Scoundrels of Skullport/Undermountain
Besides lauding its phenomenal box, I never really got around to talking about Lords of Waterdeep, the labor administration simulator set in D&D’s City of Splendors. For what it’s worth, it was probably my favorite worker-placement game — scratch that, it was the one that bored me least. Even with its ever-evolving city, myriad quests, and cutthroat intrigue, it remained a solid “pretty good” with me. That’s probably why I never wrote about it. You folks don’t
pay me read Space-Biff! for chatter about how a game is perfectly decent and it’ll appeal to a certain type of person; you want the latest gossip about my recent engagement to Archipelago or why I plan to bury Mage Tower in the backyard guarded by the corpse of my reanimated pit bull.
So it was a pleasant surprise to discover that Scoundrels of Skullport, the recent expansion for Lords of Waterdeep, takes a game I wasn’t particularly excited about and transforms it into something that’s really rather good.
Now With 20% More Guild
Scoundrels of Skullport actually contains three separate expansion modules, any of which you can use individually or mixed together with everything else. The Gray Hands, the game’s sixth faction, is easily the least interesting, so I’ll start there:
Now you can play as the Gray Hands. They use gray meeples. This lets you play with six people.
That’s about it. Review done.
In all seriousness, it’s a nice enough addition, and if your gaming group regularly consists of six people (and especially if you’re always the sixth dude, so you end up sitting on the couch and insisting you’re not dying of boredom while everyone else plays one of the thousand excellent five-player games out there), this is a useful bonus. Of course, playing with that many people means you’ll have fewer agents to work with, your games will have less going on but more downtime, and the scores will be low, but hey — six players.
Get Down, Way Down, in Undermountain
The other expansions are the real meat of Scoundrels, even when they aren’t doing anything too tricky. The “Undermountain” module, for instance, doesn’t seem to add much — the rules are the same, and the additional Undermountain board offers fairly pedestrian locations, though it does bring extra ways to pick up and play intrigue cards, which is a welcome change for anyone who found the base game’s approach to skullduggery a bit underwhelming. So far, so par.
However, “Undermountain” gets two things right. First, it adds a whole slew of new options, and second, those options are massive compared to the stuff in the original box.
Instead of regular quests that ask you to assemble a tidy little fellowship, give them a couple gold coins, and wait two minutes before they bring back a few victory points, you’ll be amassing entire war bands and outfitting them with so much cash you’ll groan at all the agents and turns you’ve spent scraping the necessary funds together — and then your heroes will waddle back home under the weight of a whopping 40 points. That’s right: a single enormous quest can jump you almost halfway across the entire score track in a single orgasmic opposition-crushing moment. Even the quests that don’t reach such breathtaking heights are more valuable, such as my favorite “Defend the Lanceboard Room” that gives you a paltry 12 VPs, plus eight new heroes of your choice. Which means you’ve just stocked enough manpower to blow through another couple quests if you’re smart enough to plan ahead. Some of the quests have such intimidating requirements that Scoundrels even comes with “caravans” that act as placeholders for groups of five heroes to make sure you don’t run out of goons to hire. This is good stuff.
Take the Low Road to Skullport
Excellent as the huge quests in “Undermountain” are, the best thing in this box is easily the “Skullport” module.
The first thing you need to know about “Skullport” is that it adds an entirely new mechanic: corruption. This lets the game get a bit wild when it comes to certain buildings, quests, and intrigues, beefing them up to a point that would have broken the vanilla game as surely as a a dwarf’s war-axe sunders a goblin — except here they’re totally fine because they come with a growling, menacing string attached.
See, in addition to the Skullport board, this module also comes with a corruption track. Whenever you use a location or card that shows the corruption symbol, you take one of this track’s little blue skulls and place it in your tavern, just like it was one of those heroes you keep hiring or the cash you’ve saved up. At first there isn’t much harm to this; after all, corrupting locations give the best bonuses, each marker only subtracts a couple points at the end of the game, and everyone is picking them up at about the same rate as you. But after a while, as soon as your best friend figures out a way to shed a little corruption each turn and your wife is somehow shunting hers off onto the board itself as a hateful disincentive to some of your favorite haunts, you’ll start to realize that maybe taking all those amazing actions at the expense of your faction’s reputation might have been a really moronic idea. Especially since the game is only halfway finished and if you’ve done the math correctly, seven corruption markers multiplied by negative eight victory points each… equals a royal boning at the end of the game.
This mechanic is nothing short of brilliant the way it entices everyone at the table to dabble a bit in corruption, especially when you see firsthand the tantalizing benefits of engaging in slave trading, completing disreputable quests, or using monsters as agents and scaring the town silly — only to deeply regret your actions when the citizens of Waterdeep start to realize that all the guilds are corrupt as balls and maybe they’re best off hiring someone who doesn’t regularly forge deeds to seize the property of political rivals. Or hire Mind Flayers as mercenaries. Or have doppelgangers imitate opposing agents. Or any of the other terrifying shit you’ve been doing to get ahead.
There’s one last minor rules addition at work in both modules. Certain buildings and cards will now instruct you to place resources on locations, to be collected by whoever visits that spot next. Some of these bring double-edged bonuses, like the Hall of Three Lords, which gives you 10 points for placing three heroes from your tavern onto three different locations; others are hilariously evil, like how Delver’s Folly’s ability lets you booby-trap locations with your corruption tokens. This is a nifty rule, and plopping perks onto crap locations or traps onto excellent locations adds a fun extra tactical layer to the proceedings, even if it’s only rarely employed to full effect.
If I had two minor complaints with Scoundrels of Skullport, the first would be that the setup and breakdown are now more of a time-suck than in the original version. For instance, if you want to use both “Undermountain” and “Skullport,” you’ve got to remove half of the original game’s intrigue cards, quest cards, and buildings before adding in the new stuff; and if you’re a bit OCD about putting your game away properly (don’t feel bad about it, I am too), then you need to sort each set of components into three sets once you’re done. It can be a bit of a pain, especially for a game that often takes as little as an hour to complete.
My second complaint is doubly minor, but I suspect it’s about something that will bug some people, so I’ll say it anyway: these new modules make Waterdeep much less crowded than it once was — and the overcrowding of this city’s stores, harbors, and castles is what drove the original game’s strategy, as it was all about monopolizing locations with your agents before you opponent did. With all these new options, you’ll rarely mess up your agent placement as completely as the original game allowed; by extension, blocking your opponent’s moves is doubly tricky. For instance, if you needed cash and didn’t visit Aurora’s Realms Shop, and there wasn’t a player-owned building to patronize, now you can just pop by the Hall of the Voice for more money than you would have made at Aurora’s, plus a quest card and an intrigue card. Sure, you’ll also take some corruption, but that’s a small price to pay when you’re in a bind. Alternatively, if you spot that your sister desperately needs wizards, it’s no longer possible to just block Blackstaff Tower and be done with it. Instead, she might visit the Hall of Mirrors, or trade slaves at Skull Island for two of the magic-tossing tossers.
In short, the original Waterdeep was all about painting your opponents into corners while staying a couple steps ahead of their own artistic ambitions, and that dynamic feels much changed here. Now the game feels a little more self-contained for each player, more about how well you manage your own tavern and ambitions than how cruelly you mess with everyone else’s.
Even so, that really is a minor quibble on my part. I like this new wild-west Waterdeep, complete with game-swinging corruption and enormous mega-quests and location-occupying poops or gems. If you were a fan of the original Lords of Waterdeep, this is definitely one of the best ways this game could have been expanded.