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Lords of Waterdeep
Design & Development
Rodney Thompson and Peter Lee

L ords of Waterdeep is a new Dungeons & Dragons strategy board game, debuting this month. In this game, players send off their agents to recruit adventurers and recruit quests. In this article, designers Rodney Thompson and Peter Lee describe how this new D&D board game was designed.

Two Halves Make a Whole

Peter: Immediately after Gen Con 2008, I was travelling back to Wisconsin for the first time since joining Wizards. On the car ride between Indianapolis and Madison, I was discussing a few board game ideas with my old gaming group. The only game that stuck in my subconscious was a music producing game. In this hypothetical game, a player took on the role of a music producer tasked to create music hits. A hit song would be made by recruiting musicians. For example, a rock song might require a drummer, a singer, and three guitarists.

Fast forward to early August 2010. Castle Ravenloft proved we were able to create compelling board games set in the D&D universe. I was finishing up development on Conquest of Nerath and starting to lay the plans for the design of Legend of Drizzt. I was chatting with Rodney about board games we'd like to do, and I mentioned the music game and how we'd be able to easily put a D&D spin on it by changing it to a game where you were hiring adventurers to send off on quests. Unfortunately, it was only half a game. Every system has inputs and outputs. I had the resource output but I didn't have the input. How does a player get adventurers and quests?

Rodney: During that same conversation, I'd been talking with Peter about the kinds of games I'd like to see. At the time, I really was into action drafting games, with Agricola sitting at the top of my list. However, nothing I was playing at the time was fully satisfying me, and I wanted something that used the core action drafting mechanic I liked, but had less set-up time and a shorter play time.

Unfortunately, Peter and I didn't have a lot of time to talk about our ideas before I got on the Game Train to GenCon. This was the first year that some of us traveled by train from Seattle to Chicago (and then on to Indy for GenCon), so we were just playing games and enjoying the scenery going by. Still, the ideas that Pete and I had been chatting about stuck in my brain, and one morning after breakfast I found myself sitting in a train car speeding through somewhere in Montana, typing furiously on my laptop as I designed the basics of an action drafting game using the quests idea that Peter had. Once I started typing, the design quickly fell into place.

One thing I don't love about some action drafting games is their lack of interaction; many can feel like you're playing four-player solitaire, and I wanted a game that felt like you were really interacting with other people. Another thing I really wanted was for the players, not the game, to introduce more actions into the game. Yet another goal was simple set-up and break-down; I wanted people to get into the game quickly and start playing, rather than spending a lot of time figuring out which component goes where on the game board.

I'd also recently been working on the Dark Sun campaign setting for the D&D roleplaying game, and so naturally I was thinking all about that world. The initial design that I cooked up on the train was called Ambition of the Sorcerer-Kings and was set on Athas, the world of Dark Sun. The adventurers were fighters, rogues, psions and druids, not clerics since Dark Sun doesn't have divine magic. The psion also replaced the wizard, as they are more common in Dark Sun. Your agents in the city would be your templars, and you took on the role of a sorcerer-king.

By the time I got off of the train, I had a design document and sample cards, buildings and quests that would form the foundation of the first prototype. There was only one thing missing: I needed to build the math behind the game.

Pete: Any game like this is deals with a lot of resource transmutation. To facilitate design, we need a base resource; if you figure out the math of the game first, the design process is so much easier. For this game, we chose victory points (VP). Every action that you took was worth some number of VP. I felt rogues and fighters needed to be more common, so you'd get two of them for one action. You'd only get one cleric or psion per action, so they'd be worth more VP each. Finally, gold was assigned a value less than any of the adventurers. Surprisingly, this formula remained the same for the entire lifetime of the design process.

The First Prototype

Rodney: Once we'd figured out the math behind the game, I had a real urge to get a prototype made. Over the course of a single weekend, I took the math that Pete had helped work out, along with my initial design document, and created a full prototype for the game. The first prototype was primitive, to say the least; stickers on dungeon tiles made up our base board and buildings, and the cards were leftovers from another game I'd been working on earlier in the year.

That weekend, all of the components really started falling into place and had a strong purpose. Quests are how you score victory points; they are the driving factor in winning the game. Intrigue cards are how you interact with other players directly. Buildings bring new actions into the game, but they also provide their owner with some benefit so that choosing to take a building's action is a calculated risk.

Another piece of the puzzle that fell quickly into place was the issue of play time. I wanted a target play time of about an hour, and Pete and I had noodled around in our heads that the game should take about 8 rounds to play to hit that hour mark.

That Monday I grabbed Pete and made him sit down and try out the prototype. A couple of rounds into the game, Pete was scowling at the board, and for about five rounds neither of us said a single word other than those necessary to communicate with each other as players of the game. We played through the full game, and then both of us sat back and looked at each other. There was a long silence during which I was convinced that Pete hated the game, and that I'd wasted a weekend putting it together.

Pete: It turns out my "I'm thinking" face looks pretty much the same as my "I hate it" face. Normally, the first time I play a design of any new board game, it falls apart pretty quickly. I was amazed that we were able to play through a whole game and that it was fun!

While I like Dark Sun, it didn't thrill me as a location for the game. I really felt this game would be more exciting as a core D&D experience. I felt it should focus on the core D&D classes: fighters, rogues, clerics, and wizards. I also felt it needed to be in the Forgotten Realms, and we quickly determined Waterdeep would be the best location.

Re-theming the components were pretty easy. Instead of assigning Templars, you assign Agents. Instead of taking on the role of a sorcerer-king, you were one of the Lords of Waterdeep.

Preliminary Design

Rodney: Luckily, Pete didn't hate it, and I was amiable to the idea of making it a Forgotten Realms game. We were both a little shocked that we had a fully functional, playable game. In fact, that first prototype was so solid that we probably could have published it unchanged and had a decent, if not memorable game.

Pete: Our wheels immediately started to turn. Since this didn't start as an assigned project, we found time during lunches to play and talk. Many meals were spent at the "secret cafeteria" (a cafeteria in a building across the street from the office) discussing this game. There were quite a few fundamental differences at the start of the design from what you see in the final game.

Quests and the Tavern

Pete: Lots of things changed throughout the design process. One of the biggest changes was how you gained resources. At first, the tavern didn't exist. Instead, when you gained an adventurer, you placed that adventurer directly on one of your quest. Whenever you had enough adventurers on a quest, you immediately completed it—even if it wasn't your turn!

Rodney: In the very first design, Quests were both the objective and the "holding pen" for adventurers that you had recruited with your agents. They were like buckets that, as soon as they filled up, emptied out. This created a couple of problems; first, there was no real sense of progression, since you were just obtaining, and then spending, resources with no real potential for building up any kind of engine for yourself. Additionally, other people we recruited into playing the game wanted to move adventurers from one quest to another. We realized that trying to assign adventurers to quests as you take them was creating a layer of distraction that pulled you out of the main action drafting strategy of the game. People were spending too much time figuring out which quest to put adventurers on, which created a lot of static when added to the choice of what space to draft.

To address the first issue (the lack of progression), we created some quests that provided ongoing benefits once you completed them. The problem we kept running into was that, since you completed so many quests (and not always on your turn), you would end up with these cascading benefits every time you completed a quest. This slowed down the game as everyone had to stop while you resolved the quest completion, sometimes in the middle of another player's turn.

At this point, we removed all quests with lingering benefits from the game and instead created a new mechanic, the tavern, based on an idea we had from an early quest—Summon Aid from Luskan (see below). The way the tavern worked at first was that every time you completed a quest, you got to pick one adventurer from that quest to "save" and put into your tavern. Depending on the type of adventurer you saved, you got some small benefit. If you saved a fighter, you also got to save a second adventurer. If you saved a rogue, you got two gold. If you saved a cleric, you got to draw a quest. If you saved a wizard, you got to draw an Intrigue card. The adventurers in your tavern could be moved out and onto a quest at any time, but not vice versa; once an adventurer was on a quest, it stayed on that quest until completed.

With the tavern mechanic in place, we also created a number of new quest rewards that played off your tavern; for example, one quest gave you 1 VP for every cleric in your tavern at the time when you completed the quest. Unfortunately, this was having another side effect: people were hoarding adventurers, and then completing quests all in a rush at the end of the game. We tried to compensate for this by creating Intrigue cards that removed adventurers from the opponent's tavern, but too many of these ended up creating a lot of "feel-bad" in the game, where the game clearly encouraged you to do one thing (hoard adventurers) while punishing you for doing that via Intrigue cards. Plus, too much direct conflict was pulling us away from the strategy board game roots we wanted to adhere to.

Pete: After the original three-month design, we had to wait a couple of months to start development. During the design period, I often functioned as a development sounding board for Rodney's design, so I also joined the team of the developers led by Joe Huber, one of the guys on the Magic side of R&D.

Allowing the game to sit for a couple of months let me clear my mind of the design. We realized that placing Adventurers directly on quests actually lessened the draft tension. For example, if you were the only player that had a quest requiring Wizards, you knew that no other player would take the Blackstaff Tower location. About the same time, Joe realized that there was one major mechanic too many in the game, and something had to be removed.

When iterating on a game design, whenever I am faced with a list of issues, the solution that solves the most issues is usually the correct change. At this point, here are the problems we were facing:

  • Too many quests were being completed at once, slowing down the game with long action resolution steps.
  • Placing Adventurers directly on quests lessened draft tension.
  • Saving an Adventurer after each quest also lessened draft tension.
  • Gaining a boon after saving an Adventurer caused the game to slow down with nearly inconsequential analysis. Games were starting to go longer than an hour.

We made three changes to solve most of these problems:

  • We cut out the mechanic that allowed you to save an Adventurer after each completed quest.
  • When you drafted adventurers, they now went straight to your tavern.
  • At the end of each action, you could complete one and only one quest.

Unfortunately, this meant that all the quests that gave you bonuses for things in your tavern had to be removed—it was too easy to get things in your tavern, after all!

Fortunately, I remembered the lingering-effect quests that we had done in an early design. The game had evolved a lot since then, so we thought it would be worth trying them again. We designed three for each quest type, renamed them "Plot Quests", and the game finally gelled into what you see today.

That's it. . . for this week!

We have a lot we can talk about it—and trust me, if you get us talking about this game, we can't stop—so there will be more next time!

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