Asara and Lords of Waterdeep (Game Reviews)

I enjoy worker placement games. If you’re unfamiliar with those, the idea is that each player chooses from available actions by placing one of their pieces (a “worker”) on it. For the rest of that round, that action is unavailable to be used again. To win, you’ll need to plan ahead for the upcoming actions you need to take, and figure out which ones to take first based on what you expect other players to block. In order to make these choices interesting, worker placement games tend to be long and complex. However, I recently played two games in this genre that simplified the mechanics a good deal. Here are my reviews of Asara and Lords of Waterdeep.

I have only played each game once, so take my opinions even more lightly than you normally should. But I’m unlikely to play either again in the near future (one didn’t impress me, and the other is owned by an out-of-state friend), and I did feel like I got a good feel for their strengths and weaknesses in that single play.


Asara box

Asara

Asara replaces worker tokens with cards of various colors. Rather than playing a single one on a space, players will need to play two if they don’t have one of the right color. And the needed color is determined by the first card played in that region of the board. So not only do you need to worry about claiming specific spaces before someone else uses them, but you should also try to be the first player in the regions that seem most important to you, so you can play multiple actions more efficiently.

It’s a decent idea, but it ends up feeling too random. It’s impossible to predict what combination of cards each player will draw, and how many actions you’ll end up with depends largely on whether other players happen to choose colors that match your strengths for the key regions of the boards. Worker placement should be about the tension of wondering which actions will get blocked from you; Asara replaces those considerations with unpredictability – it’s possible that the player who beats you to a certain region will actually choose a color that helps you instead of hurting you.

The actions themselves are decent, but not enough to make up for the aimless decisions. The theme involves gathering pieces for towers: Players collect bases, middles, and tops, and then perform the action to put them together. Certain tiles offer bonus points, and all have colors that must be matched together. Plus, players need to manage their money so that they’ll have enough to pay for the good actions when they get the opportunity to use them.

The board mid-game.

I wouldn’t mind playing Asara again, though I wouldn’t seek it out. The board is beautiful (it’s a Ravensburger game, after all), and there are no real flaws in the gameplay. It just doesn’t feel like it offers anything: The strategy in building towers offers only basic choices, and the worker placement aspects lack all the tension that these sorts of games usually offer. In the end, the game will depend more on the luck of the card draw than on the choices you make.

Grade: C


Lords of Waterdeep box

Lords of Waterdeep

Lords of Waterdeep, on the other hand, offers a much more compelling version of “worker placement lite”. It uses a Dungeons & Dragons theme, but it actually feels very abstract. Your points come from gathering the right combination of colored cubes to fulfill “quests”; The game would feel exactly the same if it were about fulfilling orders in a factory or collecting butterflies.

However, the mechanics work. This is a Caylus-style game with a lot of simplifications. In addition to the actions that let you collect cubes or choose new quests, you can also build new buildings. Once on the board, each building offers an action that is more powerful than the ones that were originally available. However, if someone uses a building that another player built, the builder gets a reward.

This shouldn’t sound too original to anyone who familiar with worker placement games. If anything, Lords of Waterdeep is less innovative than Asara. Where Waterdeep succeeds, though, is in finding the right combination of elements to make the game feel different. The ways to score are straightforward, and the buildings and quests are drawn randomly, so the convoluted planning of other games is lost. The strategy is replaced by the randomness of the card draws, as well as the “Intrigue cards” that offer special abilities. I like games like Caylus or Agricola to feel heavy and strategic, but there’s a place for lighter, less predictable fare. Waterdeep has the right balance of strategy and luck for a game of its depth.

Near the end of a game. Note that at this point, most of the workers are placed on the powerful buildings – cards on each side of the board.

Despite this new balance – an hour-long game with a decent amount of unpredictability – Waterdeep maintains all the elements that make worker placement interesting. New buildings make actions more powerful as the game goes on, so the final turns are the most important and exciting. The cubes, money, and quests that everyone needs create those tense decisions about which action to choose next, and it’s still necessary to plan ahead to figure out which actions you’ll take in order to complete your various objectives. Even those Intrigue cards, which may sound too much like the arbitrary “screw-you” actions in more chaotic games, fit into the worker placement design: To play one, a player will need to delay a worker placement until the end of the round, giving others the chance to claim the best actions. All my talk about randomness is just in comparison to the standard worker placement games out there. The best player will still usually win this one.

Lords of Waterdeep is not the next Caylus, but it doesn’t intend to be. As an hour-long medium-weight game that offers a taste of what is usually found in harder games, it carves out its own niche.

Grade: B

(Images above from Board Game Geek. Follow the links for the original and photographer credit.)

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    • jompoi
    • May 28th, 2012

    You asked for feedback from non-gamers, so… I’ve never played board games – probably due to the boring & stupid (IMHO) ones of my childhood (a very long time ago). Your review makes these games sound very intriguing. Despite my not knowing any of the jargon, you explain it well enough for me to understand the review & your crtique of the differences of the 2 games. The review makes it quite obvious to me (for the 1st time) why adults might want to play a board game. It’s probably not something I would get into myself, but I’ve learned never to say never. Thanks. I really enjoyed reading it and the boards are beautiful.

    • Thanks! It’s good to know that my explanations make sense.
      I am not a fan of the “boring and stupid” games of old, and think that modern board games offer a lot more than those. On the other hand, I always did like games, and I did enjoy things like Monopoly and Risk back when that was all I knew. So it’s hard to say how the ones I’m reviewing here would appeal to someone who wasn’t interested in those games to begin with.

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