Saturday, March 24, 2012

Lords of Waterdeep - I Wasn't Aware That Berlin Had Coastline

Well, I know it's been overdue, but I've had a relapse with this vertigo thing. I almost was to the point where I could go out of the house, but I got an inner ear infection that apparently did even more damage, so now I'm back on the Valium and puke pills. FML. Anyhow, after much talking with Chris Dupuis, of Risk Legacy fame, I pretty much had to have this game. Wizards sent it, I played it, repeatedly. I think this would've been far cooler and made more sense to me had it been themed with Russkies, East Germans, West Germans, Americans, and Nazis all fighting for control of cold war Berlin, but that said, I think that the theme of fantasy factions vying to be the supreme power within the Forgotten Realms city of Waterdeep works quite well because they've managed to keep a strong, cohesive theme throughout the game. It's just a little bit contrived, that's all.

Anyhow, onto what it's all about. The concept is that five benevolent factions with fancy names all want to mold the city of Waterdeep into their own little version of Utopia, and there's eleven Lords that you can choose from to lead your own little army of spies. One thing that struck me about the game is that there's really no "bad guys", so to speak. I mean, all of the Lords have their own motivations and whatnot, but the factions all seem to be most interested in protecting the fair peoples of the city, if the backstory is to be believed. No liches trying to take over the city and turn it into a dark necropolis, no orc hordes trying to drive out humanity and dine on their giblets. Just five goodie two shoes groups trying to be the bestest, nicestest of all. Except that they're not above screwing over the other guys, or even killing their people, to prove how nice they are. Like I said, an odd bird, but it works because the flavor text and everything supports the idea.

The real departure for me is that this is not what I think of when I think of Dungeons and Dragons, or even Wizards of the Coast. This is an unashamed Euro game, and a tremendously well-designed one. It certainly takes design cues from Puerto Rico and Agricola, sans the slavery, pig farming, and arrogant smart asses chuckling under their breath about how clever their last move was. The whole game boils down to building buildings, completing quests, and sending agents (read: workers) to buildings to the buildings in order to earn money and get wizards, warriors, thieves, and clerics (read: resources) in order to complete more quests and ultimately earn victory points.

The kicker that makes this game stand out from the vast swarms of mostly unclean European invaders is that this whole game is loaded to the point of obscene gluttony with player interaction. You have loads of opportunities to completely castrate your opponents with well timed cardplay, and the cards range from making them lose resources through straight up killing one of their agents. It's possible, I think, to never screw with other players and still score well, but quite honestly, I can't imagine that being nearly as much fun as causing other players pain. The best part about the design is that there's hidden goals for each player's Lord, and these goals give you VPs at the end of the game. One chick gives you six VPs for each building you built, for example, and other ones give you some VPs for every specific type of quest card you've completed. Each is unique, and only the owner knows what his hidden goal is. It's a very neat twist on what is otherwise an "open information" kind of game. Now that you know the overall high points, let's talk about the game's production.

Once you open the box, you're met with a very neat storage tray, which is great only if you plan to set the game on its back or have it continually pinched between two other boxes, and tightly at that. I made the mistake of setting it on its side and was met with a jumble of parts as my reward. Also, the card and box art is not all that shit hot. It's decent, to be sure, but it's very Larry Elmore; it just looks a bit dated. That being said, the bits, board and everything are really well done. There's a bunch of cubes in four colors that represent the wizards and warriors, and there's a bunch of meeples that represent your agents.

There's also some VP counters, control counters, some bad ass coin counters that are center-punched for a yen feel, and finally three special wood bits that represent two freelance spies and the "first player" token. The production value is truly great, as you can see from the photos, and the box itself is a neat, very thematic design. The really high point, besides the money which is really great, is the rulebook. It is as perfect as I can imagine as it's short, linear, easy to understand, and has a huge swarm of building explanations so you really would be hard pressed to screw something up. Short version: the game is definitely worth the 35 bucks that CoolStuff is asking for it. Just get some bags and shitcan the storage tray, because it's too hard to use and doesn't work if you either plan to stand it on its side or have meaty fingers.

Setup is quick, and unless you're playing with a totally AP-prone player, the turns are really taken at a tremendously brisk pace, especially for a Euro. On each player's turn, they will place one of their agents on a building of their choice, and then after you've assigned the agent, you can attempt to complete a quest by spending resources. These quests all have various requirements, and always do something beneficial for you, like granting VPs or resources.  That being said, each Lord card has their own predilection towards certain types of quests, and thus if you perform their preferred quests, at the end of the game, you get extra points for it. As I said before, your Lord is secret, so your opponents never really know what your goals are. Add to that the fact that most of the quest cards are placed face-down when you've completed them, and you have a game that requires players to really pay attention to what's going on in order to be successful.

Incomplete quests are placed face up, though, so players can look to see what others are doing and do everything they can to stymie those players' efforts to complete the quests. This includes such niceties as killing or hindering their agents by using intrigue cards or taking over a building they need in order to get the resources they need. Even more devious, some intrigue cards are actually mandatory quests that force whomever you play them on to complete that quest before all others, effectively screwing up their entire mojo. There really is nothing more satisfying than watching the smug look on an opponent's face melt into anger when you stick him with two mandatory quests, back to back.

Now, the game starts out with very few buildings available, and since there's only one space available in the builder's hall and a maximum of ten spaces to build buildings, you're not going to be doing a hell of a lot of masonry work in any given game. The good news is that at the beginning of the game, you pretty much have what you need to in order to complete quests, as far as being able to get resources, but as the game progresses, more and more options appear. The buildings that are available to build are randomly chosen, and there's maybe 25 or so, so you can play three or four times before seeing them all. I know for a fact that in my plays we never saw a couple of them.

Going back to the quests and the intrigue cards, there's a lot of them, although they're not all unique. The quest cards come in one of five flavors, with each type being completed by one of the types of resources. They're all the same, for the most part; you pay X and complete the quest at the end of your turn. Most get placed face down on your mat, but many give you buffs for the rest of the game. The real star of the game, though, is the intrigue cards. Oh, what fun it is to stab your friends in the scrotum. This alone is what makes the game, in fact.

Were it not for the intrigue aspects of the game, maybe it would be little more than Agricola: Deep Water In San Juan Edition, but the direct interaction really creates something special and unique. If you're the kind of guy who gets off on chortling to yourself when you place a worker unnecessarily simply to be a dick without overtly being a dick, you may not appreciate the fun of just being a dick straight to someone's face, unashamed. Fair warning.

Another really good design point in the game is its scalability. It plays differently with two than five because the amount of agents you have is scaled with the amount of players, but in all cases it plays well. In a two player game, you have a lot more agents running around manipulating things whereas with five players, you have very few, so you really need to make each one count. The game is definitely more challenging with five, but its also more fun because the rewards from the intrigue cards are better since many affect all opponents equally, with you getting benefits from those who are unaffected by the card due to them not meeting the conditions of the card. It most certainly feels like you're doing a lot more with a two player game, but you don't get to screw over nearly as many people, so it's simply not as much to do, and it's not as much fun. I'd say that three to five is great, with four being the sweet spot.

The game has a built-in timer, and only lasts 8 rounds, with the whole shebang lasting around an hour and a quarter or so with two to four non-AP players. In my opinion, the true sign of a good Euro is that when the game ends, you either feel like it was perfect in length (generally believed by the winner) or you'd have liked maybe one or two more turns (generally believed by the second and third placers) and with this game, I feel like the length is just about dead center of where it should be. Sure, I'd like the game to have lasted a little longer, but that's only because I was having fun with each play. It had nothing to do with the fact I lost every single damned time. Well, maybe a little. When the game ends, you simply look at your score track and add extra points based on you meeting your chosen Lord card's bogey, at which time you get extra points.

Anyhow, while I'm not the world's biggest fan of Euro games, this really "did it" for me, and surprisingly so. I certainly like this as much as Agricola, which I've grown to really enjoy after initially despising it, and while I like the blend of a fantasy theme with this kind of game, I think it really would've grabbed me a little more, maybe been a little more compelling for me, if it was a cold-war spycraft game as I described before. It just feels to me like a bit more of a cold war thing than a bunch of faux benevolent factions all trying to be the kindest, gentlest dictators. But if a guy can get into office and spend us into oblivion, take our own citizens and lock them away without trial, and the whole time tell us he's doing it because he loves our country, maybe it's not too far from the mark.

When you look at how backstabbity the game is clearly meant to be, it seems more political rather than fantasy, at least to me. I just never really picture D&D as a game of backstabbing and treachery as much as a dungeon crawl, but maybe that's only because I haven't experienced that aspect of D&D. That's just my perspective, so take it at face value. At the end of the day, I really think that the Knizia-Kramers of the world could take some notes from Wizards when it comes to European style games, because this really is one of the better Euros I've ever played.

Why I Love Diving For Awesome In Waterdeep:
- Great bits and thematic, but dated, art make this a neat game to see on the table
- The design is somewhere between Puerto Rico and Screw Your Neighbor
- Hidden VP conditions via Lord cards really makes this a thinker's game
- A Euro with player interaction? Who'd have thought this existed!

Why Waterdeep May Be Bobbing For Turds:
- The theme and backstory seem really contrived
- The box and insert design, while neat looking, is a failboat if you stand it on its side
- Do not play this with AP-prone players, because there are a lot of decision points

While it's like many a Euro before it, it's way more fun than its predecessors because it embraces something that Ze Germans haven't figured out: fucking over your friends in a passive-aggressive way is not as much fun as looking them in the eye while you're directly fucking them over. The intrigue cards and quest system really make this game shine, and this game should be at the top of every person who likes Euro style games but who thinks that there's not enough interaction in them. I'd call this the perfect "hybrid crowd" game that you can play with Ameritrashers as well as with Europolists. I really liked it, and so much so that even though this game is being given away to a Circus subscriber come Monday, I ordered a copy from Coolstuff because everyone I played with really liked it, along with Drizzt, another game I'm giving away. If that's not a good yardstick to measure my feelings on the game, that I have it and am giving it away, but am re-buying it, I don't know what is.

4.375/5 Stars

Watch the video on how to play here, made by a man with plastic hair:

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