This weekend I played a game of Lords of Waterdeep for the first time and I am having trouble figuring out if I love it or hate it. Lords is a board game that advertises itself as being of moderate length but ends up taking forever because of people trying to crawl inside each other's minds. Individual strategy is simpler than Agricola, comparable to Puerto Rico, and is similar to Puerto Rico in that you can't decide anything of use without knowing exactly what everyone else will do.
I love Puerto Rico, so maybe I love Lords? It has some mechanics in common, such as slow accumulation of bonuses on things that haven't been selected and essentially drafting job choices, and that seems good. I definitely think the theme and fluff are fantastic - when I want to do a quest to save some injured soldiers I need to collect clerics to do it, then when I succeed I get a bunch of fighters to do work for me in a show of gratitude. I am not a fan of the Realms from a roleplaying perspective, but the general DnD / fantasy theme is well done and I like it.
The general flow of the game was good, and felt polished. I liked way the game was balanced too - quests were variable in quality, and although some quests being much better than others might strike others as imbalanced I thought it was excellent because then the actions that let you gain and/or manipulate quests became useful. I enjoyed the game quite a lot for the first seven turns.
The eighth and final turn though... I dunno. I was in the lead, just barely, but because some points are hidden and my hidden points were low I wasn't at all sure I was going to win. I did have a pair of huge plays set up though, and it seemed that if I hit either of them I would win. Unfortunately for me, everyone at the table decided to throw their turns away to prevent me from scoring either play. All three other players failed to score a quest on the last turn of the game, which seems like it has to be extremely unusual, and I won via tiebreakers.
It didn't feel like a fun last turn though. Even the player who had no chance to beat me tossed away her turns to stop my plays, and had she not done so she might well have been able to push her placing from fourth to third, while extending my lead from tiny to massive. This was a result of a common dilemma - is the game simply winner take all, or does placing matter? Being in first in a winner take all scenario is frustrating because people who can't beat you spend their time pounding you down instead of pushing their own placing, and it feels like scoring points and playing well in the early game might not even matter because it just means you get hammered in the late game. If players were actually playing to maximize their own rank instead you end up with people getting in fights over 3rd/4th place, and that might just let the leader walk away with a victory while 2nd place stews that nobody focused on the leader.
In these sorts of situations I like to be playing for money with a points system to determine the payouts. I remember encountering this sort of issue before when playing Settlers, and the system I ended up liking best was scoring people based on the difference between their own score and the average score of their opponents. That means that endgame revolves mostly around maximizing one's own score, but punishing opponents is still useful. I find that games are just more fun when each player is playing to push their own agenda, and taking a whack at opponents when they overextend or when a really juicy opportunity presents itself. I don't mind being in first at having people put a target on my head so long as the entire game doesn't become "Beat Sky".
I wonder what it says about me that so often I want to 'solve' board games by introducing complex meta point systems and play for money. Perhaps it means I take these things too seriously!