Recently, Playdek announced their partnership with Wizards of the Coast and that they would be bringing Dungeons & Dragons to iOS. Their first project has just released and it is a port of the Lords of Waterdeep worker placement board game. This type of game lends itself beautifully to the iPhone/iPad and Playdek has proven themselves more than capable of delivering very high quality ports. I’m always impressed with their work, however not this time.
This time, I’m completely blown away.
In Lords of Waterdeep, you play as a masked lord, a secret ruler from within Waterdeep. Each lord belongs to a secret society (faction) who assists the lord by allowing them to use their Agents. Each lord has an agenda, a power-play to gain a stronger foothold in the city’s hierarchy of influence. By completing specific types of quests which coincide with this agenda, your lord can earn yet more Victory Points (VP), the tally by which a leader is determined.
Quests come in the form of Arcana, Commerce, Piety, Skullduggery and Warfare. Some lords even favour the addition of buildings to their great city. You’ve no control over which lord you will be assigned at the start of the game, and you will not be able to know your opponents’ lords until the final score has been tallied.
This adds to the intrigue, and those who can deduce everyone’s agenda early on will fare better, as strategy plays a large part in this board game. It is not enough to bolster your ranks and work on your own agenda. To truly succeed, you must also hinder the other lords.
As a lord, you employ both Agents (workers) and Adventurers (clerics, fighters, rogues and wizards). Agents are used every turn to recruit Adventurers, gather gold, purchase buildings or gather Victory Points. Quests are completed using some combination of Adventurers and gold. The completion of these quests adds a sometimes substantial amount of Victory Points to your total, while sometimes returning some of the Adventurers and/or gold to your coffers.
As an example, Recruit Paladins for Tyr has a cost of 2 clerics, 4 fighters and 4 gold, with a reward of 10 VP and 3 clerics.
As you can see from the screenshot, this is a Piety quest. If you look at my lord, it’s Nindil Jalbuck, who gains an additional 4 VP per Piety and Skullguggery quest completed during the game. As such, this is a good quest for me to complete. Not only will I get the 10 VP for completing the quest, but an additional 4 VP will be added to my tally at the end of the game.
In addition to quests, you may play Intrigue cards. There are only certain locations on the board upon which these Intrigue cards may be played, and they can easily turn the tides in your favour, so it is imperative to use these whenever you can. Some will bolster your Adventurers’ ranks, others provide you with quests, while some will hinder your opponents by forcing them to complete mandatory quests which provide little reward. Yet more will allow you to occupy locations already used by your opponents, or even replace one of your Agents, or allow you to send two Agents out in the same turn. As you can see, Intrigue cards are not to be ignored. Play them wisely and when deciding which turn to use them, think strategically.
The majority of the story in Lords of Waterdeep is found within the lore text on Lord and Quest cards.
Expose Red Wizards’ Spies reads “The Red Wizards of Thay use spies to gather information and sow discord throughout Waterdeep”.
Infiltrate Halaster’s Circle reads “Get in there and find out what Halaster Blackcloak, the mad wizard of Undermountain, is up to”.
Convert a Noble to Lathander reads “Lathander, god of the dawn, is popular among commoners and nobles alike”.
This board game is dripping with lore. To anyone who would say they cannot see that, I would answer, you are simply not looking in the right places, nor paying attention. It’s there, in every action.
Dungeons & Dragons has always been a benchmark of one’s imagination. When a quests sends you to loot the crypt of Chauntea, do not simply see this as a means of gathering 7 VP, 1 Intrigue and 1 Quest. Rather imagine the adventure your rogues and cleric will encounter in this haunted crypt, and the tale none will live to tell.
Now that we’ve gotten the lore out of the way, let’s discuss the logistics of Lords of Waterdeep; let’s go over the actual gameplay.
As stated earlier, Lords of Waterdeep (LoW) is based on a worker-placement board game. If you’re unfamiliar with that term, what it means is that you are granted X amount of workers per turn, and proceeding clockwise, everyone gets to place a worker token (which is represented as an Agent in LoW) on a resource. This resource might be a location, such as Blackstaff Tower which rewards you with one Wizard; Cliffwatch Inn which will reward you with quests and Intrigue cards; Builder’s Hall which allows you to add more locations to the map; or Waterdeep Harbor which allows you to bank a turn and play an Intrigue card.
You have two forms of “currency” with which to complete quests and objectives: Adventurers and gold. There are four types of Adventurers, represented by different colours (white, gold, black and purple). Each quest costs a mixtures of these, and certain quests will return some to you in addition to Victory Points (VP). The player with the highest VP at the end of the game wins.
That said, don’t just consider your VP tally during the game as an accurate reflection of what your final score will be, as your avatar (the lord which you were randomly assigned at the start of the game) will grant you additional VP if you complete specific quests which match his or her faction(s) of choice. As an example, some lords will grant you an additional 2 VP per Commerce quest completed, while others will grant you an additional 6 VP for every building you purchase. Make certain to know where your lord’s priorities lie and use that to your advantage while playing.
The game is limited to 8 turns, which makes gameplay fast, engaging and adds an element of strategy needed to ensure you accrue all of the resources required for completion of your quests before time runs out. I’ve played dozens of games so far, and none has lasted more than 45 minutes, and that is at the outer most length limit. Most games are done well within 20-30 minutes.
You can play online via asynchronous multiplayer mode or offline using pass-and-play mode (which uses a touch to continue), or against the system’s A.I. which has three levels of difficulty. The game can be played by 2-5 players.
I found the A.I. challenging, though not impossible to beat. There have a been a few instances where I caught it cheating, anticipating the perfect quest when selecting to refresh the available quests at Cliffwatch Inn, even though those presented were all adequate. Instances like this inevitably make me think back to Puzzle Quest’s notorious A.I. which cheated at every turn. To be fair though, it does not happen all that often with LoW.
LoW’s UI is spectacular in every regard. It can be zoomed in and out so as to easily read a card’s smallest print, and is snappy and responsive. You can scroll through the entire board with ease, and show or hide your cards so as to make room on your screen. The standard double-tap zoom applies to all cards with a single tap to zoom back out. The only issue I’ve experienced, and it’s not even worth removing a score point over, is that the map always zooms in at the middle, regardless of where you place your fingers to zoom in. As an example, the available quests are displayed at the top of the map, however if you place your fingers over the cards and pinch out to zoom in, the map will still zoom in at the centre of the board. You then have to scroll up.
Again, this is not a big deal, and only requires you to touch the map and slide your finger down. Still, it’s a minor bit of polish that should have been added to this already amazing UI.
Various elements can be adjusted in the settings, such as the animation speed (how fast elements move on the screen), music and sound effect volumes (independently controlled), ambient sounds (dogs barking, birds, construction sounds, etc) and confirmations.
There is also an extensive rulebook which is clear and easy to read. That said, you probably won’t need it thanks to the exceptional tutorial which Playdek has added to the game. Definitely take the time to play through it. Don’t worry if you still don’t grasp all of the concepts though. Play a few games versus the A.I. on easy and you’ll quickly pick up on all of the nuances the game has to offer.
There is also a Card Gallery in the options which shows off the impressive art found on the cards. It’s definitely worth a scroll-through.
As a final thought regarding LoW’s gameplay, let me just say how unbelievably impressed I am with every single element of this game. I never played the actual board game, and so came into this without expectations. This means I am reviewing the game, and not my hopes of what the game could have been.
And I couldn’t be happier, nor more addicted to this game.
As a final thought on gameplay, I love that they chose to go with a vertical alignment versus the traditional horizontal. This allows you to hold the iPad as you would when reading a book, and grants a different layout than what we often get with board games. Had it not been too difficult to accomplish however, I’d have liked the choice to be added so that it auto-adjusted based on orientation. That said, I don’t feel this warrants removing a point.
Lords of Waterdeep is an absolutely beautiful game. The map is intricately drawn in sepia tones (which gets progressively darker as the turns progress), animated with passing clouds, birds, ships and the likes. A gryphon flying by adds a dimension to the map which makes it far more interesting to interact with, without taking away from the importance of the locations and cards.
The cards are, as previous mentioned, impressive to say the least. The card art, displayed to the left on horizontal quest cards and on top for Intrigue cards, is stunning, though never so overpowering as to be the sole focal point. Each card appears printed on different types of parchment paper, highlighted in gold, using matching font colours. The cards also have banners to display their faction.
Avatars are chosen from faces cut out of these cards. There are thirty to choose from, ranging from eleven females to old, balding wizards. I’ve been using a Nightcrawler look-alike quite happily.
The outer edge of the board is stone-like in appearance, representing the lord levels to 99. Tokens are placed and moved to display everyone’s level at a glance.
It’d be easy to simply display all of these elements in a static fashion, however Playdek adds a fair bit of flair in how turns, plays and such are animated on the screen. These always blend in perfectly with the game’s colour palette and style, and add depth to the experience.
Suffice it to say, Lords of Waterdeep is gorgeous, while never overstated. I wouldn’t change a single thing about its visuals.
As with most card or board games, the audio is enjoyable for the first few games, then promptly gets turned down or off completely. LoW is no different. This isn’t to say that it isn’t well done, as it is, but rather that any score on infinite loop gets tedious. That said, due to the type of score used (old English), simply dropping the volume turns it into a pleasant background melody to be listened to while playing.
Likewise with the background sound effects. You certainly don’t want to be listening to Sparky barking at the thief in the alley for too long, nor the birds or gryphons screeching (it’s hard to tell which is louder). While I believe that listening these adds a certain amount of life to the city of Waterdeep, it also makes it distracting if set too loud (which is the default). Luckily, all of this can be adjusted via the settings.
The sound effects used while playing however are my main critique when it comes to the audio for LoW. Too much of a good thing doesn’t make for great audio in a game, and Playdek needs to learn that. Every single action has a sound effect associated with it, whether taking a quest, placing a worker at a target location or zooming in and out of a card. There are a lot of sound effects in this game, however for me, this doesn’t add to the game’s allure, but rather makes it feel like a morning shock-jock radio show where every punch-line or key word is highlighted with an annoying sound effect.
Tone it back, Playdek. Again, more of a good thing isn’t always better. Sometimes, it just turns what could be an enrichment into a cluttered mess.
Luckily, we are given the option to independently control these sounds. I selected to keep the ambient sounds while turning the sound effects down to as low as 2-3%. I set the music at about 5%, and this complements the game perfectly for my tastes.
Lords of Waterdeep has an incredible amount of replayability thanks to the randomness of play (lords assigned, quests revealed, opponents, online play). At $6.99, it may seem a little pricey, however the game provides a rewarding, addictive experience that is certain to have you playing several matches a day.
Would I be happier if it was a couple bucks cheaper? Sure. That said, it’s still well worth the seven bucks.
Often I’ll tell people to wait for a sale when a game is over five dollars, unless it justifiably warrants that cost.
Don’t wait for a sale. Pick up Lords of Waterdeep now. You won’t regret the purchase.
Playdek was kind enough to send me a copy of Lords of Waterdeep a day before release. This didn’t give me a lot of time to get something out on time for release day, however having played only a couple matches, I decided to hold off until I’d gotten more time with the game. Since then, I’ve clocked in many hours and dozens of games. I’ve played online and local multiplayer, as well as against every level of A.I. difficulty with groups ranging from 2-5 players. I’ve won some, and lost more, but with every game, learned a little something and looked forward to the next match.
LoW has become my go-to game to play in nearly all of my free time, which speaks very highly of what they’ve accomplished.
This isn’t just an Editor’s Choice. Lords of Waterdeep is now on my list of must own games for iPad owners.