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Design Diary: Lords of Waterdeep

Rodney Thompson
United States
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I was pretty sure my co-designer hated the game he had helped me make.

Wait. No. Let me back up.

I'm sitting on a train in the middle of Glacier National Park in Montana. I've just spent the last 24 hours riding on the Empire Builder from Seattle, headed to Chicago, then on to Indianapolis for Gen Con. I've had breakfast, and now I'm lazily staring are the rolling hills and distant mountains, trying hard not to fall asleep. My thoughts have turned to board games, and slowly the idea begins to percolate. What is a worker placement game representing, really? When I play Agricola, who am I? Am I the father, sending his sons out into the fields to plow, sow, and reap? Am I the feudal owner of the farm, commanding my serfs to bake bread and take on jobs for my wealth? When I feed my family, is it my family, or is it my "family" in the sense that I'm simply responsible for them? These kinds of idle, post-breakfast-haze-induced ramblings may seem trivial, but they formed the seed of what would eventually turn into a life-changing experience: the creation of my first board game.

There was a moment on the train when those thoughts about "Who am I?" turned into the first sparks of the creative fire, when I equated the worker placement genre to the relationship between the sorcerer-kings and their templar agents in the Dark Sun Campaign Setting. I had spent much of the year working on the Dark Sun material for 4th Edition D&D, which was releasing at the show I was headed to. In the setting, the world is dominated by sorcerer-kings, mad wizards and psions who rule over dangerous city-states with the help of their beholden lackeys, the templars. In my mind, I saw a board game form, a game in which the players are the sorcerer-kings, their workers are the templars, and the game board is a city-state where the templars fight over resources. I pulled out my laptop and began pecking away. It was incredible how quickly the ideas fell into place, and soon I had cranked out a four-page design document for Ambition of the Sorcerer-Kings, an action drafting game set in Dark Sun.

Several weeks and one Gen Con later, I'm back in the office, sitting across the table from Peter Lee, my friend and fellow designer, as he scowls at the game board. I'm holding my breath, not daring to break the silence as we continue to play through a full eight rounds of a kitbashed prototype for Ambition based on the design document, plus some subsequent discussions I had with Peter upon my return. Rounds pass, actions are taken, quests are completed, Intrigue cards are played, and almost the only words either of us utter are the ones necessary to communicate game information. This is also the first time I've ever shared a game of my own design with Peter, and I'm pretty sure that, despite the fact that he's helped me build the basic premise behind the game's math and point-scoring systems, he hates it.

Finally, the game draws to a close. To this day, I still have no memory of who won that first game. What I do remember, so vividly that I can hear it now, is the long silence that fell between us. I can't stand it anymore; the tension is too much. I break the silence with a timid, "I think I kind of liked that." Pete looks at me, purses his lips, and says, "That was kind of awesome." After I pick myself up off the floor in relief, we launch into an hour-long discussion of what worked, what didn't, and whether or not we have time to play again before we head home for the day. Thus began the charmed life of Lords of Waterdeep.

I've never had a game come together so well on the first play. Even though it's very different from the game we've published as Lords of Waterdeep, that initial prototype played at least as well as some published games I've bought and own. The specifics of the design and development process are all well-chronicled in our Design & Development columns posted on the Wizards of the Coast website – Column #1, Column #2, with more to come – but there is more to the game than just the how and why of changes to the game's mechanisms. From the moment we finished that first game, Peter and I both felt like we had something special on our hands, but it wasn't on any kind of schedule. I was designing role-playing game products; Peter had finished working on Conquest of Nerath, but was still working on the Legend of Drizzt board game. Neither of us had time in our schedule for another game, but we knew we had something.

For the next few weeks, we stole hours here and there to work on the game. Lunch ceased to be the time when we got out of the office for an hour, and became the "free time to play our game". When either of us forgot our lunch for the day and had to go out and get something, we dashed across the street to a place we started calling the "Secret Cafeteria", a small café built into the offices across the street that few Wizards of the Coast employees knew about. There, we rattled around ideas, talked about what was working in the game and what wasn't, and then came back to the office and went back to our assignments. At night, one of us would have an idea, and send a text message to the other one, spurring a half-hour of frantic back-and-forth text messaging that caused both of our girlfriends to question whether or not we were having affairs. Here and there, though, we found an hour at a time to play the game, and within a few months the game was in good enough shape to show to the decision-makers.

Soon, we got the word from on high: The company was willing to turn our prototype into a game. After having spent months working on the game when we could steal some time for it, finally we were moving toward a chance to really dive into it. As real design and development started on the game, we found ourselves in a very good place. Because Peter and I had made the game a labor of love – creating a game just for the excitement of making something both of us were excited about even though it wasn't a part of our normally assigned work – we had a huge advantage in that we were already weeks ahead of the schedule we had before us.

At this point, more people were going to be involved in the process, including lead developer Joe Huber, a Magic: The Gathering designer who had shown a vested interest in Lords of Waterdeep's development. Once someone other than Peter or I became involved, suddenly I faced a new challenge: I had to explain to other people not just what the game was, but all of the unspoken, yet agreed upon, design tenets that lay beneath the mechanisms of the game. Peter and I had worked in tandem for so long that we simply took our design goals for granted, and now we needed to make sure that others knew what those goals were. For Joe's sake, and the sake of the other developers and editors who would work on the game, I put together the following list of design goals that were present in the game, but had never been codified by either of us designers:

-----• The core player mechanism of the game is action drafting (aka, worker placement).

-----• The game should play in about an hour, including set-up and breakdown.

-----• The game should be more interactive between the players than the average worker placement game.

-----• The game should allow the players to start playing quickly, then expand the complexity as the game goes on.

-----• The game needs to have hidden information to keep all players engaged until the very end of the game.

With those tenets in mind, the game left my hands...for a while. The development team worked on the game, and occasionally I would receive updates, but there were remarkably few changes I needed to fight against. In fact, by the time the game's development concluded, there was only a single area in which I made the call to change the design back to my original mechanisms, going against the development team's wishes: the Castle Waterdeep space. The development team's version of the game did not include a space where players were able to fight over who would get the first choice of action spaces in the next round; instead, the first player marker simply moved clockwise around the table at the start of each round, giving everyone a turn at being first player. In the end, I just didn't feel like this was satisfying, as drafting order is a key part of competitive worker placement.

Other than that one change, the game had evolved into something better than it was when I let go of it. Most of the changes were simple; for example, a limitation on the number of quests you could complete per action not only sped up game play, but allowed us to reintroduce the Plot Quest mechanism that had been cut from an earlier version of the game for being too cumbersome. The Cliffwatch Inn spaces were expanded to make quest acquisition easier and faster. The introduction of the Waterdeep Harbor spaces, where you play the highly interactive Intrigue cards, cut down on problems with the Intrigue cards themselves, and added a unique mechanical element that serves as what I believe to be one of the key points of differentiation between Lords of Waterdeep and other worker placement games. It was far too easy to simply cut out the Intrigue cards and make a more standard-fare worker placement game; instead, the development team found a solution that kept the exceptions-based Intrigue cards in the game, striking a major blow in favor of the pro-player-interaction goal I had set forth.

While development was making their tweaks to the game, I was spending most of my time working closely with Keven Smith, our art director, to get everything from the look of the board right to making sure our wooden pieces were sturdy enough to meet the expectations of the board game audience.

Once development was completed, I recruited D&D designer Bruce Cordell to help me improve the flavor of the game, changing the names and descriptions of everything from quests to buildings to be more evocative of the Forgotten Realms setting. I spent hours in debate with fellow designers about what era to set the game in, finally getting my own preference to set it in the version of the Realms that I had run campaigns in. I spent weeks with my nose in second edition Forgotten Realms books, finding everything from building names to faction symbols. We dug art references for the coins included in the game from a Waterdeep supplement that was almost twenty years old – a small detail that only die-hard Forgotten Realms fans would notice. By the time the game left the building, heading off to be printed, I had been involved in almost every step in the game's creation process, as had Peter.

So, that should be the end of the story of how Lords of Waterdeep got made: Peter and I stealing hours here and there to transform an idea cooked up on a train in the middle of nowhere into the strategy game he and I had always wanted to play – but that's not where I'm going to end the story because that's not where it ended for us.

Ever since the day the game left the office for production, every time any milestone would pop up, Peter and I would look at each other with giddy glee and mention just how far off the release date was.

-----• "Hey Rodney, did you see? We're going to announce the game at Gen Con. Only eight months until the game comes out!"

-----• "Hey Peter, did you hear? Ed Greenwood wants to play our game. Only seven months until the game comes out!"

-----• "Hey Rodney, did you see? BoardGameGeek has put up a product page for us. Only six months until the game comes out!"

And so on. So I conclude my designer diary with this:

-----• Hey Peter, did you see? I wrote a designer diary for BoardGameGeek about the game we made happen and the love and affection we poured into its design. No more waiting until the game comes out.

Rodney Thompson
Advanced Designer, Dungeons & Dragons R&D
Wizards of the Coast

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