The great thing about Dungeons & Dragons: Lords of Waterdeep, especially from the perspective of a fan of Dungeons & Dragons, is that it nails the look and feel of that universe really well. Also, it’s a fair bit cheaper than buying the board game on which it’s based and its many add-ons, and far more practical too — with this digital version, there’s no losing counters or struggling to lug your bulky physical set over to your friend’s house to play.
Based on the wildly successful board game of the same name released in 2012, Lords of Waterdeep has you becoming one of the Lords of the titular Sword Coast city and battling with your shadowy rivals for ownership of its many boroughs and famous locations. You win the game by having the most victory points, which you earn in a multitude of different ways, the most important being (as you can probably guess given the setting) completing quests.
The game is split into eight rounds of four turns. Each turn, you and your opposing players will place agent counters on the game’s various spaces, each representing a location in Waterdeep. Once you put an agent, you gain the resources granted by the square they inhabit. Resources come in the shape of gold, and also adventurers of various flavors (fighter, cleric, rogue, etc.), and all can be put towards the completion of the quests. Quest cards are randomly assigned to you, with each requiring a unique combination of resources to be obtained before you can turn it in. Some are pretty straightforward — two mages and a fighter for 5 victory points, that sort of thing — but others are far trickier to achieve, requiring a degree of Machiavellian scheming before they can be turned in.
Then there are the select locations which have other effects, like those which allow you to take the first turn next round, or buy a building, or play an Intrigue card. This is where things start to get interesting, and where that strategic stew starts to get that much richer.
Buildings are extra location squares where you can place an agent counter and gain resources, and that your opponent can also use, just like standard areas. But, in an interesting twist, anyone using a building must pay the owner for the privilege, lining your pockets in the process with extra gold and other resources. Intrigue cards too can actually turn a game on its head. Every Intrigue card is unique, the different effects being unusually broad in scope. Most benefit not just you, but your opponent too. It’s all about choosing the right card for precisely the right moment in the game.
That goes for the bulk of the game’s strategy. The quests you decide to complete have an effect that’s dependent on the faction you’re playing as, for example, so the simplest thing to do is to finish those types of quests to maximize the potential resources, and thus victory points, you’ll gain. But, if you can figure out which of the game’s Lords you’re facing off against, and you know what it is they’ll be trying to get from their own quests, you can throw a spanner into their works by completing the quest they had their eye on.
All this leads to the endgame, which has not only the victory points you’ve earned throughout the game totaled up, but also the resources you’ve gathered over the course of the game are converted into a bonus. It makes the finale charming and unpredictable and especially exciting if you’re playing against a human opponent. You can play standard real-time multiplayer, or asynchronous if that’s more convenient, and cross-platform play is possible through the developers Playdek’s own servers. The AI is no slouch either: I even after I’d completed the full suite of tutorials and a couple of practice games, I still got my butt kicked at the basic difficulty until I developed a couple of choice strategies of my own.
But whether you’re playing against real people or the AI, the well-made mechanics have that timeless, satisfying feeling of balance that comes from classic board games like Monopoly and Cluedo. The former, especially, feels like a definite inspiration. In some ways, in fact, I feel like the game sticks a little too close to the board game template on which it is based. For example, the graphics, though sharp and legible, aren’t fancy, and lack a lot of the pizzazz that could have been added if the devs had been less constrained by simulating the physical boxed game. I understand that the basic presentation means less robust systems aren’t challenged enough to create technical issues for the player (the game is a port of the touchscreen-focused original), but it still feels like a bit of a missed opportunity to be so strictly adhered to the physical board game aesthetic. The interface suffers a little from the game’s origins as an iOS title. There are lots of large icons and dragging stuff around. And sometimes it works, adding a little tactility and drama to proceedings (I quite liked the satisfying feel of dragging a quest into the competed quests box) but in the smaller moments, it often it feels like a simple button click would in most cases suffice. The game view can sometimes get a little cluttered too, with the finger-friendly icons feeling a little big and clumsy, and obscuring the lovely hand-drawn aesthetic of the game board, which is styled to look like a map of Waterdeep itself. And while we’re at it, the music, too, leaves a lot to be desired. It’s the sort of dreadful synth orchestral fayre that was pretty commonplace in early nineties fantasy RPGs. I get that this is a budget thing, but it’s a black mark against the presentation, especially when compared to that other Forgotten Realms adventure series, the now two decades old Baldur’s Gate.
Despite these reservations, the package is a sound one: an intense and fun board game experience that is great when played on your own, but that really sings when you throw a couple of friends into the mix.
Andy is a freelance writer for Game With Your Brain. You can follow him on Twitter.