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Designer Diary: Lands of Galzyr, or Narrative Adventuring in an Open World

Sami Laakso
Finland
Pori
Satakunta
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Board Game: Lands of Galzyr
Welcome to the designer diary for Lands of Galzyr, a game designed by Sami Laakso (me) and Seppo Kuukasjärvi and illustrated by me and Jesús Delgado. It's the third new game series taking place in the world of animalfolks published by my company, Snowdale Design.

Lands of Galzyr is an adventure board game for 1 to 4 players set in an open, story-rich world. Acquire prestige as a cunning and ambitious adventurer by exploring the lands and by taking on challenging quests. Your actions have long-lasting consequences in the evolving and persistent game world. Your decisions affect not only the current game, but the following games as well.

Now, without further ado, let's begin!

A Sense of Freedom

Our ambitious goal was to create something new and fresh, something we haven't yet seen in board games. We set out to create a game with an open, living, and persistent world where you can dive and fully immerse yourself in.

Our main inspirations for this design were games such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, The 7th Continent, the Fallout series, and Planescape: Torment. When played for the first time, they can create such a joyful sense of wonder where it feels like you can do whatever you want — such freedom!

You're also often not restricted to a specific way to complete any given challenge or quest; rather you can choose between multiple different creative approaches. The quests have different endings, making it clear that your actions have persistent consequences in the game world. Whatever you do, the story supports the game mechanisms and vice versa, resulting in an uninterrupted immersion.

Board Game: Lands of Galzyr
An early prototype of Lands of Galzyr

Boundless Stories

From our first discussions, it was clear that the game needed a storybook in order to support the amount of content needed for the feeling we wanted to evoke in players. It was originally supposed to be a physical book as we aren't too fond of digital devices creeping into our board game space. However, as time went by, it was more and more clear that a digital storybook was the only way to realize what we were trying to do. It would have resulted in a worse gaming experience for everyone if we were more stubborn and insisted on a physical storybook.

To bring the storybook into the digital realm, I ended up creating it as a website, something that you can use on pretty much any device now and in the future. It can also be downloaded and installed on your device for offline use. That way, it is futureproofed and not bound to have a set expiration date like more traditional iOS and Android apps.

What were the main reasons for ditching the physical book in favor of a digital one? First, the game's storybook will feature over 600,000 words — that's six regular-sized novels. For reference, the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy has roughly 450,000 words! Second, digital adaptation brings other huge pros as well, such as being spoiler-free and having the ability for us to update the book even after the game has been released.

Board Game: Lands of Galzyr
First prototype storybook versus the final digital one

Game with a Memory

A board game with an open world cannot be a simulation like a computer game because players keep it running — the game shouldn't feel like work. Thus, one design goal was to decide what players should do in the game to give them the feeling of freedom.

Another tricky decision revolved around the consequences of players' choices in the game world. How should we implement those? A traditional solution is to add a ton of components to the game, including various cards and tokens. That quickly becomes a mess. Also, tokens are not helpful in keeping the game world persistent between sessions, which is usually done with a pen and paper — or not at all!

Board Game: Lands of Galzyr
One of the card trays, a quest card, and quest tokens

Games usually have persistence only within each session. Your actions obviously have consequences in board games. You take actions and reap benefits and face penalties because of that. The idea of those same actions having long-term consequences even between games was the thing that sparked our imaginations!

Let's say you manage to acquire a precious gemstone for a polecat to complete their prized collection. And let's also say that you did so by utilizing a bit of shady methods to put it mildly. The previous owner is less than happy about that and hires someone to teach you a lesson. Or maybe you helped an undisclosed party with their quest to take control of one of the cities on the map. Whatever the case, we didn't want the game to simply forget your actions — not immediately, and not between games. Thus, your decisions carry weight, making them a wide margin more meaningful!

On the surface, our solution looks extremely simple: one save slot for each adventurer and one for the game world itself. Each save slot can hold any number of cards, regardless of their type. The orientation or order of the cards doesn't matter, either, so it's extremely fast and easy to save the game at the end of your session. Setting up the next game is equally speedy when you want to delve into Galzyr again.

Board Game: Lands of Galzyr
Adventurer boards and their skill marks

Each adventurer's gold and skill marks are saved with their adventurer board: gold with a dial and skill marks with custom plastic pegs. Basically, the saving boils down to the position of cards and skill marks in the box and card trays — well, and the orientation of your gold dial. Is the card 268 in the library? Or maybe in the vault? Or perhaps in the event deck or global save slot? Each of those would result in the game knowing something different about the status of the world and your past actions in it.

Brave and Resourceful Adventurers

Bumir the marbled polecat, and Mor the frilled lizard made their first appearances in Dale of Merchants Collection, while Aysala the river kingfisher and Keridai the northern banded newt are entirely new faces! Each adventurer represents a different class of animalfolk in Daimyria: furfolk, scalefolk, featherfolk, and palefolk, respectively.

Board Game: Lands of Galzyr
Adventurer figures and their special abilities

Unlike in Dawn of Peacemakers, the adventurers in Lands of Galzyr are highly varied, each with their own special ability, tags, skill marks, and more! You'll be able to feel like a resolute polecat who never surrenders without giving it his all, or a highly intelligent newt bending the rules and inventing entirely new approaches to challenges that look impossible at first glance!

We decided upon having six skills in the game: Thievery, Might, Survival, Knowledge, Communication, and Perception. They are arranged into a circle on the adventurer boards. Adjacent skills in the circle are thematically linked and have synergy with each other.

In the first game, each adventurer is prepared for different kinds of challenges, represented by four skill marks. These custom plastic pegs are attached to the adventurer board, and you can swap yours to different ones during play.

Board Game: Lands of Galzyr
A comparison between an early prototype and final versions of adventurer related components

Our goal in designing the narrative gameplay was to create meaningful choices, carefully intertwined with the story. We paid special attention to these design principles in the "Book of Adventures". Options, skill checks, and their outcomes have an important role in connecting game mechanisms to the narrative, making players feel they are in Daimyria and their choices have a real impact there.

Challenging story paths are accompanied by skill checks. To resolve one such check, you roll five 6-sided dice. The base skill dice have one single success for each of the six skills in the game. Skill marks grant you access to advanced skill dice that are more powerful in their own skill and help in both adjacent skills as well. There's a lot of luck mitigation as well, in the form of items, statuses, companions, and more.

Depending on the result of the skill check, you get a different outcome with an appropriate story and consequences. Those can be positive or negative — or both! Furthermore, if you get an excessive number of successes, your outcome can be even more grandiose.

Lands Full of Opportunities

As many of you already know, all my games take place in Daimyria, the world of animalfolks. Lands of Galzyr is no different in this aspect. In Daimyria, intelligent animalfolks have risen to build civilizations, each with their own defining traits and unique cultures. There are reckless polecats, scheming magpies, enthusiastic turtles, and many other colorful folks with their own attitudes towards life.

Board Game: Lands of Galzyr
Evolution of the game board from the first prototype to the final one

We have been steadily building Daimyria with each release, be it a new game in the Dale of Merchants series or Dawn of Peacemakers. We decided to position Lands of Galzyr about ten years before the Dale of Merchants series, in the polecats' famous city-states. Dawn of Peacemakers takes place roughly seven hundred years before Galzyr. You will be able to see many familiar faces and animalfolks from our previous games.

The region has been built to include mystery, secrets, political intrigue, and more. Galzyr awaits!

Sami Laakso and Seppo Kuukasjärvi

Board Game: Lands of Galzyr

This designer diary was originally posted as a four-part series. This is a condensed version, combining all of them. You can read each individual post below if you so wish:

Part 1/4: Narrative adventuring in an open world
Part 2/4: Game engine capable of remembering
Part 3/4: Brave and resourceful adventurers
Part 4/4: Lands full of opportunities
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Tue Sep 13, 2022 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Dawn of Peacemakers

Sami Laakso
Finland
Pori
Satakunta
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Microbadge: Calvin and Hobbes fanMicrobadge: Calvin and Hobbes fanMicrobadge: Dawn of Peacemakers fanMicrobadge: Dale of Merchants fan - I adapt with Veiled ChameleonsMicrobadge: Lands of Galzyr fan
Board Game: Dawn of Peacemakers
This diary was first posted on the game's own forum between October 6 and November 16, 2017. This is a condensed version of the original six-part write-up that can be read here.

It was clear from the start that I wanted to make something unique with Dawn of Peacemakers, something not seen in a cardboard form. What if I made a war game...in which players aren't fighting for victory but rather trying to achieve peace? When I had this idea, I knew I had came up with a game idea that I had to pursue.

After thinking about the theme for a while, it became clear that players wouldn't be the ones controlling the warring sides, at least not directly. This meant that I needed a game engine that could simulate two sides waging war, and that simulation should be able to create interesting and tense moments by itself. I didn't even bother thinking about how the players would affect the sides or what else the players would do. If the war simulation would end up being boring by itself, influencing it wouldn't get players excited either.

After countless iterations, I had created a simple artificial intelligence, an AI that decides what its side's units would do and when. I rigorously tested different AIs by pitting them against each other time after time, making adjustments between sessions. Only after this core engine created tense situations did I start thinking of ways for the players to influence the game. I liked most the goal of players trying to exhaust the sides to form a truce and finally a peace.


Board Game: Dawn of Peacemakers
One of the first prototypes of the armies' order cards


I wanted to include a story campaign with a continuing narrative and high replay value. Would it be possible to achieve both? I want you to experience new and different outcomes each time you play the game. One element that makes this possible is a variable set-up that pushes the game in unique directions. In Dawn of Peacemakers, there are small tweaks to the set-up based on your path leading to any single scenario. One example is that if a unique leader gets defeated, they're not coming back in any following scenario. They are dead, after all.

Another way to create variety is through randomization during play. For my taste, this needs to be done in a deliberate way so that players don't lose too much control. In Dawn of Peacemakers, this comes about via AIs that are controlled by their order decks. These are shuffled during set-up, which results in armies acting in varied ways. In one game, an army can be extremely aggressive, attacking the opposing side relentlessly. Next time, the exact same army can feel totally different, making calm evasive moves. Each order deck is built during set-up by following the scenario-specific rules to give the army a tendency to act in a smart and believable way following their intentions in the scenario.

Most board games introduce choices for the players. These also result in varied game states as long as players don't make identical decisions each time. There are certain things in the game that address players' decisions as soon as players feel comfortable with the core engine. I can't go further into this discussion without spoiling the fun of discovery.


Board Game: Dawn of Peacemakers
The next prototype, featuring two order cards per army


Dawn of Peacemakers has multiple scenarios linked together with a story. How would players progress through it? Would there be multiple branches? How much would players be able to affect the story? These were just a few of the questions floating in my head without clear answers. The story doesn't have multiple main branches. I came to this conclusion because that way the story would have more structure and I could keep the scenario count to a manageable size. If I would introduce a lot of branches, most players would see only a fraction of the content anyway.

How would players interact and affect the story? I wanted to avoid interrupting gameplay as much as possible. This way, any story told during the game would come naturally from the players and their actions during the play. It would be unique. My aim was to give players enough background information and lore before each individual game that they could then tell their own story of how the events take place on the board. You need to be able to familiarize yourself with the setting in order to fully dive into it. After each game, there are multiple closures to each fight based on the end result.


Board Game: Dawn of Peacemakers
Akezan the fennec fox's sketch and sculpt


The main content of the game is the twelve scenario co-operative campaign. There are sealed components that you will unlock during it, encountering many surprises while doing so. The game isn't a legacy game as nothing is destroyed, and you can replay any single scenario or even the whole campaign as many times as you want. Why? Continuing story, surprises, fresh gameplay. Those three are my favorite things in legacy games.

Destroying components, on the other hand, is something I'm not so keen on. When I consider purchasing a game, I like being able to play it as many times as I wish. I have purchased Risk Legacy, Pandemic Legacy: Season 1, and Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 with my game group. Those were all great experiences, but sadly I can't revisit those games after finishing them. My ultimate goal was to make something that's as memorable or even more so while providing huge replay value at the same time.

One thing that some legacy games fail to do properly is scale. They may start extremely simple and end up heavier with all the added complexity. Some offer higher complexity to begin with and end up so convoluted that the players end up enjoying the game less the more they play it. It's hard to make an unfolding game like this and not have it creep up so much that the players who loved it at first can't recognize it later. This is the reason why we as designers have to put constraints on ourselves. My philosophy is to add things in only if I really have to do so. This way I rarely have to cut things out. Still, with Dawn of Peacemakers I had to cut some parts out. While it hurts at first, it almost always makes the game better.

It would be critical to pace any new mechanisms and components in the correct rhythm. If I do it too quickly, players get overwhelmed, but if I do it too slowly, players might get bored. One thing that I kept doing after each playtest was make the first scenario more simple. It's easy to forget how complex your game is to an outsider when you know it inside-out. It was critical to get the game in the hands of new players all the time.


Board Game: Dawn of Peacemakers
Sample resource and unit cards


Oh, did I mention that the game comes with two game modes? You can also command the armies directly in skirmishes. That could be its own game, but I foolishly included it in the same box. That, however, is a different story to be told some other time...

Sami Laakso
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Sun Oct 7, 2018 1:00 pm
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