There has been a slew of excellent Dungeons & Dragons boardgames over the past few years. Mostly they consist of the sort of tactical monster bashing you'd expect. But one title stuck out like a sore thumb: Lords of Waterdeep.
It's a worker-placement game, and that means choosing any space on the board and placing a pawn there, simultaneously gaining yourself the resources associated with that space and denying it to other players.
Aside from the fact that the resources in this game are gold pieces and various classes of adventurer, it's about as far away from dungeon-delving as you can get.
Traditionally, games of this ilk have been very poor at getting across their themes. They tend to be humdrum puzzle-like affairs where players ponder over the optimal use of their resources instead of actually interacting with one another.
But Lords of Waterdeep tried hard to challenge both these conventions.
To inject a bit of life into proceedings, it gave each player a hand of Intrigue cards, most of which could be used to stymie the progress of other players while boosting your own. A few were genuinely nasty surprises you could spring on individual other players of your choice.
These worked brilliantly to spice up the play and, combined with easily learned rules and a light strategic framework that hid unexpected depths, the title rapidly became pretty popular.
Adding theme was less successful. The cards might tell you that you're recruiting priests and wizards to try and domesticate some Owlbears, but in reality you're actually accumulating white and purple cubes and cashing them in for victory points.
And this is where this iOS adaptation from Playdek takes what was already an impressive boardgame and ups the ante. To a large extent it just borrows art from the original game, but it was good art, and here you can enjoy it blown up to tablet size in glorious Retina display quality.
That simply difference goes a long way toward bringing the rich fantasy theme of the game to life, but there's more.
Clouds and flying creatures drift lazily over the city as you play, and day turns to night, causing the halls and houses to blaze with torchlight. Little sound clips of chinking coins and murmuring voices accompany your transactions.
Suddenly it doesn't seem like a dry worker-placement game any more. Instead, you're there, a shadowy lord with a hidden agenda, pushing your agents out into the city to pull the threads of fate and weave them in your favour.
Thankfully, these embellishments haven't been allowed to get in the way. There's a multi-step tutorial to see you into the game, all the information you need during play is easily accessible. and, in most cases, it's obvious how to manipulate screen elements to do what you want.
The Palace of Waterdeep
Playdek is famous for the quality of its asynchronous gameplay modes and Lords of Waterdeep is no exception. You can easily set up games with friends and strangers alike, timed to run as short as 30 minutes for real-time exchanges or as long as 45 days for slow asynchronous matches.
While that's welcome, you'll find solitary play is deeply engrossing. I fancied myself a pretty good player of Lords of Waterdeep, and sneered past the medium difficult setting without trouble. But the hard level pulled me to pieces in no time. The hidden depths of this game started to look more like the colossal dungeons of Undermountain.
The game does a grand job of mixing together disparate mechanics to add layers of strategy and replay value. Some quests have ongoing effects that alter your tactics. You can actually build new spaces with different effects, so the options are never the same each time you play.
It's a tricksy, chameleon thing that changes every time you think you've grasped its subtleties.
Lords of Waterdeep is a near flawless digital adaptation of an excellent boardgame. It deserves to be seen by a wider audience, and thanks to the winning combination of Playdek's creativity and the Dungeons & Dragons licence, this app has the clout to push it out toward the mainstream.