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Lords of Waterdeep
Design & Development
Rodney Thompson and Peter Lee

L ords of Waterdeep is a new strategy board game set in the world of Dungeons & Dragons, debuting this month. In this Euro-style game, players send off their Agents to recruit Adventurers and recruit Quests. In this article, designers Rodney Thompson and Peter Lee describe the prototyping process and how the early, simple prototypes evolved into the high-end board game you can find in stores now.

Prototype Design

Rodney: Today we want to talk a little bit about the prototyping process for Lords of Waterdeep, and give you an idea of just how far the game has come from those early days.

One of the most important things I've learned from the process of working on Lords of Waterdeep is that, until it's time for the game to go to press, you should focus most of your efforts on perfecting the game's design. Function beats form during design and development, and our early prototypes really reflected that.

Our very first prototype consisted of an 8" x 10" dungeon tile covered in stickers, several 4" x 4" dungeon tiles with stickers on them for the Buildings, a bunch of Star Wars and D&D miniatures for the Agents, and the scoring track from Carcassonne to monitor our scores during play. Our card decks made by layering stickers over foreign language Magic and Duel Masters cards. To say it looked "cobbled-together" would be putting it nicely. However, I think this lack of polish early on actually helped a lot in that we never got too attached to the design's physical form.

Pete: When we started work on Lords of Waterdeep, I was playing weekly board games with my Dungeon Command co-designer Kevin Tatroe and his family. Earlier in the year, they gave me a gift from a local teacher supply store, a box of one thousand plastic cubes in ten different colors—a prototyper's dream! These became the Adventurers we needed for the game. I also had a supply of yellow tokens that we used for Gold.

Rodney: In this first prototype, we used red cubes for Rogues (because Rogues create blood splatters), black cubes for Fighters, green cubes for Clerics, and blue cubes for Wizards. Now when we play the finished game, Peter and I both still sometimes mix up Rogues and Fighters, because Fighters were represented by black cubes for so long that it became ingrained in our minds.

Rodney: That first game was playable to completion and, despite the speed with which the eclectic collection of prototyping materials had been put together, we were able to jump right into the iterative design process. As I mentioned earlier, not getting too attached to the game's components was very, very important to iteration. When Peter or I would make a suggestion for how to fix something, we'd take a pen and write on the sticker immediately, and then play with the change. In my mind, that kind of rapid iteration is critical to the design of a board game, and one of the reasons the Waterdeep design and development process went so well.

So, if there's some advice I'd give to any budding board game designers out there, it's to save the fancy prototype design for after your game is done. You need to be able to write on everything, change rules on the fly, and be ready to throw out entire groups of components if need be, so don't spend too much time making things pretty.

Pete: We knew we had a kernel of a good game, but we had a long way to go. For the next version of the game board, I was interested in usability. In a perfect world, the game board has enough visual cues that you can look at it and understand how to play. While such an ideal is nearly impossible for a game with any complexity, I still wanted to get as close as possible.

Rodney: In fact, one test I ended up putting the board through near the end of the process was to take the board, show it to a friend who was a board gamer but had not yet played (or even seen) the game, and asking him to tell me how he thought the game played. Based on his reactions, I was able to make some slight tweaks to the board to make sure the game board communicated to the player more intuitively. Thanks to the work Peter put in at this stage of the process, my friend was able to guess about 80% of the game play just by looking at the board, which was a great start.

Pete: Rodney and I also discussed how we imagined the board. We both wanted an isometric view of the city. I found a map of Waterdeep from the 3rd Edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, photocopied it, and taped it to the back of half an Axis & Allies board.

I quickly constructed board elements on the computer and printed them out. Using the highly technical skills I learned back in kindergarten, I created the second board.

This is the board we played on the most. The elements were all attached by tape, making it easy to update and modify after each game. Working on this board taught us a lot about how the components needed to be laid out for the best play experience.

  • Quests for drafting needed to be at the top to make it easier for the players whose spot at the table might force them to read cards upside down.
  • Basic and Advanced Buildings needed be close together to make it easy to see all the available actions.
  • The Quest-drafting Building needed to be close to the Quests.
  • Likewise, the Building-drafting Building needed to be close to the Buildings that could be purchased.
  • The turn tracker needed to be near the Buildings availabl to be purchased.
  • For story reasons, the basic Buildings needed to be located in approximately their canonically correct places in the city.

Rodney: Around this time we were also starting to consider color issues. Color blindness is something we wanted to be aware of in the design of the game, so we needed to get rid of the green color for Clerics (a color that many color-blind people have difficulty distinguishing from shades of red). Likewise, we knew at this point that having our Agents (and, thus, Faction colors) the same color as some of our Adventurer resources was problematic; sometimes people would lose track of their Agents when Adventurers of a similar color were nearby. That's why, in the final game, only one Faction shares its color with an Adventurer color.

Pete: We were getting ready to start discussions with our graphic production team, so it was time to take all the things we learned from this version and update the board. So far, both Intrigue cards and Quest cards were handled in a landscape form. This worked great for the Quests, but it didn't make as much sense for the Intrigue cards since you hold them in your hand. We decided to change the orientation of the card.

At 14.5 inches by 19.5 inches, this board was too small. We were still using the separate Carcassonne board to keep score. Purchased Advanced Buildings sat on the side of the board, putting them a short distance from the central Building squares. Quest cards sat above the board.

A lot of space was taken up by having the resources on the board. It made round preparation easier as all the players could help move resources to the proper Building spaces. Each yellow arrow showed how many cubes needed to move. When we decided to remove the resource accrual mechanic, it was time to design the next major board iteration.

The new board increased to about 20 inches by 24 inches. Everything that we wanted on the board now fit. We brought in art director Keven Smith to work on the final version.

Rodney: I can't say enough good things about the work Keven did taking out primitive prototypes and transforming them into something visually impressive. One of the first things Keven did for us was to create a "wire frame" version of the board, which had the action spaces, blank spots for Buildings, and so forth, but contained no art and only some very limited graphic design. This was a critical step in the prototyping process, despite actually being a step in the game's graphic design process; because we were able to take the wire frame and play on it, we were able to quickly identify any areas that would produce an unsatisfying or unclear experience. We could move different action spaces around, and it was at this time that we started matching up action space names with city locations, which further helped us figure out where to place things. For example, Aurora's Realms Shop was placed where it was to continue the circular arc of basic resource spaces that starts with Blackstaff Tower and moves clockwise around the outer areas of the city, creating a better information flow for where to find basic resources.

As we reached the end of the design process, we had to make some decisions about what our final components would be. Peter and I discussed it and decided that we wanted wooden pieces for the game, specifically cubes for the Adventurers, because we were trying to create a specific type of experience. Fans of strategy board games (aka Euro games) are accustomed to high quality games having wooden pieces, and we wanted to deliver components that met their expectations. For our Agents, Keven's team managed to create a shape that evoked the human form (that of your Agent moving out into the city) that also was exceptionally stable and had some heft to it, so that it was unlikely to tip over during play or be lost while setting up or putting away the game. From there, all that remained was to convert our primitive cards into their final form, and then let Keven and his team construct the gorgeous game you see today.

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