Sami Laakso Interview – Designer of Dale of Merchants

With his latest game coming to Kickstarter, join us as we speak with Snowdale Design’s Sami Laakso, the designer and artist behind the animal-filled Dale of Merchants series.

Over the last 5 years Sami Laakso has carved his own niche in the tabletop hobby, founding Snowdale Design to create quirky and charming games set in the animalfolk world of Daimyria. Sami’s games include the deck-building Dale of Merchants series (see our reviews of DoM1, DoM3 and DoM Collection) where players are merchants racing to set out their stalls, and 2018’s Dawn of Peacemakers, a campaign game which has players acting as animal-adventurers trying to prevent war between the opposing Macaw and Ocelot armies.

Ahead of the Kickstarter launch of Dale of Merchants 3 we were lucky enough to speak with Sami about his games, worldbuilding and what the future holds for Snowdale Design.

Sami, hello! How are things with you at the moment?

Hi Andrew! I’m doing great.The pandemic hasn’t affected me too much as I always work from my home office anyway. We’re living some pretty weird times at the moment.

I was about to ask, were you tempted to delay launching the Dale of Merchants 3 Kickstarter until the worst of the pandemic had passed?

I was but decided to stick with the pre-planned schedule for a few reasons. It’s not clear, when the pandemic will be over – no one really knows, it might continue for some time, surging again in places etc. Also, many others are delaying so there might be a rush of new projects on Kickstarter later. All in all, there are cons to launching now but pros as well.

Hopefully it won’t have too much of an impact for you, I imagine that since you’ve already built up a fan base through the previous Dale of Merchants releases that might help too.

Definitely. I would be more hesitant to launch at this time if this would be my first game.

Sami Laakso.

I believe this will be your fifth Kickstarter – what’s the main thing you’ve learned from running five successful campaigns? Do you still get nervous clicking the button to set it live?

Surprisingly, I don’t get that nervous. Either we get funded or not, haha. There are tons of small things I’ve learned. One of largest was with Dawn of the Peacemakers: It’s really important to have solid communication on the project page. What the project is, how the game plays, why should you consider backing. Having “too much” is definitely a thing there, especially if different things start to convolute the message.

Dawn of Peacemakers.

The campaign page looks great, I like that you’re holding polls to see what animalfolk will feature on the market board.

Last time, with Dale of Merchants Collection, we held polls to decide a few character cards. Now it’s time for the community to get a say on what animals end up in the market board’s illustration!

I think community involvement is such an important part of a Kickstarter campaign, especially as Dale of Merchants feels like a very personal game that people really connect with. I see you aren’t planning any stretch goals – I was going to ask whether the little space in the Animalfolk Compendium at the bottom of the Dale of Merchants 3 animalfolk list was just a spacing thing or leaving room for a small sticker about an extra animalfolk!

Unfortunately, I have to tell you that it’s just a spacing thing. I don’t particularly like stretch goals so we have none of them – just like we had none in Collection’s campaign. If we have new stuff released in the future, that small area in the compendium won’t be enough to hold the information about those…

Dale of Merchants 2: The Era of Trade Masters.

So far we’ve seen Scale-, Pale-, Feather- and Furfolk in the Dale of Merchants series, are there other folk in the world of Daimyria – folk based on fish or invertebrates for instance?

We’re quite certain that other animals aren’t classified as animalfolk in Daimyria. There are a lot of carnivores in Daimyria and it would be quite unethical to eat other animalfolks, wouldn’t it? Haha!

You know, I hadn’t even considered that aspect! The Dale of Merchants games are all standalone but can all be combined – did you find it restrictive at all having to ensure that each release feels like it’s an entity by itself rather than the expansion model where each new expansion can really shake things up?

My favourite expansions are those that provide more of the stuff I already like in the game. If an expansion creates too different an experience compared to the base game, it can leave people unsatisfied. That’s why I try to stick to the core of what I believe to be the essential part of a game when designing expansions. In that way, I actually appreciate and lean into the restrictions in order to make better sequels. If I get more outlandish ideas, I’ll write those down and can always use them in a different game altogether.

Ah, that’s really interesting, and I have to agree that my favourite expansions are also those that slot into the core game without a big rules overhaul. I do like the idea that restrictions push you to make better games.

When you’re designing a new animalfolk deck, does the descriptive name come first (e.g. Discontent White-headed Lemurs) or the play style of the deck (e.g. Replacing cards)?

When designing new animalfolk decks, I always come up with the general idea for it before the name or even the animal. For example, I got an idea where it could be fun to cycle through the cards in the market deck really fast! This resulted in what I first called the “throw away deck”. After I’ve playtested and deemed a deck worthy of releasing, we brainstorm which theme and animal would make the most sense for the deck and its mechanics.

Archiving Desert Monitors, Discontent White-headed Lemurs and Sharing Short-beaked Echidnas from Dale of Merchants 3.

I imagine it’s quite fun to come up with the theme and animal at the end like that?

It is! Once a deck is mechanically complete, we brainstorm together which kind of animal would fit the deck. Then it’s not only the animal that we choose but their general personality, culture, and more! We use a lot of time worldbuilding. After creating a large amount of backstories and lore for the animalfolk, we’re ready to write the flavour texts for the cards. The time we put into worldbuilding also helps a ton whenever we want to use the same animals in different games at a later date.

It’s something I’ve picked up on before, you can really tell that there’s more to the world than what appears in the flavour text on the cards (where you’ve only got a tiny bit of space). I’m intrigued about the subtitle for Dale of Merchants 3 – The Grand Continental Railway, there’s something very evocative about it. Could you tell me a little bit about it?

Absolutely! Each game has a subtitle which tells a bit about the setting we have in them, usually a reason for a party to hold a trading competition to choose the best candidate for a given position. This time the Continental Transportation Corporation is seeking a Railway Director to lead the project of building a railway across all of Africa. While it’s handy to transport goods via ocean on large cargo ships, not all destinations are accessible via rivers and oceans and that’s the problem the Corporation is seeking to resolve now!

Dale of Merchants 3: The Grand Continental Railway.

I think that’s one of the things I like about the series. Technically there isn’t the need for this level of worldbuilding but the fact that it’s there adds an additional depth and personality that solidifies the experience somehow. The themes of your games tend to be refreshingly unusual in the tabletop hobby – setting out stalls rather than actual trading, peacekeepers as opposed to players acting as armies fighting. Is this a deliberate choice on your part?

I definitely do like unusual themes. When you spend as much time designing and developing every single game as we do, you really don’t want to take shortcuts at any point. We try our best at every aspect, including creating unique themes and rich stories for our games.

I imagine all the worldbuilding you do will be especially important for Lands of Galzyr which I understand is an adventuring game that you are working on. What can you tell me about it at this stage?

That is definitely correct. While the worldbuilding already done has helped immensely for Lands of Galzyr, we still had to create a whole lot more, mostly about the location where that game takes place. In Lands of Galzyr, players are adventurers travelling, exploring, and questing in the region named Galzyr! Our aim is to offer an open world feeling where you can go basically wherever and do whatever you want. Your actions will also have consequences – even between different sessions as the game always continues where the previous game left off. All that being said, the game isn’t a pure legacy style as no components are destroyed or altered, and you can even play the game as many times you want to!

The future for Sami and Snowdale Design – Lands of Galzyr

It sounds very exciting! Compared to the Dale of Merchants series and Dawn of Peacemakers when is it set?

Lands of Galzyr takes place a few years before the Dale of Merchants series and many hundreds of years after Dawn of Peacemakers. That’s why you’re going to meet many familiar faces from Dale of Merchants, especially from Collection’s cast of 55 character cards! It’s exciting to see the same characters in a highly different setting.

Now that is very interesting indeed! I absolutely loved the introduction of the characters in Dale of Merchants Collection, I rarely play without them. I believe you were partly inspired by the alien races in Cosmic Encounter, was it nice to almost pay homage to one of your favourite games? I imagine you had a lot of fun coming up with game-bending abilities, some of them are astonishing!

Indeed, Cosmic Encounter and its plethora of alien races was one source of inspiration for the character cards. Many of the character abilities are actually as old as the first game in the series! I had the idea of them almost immediately and waited until the perfect opportunity to release them. Collection ended up being that opportunity to finally implement the abilities I had gathered along the years.

Dale of Merchants Collection: The Greatest Exhibition in the World.

You’re both the designer and artist for your games. It must have been quite an undertaking to produce all the artwork for Dale of Merchants Collection with the 55 characters and 8 additional animalfolk decks. I noticed that for Dale of Merchants 3 you have also worked with Jesús Delgado for the artwork – what prompted the decision to not be the sole artist for this game?

Our partnership with Jesús started a while ago when he contacted me with a few sample art pieces he had created just for me. Those were so convincing that we decided to have him help me with the burden of creating all the art for Lands of Galzyr. He can match his style with mine so well that I bet you can’t tell which illustration is done by me and which by Jesús! While he didn’t do any artwork specially for Dale of Merchants 3, we do use some art from the Dale of Merchants series in Galzyr and vice versa. That’s why he’s also credited in Dale of Merchants 3.

That’s really interesting that he reached out to you like that, and great that you’ve been able to collaborate so well. I’ve only seen the prototype version of Dale of Merchants 3 but I did try and see if there was any difference in the artwork and wasn’t able to tell who did what! You have also been involved as an artist in games for other designers – Days of Ire, Kune v Lakia and Petrichor among others. How does it compare working on your own games and somebody else’s?

I’ve yet to do actual illustrations for other publishers – I’ve only done graphic design for them. It’s unlikely that I’ll do much more in the future as my own games take more and more of my time. The experience is surprisingly different when you’re working for someone else when compared to working to yourself. In the latter, I’m free to do pretty much anything I want but also have more liability as no one is telling me not to do something… In contrast, when doing paid work, my main objective is always to please whoever hired me to help with their game. Both have their pros and cons, but I definitely fall on the side of loving my freedom, even with the added responsibility.

Cards from Lands of Galzyr.

I can imagine for your own work it would be easy to put a lot of pressure on yourself. Did you imagine when you first added the original Dale of Merchants to Kickstarter that Snowdale Design would end up releasing much larger campaign and adventure games?

The first Dale of Merchants was made on my free time just for fun. I launched the Kickstarter for it because so many of my friends liked it quite a lot and I wanted to share the joy we had with the game. That’s a long way of saying that I didn’t expect much and weren’t planning on making board games my full time job soon after!

It seems to have worked out well for you! Going back to when you originally made the first Dale of Merchants – its central mechanics use deck-building but it’s very different from the traditional deck-builder, almost every aspect defies the deck-builder conventions of the time. Did you deliberately set out to make it different, was it even originally going to use deck-building?

Dale of Merchants was designed as a deck-builder from the very start. I hadn’t played other deck-building games too much before that but enough to know that I didn’t like most of them. Haha. That’s why the game is so different from others of the same genre: I wanted to create a deck-builder I would enjoy playing! Some other design goals included high replay value, possibility to change the feel of the game to suit the players or their mood, and inclusion of tough and meaningful choices.

Dale of Merchants: The Guild of Extraordinary Traders.

I think you’ve definitely achieved those design goals. Our first two games with the prototype of Dale of Merchants 3 felt like we were playing almost completely different games. Obviously still the same game but the experience felt very different indeed. Do you have a favourite animalfolk deck from Dale of Merchants? I’m a big fan of thinning the deck and the Discontent White-headed Lemurs have been a lot of fun.

Personally, I’m a fan of interaction between players. That’s probably the reason I like the Sharing Short-beaked Echidnas and Scheming Green Magpies so much. “Loaning” cards from others using Echidnas is super fun as cards change ownership so often and surveilling your opponents in an attempt to steal just your chosen cards from them using Magpies is really rewarding. That’s not to say I dislike the others – quite the contrary!

Yes, our first game had the Magpies, Echidnas and the Superstitious Snowshoe Hares and cards were moving all over the place! The second game involved none of those and felt much subtler – fun in a very different way. How would you describe Dale of Merchants 3 compared to the original Dale of Merchants and Dale of Merchants 2?

Our goal was to make Dale of Merchants 1, 2, and 3 all very similar in terms of deck variation – all of them have a couple nasty decks where you can steal cards from other players in some way, a few more peaceful decks, a luck-based deck with a die, and so forth. That way everyone should be able to find at least a few they really like in each set no matter which kind of gameplay they enjoy.

Scheming Green Magpies, Superstitious Snowshoe Hares and Prepared Grizzled Tree-Kangaroos from Dale of Merchants 3.

I can see that – if you’re familiar with the previous games then there are some that immediately stand out as Dale of Merchants 3’s version of decks in the other games. It feels like there’s been an evolution from the first game to now – how would you say you’ve changed as a game designer since the original Dale of Merchants?

The first games were created more “on the spot” so to speak. As I create more and more content for the series, I want them to feel like they are part of the series and don’t feel out of place. That’s why I must be more methodical with my approach and study my own work in order to mimic it in a way! I’ve created a bunch of guidelines and rules and by following them the new content should feel similar to what came before it. As for entirely new designs, not that much has changed. Maybe my game testing phase has gotten a bit more structured, but in the beginning of a new game I still like to try out crazy things and see what works!

On the Snowdale Design website you state that you’re always interested in hearing about fan created content, is there anything that’s really blown you away?

There are some really interesting and creative scenarios for Dawn of Peacemakers posted over on BoardGameGeek. I haven’t yet had time to try them out personally but would love to do so when the situation around the world calms down a bit. I’ve also seen a few pretty original fan-created Dale of Merchants decks pitched at our friendly Discord server. They’re not in a playable form quite yet but as the community continues to work on them, they could grow to be pretty fun to play!

It feels like the work you put into the worldbuilding means that fans are more likely to feel a personal connection and invest their time to create some really interesting things. Ok, lastly – I really enjoy reading the descriptive terms for each animalfolk – Discontent, Sharing, Scheming, Archiving, Prepared, Superstitious. How would you describe yourself?

Ahaha, that’s a tricky question! Distilling myself into one adjective is not simple but I’d say, for better or worse, that I’m pretty relentless. That being said, I’m curious to know what would you describe yourself as?

Now you’ve asked me I realise how tricky a question it really is! Much as I would like something that sounds cool or dynamic, I suspect hesitant is probably the most appropriate!

The Relentless Sami Laakso thank you for talking with me, good luck with the Kickstarter campaign for Dale of Merchants 3!

Thank you so much as well, Hesitant Andrew Holmes! It was a pleasure talking with you.

Dale of Merchants 3 is currently on Kickstarter here and you can find out more about Sami’s games on the Snowdale Design website.

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About the author

Andrew Holmes

Andrew Holmes is a husband, father, scientist, poet and, of course, gamer who lives in Wales, works in England and owns a Scottish rugby shirt. He has never passed up a challenge to play Carcassonne.

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