Lords of Waterdeep app.

My analysis of the Phil Hughes signing is up for Insiders.

Playdek, the folks behind this summer’s spectacular iOS adaptation of Agricola, just released their most recent boardgame app, Lords of Waterdeep, a straightforward worker-placement/task-completion game with some modest interactions through the use of special Intrigue cards that let you sabotage your opponents here and there. (Amazon has the physical version of the game for $38; the game itself is currently ranked 28th on Boardgamegeek’s overall rankings.)

While Lords of Waterdeep has a theme from the Dungeons & Dragons universe, it’s pasted on to a game that has neither might nor magic in it, using the Forgotten Realms for artwork and nomenclature but nothing more. Each player tries to complete Quests in exchange for victory points and resources, where Quests in certain categories may earn the player additional bonus points unique to his player identity. Resources include money and four different worker types, the availability of which are unequal and can vary over the course of the game. Players begin acquiring money and workers by placing “Agents” in open buildings on the board, as in Agricola, but can buy and place new buildings, as in Caylus, to open additional opportunities for all players to earn resources while gaining commissions (money, workers, Intrigue cards, or victory points) for the builder. And the aforementioned Intrigue cards add an interactive element: You can steal resources from other players, or assign a “mandatory” quest with a tiny victory-point value to an opponent who must complete that quest before any others.

The game comprises eight rounds, with two distinct phases. In the first four rounds, each player has two Agents to place on open building spaces; in the last four rounds, each player gets a third Agent to place. Building spaces offer various returns:

* Most just offer resources – one or two workers of a specific type, or money, or a combination of both.
* Three spaces offer access to the four visible Quest cards, with each bringing something along with the Quest card, such as an Intrigue card.
* Three spaces in Waterdeep Castle allow a player to play one of his Intrigue cards, with the twist that an Agent placed there can be reassigned later in the round once all players have placed their Agents once.
* Another space allows the player to build one of three visible Buildings and place it on the right side of the board, assuming he can pay the cost (in money) on the card.
* And the final space allows the player to take over the Starting Player (going first in each round) role while also granting him/her an Intrigue card.

Once occupied by an Agent, a building space is unavailable to all other players (except those with a specific Intrigue card) for the remainder of the round.

The dynamic of each round is simple: Place two or three Agents for resources, money, or Quest cards; to play an Intrigue card; or to buy and place a building; and, whenever you have the right resources, complete a Quest, an action that does not require the use of an Agent. At the end of eight rounds, the player with the most victory points – from completed Quests, from Quest-related bonuses, from money (1 point per 2 coins left), and from unused workers (1 point per cube) wins.

In my experience, the path to victory revolves mostly around bonus points. You want to complete quests with high point values, or, failing that, complete a lot of quests with lower values, but it’s most important to stick to the Quest types for which you’ll earn rewards. There are various Quest categories, such as Piety, Arcana, Warfare, Commerce, and Skullduggery, and each player character gives four point rewards for each Quest completed in two of those types. Where possible, I’ve only acquired and completed Quests in my two categories, and also have tried to complete a Quest that increases those bonuses – for example, in one recent game, I earned an additional two points for each Skullduggery Quest I completed on top of the base four points I got from my character.

I’ve also learned from watching the AI players that laying down Intrigue cards is a high-return endeavor because of the ability to reassign that Agent later in the same round – so it’s like getting an extra half-turn. Some cards have higher value early in the game, both Intrigue and Quest cards, so obtaining and playing those in the first few rounds (if possible) is key.

Lords of Waterdeep ultimately comes down to a lot of little decisions around resource allocation, with minimal (but non-zero) interaction with your opponents and only a few small ways in which you can strengthen your abilities over the long haul. You don’t have any choice of Intrigue cards, and your choice in Quest cards is limited to the four you see in the open pool at any given time. There’s a fair amount of luck in the game as a result, but I don’t think it’s enough to defeat a player with a focus on completing Quests that provide the right bonuses.

The app is moderately entertaining, with competent AI players on the hard and medium levels, but the board layout is atrocious. It’s impossible to view everything on the screen at once, as the developers seemed to hew too faithfully to the physical game, and there’s so much unnecessary detail that critical pieces of text are often obscured unless you zoom in to see them. Caylus and Agricola are both stellar examples of how to display a game board that can’t fit comfortably into one screen, but Lords of Waterdeep is an example of how not to do this. Even after several plays, I still felt like it was hard to follow what the AI players were doing, and frequently had to zoom back to place my final agent because it wasn’t clear what building spaces were still free.

There’s a major two-part expansion for the physical game called Scoundrels of Skullport that adds buildings, characters, Quests, and Intrigue cards, which I hope becomes available for the app as it promises to increase the game’s replay value. For now, it’s a mid-tier app for me, a little too perfunctory to become an essential game and in need of a UI overhaul, but a straightforward, nicely balanced game that was stable through several plays and included a thorough, clear tutorial to get a noob (like me) started. If worker placement is your favorite style, it’s worth picking up.


  1. I love the tabletop version of Lords of Waterdeep, but I’ll probably skip the iOS version based on your review. It sounds like they squandered the opportunity to take advantage of a new medium to improve the game’s interface. I don’t know if this is because the developers are lazy or if they think it’s what players want.

    In addition to the clunky screen layout, I also notice from the screenshots that they still use cubes to represent the adventurers. In the physical version of the game, I always thought it would be fun if the cubes were shaped like the adventurers that they are supposed to represent (fighters, clerics, etc.), but I can understand the desire to keep production costs down.

    However, for the virtual iPad version, they have no excuse for not bringing a little more life to the game. They can illustrate the adventurers however they want at no cost (other than a one time fee for a skilled graphic designer), yet they still use a virtual representation of a cube?! Awful design choice.

    They got it right with Agricola. Faced with the same choice, they depicted the animals as animals instead of cubes like the physical version. It must have been a different development team doing each version. Other iOS translations have made the same mistake. Dominant Species comes to mind. It’s like they scanned the board game pieces and cards to make the video game. They had a great opportunity to create a vibrant virtual world and they stuck with cones and cubes.

    Some iOS translations such as Eclipse preserve the basic look and feel of the tabletop game, yet add some simple animations that really improve the game’s appearance. That was also nicely done. On the other hand, Ticket to Ride is an exact replica of the board game and it works beautifully. I’m not sure why it works for that game but not for other games.