I guess it would be fitting in a review of an expansion to Lords of Waterdeep that I first express my feelings for Lords of Waterdeep itself: I’m not a big fan.
To me, it exemplifies a lot of I don’t like about the direction hobby gaming has been headed in the last couple years. I almost wrote “it exemplifies a lot of what is wrong with hobby gaming,” but, really, it’s kind of silly to state something is flat-out wrong, and a lot of people like the direction Hobby gaming is headed. I guess that’s why it’s heading that way.
You see, hobby gaming is headed toward the mainstream. Which is great. It’s fantastic, and I love how more and more people are picking up hobby gaming every day. But what that also means is a trend towards the simplification and dumbing-down of games. Which, yeah, I guess is okay, too, in some respects. You have a proliferation of these “gateway” games that can introduce people to hobby gaming without overwhelming them with complexities. So that someone can easily get into Lords of Waterdeep (yay, it’s D&D themed!) and then when they say, “Hmm, this is rather simple and boring – is there something more interesting?” you can then show them Caylus or Agricola.
Which is fine, I suppose. My problem is that you’ve got all these board game companies in America springing up trying to innovate the hobby game to be more simple and accessible and sometimes it just seems like no one is trying to innovate towards deeper, more interesting game play. Everybody’s just taking well-worn tropes of the hobby and dumbing them down and repackaging them, which I find mildly annoying. I mean, do we really need another Cryptozoic deckbuilder?
Yep, okay, that was a good rant. Very ranty. All of that is to say, however, that we’ve got Lords of Waterdeep, and it is a watered down version of Caylus that people seem to like more because it is simpler and shinier and doesn’t take as long to play, but I am just not a big fan of it. It is entertaining enough, but I can’t help but wish for something more challenging.
Honestly, though, I guess I can understand if you don’t want to play a game with this guy on the cover…
So does the expansion Scoundrels of Skullport fulfill this desire? Does it elevate a basic game to a higher level of play? I had heard many good things about how the expansion made the game much better, but, to be honest, I was still rather underwhelmed.
For those unfamiliar, Lords of Waterdeep is a basic worker placement game. Various action spaces, which only one worker can occupy per turn, give you access to adventurers (resource cubes), money, intrigue cards (which you can play at another worker location for a bit of player interaction) and quest cards (which allow you to spend your resources and money at any time in exchange for points and other stuff). There’s also a single space that allows you to build one of 3 random buildings at the cost of money. Buildings add extra spaces for workers to visit, and when another player’s worker goes to one of your buildings, you usually gain some benefit.
Pretty basic stuff, and what the Skullport expansion adds is also pretty basic. Now you’ve got 3 extra actions you can take that give you pretty much twice the benefit of a normal space, but also force you to take a corruption token. Corruption tokens are worth negative points at the end of the game, and the more corruption tokens removed from the corruption track, the bigger the negative is. In the game I played, it ended up being -5 points for each token, which was a pretty big hit to my score since I had 6 of them.
And that’s pretty much all there is to the expansion. You mix in this set of Skullport buildings, intrigue cards, quests and lords that all interact in some way with the corruption tokens and then play the game like normal. The expansion box also comes with an Undermountain set of expansion cards, as well as materials for a 6th player, but we didn’t touch any of that, as we wanted to just experience Skullport, which we had heard was the better expansion set.
The corruption mechanic ended up being a bit of a double-edged sword in terms of enjoyment. On the one hand, it made the game a bit more complex, which I found refreshing. It essentially gives the option of getting a lot more resources at the cost of a points, though there were various ways to get rid of corruption tokens, as well, so with the right play, you could get lots of resources and then not really suffer too much of the consequences.
This added some much-needed depth to the game play, but still not really that much. I think the mechanic would have given a much greater enhancement to a game that had a more prominent engine-building aspect to it. Such that if you were using resources to increase your point-generating efficiency over time, getting large amounts of resources early would be more beneficial because they would help you build that engine. There are some quests that give you extra abilities and bonuses, but for the most the only real increase in power that you see is that extra worker in round 5, which happens automatically. This takes out some of the depth as the bonus and penalty for a corruption space both remain static throughout the game.
The other problem, however, is that with the addition of 3 new, highly lucrative action spaces, scarcity of resources has all but disappeared. In the base game of Waterdeep, there is only one place you can get a wizard that first turn, and if someone else grabs it, you had better figure something else out, or spend an action to get the first player marker to make sure you get the wizard next turn. With the Skullport expansion, if some takes the wizard spot, it’s totally cool because you can just take a corruption token to get 2 wizards. You hardly have to plan out your moves because of the plethora of good options. This makes the game less challenging and less fun if you are someone who likes board games that challenge you. I mean, the first player marker didn’t even change hands in the game I played until turn 5 when the extra worker was unlocked. A total scarcity of scarcity.
Honestly, I’m kind of undecided on whether the Skullport expansion has improved upon the base game at all. If I were to sit down and play Lords of Waterdeep again, would I want to play with the expansion? I guess I’m slightly leaning towards yes, but only because I didn’t get to see all the cards in the one play through and I like variety. And don’t get me wrong – I definitely would play the game again. It’s a fairly entertaining worker placement game, and that will always bring me to the table, but I’m not going to act like this game is breaking any new ground or that I wouldn’t want to play Glass Road ten times more.
Plus mandatory quests are still complete turds and should be taken out of the game without question.