Before we dig in, a few things you should know:

  • Lords of Waterdeep was heartily recommended to me by a friend. (Thx, Jenn!)
  • I played the base game without expansions four times with the same group of people over a period of three days.
  • I have read nothing about the game before or since playing.

Lords of Waterdeep can be played with up to five players. Support for six players would have been nice as one of us was required to sit out or team up with another player each game. There are fairly straightforward material cost and profit arguments to be made here for not including a sixth player in the base game, I suppose. Still, it’s a nice bonus any time a game that can be played with a certain number of people ships with support for that number. (Settlers of Catan and Dominion, for exmaple, start with support for four players and enable up to six with expansions. In contrast, Power Grid supports six out of the box. 7 Wonders—it’s right there in the name—can be played with seven people.) Each game took us roughly 90–120 minutes to complete not including setup and teardown (another 15 minutes).

Like all modern games, Lords of Waterdeeps hangs tight mechanics on a threadbare story. Maybe other people care for the contrived history of “Waterdeep” and the silly character names and artwork. I can take them or leave them. All games have a theme, this one is far from the worst. At the very least, some form of narrative helps turn lowercase “actions that help you and/or hurt competitors” into proper noun “Intrigues” and “the place you put your workers“ into “Buildings” that you own or send your “Agents” into. The “Lords” concept in particular needs to be further fleshed out. Lords were required to be played face-down during the game so other players didn’t know which types of quests were most advantageous for you to complete. Unfortunately, only one of the 10 or so available Lords had something printed on his or her card other than “Gain 4 additional Victory points by completing X and Y quests.“ The hidden agendas of the Lords had a lot of potential. Anything that can be tallied at the end of the game was available to be an agenda: Intrigues played, Agents controlled, total Quests completed, Gold collected, etc. Other games—again, Dominion—have done a much better job with this conceit.

Another area I found particularly frustrating was the lack of fluidity in the commodity market. Waterdeep allows for collection of money and multiple flavors of Agents, but aside from the Buildings, there is no standard way to exchange those resources for resources you really need. You can’t trade with other players and you can’t exchange them with the bank. When the cards aren’t in your favor (or you get nailed with a Mandatory Quest), it can really be painful. (This may have been exacerbated by playing with five players. In a game with fewer players, each round has many more useful turns.)

Because Waterdeep was so enthusiastically recommended, I definitely came in with high expecations—though not necessarily higher than normal. Nearly every game I find time to play is somebody’s game of the year, so Waterdeep was not more anticipated than Terra Mystica, 7 Wonders, Dominion, et al. Did it live up to the hype? Not really, though I can say that it was a lot of fun and comfortably sits in the upper half of games I would play if given the choice. The best part of any game is the first few games after learning the rules but before everyone knows the strategies. In that respect, we’re right in the center of the best part of Waterdeep. I expect we’ll easily get another 3-5 games in without being bored. We may even pick up the expansion to extend the life of the game.

Still, I can see the end coming pretty quickly. Having played more than a few Euro-style games, they all start to feel like remixes and variations on a formula. What does Waterdeep offer that Puerto Rico, Race for the Galaxy, and Terra Mystica don’t? Quests, Intrigues, and Buildings come up in random order, allowing plenty of tactical decisions while also preventing truly considered strategies. It’s the type of game that is engineered to come right down to the wire among experienced players. That’s a bittersweet gaming pill to swallow. It can absolutely be a blast to play with new or old players and it rarely requires your complete attention. Lords of Waterdeep is like the best of fast casual dining: consistently good without being terribly expensive. If you’re looking for the idealized form of skill and randomness in a tabletop game, however, Dominion is still the only three star game I’ve found.