Saturday, 11 August 2012
Wizards Go Euro
As the owners of the great Avalon Hill brand, it is no surprise that the board games published by Wizards of the Coast to date have fallen into the “Ameritrash” category. To label them as such is not denigrate them, for their emphasis has been highly developed themes, characters, heroes, or factions with individually defined abilities, combined with player-to-player conflict and a high level of luck. The publisher’s latest title has proved to be anything but an “Ameritrash” board game, but is instead a classic style “Eurogame,” which means relatively simple rules, a short playing time, a degree of abstraction rather than simulation, player interaction, player competition rather than player combat, and attractive physical components. What is more, this is a game based on Dungeons & Dragons, and specifically on the Forgotten Realms setting. Its title is Lords of Waterdeep.
Most Dungeons & Dragons deal with the themes inherent in those two words – “dungeons” and “dragons.” So they focus on delving into dungeons, facing dragons, and so on. Not so, Lords of Waterdeep. It is set in Waterdeep, the City of Splendors, the most resplendent jewel in the Forgotten Realms and a den of political intrigue and shady back-alley dealings where powerful, but masked lords vie for control of the city through of the region’s organisations that include the City Guard, the Harpers, the Knights of the Shield, the Red Sashes, and the Silverstars. They send out their Agents to acquire Buildings and access to better resources; gain Gold to make the many purchases necessary to ensure their rise to power; the means to Intrigue with their fellow Lords; and hire Adventurers whom they can send out on missions or Quests that once completed with spread their influence and gain them true power.
Designed for play by between two and five participants, aged twelve and over, once learned, Lords of Waterdeep can be played in an hour, no matter what the number of players. The box contains a game board, a rule book, five player mats, one hundred Adventurer cubes, one-hundred-and-twenty-one Intrigue, Quest, and Role cards, thirty-three wooden pieces that include the game’s various Agents and the score markers, and one-hundred-and-seventy card tokens that include the Building tiles and Building control markers, and plenty of Gold. All of which fits easily and neatly into the game’s insert tray that holds all of the game’s components almost perfectly.
Lords of Waterdeep’s game board measures 20” by 26” and depicts the city port of Waterdeep in Faerûn. Besides the Victory Point track around its edge and the spaces for the Intrigue and Quest cards, most of board has spaces for various Buildings that include Aurora’s Realms Shop, Castle Waterdeep, and Waterdeep Harbour as well as empty spaces where the players can put up Buildings of their own. Each of the Buildings provides a specific benefit. For example, the Aurora’s Realms Shop gives four Gold; the Builder’s Hall lets a player purchase an Advanced Building and bring it into play; Waterdeep Harbour allows a player to use an Intrigue card; the open-air stadium that is the Field of Triumph is where you can hire Fighters; new Quests are available to take at Cliffwatch Inn; and taking control of Castle Waterdeep lets you go first on the next round and draw an Intrigue card.
Besides the nine Basic Buildings marked on the board, Lords of Waterdeep includes twenty-four Advanced Buildings. These work in a similar fashion to the Basic Buildings, but the benefits provided by each are usually better. For example, when a player visits the Smuggler’s Dock, he can spend two Gold in order to hire four Adventurers, although only Clerics and Fighters; The Waymoot accumulates Victory Points that any player can visit and collect; and when at The Palace of Waterdeep, a player can direct the Ambassador at the beginning of the next round – and the Ambassador always acts before anyone else can take their turn. A side benefit to owning an Advanced Building is that when another player uses it, the owner gains a small benefit. For example, when another player uses the Smuggler’s Dock, its owner receives two Gold, and with The Waymoot or The Palace of Waterdeep, he receives two Victory Points. (This does not happen when a player uses his own building).
Like the game board, the twenty-four page rulebook is done in full colour. It is well written, with quite a lot of information that includes plenty of examples. There is also a reasonable amount of background information too; enough that fans of the Forgotten Realms will appreciate the references, but not enough to overwhelm the casual player who does not roleplay, or who does not play Dungeons & Dragons. Overall, the rule book requires a careful read, but the rules themselves are fairly easy to grasp.
There is a player mat colour coded to each of the game’s five organisations – the City Guard, the Harpers, the Knights of the Shield, the Red Sashes, and the Silverstars. Each mat has spaces for his Agent Pool and other resources, plus his Completed Quests, as well as indications around the side to place his Active Quests, Completed Plot Quests, and his Lord of Waterdeep card.
The game’s one-hundred Adventurer cubes are divided into four colours – white, orange, black, and purple – representing Clerics, Fighters, Rogues, and Wizards respectively. These are the game’s primary resources, which along with Gold, are what a player will need to complete Quests.
At the heart of Lords of Waterdeep, and what the players are trying to complete, are its Quests, represented by the Quest cards. There are sixty of these and they come in five types – Arcane, Commerce, Piety, Subterfuge, and Warfare. Each Quest card gives the requirements necessary to complete and the rewards it grants when completed. For example, the “Domesticate Owlbears” Arcana Quest card requires one white and two purple – or one Cleric and two Wizard cubes, and rewards the completing player with eight Victory Points, one Fighter or orange cube, and two Gold. A second type of Quest card is the Plot Quest card, which when completed gives an extra reward throughout the rest of the game. For example, the Skulduggery “Install a Spy in Castle Waterdeep Castle” Plot Quest card requires four Rogue or black cubes and four Gold to complete, and when done do so, not only rewards a player with eight Victory Points, but for every subsequent Skulduggery Quest completed, rewards him with another two Victory Points.
The cards that the players will use throughout the game are the Intrigue cards. These tend to grant a player extra Adventurers or extra Gold, or penalise rival players. For example, the “Spread the Wealth” Intrigue card gives both its player four Gold and another player of choice, two Gold; whilst the “Assassination” Intrigue card forces every other player to discard a Rogue or black cube from his tavern on his player mat. If a player cannot discard a Rogue, he must pay two Gold to the player who put the Intrigue card into play. Another type of Intrigue card is the Mandatory Quest which when given to another player forces him to complete that Quest before any of the others before him. For example, the “Stamp Out Cultists” Mandatory Quest Intrigue card forces a Lord to expend a Cleric, a Fighter, and a Rogue cube to complete it before moving onto his other Quests. Sadly, he only receives two Victory Points for completing it.
The first card though, that each player will receive is a Lord of Waterdeep card. Each one of these depicts one of the members of the secret council that governs the city, along with their name, some flavour text, and an effect that in providing a benefit at the end of the game will influence a player’s actions during the game. For example, Nymara Scheiron gives a player an extra four Victory Points at the end of the game for each Commerce and Skulduggery Quest completed, whereas Larissa Neathal gives six Victory Points for each Advanced Building she controls at the end of the game.
At the start of the game, each player receives a player mat, the Building control markers, and Agents, all of the same colour. The number of Agents received varies according to the number of players. With fewer players, each player receives more Agents; with more players, they receive less. This is the game’s core balancing mechanic. However many Agents a player starts with, every player receives a further Agent at the start of the second half of the game. Each player receives two Quest cards, two Intrigue cards, and a single Lord of Waterdeep card. This last card is kept hidden until the end of the game when everyone works out their final score. Lastly each player receives some Gold, the amount varying according to play order. The player who goes receives just four Gold, the next five, then six, and so on until the fifth player – if there is one – receives eight Gold. This is the game’s second balancing mechanic.
The game is played over the course eight Rounds. In each Round, the players take it in turn to assign a single Agent and then if they can, complete a Quest. Each Agent is assigned to a space on the board in an available Building or Advanced Building space. When he does, the Agent gives the player the benefit from that Building. Most Buildings have a single space, so that once an Agent has been assigned there, no Agent can be sent there to make use of its benefit, though some Intrigue cards allow a player to assign an Agent to an already occupied building. Thus if a player wants to purchase and construct an Advanced Building, he must assign an Agent to the “Builder’s Hall” before anyone else, or wait until the next Round. In which case, he probably wants to assign an Agent to Castle Waterdeep gain the opportunity to go first at the start of the next Round. Otherwise, a player must assign an Agent to another Building.
Two Buildings – Cliffwatch Inn and Waterdeep Harbour – have multiple spaces, so that more than one Agent can be assigned there, even by the same player. The former is the source for new Quest cards, while the latter allows a player to use an Intrigue card. Once an Agent is assigned, if a player has sufficient Adventurers, and sometimes Gold, to complete the requirements given on a Quest card, he can complete it and score Victory Points for doing so.
Lastly, and after all of the Agents have been assigned, any player with an Agent assigned to Waterdeep Harbour can reassign that Agent to any remaining unoccupied Building. This rewards the player for his cunning in sending an Agent to Waterdeep Harbour and playing an Intrigue card. The Round is over, everyone receives their Agents back, and a new Round begins until all eight have been played. At game’s end everyone counts up the Victory Points gained form completed Quest cards, plus unassigned Adventurers and unspent Gold, and the person with the most is the winner.
Lords of Waterdeep plays at reasonable pace, once the rules have been grasped, and offers a decent amount of game play and replay given how simple the rules really are and how light the game is. This is helped by the variety available in the Quest and Intrigue cards, but mostly in the Advanced Building cards. With twenty-four available, it is unlikely that all of them will come into play. The game also scales well, playing as well with two players as with five.
In terms of game play, Lords of Waterdeep rewards careful planning. Each player needs to be looking at what he needs to complete the Quests that he has in front of him. Of course, he also needs to get to the Buildings that he wants, but with rivals competing for the same space, this is not possible, so a player should also try and get the best out the available Buildings that he can. This can be alleviated if a player goes first, but in general, the closer a player is to going first the better. There is also some advantage in purchasing and constructing the Advanced Buildings as they provide more spaces where an Agent can be assigned. Further, if another player uses one, then the owning player also gains a small, but sometimes important benefit.
All of the Buildings in Lords of Waterdeep can play an important role during the game, but three tend to be more favoured than the others. They are the Builder’s Hall, because it allows Advanced Buildings to be purchased and constructed; Waterdeep Harbour, not just because an Intrigue card can be played, but also because an Agent assigned there can be reassigned; and lastly, Castle Waterdeep as it grants a player an Intrigue card and means that he can go first in the next Round.
Agents though, are in short supply, even after the extra one is gained at the start of the game’s second half. This means that the players must assign them with care so as not to waste their action.
Physically, Lords of Waterdeep is very nicely put together. All of the playing pieces have been done in wood and the rest of the pieces in sturdy card, though the Intrigue, Quest, and Lord of Waterdeep cards have been done slightly too thin a cardstock. The rulebook itself is bright and attractive and easy to read. For an American game, the look and feel of Lords of Waterdeep is anything but that. It has the look and feel of a Eurogame.
In terms of theme, the grimy fantasy of the Waterdeep of the Forgotten Realms does not feel pasted on, a common complaint with this type of game. This is not to say that the mechanics behind the rules of Lords of Waterdeep could not be taken and have a new theme applied to them. It would take some effort, but in the meantime, the Dungeons & Dragons theme is applied with great care, and it is a theme that avoids many of Dungeons & Dragons’ clichés, primarily because it removes the concept of going on adventures and down dungeons. This is done by placing the players in the role of hiring the adventuring parties rather than being part of them – as in so many other games.
What is telling about Lords of Waterdeep is that Wizards of the Coast describe the format of this game as being “Non-traditional.” This is an odd claim for the publisher to make. Lords of Waterdeep is not a Non-traditional game. It is more or less, a traditional Eurogame, with worker placement and resource management mechanics similar to those found in well-known Eurogames such as Agricola, Caylus, and Puerto Rico, amongst many others. All games and mechanics that the designers at Wizards of the Coast and in particular, the designers of Lords of Waterdeep will be familiar with to some degree. The only way in which Lords of Waterdeep is Non-traditional is that it is not a classic American or Ameritrash design, and to describe it as “Non-traditional” is to belittle both this design and Eurogames in general. Certainly, it shows a wilfil ignorance upon the part of the publisher.
Although its various bits and pieces and possibly the business of the rulebook make Lords of Waterdeep look more intimidating than it really is, Lords is really a medium to light Eurogame that is just a step on or two up from introductory games such as Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride. Certainly, it is much lighter and less complex than similar games such as Caylus and Agricola. Similarly, the game’s Dungeons & Dragons theme might be off-putting, but it never imposes itself on the game or its players. What is pleasing about the game is that the designers have achieved a balance between the theme and the mechanics that will attract both Eurogame players and players of Dungeons & Dragons players, but whilst both will be attracted to the game, Lords of Waterdeep is still more Eurogame than a Dungeons & Dragons game. Above all, Lords of Waterdeep is an enjoyable, decently themed Eurogame that uses familiar – almost traditional – mechanics to good effect.