Conquest of Nerath
is a new strategy boardgame set in the world of Dungeons & Dragons, debuting this month. Players raise vast armies of soldiers, heroes, and monsters to fight a fierce war across the lands and kingdoms of old Nerath. In this article, designer Richard Baker and developer Peter Lee take a look at this brand-new D&D boardgame.
A Long Time Coming
Rich: You might be surprised to learn that Conquest of Nerath, AKA project “Demogorgon,” has been in our back pocket for quite a while now. I was given the assignment of creating a D&D strategy wargame back in the spring of 2005. I created a basic design drawing based on my love of “light” wargames such as Risk, Axis & Allies, Empires of the Middle Ages, Greyhawk Wars, Divine Right, and many others, put together a couple of demo kits, and played the heck out of it. Then our business plans changed, and we put the project on hold.
However, as the immortal bard (H.P. Lovecraft) wrote, “That is not dead which can eternal lie.” From time to time we reexamined the idea and checked to see if the stars were right. Finally, a little more than a year ago, I was surprised and delighted by the resurrection of Conquest of Nerath. Our business team wanted to move ahead with the game, and so we pressed forward.
At the time, we didn’t want to tie the game to any particular D&D world, so I was asked to create a new map rather than use a map of Faerûn, or Krynn, or Eberron. The map I sketched for that first draft of the game is very much like the final map you can see on the board, although the Iron Circle used to be its own island, and there was a large sea area on the eastern side of Karkoth. As part of creating the map, I began to pencil in evocative names for the various territories. Naturally, I borrowed the most iconic and famous D&D dungeon names to describe the various dungeon spaces. For many other spaces I let my imagination run free: hence, the Ruined Land of Tarsembor, the Plain of Ebon Spires, Tithinia, the Golden Savannah, and more.
Pete: As I joined Wizards in early 2008, I hadn’t seen the early design of the game. So, I was able to give it a fresh look when Rich brought it out. When we started development in the middle of 2010, it was already in strong shape. Most of the changes in development were just minor tweaks to the gameplay.
After some discussion and brainstorming, it became apparent that the map was not very far off from what we knew about the implied setting around the Nentir Vale and the old story of Nerath. We revised the game map and the territory names to highlight the setting, and built up the story behind the war accordingly.
Rich: Many modern games of this sort are designed as free-for-alls, where the players can strike any alliance they like or betray their allies at any moment. I wanted to support free-for-all style play, but I also wanted to give players a natural set of conflicts to fall back on. In my experience, a number of players have a hard time picking a fight when a game provides no default narrative for who’s at war with whom. Risk is an outstanding example: To play well, you need to be obnoxious and drop one of your red pieces in the middle of North America when the guy with the blue pieces is trying to claim the continent. You have to consciously choose to be an aggressor, and whichever other player you choose to act against can’t help but feel annoyed at you when you might have decided to interfere with somebody else. It’s a tough social dynamic for a lot of people (and the source of 57% of all fistfights associated with the game of Risk).
To give people a pass on that tough decision, I built Conquest of Nerath as a “sides” game in its primary mode. In a World War II game, no one gets mad at if Germany attacks France. That’s what Germany is supposed to do. Likewise, you’re not being a nub when the Dark Empire of Karkoth sets out to conquer Vailin or to sweep Iron Wolf Hold into the sea. There’s a narrative in place for that.
(As it turns out, the game works well in either mode, so play it how you like.)
Pete: One of the brilliant parts of Rich’s map design is the immediate conflicts. Each side has their own empire, but in every case there is an enemy faction that controls a few spaces. For example, Karkoth eyes the lands around Iron Wolf Hold, and the Iron Circle is ready to move in towards the Duchy of Solandir. These spaces create a forward momentum at the start of the game—each side wants to claim lands to solidify their borders!
We did change the allegiance of one territory in development. In the original design, Sarthel was a Nerath space. When Rich wrote Reavers of Harkenwold, he set Sarthel as the source of the Iron Circle’s influence in the Nentir Vale. Changing Sarthel to an Iron Circle space encourages both those early battles and a few strategic opportunities.
The Playing Pieces
Rich: One of the fantasy experiences that the D&D game hasn’t ever replicated all that well is the “cast of thousands” story of armies clashing. I wanted players to see the Battle of Pelennor Fields in this game—legions of footsoldiers, towering siege engines, sweeping charges of cavalry, and fantastic participants such as giants, dragons, treants, and more. Several unit types hit the cutting room floor as we wrestled with tuning the game to its best mix (and the costs associated with having a lot of different sculpts in the game). At various points in the design, we had knights, krakens, and light fliers—gargoyles, harpies, eagles and such—under consideration. Ultimately our storm elementals took the place of both krakens and light fliers, and we decided that the fighter hero piece and knight were battling for the same space. We made the sculpt of the fighter a mounted figure, and struck a happy balance.
Pete: In development, a lot of number crunching occurred. Hundreds of armies were mustered, millions of battles were fought! In the end, I calculated the approximate value of each unit to promptly discover that Rich had assigned almost all the right values in the first place. The only change was the dragon, a piece that varied throughout design with a cost between 4 and 7 gold. In the first couple of tests, the dragons weren’t seeing play at the expensive 7 gold. We eventually settled on the aggressive 5 gold cost—expensive enough to be a risk, but cheap enough that they would be used.
The core fighting mechanic for the game is basically “roll a 6 or higher,” and better figures use bigger dice. The lowly footsoldier attacks with just a d6, but a dragon’s attack is a devastating d20! Each die is represented by a shape, a color, and a number. As you might expect, the number tells you how many sides a die has, and each die also has a unique color and is represented by a unique shape: a d6 is always inside a square, for example. This shape is also used on most of the figures bases: since the footsoldier uses a d6 to attack, it has a square base. This makes it easier to remember each figure’s attack die.
The Event Deck
Conquest of Nerath begins with units in fixed positions, which means that it can be pretty deterministic on replay—once you’ve worked out your optimal starting moves for any given position, you’ve “solved” the game to some extent. To counter that tendency, I included a wide-open event deck that provides a strong dose of randomness. The event deck also served as a strong vehicle for interjecting D&D flavor into the game. There are cards for drow raids, wizards dying and becoming liches, sahuagin attacks, and a number of famous spells such as creeping doom or raise dead. The events also provide more player interaction than you normally see in a game of this type, since some card plays mess with other players’ turns. For example, when another player has his heroes exploring a dungeon, you can play Pit Trap in response.
Pete: Originally, Conquest of Nerath had just a single event deck that all players used. The first time I played the game, Rich suggested that we split the event deck into a unique deck for each faction. This helped give each faction a different feel. Since Karkoth is first and has the largest starting territory, the Karkoth deck is mechanically the weakest. Karkoth excels at brute strength attacks, but it doesn’t have many surprises. Vailin, being a primarily elven faction, has a slightly stronger deck, a naval advantage, and a few cards that represent ranged warfare. The Iron Circle is also a naval power, but they have many devious attacks and sudden surprises. Finally, as the last player, Nerath’s positional disadvantage is outweighed by the strongest event deck.
The event deck also adds a ton of replay value to the game. Since you’re only starting with 2 cards and drawing just 1 further card a round, you don’t see a lot of your event deck in a single game. The next time you play, you’ll have a completely different experience. The event deck also makes any starting tactics a little more variable. In one game, you might have the cards that make it best to wage a naval game, while another might make it best to mass an army of footsoldiers. As everybody has a small amount of hidden information, it makes it a little harder to predict what to do on your first turn.
Rich: One idea I hit on early in the game’s design was the notion of creating a set of treasure cards to capture iconic D&D magic items like the vorpal sword, the staff of power, the Eye of Vecna, and so on. These items represent the “tech-up” potential in the game—but naturally you have to go find them. Where do you find magic items? In dungeons, of course! That led me to the idea of dungeon spaces on the gameboard—neutral territories guarded by monsters, each housing a face-down treasure card. I gave two playing pieces (the fighter and the wizard) the special power of being able to enter dungeon spaces to create a mini questing system in the game. Not only does it ooze D&D flavor with classic dungeon names, monsters, and treasures, but it also provides an interesting alternative strategy for players to pursue. Your wizards and fighters are very handy at the battlefront, but you can hold a couple back from the heavy fighting to try your luck exploring dungeons. In fact, defeating dungeons earns you just as many victory points as conquering enemy territory.
Oh, and a word of advice: Dungeon explorers work best in teams of two or more, including both wizards and fighters. Some guardian monsters are especially tough against one type of hero or the other.
Pete: The original design had sections on the board reserved for the contents of dungeons. At the beginning of the game, they players would put one Dungeon Guardian card and one Treasure card into each space, originally located on the periphery of the board. By changing the Dungeon Guardian cards into tokens, we were able to make it easier to identify dungeon contents as well as make room for an even larger play area. We had lots of space on the token sheet, so instead of 15 or so cards, Conquest of Nerath has 30 different Monster tokens.
With 30 tokens, we were able to increase the lethality of some of the dungeon guardians from the original design. For example, we originally had the pit fiend as the toughest dungeon guardian. When you fought a pit fiend, it would attack with a d12 and you needed 3 hits to defeat it. We combined hit points and dice to make the gameplay closer to how regular combat works, and so now the final pit fiend fights with both a d12 and a d20.
Some extremely tough guardians came with a bonus reward: the original pit fiend awarded 5 gold when it was defeated. Any of the really tough monsters still grant an additional bonus in gold when defeated.
Winning the Game
Rich: One of the tricky parts of “build, conquer, add resources, build more” type games is that a player who gets a little bit ahead tends to pull away. Many such games are left with a pretty unsatisfying endgame in which everyone knows who’s going to win—then, it’s only a matter of time. To provide some relief from the tedious grind of actually erasing your foes from the board to win, Conquest of Nerath provides several “win points” for games of various lengths. If you play the short game, you’ll win when you accumulate a moderate lead—you can skip the chore of grinding out every last territory belonging to your opponent. If you’re unsatisfied with a game where victory doesn’t seem to measure as much progress as you would like, you can play a longer game, in which case you’ll need to make more substantial gains and seize a good bit of territory to score a win.
Pete: The original design had four ways to gain victory points: conquering enemy territories, conquering an enemy capital, recovering a treasure from a dungeon, and destroying an enemy dragon. In development we found a lot of interesting rule interactions that made the dragon bounty a poor experience: people were overly cautious with the pieces, and several Event cards created situations that were difficult to adjudicate. (For example: if I’m fighting Rich and all he has left is a wounded dragon, and Rodney plays a card that deals 1 point to Rich’s forces and slays the dragon, who gets the victory point?) We cut the rule and didn’t miss it.
Treasure cards also changed a bit. I personally love hidden information in games: it adds a lot of tension and excitement. We changed the treasure cards to be secret when recovered. It was this point that the range of treasure card values increased, so if someone was hiding behind a hand of treasure cards, you might not know exactly how many Victory Points they had earned.
So there you have it—a quick look at some of the game design and development work behind a big, high-end boardgame with hundreds of pieces and endless hours of exciting battles awaiting you!
If you’re interested in learning more about the lands and peoples hinted at by the board and the flavor text in the game, check out the "Nerathi Legends" articles appearing on D&D Insider!
Rich joined TSR, Inc. in 1991 and began his career as a game designer working on 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons products. He moved to Seattle to continue with Wizards of the Coast when Wizards acquired TSR in 1997. He played a key part in the 3rd Edition D&D design team, then took over as the creative director for the Alternity science fiction roleplaying game and its settings. After that, he served as the creative director for the D&D Worlds group, and oversaw most of the 3rd Edition Forgotten Realms line. Since 2003, Rich has worked as a designer, developer, and senior designer on a number of 3rd Edition and 4th Edition D&D products, plus the Axis & Allies Miniatures games. He is also a best-selling writer, and author of ten Forgotten Realms novels.
Peter joined Wizards of the Coast in 2008 as the lead designer for the D&D Miniatures line. Since then, Peter has worked on projects for the D&D Roleplaying Game, D&D Miniatures, Star Wars Miniatures, and Heroscape. Peter is also an accomplished miniature painter and sculptor.