Lords of Waterdeep is based in the Dungeons and Dragons world. More specifically, in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. Unlike the other board games that have been released by Wizards of the Coast over the past few years that are also set in the D&D world (eg, Wrath of Ashardalon and Conquest of Norrath), this game is pure euro. For all intents and purposes, it is a worker-placement game with a pick-up and deliver mechanic (no, really, it's funner than that might sound!).
The idea behind the game is the following: Each player takes on the role of a lord of Waterdeep - one of several actors who essentially controls the politics and economy of the City of Splendor (as Waterdeep is known). To increase their influence, they hire adventurers to complete quests on their behalf. For example, you might hire a few rogues to infiltrate one of the many guilds composing Waterdeep's market economy. The more quests you complete, the better you do in the game - the player who completes the most (and most valuable) quests, wins.
The game play blends the theme with the mechanics almost seamlessly. The game plays over eight rounds, and each round players take turns assigning their agents to different buildings. Each building procures the player something, but most commonly a collection of adventurers. Adventurers come in four flavors: clerics, rogues, fighters, and wizards (in other words, classic D&D archetypes). After assigning agents to a building and collecting its benefits, a player can complete one quest per turn. To complete a quest, you must return a certain type and amount of adventurers to the general stock. In return, you earn victory points - and sometimes gold and more adventurers, or even advantages that last throughout the duration of the game.
That's basically how the game plays. There area a few extra things, however, worth noting. First, the game begins with several basic buildings that allow players to procure all necessary resources: the four types of adventurers, quest cards, money, and intrigue cards (more on this in a second). But players who visit the Builders' Hall can also build a new building for that turn. This creates more spaces and resources for players to use and collect, and also provides a benefit for whoever built that building: whenever another player assigns an agent to that building, the owner receives a reward, as well.
Intrigue cards allow players to mess with each other more directly than simply blocking one another when assigning agents to buildings. Sometimes they allow you to steal adventurers from other players, while other times you can force them to complete a quest before moving on to their own, more lucrative quest cards. Perhaps most importantly, when you play a quest card, you do so by assigning an agent to Waterdeep Harbor. At the end of each round, everyone who assigned an agent here, that is, played an intrigue card, gets at least one more turn to assign agents to buildings. This mechanic forces players to be in each others' faces.
Finally, at the start of the game, players receive a Lord of Waterdeep card that indicates their particular character. Each character is typically associated with a specific type (or types) of quest cards. For example, a lord may be associated with both Skullduggery and Piety (odd combination, but it happened to me with the character Nindil Jalbuck - an evil doppelganger of an otherwise honest and philanthropic halfling). For each quest of that type you complete, you earn bonus points at the end of the game.
Why we love this game
a. Lords of Waterdeep is easy to learn and pick up, and it goes quite fast. Our games clocked in at around 45-60 minutes. My current gaming group starts around 2200 and we usually poop out sooner rather than later. This means games that are quick to pick up and play, but strategically fun, are a boon. What's more, with the Lord of Waterdeep cards, each player starts out with a clear goal that helps shape their strategy.
b. I like the theme, a lot. I've never played D&D as an RPG, but I've enjoyed the literature and the D&D Adventure Games (we own both Wrath of Ashardalon and The Legend of Drizzt). This game evokes the D&D world in a very unique way. Although I wish the adventurers were something other than classic euro-cubes for thematic reasons (I insist that everyone call the cubes wizards, clerics, fighters, and rogues, and not purple, white, orange, and black cubes!), it still works: you get the idea that you are hiring people to go do stuff for you. Fun, dungeony, high fantasy stuff. I dig it. It just does not feel like a cube-pusher to me. Along with the theme, there's actually quite a bit of flavor text (and incredible artwork) on the cards and in the rules book that make it even more fun (and yes, I read my flavor text, out loud, too, when completing a quest!).
c. Although you keep track of victory points as you complete quests, you never quite know who wins until the end of the game, because it's only then that the Lord of Waterdeep cards are revealed. This means that the run-away front runner will not necessary win - and if they do, at least everyone else feels like they're still in the game and has a chance up until the bitter end!
d. Finally, this is a good game for all numbers of players (2-5) for which we've played (2 and 4). Strategy changes slightly between player counts, but, in our experience, anyway, the core feel and tactics of the game remain constant between 2 and 4 players - a rather rare and well done feat, in my opinion.
In short, Lords of Waterdeep is absolutely fun. I want to note, also, that within my gaming group, I am the only one with any D&D background or, shall we say, enduring and obsessive high fantasy/sci-fi interest. But that did not seem to matter: everyone loved the game and the theme, and this is one of the few games that got a call back from my gaming group.