On June 22nd we sat down with Rich Baker to have a live chat about the new D&D strategy board game, Conquest of Nerath. Below is the transcript of that chat.
WotC_RichBaker: While we're getting ready, let me begin with a brief bio. I'm Rich Baker, a game designer here at Wizards of the Coast. I've been with the company (and TSR before that) since 1991. Some of my recent D&D work includes the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, the current D&D Encounters season, Dark Legacy of Evard, and other 4e sourcebooks. I'm also an author, mostly of Forgotten Realms novels, most recently the Swordmage, Corsair, and Avenger series.
I did my initial work on Conquest of Nerath all the way back in the spring of 2005, when I was assigned the job of creating a D&D strategy board game. Of course, we wound up not publishing "Project Demogorgon" at the time, but I kept it in a box under my desk, and every now and then we'd pull it out and play a session or two. So you can imagine, I am delighted that we've finally published this game!
With that, I suppose I'm ready for Q&A whenever the moderators want to bring it on.
WotC_Huscarl: Rich, we're experiencing some technical difficulties with switching to moderated mode. Until we get that ironed out, we'll just ask everyone to be polite and behave themselves.
WotC_RichBaker: Right on, we can make that work.
Ferdil: So, the Nerath setting was built way before 4e?
WotC_Huscarl: In the absence of a moderated mode, PM your questions to me and I'll queue them up for Rich.
WotC_RichBaker: No worries, but I'll take yours first -- sort of. We adjusted the map to fit the Nerath setting when we dusted off the game last year and began moving toward actually producing it. So some elements are my original map, and some have been "squared up" to support what we've said about the Nerath setting.
WotC_Huscarl: From the forum: What’s the time setting of the board game in terms of the time setting of the Nentir Vale material?
WotC_RichBaker: RE: time setting … I view this game as taking place in the "near future" of the Nentir Vale setting. It's one way the Nentir Vale and its world might develop and come into conflict in the next few years from the present time.
WotC_Huscarl: From game_fiend: how much linkage will we see with the board game and D&D? Will there be a way to integrate Conquest with our home games?
WotC_RichBaker: RE linkage ... There isn't much direct linkage, simply because Conquest of Nerath is a "conquer the world in an evening" game and D&D is well D&D. I think that some Nerath play-throughs may suggest D&D adventures for your home game. In an early playtest I was playing Nerath and getting clobbered... but Karkoth left its capital lightly defended, and I launched a desperate attack with a couple of heroes to storm the citadel. That sure felt like an epic D&D adventure!
WotC_Huscarl: From the forum: Will “Nerathi Legends” eventually cover the entire board?
WotC_RichBaker: As much as I would like to say yes, that would be something like 5 years worth of articles at the pace of one per month! I don't think I could realistically promise that. Right now I have plans to knock out pieces through the end of the year. After that, we'll see if we still have demand for the articles, and how much more we can provide.
Oraibi: Is Conquest of Nerath "canon" for the 4e Nerath setting? In other words, if it says Tomb of Horrors is located HERE, is that considered true in 4e canon?
WotC_RichBaker: Generally speaking, yes. We tried to make the mapboard something we could live with as a source of canonical locations and names.
WotC_Huscarl: From ScorpiusRisk: I've heard that nations’ backgrounds and stories help motivate the beginning of the game. How much background is there on the individual nations compared to say a ddi article?
WotC_RichBaker: We only provide about a paragraph of "Who are you?" text in the rulebook for each faction, but I think there are a number of factors that contribute to your identity beyond the explicit materials. For example, the different sculpts of the foot soldiers and heroes, the different contents of each player's event decks, the different territories they control, all add up to a pretty strong flavor for each nation. Plus, the pace and flow of the game helps to cast the Dark Empire of Karkoth as a strong initial aggressor, the League of Nerath as a faction that gets socked early but slowly builds up and recovers lost ground, and so on. So I think each position has a good "story" it tells, when you take all the factors together.
WotC_Huscarl: From the forum: How did you determine the right level of complexity for the game?
WotC_RichBaker: Speed of play was something we watched pretty carefully throughout the process. We didn't want this to be a game you needed 8 hours to play. I wanted a "light wargame" that would give you the feeling of a pretty serious simulation without a lot of the headache and tedium but wouldn't be so "light" that you didn't feel like pieces weren't acting the way you think they should. In other words, getting the complexity right was a matter of asking myself what I would like to play!
WotC_Huscarl: From Bjmurray: What game design elements have been included to create a replayable experience? E.g. ways to vary starting roles, variation in objectives, etc.
WotC_RichBaker: Good question! Given the fact that turn order and starting positions are established, we wanted to be careful to avoid making the game's opening moves too deterministic, the biggest initial variations are that you don't know what monsters are in the dungeons your heroes can reach, and you don't know what treasures they're guarding. And, perhaps more importantly, every player begins the game with a couple of event cards in his hand, some of which say "play immediately" and result in placing new pieces on the board. For example, I played the Iron Circle last week, and I began the game with an extra warship with a foot soldier on it due to my Press Gang card. Having an extra ship around offers many strategic options, as you might guess!
WotC_Huscarl: When I've played, the initial card draws certainly had an effect on the opening moves!
WotC_Huscarl: From the forum: Are there any expansions planned?
WotC_RichBaker: No plans I can share at this time, sorry. But we are certainly looking at what's next in this line of games.
WotC_Huscarl: From the forum: How were the minis developed and selected?
WotC_RichBaker: I created an initial slate of units to cover several different roles -- cheap expendables, slow offense, fast offense, flyers, sea monsters, etc. When it came time to make playing pieces out of them, we first went to our library of unused D&D miniatures art, since we begin D&D miniatures with sketches, and creating playing pieces is a pretty similar job. We found a pretty good start from D&D minis, and added new pieces as we needed them. For example, the warships were nothing like what we had in our minis library, so I dug up some images of medieval ships with the right sort of look, and provided them as reference to our art director. (The warships are based on a Mediterranean design known as the xebec, in case you're curious.)
WotC_Huscarl: To clarify for everyone -- the playing pieces in the game are quite a bit smaller than the prepainted D&D miniatures. They wouldn't mix together very well.
WotC_RichBaker: Yes, and that influenced our choices -- we preferred sketches we had in CAD, so we could easily resize them.
WotC_Huscarl: From the forum: What advice can you give to prospective board game designers?
WotC_RichBaker: The first step I think is to play a TON of board games. Try out a wide variety, see how different tasks and processes are resolved, get familiar with component mixes and varying levels of complexity. Conquest of Nerath reflects my love of games like Risk 2210, Axis & Allies, Twilight Imperium, and a dozen more in the same genre of "light strategy." The other piece of advice is to play and revise your work a ton. Don't assume you will get it right the first time. And finally, figure out how to manage your complexity budget. That means figuring out what's important to your game and making it as crunchy as it needs to be, and making less important things very simple.
WotC_Huscarl: From Cypher2009 (paraphrased): What was involved in choosing between FR and Nentir Vale as a setting for the game?
WotC_RichBaker: When I first designed "Demogorgon," we decided to create a generic D&D world for the game setting. In part we were worried that people who hate on FR wouldn't be interested in a game about conquering the Realms, and we were likewise worried that serious FR fans wouldn't enjoy even the implied continuity hassles of a big war in Faerun. When we dusted off Demogorgon and turned it into Conquest of Nerath, we discovered that the game's original map was actually pretty close to what we envisioned for the world around the Nentir Vale, and it could be squared up pretty easily. Doing this let us preserve a lot of the gameplay and playtest information we'd already gathered about the balance of forces, the importance of particular space adjacencies, and other such info, which we would have to create from scratch if we built a whole new map and four brand new factions. So we decided to stick with non-Faerun for this iteration of the game engine, but we're thinking real seriously about a Faerun- or Krynn-based version of this game in the not too distant future.
WotC_Huscarl: Here's a quick one from the forum: The board game shows Mithralfast as the capital, but other sources (novels?) have mentioned Nera. What's the relationship between the two?
WotC_RichBaker: The short answer is that Nera was the capital of the old Empire of Nerath, but Mithralfast is the lead player in the League of Nerath -- the loose alliance of Nerath's successor states now taking shape as the threat of the Iron Circle and the Empire of Karkoth grows greater.
WotC_RichBaker: I've got time for about two more, Steve! I'll ask myself one: Are dragons broken? Well, Rich, they are darned good. Flying and 2 hits to kill is a super-strong combo, but they are very expensive! It's hard to defend territory with an army made of nothing but dragons.
WotC_Huscarl: From the forum: The dungeons are handled very simply, but they add a lot to the game. Did they begin with more complexity and get trimmed down?
WotC_RichBaker: Short answer is the dungeons are actually pretty much exactly as they were in the game's first draft. There's a monster, and there's a treasure. In my original draft, the dungeon guardians were cards, not tokens, and the dungeon spaces keyed to card-play areas where you placed a face-down monster and a face-down treasure at game setup. The version we have in the final game is a lot like that, without taking up board space for "holding" pens of cards.
WotC_Huscarl: OK, finally: You've worked on lots of different campaign settings. Do you have a favorite? And why?
WotC_RichBaker: Oooh, good one. In my work on 3rd Edition Forgotten Realms, I really came to love Faerun. I love the size and scope of the place, and I'm a bit of a lore buff. So I would say 3e Realms is my favorite. Although Dark Sun and Birthright get strong votes too, for obvious reasons.
WotC_RichBaker: And with that, I think I need to mosey along.
WotC_Huscarl: Great! Thank you, Rich, for your time. And thanks to everyone here for behaving!