“Conquest is not in our principles. It is inconsistent with our government.”
Jefferson may have been talking out of his woolen breeches there, but perhaps he knew that his fledgling republic was a fragile thing that could only be supported by the naive consensus of a war-weary population. He knew, of course, that there were far worse forms of government and would stop at nothing to prevent the United States from submitting to the dangerous allures of Maskism and its quest-based economy.
Waterdeep, for the uninitiated, is a large coastal city in the Dungeons and Dragons Forgotten Realms setting teeming with hidden adventures and perils. It’s also a stinking bastion of Maskism, a system of government in which anonymous, masked lords scheme against each other and send adventurers on quests. It’s unclear why the populace puts up with this but, given the setting, perhaps it was choice between this and being enslaved to a senile witch king who forcibly marries them to livestock. Luckily, as the title implies, you play as one of the masked lords. As Thomas Jefferson also said, “If one must quest with Masked Lords, one should endeavor to be the one in the mask.”
Lords of Waterdeep was originally presented to me as a more mobile-device-friendly alternative to Agricola, as it shares some core resource management mechanics with that game. Each round, players take turns distributing their pool of agents to locations throughout the city. Locations typically yield resources in the form of color-coded adventurers (cubes), though some generate money, new quests, initiative, intrigue cards, or build new locations. Once a location has been claimed by an agent, it’s unavailable for the remainder of the turn. After each placement, players can score a single quest in their possession if they can pay the requisite cost in adventurers and/or gold. Quests are the primary method of generating the victory points needed to win the game, but many provide continuous passive benefits or generate resources when they’re scored.
The quest system contains a lot of hidden complexity as the printed victory points don’t necessarily predict its value. At the end of the game, any unused adventurers and gold are scored as victory points (1:1 for adventures, 2:1 for gold), which means you need to consider the victory point cost of the resources you’re spending, the victory point value of the quest, and the victory point value of the resources, if any, that are generated by scoring the quest. Additionally, the quest’s type will matter to most players, as each participant is randomly assigned their masked lord’s hidden identity at the beginning of the game. Most lords will get a victory point bonus at the end of the game for each quest they score of their favored types (Arcana, Warfare, Skullduggery, Piety, or Commerce). Most lords (with one exception in the base set) will have two favored categories and get four victory points per applicable quest.
Players familiar with the game will probably be able to guess their opponents’ lords based on their quest-taking behavior, a task that would normally be far more difficult in an asynchronous mobile version than at the kitchen table, but developer Playdek has gotten quite comfortable navigating the weaknesses of the medium. The app provides a function that lets players view the actions of every previous turn. In truth, this may even be overcompensation — tabletop players still have to rely entirely on their memory — but it’s still a better alternative to trying to remember the one move your opponent made six days ago.
Most of the interactivity between players in this mostly Euro-style game is in the form of intrigue cards. Intrigue cards are played by placing your agent on the harbor location. Unlike most locations, the harbor can be activated up to three times in a round. Intrigue cards provide useful effects that typically involve the giving to or taking of resources from other players. In truth, playing an intrigue card is usually a weaker action than activating a resource-generating location. This is balanced by the end-of-round phase, where players who assigned agents to the harbor can reassign their agents to any open non-harbor location. In this sense, playing an intrigue card is something of a half-action, giving you a weak bonus effect in exchange for delaying your more productive action.
Finally, and perhaps the game’s most intriguing mechanic, is the ability to spend gold to construct new locations. By placing an agent in the Builder’s Hall, you can put a new, advanced location into play. These locations usually yield superior resources to the base locations, but there’s a catch! If anyone other than the builder uses the location, the builder is rewarded with either adventurers, gold, victory points, or cards.
Designer Analysis: The Agricola Question
As I mentioned earlier, Lords of Waterdeep is often compared to Agricola due to their similar mechanics. Waterdeep is obviously inspired by Agricola, but its design decisions make it a considerably simpler game.
All point-scoring in Waterdeep is additive; there are no penalties for lacking a particular resource or milestone, which means you can recklessly focus on your strengths rather than give considerations to your shortcomings.
Your strategy is largely dictated by your lord’s secret identity. If you get extra victory points for Skullduggery, you know you’ve got to chase Skullduggery if you want to compete on an even field with your opponent. Agricola can be a far more dynamic game, but players can potentially be paralyzed by the number of options they have for formulating a strategy. While Lords of Waterdeep is far from a shallow experience, it’s the less demanding of the two.
Games are kept relatively fresh through the randomization of lords and available buildings and quests, though the narrowness of effective strategies can eventually begin to show. A few more unusual lords, like the one who scores bonus points for owning buildings rather than scoring quests, would go a long way towards diversifying the experience.
Should You Play It On A Mobile Device?
Whereas Agricola’s complexity makes coherent asynchronous play difficult, it’s pretty easy to put yourself back into the perspective of your masked tyrant after a prolonged absence.
As always, the price of admission is far lower in the digital medium ($6.99) but you’ll have to live without seeing the masked, smiling face of your opponents. You’ll also be waiting between turns unless you and your opponents happen to be connected at the same time.
Playdek’s one of the more reliable digital board game adapters — they also adapted Agricola. The touch and drag interface is responsive and satisfying, but the developers made the curious decision of rendering the game board to scale, despite most of the board consisting of empty, non-interactive space. This means you’ll be scaling the board fairly often. While only a minor nuisance, if throw in the somewhat grating soundtrack, you’re left with a slightly less polished adaptation than is typical of Playdek.
That said, the digital version benefits from a built-in ranking system, challenging AI opponents, and a playable tutorial to a degree that I would go so far as to call it the superior version of the game.
Besides, packing away all the fiddly bits is for the maskless peasants.
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