Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage – WizKids – Preview

It is very rare that I find a game that will appeal to both the more casual board gaming players AND deliver a highly tactical experience to my core group.  Mad Mage has everything a game needs to bridge the gap between player backgrounds.

Theme and What is it?

Five heroic adventurers have had strange dreams lately.  They know there is something deep in the undermountain that wants to be found.  It beckons them to come to the Yawning Portal tavern and brave entering the famous gaping pit in the common room.  Surely many dangerous traps and terrifying monsters await them below.  But the mad wizard Halaster Blackcloak has an enchantment strong enough and loot shiny enough to bring these adventurers down into his domain.  

Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage delves deep into a popular Dungeons and Dragons setting.  It will take adventurers from the Yawning Portal tavern in Waterdeep to the Guts and Garters in Skullport, the city beneath the city.  From there they will delve all the way to the darkest depths of undermountain and battle a series of mad apprentices and the mad mage himself.  

Which heroes will be a part of your adventures?  Nayeli, a human paladin tasked by Tyr himself to support anyone willing to purge the undermountain of all infernal presence?  Marcon, a human sorcerer with innate gifts in harnessing and channeling electrical energies?  Atka, a tiefling fighter who seeks only to free her adpoted son Marcon of his compulsion towards the depths?  Cormac, a half-elf cleric seeking to purge the undermountain of its undead monstrosities?  Or perhaps you would rather be Trosper, a gnome rouge seeking the unique riches created and stored by Halastar Blackcloak?

Gameplay Mechanics

Waterdeep brings all the things you would expect in a Dungeons and Dragons board game without losing any of the key features of the original module.  Gameplay is streamlined compared to a traditional pen and paper Dungeons and Dragons campaign.  

When you disarm a trap, there is no skill modifier to calculate.  You just roll a 20 sided die and are successful with 11-20 while a 1-10 blows up in your face.  The unique traps make you draw a card and effect the entire tile (flame jets for example).  They are a particularly good way to encourage weariness at all times.  Players familiar with the module or repeating a lost mission cannot know where these nasty surprises will show up.  

Players have power cards in front of them showing them their choices of basic at-will abilities, clever utility powers, and extremely critical daily powers.  Most of the extremely useful powers are flipped over after use.  This engages a depth of strategy for when is the right time to nuke the room or remove the biggest threat quickly.  

The encounter deck is my favorite part of Dungeon of the Mad Mage.  If a character does not explore on their turn or finds a particularly dangerous tile, they must draw and resolve an encounter card.  These cards can be anything from mildly beneficial to what causes a total party wipe out.  The key mechanic that makes this VERY strategic is the ability to cancel an encounter card.  Players gain experience for the monsters they kill.  They do not use experience to level up.  Instead, they use their experience to spot danger (a newly drawn encounter card) and avoid it.  

 

Initial Impressions

The painted figures are excellent!  Unboxing the game gives a lot of excitement in unwrapping and seeing what figures we have to work with.  I thought at first it might be a slight spoiler that the base tells me what they are.  It let me know not to expect just a beholder but a zombie beholder.  Given the necessary setup steps and how epic these monsters are when the story brings them into play, it wasn’t a spoiler at all.  I was very excited to see them used.  

I knew from reading the box this was going to be a tabletop adventure game instead of being like Lords of Waterdeep, one of my favorite worker placement games.  Knowing it was different than my previous board gaming experience did absolutely nothing to keep me from craving getting it to the table.  From the first picture I saw, I knew this game was going to end up in my collection.   

Game Build Quality

The premium edition ups the cost of the game in order to have prepainted miniatures.  These miniatures are excellent.  It would be incredibly hard for me to use plain figures after seeing these.  

I do not know what WizKids used to cut their punch boards but these were the nicest punch outs I have ever used.  When punching new games, there are often tokens that want to cling to the outer layer around them and might tear if not careful.  Each and every single token, tile, and board came out crisp and clean.  I normally wouldn’t talk about this experience but I have punched a lot of games lately and the quality of these boards were just way beyond any of the others I have done.

Dungeon of the Mad Mage brings you a lot of components!  The way basic and advanced cards are sorted by their white/gold set symbol at the bottom makes it easy to make the decks without referencing a 3 page table in the rules.  Cards get swapped in and out a few at a time after each adventure which makes the campaign complexity and difficulty slowly build.  This is an excellent design feature and really lets the player not be overwhelmed by the number of components while still having variety showing up during the campaign.  

Artistic Direction

The artwork used in Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage is in alignment with previous Dungeons and Dragons board games.  It also has similarities to the images I remember from my Dungeons and Dragons core rulebooks.  The details shown always highlight the fantasy elements and combat elements of what is being depicted.  Heroes are often brandishing weapons or holding dramatic poses.  Players experienced with Dungeons and dragons books, modules, or video/board games based on it will find the art to be well done in the style they expect.

Fun Factor

Dungeon of the Mad Mage offers deep strategic choices, the joy of rolling dice to determine the outcomes, and delivers a surprisingly fast placed adventure experience.  You do not need one of the players to work for hours planning the campaign and then putting in all sorts of hard work running the game experience.  The game takes care of running everything for you.  All of the players can work together to overcome challenges.  The mechanics of flipping cards and rolling dice to see what happens are easily understood and engaged with while still offering surprises.  

There are those moments when a hero is almost dead and they need to draw another encounter card or survive one more monster attack.  The tension is wonderful and even lends to some stand up and roll the die moments.  Sometimes it works out and the heroes gleefully chop down the monsters, loot the room, and leave with all the good stuff.  Other times, something entirely different happens.  

A notably epic fun moment for me was when we spent our last 5 experience to cancel an encounter and the very next player draws Rocks Fall.  Everyone was on the same tile and now this event comes in to attack all of us.  It succeeded.  The game delivered a true Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies moment.

Age Range & Weight

14+ is slightly higher than the gameplay requires.  Dungeon of the Mad Mage pits players against some of the most evil denizens Dungeons and Dragons has to offer.  The age these thematic elements become appropriate differ for each child and might change based on the rest of the players at the table.  

At its core, Waterdeep takes the classic Dungeons and Dragons mechanics and scales back the amount of bookkeeping dramatically.  In the equivalent for character creation, players choose 4 power cards out of around 8 possible options.  These powers are broken down into 3 categories so the most choice the player ever gets during creation is 1 daily power out of 4 great options.  This makes the game extremely accessible and gets play going right away.  

The mechanics deliver everything Dungeons and Dragons experiences have been using to draw and keep players for ages.  But the rules complexity is nothing like the depth in a pen and paper game.  Of the dungeon exploration and combat games I have played this was the most easily accessible.  I enjoy complex games and have a great deal of experience with D&D.  Mad Mage is not lacking in appeal to me for being overly simplified.  It strikes a perfect balance.  I intend to finish out the campaign we are currently plowing through and will use this as a gateway experience for a different set of players who are more casual players.  It should be a huge hit with both extremes.

Conclusions

Dungeon of the Mad Mage offers a great experience and there are a lot of reasons to add this to your collection.  The core enjoyment of diving into a dungeon, exploring different types of challenges, slashing your way through countless enemies, and telling a unique story as the player assumes the role of a character is what has always made Dungeons and Dragons so successful.  All of that core experience is distilled into this game. 

If you are looking for an adventure driven game with some good old fashioned dice based combat, pick this up.  If you are nostalgic for those Dungeons and Dragons campaigns but don’t have the time to plan and play something that involved, pick this up as an alternative.  Or, if all you need is more solid gaming in your life, go play Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage.

For me, the thing Waterdeep offers most to my game library is a great gateway to board gaming.  The theme is going to help me bring tabletop role-playing game players further towards board games in general.  The gameplay style is going to help me bring non-gamers into a world where they feel like adventurers actually exploring a dungeon and overcoming the challenges inside.  

It is very rare that I find a game that will appeal to both the more casual board gaming players AND deliver a highly tactical experience to my core group.  Mad Mage has everything a game needs to bridge the gap between player backgrounds and I will be running this adventure campaign much more than once.