.

The game itself is a breeze to pick up, even if you've never played any other W-P games.  It takes place over 8 rounds with players having 2 workers (agents) to place each round in the 4 and 5 player games.  In the last 4 rounds, players will get another worker to place and they can also possibly hire an extra worker by completing one of the quests.  Initially the board starts with 10 buildings which do various things - take one or two of the four different types of cubes, draw Intrigue or Quest cards, get the start player marker, earn some money, etc.  There is also a building, Waterdeep Harbour, which allows up to 3 workers and lets you to play an Intrigue card (note that this is also the ONLY way to play an Intrigue card).  This building, much like the Gate in Caylus, allows you to play the workers on it to other buildings at the end of the round, making these spots prime real estate.

Halfway through the game....
So on a player's turn, if they have a worker to play, they must place it on an empty building space and take advantage of said building immediately.  If that building happened to be built during the game by another player, then the owner also receives a small bonus (just like Caylus...)  After that, the current player always has the option to complete one of their face-up quests, returning the required cubes and/or money to the pool and taking the reward on the card.  In almost all cases the reward will include points which are marked off immediately and usually some cubes or money as well.  In the case of Plot Quests, the player may also receive an ongoing effect for the rest of the game, such as something as slight as an extra orange cube every time they draw orange to a game changer like an extra worker to place for the rest of the game.   Rinse and repeat and then at the end reveal everyone's secret bonuses, where in all but one case bonus points are awarded for completing 2 of the 5 types of quests.

Moon dollars!!!!!
And that's really most of it.  Because you take advantage of the space you land on immediately, this doesn't require the same level of thinkiness as Caylus.  As well, if you have a few Intrigue cards the Harbour is almost always a good play as the card will usually benefit mostly you and there will always be extra spaces to move the marker later.  In terms of strategy, this is a very tactical game.  It is hard to plan too many turns ahead as you don't know what quests you'll be working towards or what buildings may available to be built.  However, one still feels a delightful sense of progression from the ongoing effects of completed Plot Quests and the rewards that they receive when others use the buildings they built.

Buildings available for purchase
But the key element that really makes this game shine (besides that it was extremely well play-tested) are the effects of the Intrigue cards.  They do many minor and major things like allowing the stealing of resources from other players, the use of unbuilt buildings, double actions, and the trading of resources for points.  But the nastiest subset of the Intrigue cards are the Mandatory Quest cards which you assign directly to other players.  They must finish the Mandatory Quest before they are allowed to finish any of their other quests.  And since you can only complete one quest per turn, a Mandatory Quest played during the last round can lay waste to someone's long held plans, maybe causing them to miss that big 25-pointer they finally got all the cubes for.  Brutal.

Quest cards up for grab
What starts out feeling like a simple Euro-game of cube pushing and worker placement ends up turning into a nasty, thoroughly engaging American-style slugger.  I've won this game by lying about my intentions and then attacking someone in the last round and I've lost it by two points due to someone's final play that benefitted the both us (her just a little bit more).  Our plays of this game have sometimes felt as rowdy as a good game of Risk or Tichu which says a lot.  Yet the game is short enough that the hard feelings don't last and everyone wants to play another round.  It's also quite different each game as the order that the buildings come out can severely affect the scarcity resources and money, making certain quests much more appealing (and usually less than half the buildings ever get built in any one game). 

I'll tell you now, this isn't the deepest game you'll ever play.  The buildings can come up in many different ways and the Intrigue cards can throw chaos and frustration into even the best planning.  But what it lacks in depth is made up for in simplicity and speed of play and huge level of interaction that is lacking in many other worker-placement games.  Although it may be one of the most unoriginal games I've ever played, it is still brilliantly designed and obviously has been thoroughly playtested.  I've played it 8 times now in the last three weeks and that's more plays than most of my games ever get.  Wizards of The Coast has scored a total coup with gorgeously produced game and I daresay it's our favourite so far this year.

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