Stop the press! Keep reading for your chance to win a brand new copy of Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage!
Over the past five or ten years, the Dungeons & Dragons brand has reinvented itself not only as the most popular RPG system in the world, but also as a diversified range of board, card and video games. Since 2015, the range has included a line of board games that take the core RPG system and simplify it into an accessible board game. The latest in this line is the brand new Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage (Waterdeep henceforth.)
Waterdeep sets the scene around a group of adventurers who are preparing for an epic journey beneath the titular Waterdeep, one of the most famous cities in the D&D mythos. Rumour and legend tells of the Mad Mage, Halastor Blackcloak, and the army of bestial denizens that he holds in his thrall. Some venture for loot, others for vengeance or salvation — their reasons are hinted at, but the players are encouraged to tell their own story.
Right out of the box, the available characters in Waterdeep are relatively unusual in comparison to some of the more classic role playing choices, and it’s pleasing to see that Wizkids have chosen to support a more inventive set of narrative choices. Playing as the gnomish rogue, for example, can offer some unique support opportunities in combat, whilst the tiefling fighter is more elegant than the classic orc barbarian in the tanking department.
There are a couple of traditional options in the form of a human paladin and a sorcerer, whilst the elvish choice is a cleric. These latter choices are somewhat specialised, so whilst their race and class might be familiar, the actual way in which they play feels quite exciting and different. Overall, this is true of all the characters, which is somewhat to do with how Waterdeep streamlines play.
Like the other boxed D&D games, Waterdeep offers players a sample of the full role playing experience without any of the complexity. Setup is a simple matter of choosing one of the thirteen adventures from within the adventure book and then building your chosen character by selecting a number of starting skills. The exception to this is when Waterdeep is played in a campaign mode, which introduces a simple and easy to manage way of levelling up characters in between missions.
Each character comes equipped with a specific class skill, but may then choose one daily skill, two utility skills and one additional class skill, each of which will be unique and interesting. Daily skills are very powerful and will usually only be used once per mission, whilst most of the other skills will be flipped when used, but can be recharged when needed. Base class skills remain active for the whole mission, and represent a standard or default attack, more often than not.
For players working through the campaign, there are some simple rules for how the characters can spend their gold or experience between missions. As a result, it may be possible for characters to obtain additional treasure cards, spells or abilities that help them in the later, tougher missions. When levelled up, the character card is flipped, to show how their attributes and skills are enhanced.
With a mission chosen (or reached, if you’re playing the campaign) all characters will be placed on a specific starting tile that has one or more arrows pointing from on. On each player turn, a hero will first move and/or take an action (such as attack, search or disarm a trap) and, if their turn ends adjacent to the edge of a tile, they will perform the exploration step.
Exploration is very simply, and just involves placing a new tile (drawn from an upside down pile) onto the board next to the tile edge that it was discovered from. Most tiles align based on an arrow system, although the manual doesn’t mention that some tiles don’t have arrows. Either way, the tiles clip together cleanly and the rules for how to move across tiles are clear and simple.
Another thing that isn’t noted in the instructions is the fact that some of the tiles are listed as “Dungeon” tiles whilst others are “Cavern” tiles. All are marked “Dungeon” on the rear, which personally I think is a misprint. As it turns out, it’s easy to tell Dungeon and Cavern tiles apart from their fronts, but it’s annoying all the same. This isn’t the biggest issue, but it’s the kind of thing that might confuse the novice players that the game seems otherwise designed to please.
After placing the newly explored tile, features such as traps (depicted by tokens) and monsters (drawn from a deck and then represented on board by excellent miniatures) are placed, which is usually bad news for what comes next. After exploration, the player will deal with the villain phase and then the monster phase, which are more or less the same, but set a logical sequence.
In the villain phase, any monster that is known as a villain (Halastor Blackcloak, for example) will activate, in accordance with his or her tile. The villain tiles each clearly articulate how a villain behave. In Blackcloak’s case, he will attempt to cast spells when at range, or bludgeon the heroes with his staff when up close. Some villains are more complex than others, but all are presented in the same, accessible way.
Monsters are similar, but act after villains. Each monster has a card that will also detail the behaviour for that monster, including how and when it attacks. Both villain tiles and monster cards detail the base attack and armour class of the creature they represent and any damage tokens can be placed onto them until their demise. On that note, combat is ridiculously simple to resolve, which will be welcome to anyone who has been put off dungeon crawlers in the past.
Simply put, Waterdeep uses a single D20 to resolve combat, based on a comparison between the strength of an attack and the armour class of the target. Successful hits will deal a set amount of damage (which can sometimes be modified) and that’s that. Wounds equal to the damage caused would be placed onto the target and some wounds deal status effects like stunned, weakened or similar.
As an example, a lightning bolt has a strength of plus seven, so the sum of the D20 added to seven needs to beat the armour class of the target. A modified roll of twenty would therefore beat an armour class of eighteen, the the lightning bolt would deal two damage. If a natural 20 was rolled, then the spell would deal one additional damage as a critical hit. The lightning bolt doesn’t cause a status effect, but if it did, that status would be placed onto the target as a token that reminds the players of what it does.
After the villain phase, the next player takes their turn and so the game continues. With five players (or five heroes, rather, as Waterdeep can be played entirely solo) the board is built out very quickly, and the combat is fast paced and exciting. In the version we have for review, the painted miniatures (available in the premium edition of the game) look fantastic and really bring the world to life.
Fans of the Dungeons & Dragons universe will recognise many features that occur in the story, even though it is only presented through occasional paragraphs in the adventure book and on some of the encounter cards. Halastor Blackcloak himself is a famous character in the world, but so too are his apprentices Trobriand, Muiral and Arcturia, all of whom the players will face down.
Undead beholders, veteran warriors, mages, shadows, hags and all manner of other horrors appear in the dungeons and tombs of this adventure, whilst thirteen quests is about fifty percent more than you’ll see in most dungeon crawlers of this kind. Wizkids has been unusually generous here both in terms of the number and quality of the minis, but also the narrative quests that you’ll use them in.
Each mission takes about sixty to ninety minutes, which could easily mean that a dedicated party could play through two or feasibly three in one evening. The pace is fast and the level of difficulty, I feel, is not prohibitively high. The variety of skills that characters have access to make them feel unique and powerful, whilst the enemies appear ominous and dangerous.
Defeating villains through good use of skills makes players feel fantastic about themselves, even if it’s relatively easy to do so, and I can tell you from personal experience that most of the enemies in Waterdeep would make mincemeat of a novice player in either pen and paper D&D or in one of the numerous videogame interpretations.
Whilst Waterdeep feels aimed at the fairly casual end of the marketplace, that doesn’t stop it from being extremely enjoyable. With swathes of interesting and exciting enemies to cut through, zap and shoot in the knee, and a lot of missions to work through, there are few better places to begin your tabletop dungeon crawling than here. Waterdeep looks incredible and it plays very smoothly, and the only warning is that it may not appeal to the most experienced gamers out there.
Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage Giveaway.
And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for — if reading about all this D&D goodness has got you excited, and Dungeon of the Mad Mage sounds like your cup of tea, then you can win a copy!
We are grateful to our friends at Asmodee UK for providing a copy of the game to be used in this competition. Entries to win Dungeon of the Mad Mage will be accepted until midnight (UTC+0) on April 30th and only UK entrants are eligible. In the past, we’ve found that most people ignore regional restrictions, so in the event that you do enter from outside the UK, you will need to cover postage costs (and any customs charges) to your country.
A copy of Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage was provided for review purposes by Asmodee UK. You can purchase it from your friendly local game store, or by visiting Amazon.