Playdek has built a good reputation converting trading card games to iOS, and their recent foray into board games, Agricola ($1.99), showed they know their way around that type of conversion just as well. Their latest release, Lords of Waterdeep ($6.99), is unsurprisingly another thoughtful adaptation, this time of Wizards of the Coast’s 2012 hit Forgotten Realms board game. Like other mobile adaptations of board and card games, the advantages are clear. It’s a lot cheaper, it’s easier to play with friends, you can play solo against or fill out your multiplayer games with AI opponents, you don’t have to set up or clean up, and cheating is considerably harder. If you happen to be a fan of the actual board game, I’ll save you a few minutes of reading: this is a faithful version of the core game, so if that’s what you were looking for, feel free to buy without remorse.
For the many who haven’t played the original board game, Lords of Waterdeep puts you and your friends in the roles of the Masked Lords, who anonymously rule the thriving port city of Waterdeep. I like how the shadowy identities of the characters were worked into the game, in that you cannot see which Lords the other players are using until the game is finished. The goal of the game is to score the most victory points, which are earned in a variety of ways, but primarily through completing quests. To complete quests, you need to have the right amount and type of adventurers, and sometimes, a little gold to finish the deal. All of these things are gathered by placing your agents in various locations in the city of Waterdeep.
Each game takes place over eight rounds, with each round broken into four turns. Very simply, the game plays out with everyone taking turns placing an agent on a location and reaping the rewards of that spot. Each spot can only be occupied by one agent per round, so it can be a bit of a mad dash to get the resources you’re looking for. If you manage to collect the needed resources after placing your agent, you can turn in the quest and collect your reward before ending your turn. Some of the locations are very straightforward, giving you one or two of the needed adventurers or some gold directly. Aside from those, you’ll also find locations that issue you new quests, allow you to buy a building or piece of land, give you the first turn next time, or have you draw or let you play an Intrigue card.
Intrigue cards have a variety of effects, some of which can benefit your enemies while giving you a greater reward. Used at the right time, these cards can turn a game on its head, or at least close the gap between players significantly. This theme of beneficial effects also benefiting your opponents to a lesser degree can be found throughout the game’s design, an excellent nod to the gnarled mess that politics can become. For example, when you buy a building, you’re potentially giving opponents access to far greater resources than the default locations provide, but you’ll earn a little profit each time they use it. Will that balance out well for you in the end? Sometimes it will, sometimes it won’t.
In addition to the victory points directly earned from completing quests, you’ll also earn a bonus at the end of the game based on how many resources you have left, and, importantly, the type of quests you completed. Each Lord has two quest affiliations, and if you complete quests of that type, you’ll earn a bonus. Here, too, we can see the balance of helping yourself and hurting your foe. At any given moment, four quests are up for grabs at the Inn. Obviously, you’ll want to complete quests that will give you a bonus, but if you can suss out which character the other players are using, you can also work to keep beneficial quests out of their hands. That strategy can also be used against you, so you might want to be careful about constantly grabbing only the quests that match your affiliation. Of course, none of this matters with the AI, but playing with other humans reveals a fun little psychological aspect to Lords of Waterdeep.
Speaking of the AI, it’s merciless, even at the lowest difficulty. It’s kind of funny because the game has a great tutorial that will carefully teach you the mechanics of the game, then after a certain point allows you to finish off the game it was using to instruct you. You’ll have a big advantage at this point, yet I imagine a lot of players will still end up losing that match. I would say that it’s probably a bit too hard, but at the very least, you’re going to end up a pretty good player if you practice enough against the AI. At least the nature of the game means you aren’t going to end up horribly far behind even if you lose, so you can salvage a little pride.
As you would expect, the star of the show is the multiplayer. As usual with Playdek, you can play via hotswap locally with your friends or you can play online. Online play is not handled through Game Center, but rather through a Playdek account, so you and your friends will need to sign up for one if you don’t have one already. Once everyone had themselves set up, we had no trouble getting a game going. If you don’t have enough friends with the game, you can also play with strangers, and at least while I’ve been playing, there are no shortages of games to join. You can play in real-time or asynchronously, and as usual, you can have multiple games on the go if that’s how you roll.
Compared to some of the card games Playdek has handled, Lords of Waterdeep has a less busy play area, so it works out well even on the smaller screen of the iPhone. I had no trouble understanding where everything was and what everything did, which is sometimes an issue when you need to fit a kitchen table’s worth of play area on a screen only a handful of inches big. There are some small animated touches on the board, but nothing garish, and the music that plays in the background fits the theme well enough. The game is really good about highlighting elements to clarify whether they’re available or not, too. This is actually one of the cleaner conversions I’ve seen from Playdek, though part of that is owed to the source.
I only have a few small complaints about the whole thing. The first is kind of a silly one, but there’s a really great expansion available for the Lords of Waterdeep board game, and it’s kind of hard to go back to the core set after playing that one. I’m dead certain it will added as an IAP at some point, but I really wish I could buy it from the get-go. Next, although this is nothing new, and becomes less of a problem each time, I do wish Playdek would use Game Center for their online matches. It seems like I have to walk a whole new set of friends through signing up for a Playdek account every time a new game comes out. Finally, the AI really needs to be toned down at the lower levels, because as-is, I think the average player is going to find single-player frustrating.
These are just minor gripes, though, and they do very little to diminish the fine game in front of me. This is a well-designed board game that’s been converted with care, and so long as you’re not resting your hopes entirely on playing against the mean old AI, any fan of strategy or board games would do well to give Lords of Waterdeep a look. Make sure to say hello in the thread on our forums if you want some great people to play with.