The city of Waterdeep has a certain allure to those who grew up consuming books, maps, and box sets about the Forgotten Realms’ City of Splendors, imagining being part of its political intrigue–or that could just be me and my love of skullduggery. Therefore, when it came up on Amazon, my roommate decided it was an instant purchase. We reminisced about Khelben, the Undermountain, the Yawning Portal Inn, and the older PC game, Descent to Undermountain (where I never managed to make it particularly far).
When it arrived, we were first rather astonished at how well the box and its content were put together. It was a mini-puzzle in and of itself–one that the manual spells out for you. Stephen and I looked at each other and made the remark that if the game is designed anywhere near as well as the box, we would be in for quite the treat. So, what about the game, then?
When you’re not spelunking into the Undermountain, Waterdeep is known for intrigue, plots, and the fact that the lords (and ladies) who rule it are quite secretive, many of them not even publicly known. Which is what the game quickly makes clear: the lord you are randomly assigned is to be known only by you, as you place their card under your player mat. These player mats are ostensibly tied to an organization such as the Harpers or Red Sashes, but these have little in-game effect outside of your color choice and whether you wish to roleplay as the particular group. Then again, to be caught in by the intrigue of Waterdeep, you will be performing all manner of deeds, whereby alignment of a particular organization almost seems quaint.
As a Euro-style board game, there are a number of pieces that move about with player precision, while a victory track circles the entire playfield like some obscene vulture waiting for the carrion that is sure to come. While it seems like there is a lot of information to absorb at first, the board does a remarkable job of telling you exactly what each part does, and where what goes. This is a game all about strategy and becoming the premier lord or lady of Waterdeep by gaining victory points through various actions, whether they be completing quests or purchasing buildings and using them. These are the actions that are seen by anyone walking the streets of Waterdeep, so accordingly, you record their impact on your score immediately. However, it is by placing your agents that this all takes places, and whereby you control the game.
A lord whose identity is secret, you are never involved directly until the end, instead relying on your agents to be placed turn after turn. Where this matters is that outside of a few special card effects, once an agent is placed on a map tile, no other agent may occupy the same space. Need to recruit some fighters but someone has already tied up the Field of Triumph? You’ll need to find some other way. This also means that if I know you need to have some fighters, I can well decide I need some for myself.
This is where strategy starts being affected by the luck of the draw. Depending on the intrigue cards in your hand (which provide bonuses, hindrances, or direct-but-weak attacks), your available pool of adventurers (used to complete quests–you’re not delving into the dungeons yourself, after all), and the quests available (some of which provide permanent bonuses), you’ll find your available actions are either quite limited, or you’ll be chaining actions in an ever-increasing spiral of victory point laps. Of course, this means that you could well be doing something else instead: preparing yourself for future successes.
Of course, you’ll be juggling both preparation and being able to improvise if carefully wrought plans go awry. If you know you are going for primarily Arcana and Piety quests, you’ll want to stock up on the harder to accumulate wizards and clerics. Of course, too much preparation can make it very obvious what your aims are, giving opponents more chances to block your attempts, though they’ll have to balance it with achieving their own goals. The game is a constant decision of how much time you are willing to invest to stop your opponents, which won’t necessarily score you any direct victory points, and to further your own desires and aims.
Given the level of chance involved, thus far each game I have played has led to enough of a difference that it has never quite felt like playing the same game, nor has it felt like the entire game was ruled by luck alone. The more players that are involved (up to five) means the scores tend to even themselves out more, as there are fewer windows of opportunity, and more chances to be blocked. Thematically this fits the City of Splendors ruled by secretive lords, though if you’re not a fan of the Forgotten Realms or D&D, it serves quite fine as a strategic gamble that will last anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half.