It’s so wonderful to say this: The iOS App Store is absolutely glutted with outstanding digital board games.
2013 brought us a number of excellent translations—Warhammer Quest, Talisman, Eclipse, and Pandemic, to name a few—and Playdek’s latest effort, a conversion of Wizards of the Coast’s Lords of Waterdeep, certainly belongs on that list. The app is, like fellow Playdek titles Ascension and Agricola, a gorgeous, faithful, sped-up version of an already tightly-designed tabletop experience.
Waterdeep is a worker-placement game in the vein of Agricola, but with a Dungeons & Dragons theme. (As if medieval farming wasn’t exciting enough.) Over the course of eight rounds, two to five players compete for resources in order to complete quests and earn victory points. Each round, each player gets a certain number of “agents” to place in various spaces around the board, gathering gold and colored cubes representing “adventurers” (black cubes for rogues, white for clerics, etc.). Combine the correct amount of colored cubes and/or gold, and you’re able to complete a quest. Players also buy buildings (new resource spaces) with gold. Intrigue cards, “plot quests,” and special spaces modify the rules on the fly. The player with the most victory points at the end of round 8 wins. But of course, there’s an additional wrinkle: Depending on which Lord of Waterdeep you were randomly assigned at the start of the game, you’ll earn bonus victory points for completing certain quest types.
Got all that? I didn’t either, the first time I played the tabletop version. But by my second game, I’d mastered the basics. After five or so games, the elegant interplay of the design began to make itself felt; I began to see how finely-tuned the quest rewards, cost/benefit tradeoffs, and rule modifications were. And after maybe 150 games (!) on my iPad, I’ve nearly got each quest card memorized. I’m thinking several rounds ahead, plotting strategies and adjusting them as the situation dictates. Waterdeep is the rare game that moves the player from a mechanical to a conceptual understanding in short order.
The iOS version of Waterdeep speeds up that learning curve significantly, with a well-implemented tutorial and a faster pace than is possible on the table. There’s no abstraction to the interface: What you’d see on the table is exactly what you see on screen, save some background animations for flavor. This decision preserves the board game’s simple, elegant design instead of needlessly complicating the app (and disrupting the flow of play) with animations. Playdek has even improved on the in-person experience by easily allowing you to see the other players’ current resources and quests, crucial information for tactical decision-making. Double-tapping to view cards in detail, like all other actions, is responsive and quick. And aside from rare “hiccups” when moving agents or zooming in and out, I experienced no technical issues.
As you’d expect, Waterdeep excels as a multiplayer game. While asynchronous online play works smoothly, the added step of having to create a Playdek account above and beyond your GameCenter login is an annoyance. This also makes it a bit more difficult to find (or re-find) friends. Additionally, you have to create a “profile” within the app that tracks your stats and represents you online — a system whose purpose and necessity is not well explained. But the game is so well-suited to asynchronous and pass & play rhythms that it hardly matters.
When playing against the AI, you can select one of three difficulty levels for each opponent. In my experience, though, the AI’s level didn’t impact difficulty so much as the number of players in the game; it’s a lot harder to win the more Lords are competing. Luck plays a role as well, since not getting good quests or Intrigue cards in the draw can stymie your plans. It’s not immediately clear what distinguishes “easy” from “hard” AI, although the tougher AI tends to more aggressively block other players’ moves (as opposed to fulfilling its own quests first).
What I love most about Waterdeep, and especially Playdek’s iOS version, is that it’s one of the few games I can have a sub-.500 record in and still adore. Winning is great, sure. But experiencing the intricate interplay of the game’s mechanics is a delight every time.
J.P. Grant is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, Gamers With Jobs, and other outlets. He blogs about games at Infinite Lag and is also on Twitter.