'Lords of Waterdeep' Is a Great Board Game Adaptation but a Bad Teacher
The game you know and love, but only if you know it enough to love it in the first place.
screenshots courtesy Playdek
I spent a lot of this past weekend playing a few long games of Lords of Waterdeep on Steam, which is a newly-released PC adaptation of one of the most popular worker-placement board games of the past few years. It's an ingenious use of the Dungeons and Dragons theme to make what might be a rather dry resource-acquisition game into a competitive fantasy adventure. The fantasy equivalent of something like Tom Sawyer's Whitewashing Simulator, perhaps.
The idea is that you're all guild leaders—lords, even—in the city of Waterdeep. You gain victory points by completing quests, and you complete quests by acquiring pools of Rogues, Warriors, Wizards, and Clerics (basically just different-colored cubes). In order to get those cubes, you have to send your agent markers onto the game board to different locations that provide those resources. Order of play is crucial: once someone places their agent on a space, nobody else can send their own agent there.
There are two catches. First, you also have a hand of Intrigue cards that provide special effects and ways to attack your competitors. Second, some quests have their own special effects and synergies than can provides victory point bonuses if you use them together.
The port was handled by Playdek, who did last year's superb release of Twlight Struggle, and I would say they've done a good job here of faithfully and effectively adapting the tabletop game to the PC. I have a few quibbles with the UI, and how badly the game gives cues to players about whose turn it is, but otherwise it feels like a fast and hassle-free version of Waterdeep.
But I was struck by how differently my friends reacted to the game, because I was pretty much the only one who had played much of the board game. And seeing the PC version through their eyes, I do admit that it can be a little inscrutable. You have to carefully read what the cards do if you're going to know how they work, but Waterdeep doesn't give you more than a few seconds to see what another player just did with their turn, which means the only stuff you can really learn from the PC version is whatever happens to come through your hand over the course of a game. That ends up making the game feel much more mysterious than it's meant to, and also makes it take far more games to figure out how the various decks are composed.
That indifference to comprehension even extends to the scoring phase, when everyone's score is tallied up individually but the game doesn't even show you what gave some people the critical bonus points that put them over the top. So you'll finish a game, and see that you lost because of some kind of synergistic effects that someone else got… but have no idea exactly what they did to get those points or how it worked.
It doesn't bother me that much because I've played a fair bit of this game and know what's in it (though even for a veteran, the scoring screen is unbelievably unhelpful). But it got me thinking about how difficult it might be for a digital board game adaptation to be equally functional for veterans and novices.
If you know Lords of Waterdeep, the digital version plays like an (admittedly no-frills) shorthand version of the board game. It's fast, snappy, and functional. But if you haven't logged quite a few hours with the cardboard version, the digital edition is inscrutable. You might find it playable enough if someone is around to explain it a bit, enough so that you can keep the turns ticking along, but there's a better-than-even chance you'll finish the game with only a loose idea of what exactly just happened.
The cool thing about a tabletop game is that, in addition to having time to sit pondering your own moves, people have to explain their own. Everyone has to see the mechanics of each turn in order to agree that, yes, that's how everything is supposed to work. But in getting rid of that guesswork and speeding up play, a digital version also cuts out the way that board games are designed to teach themselves to players.
I think Playdek sidestepped this pitfall with Twilight Struggle because every card in that game is dual-use, so that you are still carefully interacting with cards that your opponent plays from their hand. The game explains itself with every move. Waterdeep, like a lot of worker placement games, can feel like "multiplayer solitaire" where other player's choices are only rarely interacting with your own plans. That's an illusion, of course, but it's an illusion that the faster-pace of the digital version definitely strengthens.
I still like Lords of Waterdeep a lot, and am pretty happy with this digital adaptation. It takes a familiar game and provides it with a more convenient format. It remains a great game for chatting with friends around game board while everyone takes their turn, though it also means that games can be weirdly long in light of their simplicity.
But I wish Lords of Waterdeep did more to help new players understand why this game was so much fun in the first place. Instead, they are left with a fast, convenient Mystery Box of a worker-placement game.