How Two Game Designers Built 'Waterdeep'

Lords of Waterdeep

In the last few years, gaming behemoth Wizards of the Coast has expanded its "Dungeons and Dragons" product line with several board games. Last year's "Lords of Waterdeep" drew critical praise and awards for its drafting and questing mechanics. Recently, Wizards released "Scoundrels of Skullport", the first expansion for "Waterdeep." How was the original game created? And how challenging was it to expand upon it? We talked to game designer Rodney Thompson.

"Waterdeep" was originally an unofficial side project of game designers Rodney Thompson and Peter Lee. Thompson said, " 'Lords of Waterdeep' began with a discussion between Peter Lee and myself. I had an idea for how to add some more interaction to standard worker placement mechanics, and Peter had the idea for what would eventually become quests. The next week, I was taking a train from Seattle to Chicago when I started to put those two ideas together. When I got back to Seattle after my trip, I cooked up a prototype and we sat down to play."

That was just the start for building "Waterdeep". "We continued to iterate on the game over and over again for a couple of months until we finally decided that it was in good enough shape to pitch to our boss, at which point it became a real project," said Thompson. After months of testing and iterating, the final game was finished and released.

Lords of Waterdeep

After the game's successful launch, things went more smoothly with the expansion. Thompson said, "Unlike 'Lords of Waterdeep', 'Scoundrels of Skullport' was a real, official project from its inception. We didn't have to stealth-develop the expansion; it was on the schedule from the moment we decided to do one. We also mixed up the design and development a bit, with me leading the design of the expansion and Peter leading the development."

"Scoundrels of Skullport" includes two small modules, Skullport and Undermountain. Why an expansion product that is really two expansions? "Skullport's main goal is to increase unpredictability and long-term strategy in the game. We wanted to introduce an element of long-term thinking and strategy. Corruption is a negative resource -- you lose points for each Corruption in your tavern at the end of the game. However, the spaces that give you Corruption also give you some very attractive rewards, forcing you to balance the risk of gaining corruption with the potential to complete quests a lot faster," said Thompson.

"Undermountain is a little different, in that its primary goal is to surprise and delight players without fundamentally changing the way the game plays. Its goal is to keep the game fresh from a content perspective, and keep giving people those pleasant surprising moments the experience the first time they see a really exciting quest, building, or intrigue card," said Thompson. "We've intentionally tried to 'turn up the volume' on the content from the Undermountain expansion to provide more of those moments as the game is played."

Scoundrels Of Skullport

Though Lee and Thompson were building up from their existing work, creating an expansion has its own set of challenges. "We didn't want to add a lot of new complications so that the game became unrecognizable; we wanted it to remain the same game, but refresh it. The other big concern we had was added play time. If the expansion pushed the play time beyond an hour we'd be violating one of our original goals," said Thompson. "We wanted to make sure that the time it takes to take your turn, consider your options, and resolve your actions remained the same. We had the benefit of the original design in this regard, as much of what we designed slotted nicely into existing mechanics, like intrigue cards, quests, and buildings."

Beyond the "Skullport" expansion, Wizards will also be releasing a digital version of "Lords of Waterdeep" for iPad. "During the initial game's development, we didn't even know if 'Waterdeep' was going to get made. Since it began as just a fun, side project, we just wanted to make sure the at-the-table play was great," said Thompson. "Fortunately, many of the things that make for a good, fast-paced board game experience also translate well to the digital version of the game. While working on 'Scoundrels of Skullport', it was something we kept in the backs of our minds. We're very excited to see the game released on digital platforms, and we think people are really going to enjoy the translation."

["Lords of Waterdeep" Art by Ralph Horsley, courtesy of Wizards of the Coast]