In Which I Am Confused By Liking Something

I mentioned Lords of Waterdeep before briefly, but now that I’ve played it a few more times, I’d like to say a little more because it’s challenging me in a few ways.

It’s a really good game. The action moves along at a good clip, each game evolves a little differently, and it neither finishes up too abruptly nor overstays its welcome. The game is quite streamlined. There’s very little that adds kinks to the gameflow. (In fact, we got a rule wrong that made things wonkier than they should be.) I’ve taught it a couple of times now and it’s really easy to teach and learn because everything proceeds in a straightforward manner.

So what’s the problem? No problem, just the fact that the game is getting a lot of praise despite doing absolutely nothing new. There isn’t a single innovative idea in it. In fact, it has a lot about it that’s just plain derivative of existing games. The theme — the players are working for the eponymous lords of Waterdeep, deploying their agents to complete quests — is somewhat tacked on. You’re hiring adventurers (purple wizards, white priests, orange fighters, and — and someone might should have thought this out a little — black rogues) which are just colored cubes. They could be anything. There’s absolutely nothing about this, on paper, that should stand out.

Compare with Trajan, the latest game from Stefan Feld. It’s got a unique and clever mancala device which determines which actions you can take and what you can do with them. Manipulating the mancala is the heart of the game. It’s something that (other than in Mancala) I’ve not seen before, and it adds a whole other dimension to the game.

And I just couldn’t care less.

I’m unable to describe why there is a difference for me between Lords of Waterdeep and Trajan. The theme is pretty thin in Trajan, but as I note, it also is in LoW. The ancient Rome thing is overplayed, but it’s not like I’m excited about D&D’s world either. There’s a lot more going on in Trajan, and many more paths to try out, but still, it leaves me cold. LoW is ultimately more fun for me, more of what I want to play a boardgame for.

In a strange way, the novelty of Trajan isn’t even that novel. Feld’s designed other games, such as Notre Dame, Macao, and The Speicherstadt which, although they each feature some rather innovative mechanic, all sort of blur together with Trajan for me. I walked away from all of them thinking, “that one bit is kind of neat” but not being captivated by the game itself.

So what we learn is, for me, it’s not just mechanics that do it. While it’s true that I’m tired of the same old thing, there has to be more than just the same old thing plus this one slightly new thing. And yet, LoW pretty much is the same old thing, but here I am, really pleased with it. What is it doing? How’s it earning this? No idea.

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