Interview with Sami Laakso, designer of Dale of Merchants, and Lands of Galzyr

Clerks Sami R2R

There’s no doubt about it. Dale of Merchants is one of the best deck-builders ever created. It’s inventive, snappy, and breaks a few of the golden rules of deck-building.

Sami Laakso took the same approach to the dudes on a map genre introducing the world to Dawn of the Peacemakers. A campaign game where although there are two warring tribes, your goal is to stop them from fighting.

The thread tying these two games together is Daimyria. A fantastic and detailed world of animalfolk. From pocket watch wearing crocodiles to pale-throated sloths in waistcoats, each animal type has its own personality and characteristics.

I got to talk to the world builder and designer of these two games, Sami Laakso. Where we talked about both games, the world of Daimyria, and Snowdale Design’s latest game: Lands of Galzyr.

Hi Sami, thanks for agreeing to the interview.

Anytime, David! Anytime.

Before we begin, I must apologise. Over the years I’m sure I’ve spelt your last name wrong at least once. For some reason, my brain has so much trouble wrapping my head around the double ‘a’. I hope you can forgive me.

Haha, it’s not just you. My name is, both first and last, often misspelt and mispronounced by foreigners. I’ve gotten used to it.

Damn us, foreigners! Haha. Anyway, congratulations on the success of the Lands of Galzyr campaign. I remember you mentioning it in an email four years ago. It must feel fantastic for the game to be this close to delivery.

It has truly been a long journey! Creating an expansive open world game filled to the brim with content takes ages to create. Who would have known? It’s so easy to underestimate the time it takes to finish any given project – even more so with the tendencies to polish them as long as I do.

I’m excited for people to finally be able to dive into Galzyr and experience everything we have created there!

Lands of Galzyr Board

And I’m excited to dive in when it arrives! From a financial perspective, you’ve almost doubled the amount of money raised from your last campaign, Dale of Merchants 3. How are you personally feeling about the result? And what do you think was the biggest contributor to the success of the campaign this time around?

I set the funding goals of my campaigns such that it’s possible to complete them if they’re hit. Lands of Galzyr getting over 400% of that is obviously exciting for the whole team! It made it possible to pour more funds into the game, making the stories more expansive, creating a two-hour original soundtrack, and more.

What contributing factors went into the success? I believe there to be multiple, including my steadily growing fanbase, clear vision, and people simply wanting a story-heavy game set in a non-grim setting.

This non-grim setting is easy to fall in love with. But what I’ve loved about Dale of Merchants and Dawn of the Peacemakers is how unique they are mechanically compared to other board games. How did you come up with the designs? Where does it all start for you?

That is truly amazing to hear as it’s one of my goals each time I sit down to plan what kind of game I would like to create next. As stated previously, it takes so much time and effort to create a single game that I prefer to spend that time introducing something new to the world! I truly believe Lands of Galzyr to be a continuation of that.

My designs spark from various sources. Dale of Merchants was born from my personal dislike for deck building. I wanted to see if I could make one that I enjoy! Dawn of Peacemakers began with a simple idea: what if in a war game, you weren’t the one doing the fighting, but actually tried to stop it? Finally, Lands of Galzyr’s roots are in some conversations with the co-designer and the idea of creating a board game with a memory. How would a game behave if it remembered the actions of players – even after multiple games?

dale of merchants box art
Where it all began

I have so many follow up questions. Like what about deck builders did you hate? And have you played any that have solved your issues in a different way?

They are not necessarily bad things, I just have a personal gripe with discarding my hand of cards at the end of the turn, new cards going into my discard pile, and a market where all cards are available from the start. I love when I have to figure out the best way to play from turn to turn with some overarching strategy in the background. Many deck builders have one interesting thing to choose on your turn, that being which card to purchase.

I added a lot of hand manipulation to Dale of Merchants because of that. The multi-use cards are also part of that design, increasing the amount of options available on each turn.

Going back to the previous question, we’ve seen many attempts at allowing a game to remember player actions. We have stock standard campaign games, the now-famous legacy mechanic (Pandemic Legacy, Gloomhaven), and the new hotness chronicle games (Oath). I’m sure there’s more, but how does Lands of Galzyr differentiate itself?

One of the biggest downsides of all these awesome campaign and legacy games is the fact that they’re pretty darn hard to get on the table. Lands of Galzyr was designed from the ground up to be as easy to get played as possible.

The game’s setup and teardown both take mere minutes. Galzyr also has five save slots: one for each of the four adventurers and one for the game world itself. That way each player can have their own adventure, continuing it whenever they join in. You don’t always need to play with everyone present.

Also, your actions can come back to haunt you. In the same game, in the next one, or even later!

Wow, that does sound interesting, and I think it’s a great angle of attack. Long setup times are the worst.

Talking of Lands of Galzyr, where Dawn of the Peacemakers was a mechanical departure from Dale of Merchants, Lands of Galzyr seems to build upon the magnificent world-building from Dawn of the Peacemakers. You and the team seem to have a real talent for this, was this something you knew you enjoyed prior to Dawn of the Peacemakers or was it something you found out during its development?

All my games are set in the shared world of animalfolks, named Daimyria. Thus they all build on each other, thematically. Galzyr is the culmination of this so far: you can find countless references to both Dale of Merchants and Dawn of Peacemakers in there!

Worldbuilding might not be quite as visible in Dale as it is in Dawn but believe me when I say we took worldbuilding very seriously even with my first game. We have a full team contributing and enriching the world with each new release. While all my games are mechanically wildly different, Daimyria is the glue binding them all together.

dawn of peacemakers fight
Round one – fight!

So Lands of Galzyr is now the third big game you’ve released. Looking back, how do you map your growth as a designer? What were your learnings from each game?

I aim and hope to grow each day as a designer and as a person. I’ve learned many lessons during my game design career. One of the many things Dale of Merchants taught me was balancing, customizability, and expansions. First goal of game design should be to find the core of the design, enhance it, and only then grow the game around it.

Dawn of Peacemakers was a lesson of niche. How to design a game with a unique theme? And even harder, how to sell that theme to people? It’s hard enough to do something not quite done before, but it’s even harder to then try to explain that to someone. People usually prefer a mixture of something familiar combined with a pinch of new ideas. If something is too weird and unfamiliar, it’s harder to get excited about it.

Lands of Galzyr, oh boy. What a monster! The main lesson here is probably of scale. The game has over half a million words in the digital storybook! That’s more than the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy! How to manage a project of this size, make sure it still meets the high standards, and still deliver it on time? What a challenge! The answer is a systematic approach to the process.

Now this might be a bit of a spoiler for Dawn of the Peacemakers, but how expansive is Lands of Galzyr? I assume we’ll be seeing more than the Macaws, Ocelots, and the… I’ve already said too much.

I already shared a bit of the scope of the storybook. As to who you can meet and in which kinds of trouble can you get entangled with? Pretty much with everyone and everything! The game has hundreds of interconnected stories and thousands of paths, nooks, and crannies to explore.

Chronologically, the game takes place multiple hundreds of years after Dawn of Peacemakers, and roughly a decade before Dale of Merchants. Thus there are many more references to Dale compared to Dawn. But fear not, both are there.

Dale of Merchants Collection
So. Many. Cards.

And on a similar note, how far in the future do you plan. Like when running the animal contest during Dale of Merchants Collection and Dale of Merchants 3 campaigns, were there any thoughts on how these animals would fit into Lands of Galzyr?

I have a huge list of animals people wanted to see in my various games. Pretty much all of those are included in Lands of Galzyr. You just have to keep looking as the region is vast!

In the crowdfunding campaign for Galzyr, we also took ideas from backers. This time we asked both which animals they would like to see but also in which kind of adventures would they be connected to. These created some of the most memorable and quirky quest lines for the game if you ask me.

Including all of the Dale of Merchants games, Lands of Galzyr will be the 6th game in Daimyria, I’m curious if you have any plans to continue with Daimyria? And do you see yourself ever making another game not in this world?

Woah, the sixth one. I have always counted it as the third as I tend to count the series and not the individual games. Currently I’m as eager as ever to expand Daimyria with new games, set in different places as well as different times! I love to explore the world myself, meeting new vibrant inhabitants and peculiar cultures.

So… when will we see Macaws in space?

As said, I love exploring Daimyria, both geographically but also in different eras! Games set in the future are planned – for the future. Haha!

Dale of Merchants Animal Folk
Some of the creations from the team at Snowdale Design.

Taking a step back from design, could you describe your process from design to testing to production, and how Snowdale Design makes it all possible?

While I’m the only full time employee of Snowdale, there’s a whole team of people working on any individual game. You can find a full list of credits under each game on my website.

As for the process from start to finish, that would be a multi-part series so I’ll keep it brief here. One of the most critical decisions is to choose which game idea to pursue. You don’t want to get stuck for years with a design which you aren’t fully excited about. Then it’s purely a matter of consistency and perseverance of going through each step of the process, from the initial idea to publishing. Which isn’t even the end as then comes warehousing, marketing, and possibly expansions!

Wow, there’s so much that goes on in getting a game released. So I’m interested to hear which part of board game creation is your favourite?

My absolute favourite part is the sheer variety of aspects I get to work with. One day I might be illustrating, another day I could spend playtesting, then messing with numbers in a huge spreadsheet, and more! If any single task gets repetitive, that’s when my enthusiasm can get hit. It’s when I usually jump to a different field and get refreshed.

As they say, variety is the spice of life. Well, you’ve made it to the last question. A softball to finish upon: What’s your favourite game at the moment?

In the board game realm, I have a blast whenever I get time to delve into the 7th Continent. As for video games, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild still holds a special place in my heart.

Thanks again so much for your time in answering these questions, I know you must be incredibly busy. All the best with the launch of Lands of Galzyr and the future of Snowdale Design!

The pleasure was mine. I whole-heartedly wish people to have an amazing time delving into Galzyr later this year!

A massive thanks to Sami for his time and efforts in this interview. To see more of what Sami and Snowdale Design are working on, you can head over to their website. Otherwise, Lands of Galzyr is releasing later this year and while it’s too late to pledge for the game, you are able to preorder it from Snowdale Design.

If you enjoyed this interview be sure to check out my previous interview with Joshua Yearsley. Otherwise, 10 victory points to the first person to guess which movie this picture is from.

Say something nice...