Non-Gelatinous Cubes

A mini-review of Lords of Waterdeep, the new barely-D&D-themed board game, and an attempt to explain what it is that’s re-ignited my interest in board games in general.

A year ago, I wrote about Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon, and I speculated that they were gateway games intended to get players into the full-on straight-up Dungeons and Dragons experience: purely tactical combat playable in a few hours, with a genuine D20 and without the socially-awkward fear that someone you know is going to suddenly start talking to you in a strange voice. In practice, the games turned out to be shorter-lived; the combat isn’t as open-ended as in a real D&D game, and it’s the storytelling aspect of actual role-playing that keeps the sessions from all feeling the same.

Wizards of the Coast has recently released Lords of Waterdeep, which seems to be the reverse of Ravenloft and Ashardalon: instead of translating the D&D experience into a board game, they’ve translated a Euro-style strategy game into the D&D universe.

It’ll take a while to find out whether it’s able to hold my interest longer than the other games did, but so far after two plays of a two-player game, I absolutely love it.

For anybody not familiar with the term “Euro-style:” it’s become a catch-all term used by board game geeks to refer to the types of board games popular in Germany, one of the only places where “board games” and “popular” can be used together non-ironically. They generally rely heavily on abstracted game mechanics, avoid randomization like dice rolls, and tend to reward players for “solving” the mechanic more than for defeating other players. (The opposite is called “Ameritrash” for whatever reason, and it’s heavy on dice rolls and other randomization, and it encourages player interaction and direct competition, like combat).

Lords of Waterdeep fits the Euro definition by being focused on resource management instead of combat, and by depending on a set of complementary mechanics that reward players who figure out how to use them all together. It’s a worker placement game that’s frequently compared to a bunch of games I’ve never played before: Caylus, Stone Age, Agricola, and Le Havre. I’ve seen several reviews from people more experienced in board games that complain LoW is just a simplified mash-up of other games they’ve already played. But since the closest I’ve come to a worker placement game is Puerto Rico, and since I’m not familiar with the Waterdeep setting or characters in D&D, everything in the game is new to me.

In the game, you play as one of the titular Lords of Waterdeep, the people of influence who secretly control everything that goes on within the city. Each player has a number of agents that he or she can send to various locations within the city, to earn money, recruit adventurers to the lord’s chosen house, get new quests, or construct new buildings with greater rewards for the agent assigned there. Most of the locations can only be occupied by one agent at a time, so the players will be competing over the best rewards. Once a player has gathered enough adventurers in his tavern, he can send them off to complete a quest, which earns victory points and, sometimes, ongoing rewards that continue throughout the rest of the game. At the end of the game, each player reveals his identity and earns additional victory points for completing quests of certain types.

If that explanation made little sense to you, the Dice Tower review gives a much better idea of how the game plays out.

Uncanny Undermountain

But if that explanation sounded like a fantastic world of intrigue and adventure, then, well, that’s my first major complaint about the game. The “adventurers” you’re recruiting are actually tiny wooden cubes of a particular color. And the “quests” you’re sending them on are just cards that cost a certain number of cubes and gold, and return a certain number of victory points. The theme is there, but you have to work pretty hard to keep it alive — always say, “I’m sending two rogues and a wizard on a quest to defeat the Drow Uprising” instead of “I’m spending two black cubes and a purple cube to get 10 victory points.”

That’s not to say that the theme is poorly done, or that it’s useless. The designers came up with what I think is an extremely clever way to map the mechanics of a Euro game onto the theme and setting of a D&D campaign. And it’s a perfect example of how much theme makes a difference in board games. Most of the resource management games I’ve played simply translate the resources into real-world equivalents: corn, wood, stone, sheep, or occasionally star fighters. So there are lots and lots and lots of games about farming. And there’s only a certain number of times you can hear the “I’ve got wood for sheep” joke before it gets tiresome. (That number is 1).

Keeping in the mindset of shadowy figures sending adventurers on quests can do a lot to keep the game interesting. But that, indirectly, leads to my second biggest complaint: even though I’ve only played the game twice at this point, I still feel as though I was doing mostly the same things each time. I suspect that there’s something of an “uncanny valley” effect going on — I’ve played Puerto Rico, which has a much less interesting theme, dozens of times without its ever feeling repetitive. But because Lords of Waterdeep‘s quest and intrigue cards suggest stories that are more interesting than collecting cubes to pay for victory points, it just draws attention to the fact that that’s basically all you’re doing.

This is a UNIX System. I Know This!

Those complaints aside, I enjoy the game a lot. Each two-player game finished in about an hour, but felt every bit as “complete” as a much longer game. I felt as if I was making interesting choices with every move, including my first move — there’s little sense of wasting the first few turns trying to build up an engine. Even my current favorites Dominion and Ascension haven’t been able to achieve that.

Even better, the mechanics of the game are simple enough to make it easy to develop a strategy for winning, but not so simple that there’s any one “right way” to play every time. I tend to be very reactionary when I’m playing most board games — I don’t have the patience to try and think several moves ahead, so I’m a lot more likely to try a move, just to see how it plays out. But with Lords of Waterdeep, I can actually formulate a strategy at the beginning of the game (suggested by the randomly-selected Lord card, each with its own secret victory points) and keep it through to the end. It’s like the scene in Little Man Tate, where the boy looks at a pool table and sees each of the balls’ trajectories across the table, calculates the angle and the force of impact, and instantly knows how to play.

For the record: I also got an uncommonly lucky starting draw in my first game, where both of my starting cards and my Lord card all worked together in a self-perpetuating victory point-generating engine, with no effort required on my part. On top of that, I was more willing to play aggressively against my opponent than he was playing against me — one of the aspects of the game that’s unusual for “Euros” is the inclusion of an “Intrigue” deck filled with cards that can make life difficult for your opponent. Even with those advantages, though, the scores stayed pretty close throughout the game. It seems very difficult for a player to just run away with the game, leaving the other players with no chance to catch up.

I got soundly trounced on my second game, and I enjoyed every bit of it. I’m looking forward to playing with more players, where there’s more competition for the available agent positions, and it’s not as easy (or even possible) to accomplish everything you set out to do in a single turn.

It’s extremely well balanced, it has a good mix of strategizing along with player interaction, it’s simple enough to allow for planning ahead but not so simple that the decisions don’t require thought, it’s a very clever combination of theme and game mechanic, and it’s possible to complete a game in an hour and a half. Plus, I didn’t mention it earlier, but the box and the components are extremely well designed — the insert has a place for everything, and the gold coins have holes in them! I think they’ve done an outstanding job with this game, and I’m impressed all around.

Board Games And Me

I’ve had an interest in board games for several years now — a side effect of being friends with an award-winning game designer — but it’s really taken hold over the past few years, as I’ve started to really understand the appeal.

My interest in video games has been, for the most part, focused on how interactivity affects and enhances storytelling. I used to joke that a lot of game developers were failed filmmakers, but I’ve got to admit it’s basically how I got interested in game development in the first place. I get how movies work, essentially, so the question is how can you use that kind of language to resonate with the audience on a more active level? How do you involve them in the process of creating the story, not just watching it?

It’s only recently that I’ve begun to appreciate game mechanics as an art in and of themselves. I’d taken it for granted that video game mechanics had become solidified and codified, with the main question being how to take the preset shooter, platformer, or real-time strategy template and use it to tell more complex stories. But now I’m feeling that that’s not solidification, but stagnation. It’s rare for a video game to introduce something genuinely novel, and even then it’s most often an add-on to something else: a first person shooter plus portals and comedy; a third-person action game plus the ability to rewind time; a series of boss fights but you feel bad for killing the bosses.

Board games can be every bit as iterative, of course. But while an uninspired video game with outstanding presentation can still be a good experience, even the best theme imaginable can’t make a weak board or card game fun.

That’s because all the systems are exposed, and that’s exactly what makes them so exciting to a jaded video game developer. A good game design is a system of complementary machines, turning inputs into interesting outputs, fueled and balanced with risks and rewards. The best games combine those mechanics in a way that encourages the player to create his own engine with the available parts, not just once but each time he plays the game. In that sense, complaints that Lords of Waterdeep is “just” a mash-up of existing game mechanics are so irrelevant as to be meaningless. It’d be like complaining that a baker doesn’t grind his own flour.

For years I’ve been trying the think of ways that video games could allow players to not just tick off a list of objectives with a predetermined set of pieces that work well together, but to actually become involved in the process of putting the pieces together themselves. Because if we can do that with resources and victory points, we can should be able to extend that to plot developments and meaningful character interactions.

SimCity lets players build mostly inert variations on Conway’s Life simulator. Minecraft lets players build spaceships and computers, but not stories. Computer RPGs have no actual role-playing. Civilization veers between tedious micromanagement and rote memorization from version to version. And Starcraft has gotten so bogged down with cut-scenes and lists of objectives that there’s little room left for devising new ways for the pieces to work together.

I’d started to think that the problem was so insoluble that maybe it wasn’t even a problem at all. Maybe the current state of big-budget games and derivative, over-simplified indies really was the best we could do. Maybe the publishers were right: players just don’t want to be challenged to come up with something for themselves, since it’s never a case of satisfying problem-solving and always a case of “having to read the designer’s mind.”

But then every few weeks I’d go to Board Game Night, and I’d watch everyone casually coming up with new strategies, getting engaged with the game and with each other, and having fun doing it.

3 thoughts on “Non-Gelatinous Cubes”

  1. Please bring Lords of Waterdeep to game night. I’d love to play it.

    Stone Age is a good combination of die rolling and worker placement. Susan and I both enjoy it.

    On the subject of video games, I’ve been playing a lot of multiplayer Mass Effect 3. Four players cooperatively fight 10 waves of AI enemies for about 1/2 an hour. One of the reasons I keep playing is that I enjoy figuring out combinations of class, powers and weapons for my character that are fun to play and work well together. It feels akin to repeatedly playing and figuring out a board game. Especially as I see what other players are doing and how I compare.

    1. I’ll definitely bring it. I’ve played several more times by now, and I still like it a lot. It plays very differently with 5 players — a lot harder to get stuff done — but still feels balanced and pretty fun.

      Interesting to hear about Mass Effect 3; I’d heard people saying they really enjoyed the multiplayer but never got an idea of how it actually plays out. I did neglect to mention that most of the “pure gameplay mechanics” stuff in video games seems to be happening in multiplayer modes & add-ons, or dedicated multiplayer games (like Frozen Synapse).

      I’m wondering if it’s possible, or whether it’d be appealing to enough people, to have that kind of strategizing in more of a thinking/tactical environment and less of a shooter. Could be that that’s already going on, and I’ve just not seen it since I hardly ever play multiplayer video games.

      1. I think it’s more prevalent in PC gaming than on the consoles.

        There’s something about playing with others that really focuses the mind. As someone who’s addicted to UniWar on my phone, I wonder why X-Box Live has never supported asynchronous gaming.

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