D&D Quest Giving 101

Board games today are so much more than the simple Parker Brothers games of our youth. Moving pieces around squares with the occasional twist is where most of us start our cardboard-and-plastic careers, but it’s hardly where it ends for the hardcore enthusiast.

It’s strange that Lords of Waterdeep feels like exactly that. With the Dungeons and Dragons brand behind it you might envision stat sheets, character creation, inventory management – that’s what I expected, anyway. Rather, it’s more Monopoly by way of Game of Thrones than 2nd Edition AD&D.

Lords of Waterdeep

Waterdeep goes decidedly off-brand almost immediately. You don’t play as a determined adventurer, winding your way through one of the many D&D universes with a light purse and a heavy hammer. Completing adventures is beneath you. As a lord of the titular city, you make adventures happen.

This is expressed through resource management – glorious, abstracted, flavorful resource management. Rather than trading in hotels and houses, however, your lord trades in lives. Specifically, you deal in the lives of wizards, soldiers, clerics, and rogues, which are expended to purchase real estate and ultimately “purchase” quests.

The game plays over eight rounds, broken into turns based on available “agents.” Agents are the hands, fingers, and fists of a Waterdeep lord. Using one on a specific tile will grant that tile’s benefit: whether that’s recruiting a conniving rogue, earning a bit of cash, or making use of constructed facilities.

It sounds simple because it is. Like those games designed for parents to teach their children quickly enough to keep them quiet for a day, Waterdeep is about as pick-up-and-play as anything with “D&D” printed on the tin gets.

The challenge (and the intrigue) comes from other players. The title does say lords – plural – after all.

Lords of Waterdeep

Those tiles I mentioned can only house one agent per round, making resources finite. That’s key, because you need those resources to play quest cards, and you need quest cards to earn victory points. Different quests are worth more points, and some even alter core mechanics by adding extra agents to the mix, or making other quest types more valuable.

So what do you do when presented with dwindling, shared resources and a time-limited gold rush? You screw over every mother’s child around the board before they screw you, obviously.

A lord’s smartest directive for an agent isn’t always the most immediately profitable; sometimes it’s best to occupy the wizards’ tower to keep another player from healing fallen Gray Hand soldiers and winning the loyalty of six, whole fighters. Other times you’ll want to buy the jester’s court to earn a little coin every time an opponent dares use it.

Yes, I’m interjecting a bit of my own flavor to the lore there, but that’s only because Waterdeep is so good at evoking it. Each digital card comes with beautifully pained art and flavor text to help drag you into Dungeons and Dragons’ world faster than preteens on a magic rollercoaster. Seriously, it’s gorgeous.

The overhead map is no slouch either, with dynamic clouds and a day/night cycle over what looks like hand-made scribbles on worn parchment. It’s a map that’s seen use, and the moving segments lend it a quality of magic realism. These are details that didn’t need to be included, but I’m all the happier for their inclusion.

Lords of Waterdeep

It’s a testament to the game’s polish that even with the virtual frippery Waterdeep runs without the slightest drop in framerate, short loading times, and high resolution on current mobile devices. Another forward-thinking detail is the inclusion of a pass-and-play mode, in addition to AI players and online play. Why more mobile games don’t include each of these options continues to baffle me.

And did I mention that there’s not a single microtransaction to be found? Believe me, I was determined to find them, and pleasantly shocked when I couldn’t. In Waterdeep, the game you pay for is the game you get. How novel.

If there’s one nit to pick, it’s that eight rounds go by very quickly.

Every time I play, I spend rounds setting up the perfect, meticulous trap to spring at just the perfect moment, and every time the game finished before I could.

You can make the case that this builds tension (it does), that players are encouraged to min-max their strategies (they are), and matches are kept tight and manageable (they are), but I’ll swear up and down that it’s too claustrophobic, and I don’t care what anyone else says. An attempt to remedy this is made by giving each player an extra agent to play with in the late-game, but it’s never enough.

Believe me, that’s a minor gripe, and one I adjusted after getting used to the high-speed timeline. Lords of Waterdeep remains a stellar translation of beginners’ board game mechanics with hardcore appeal. It might be much for Rich Uncle Pennybags to wrap his head around, but everyone else should jump in immediately.