Why Silver is Limited to 4 Players & Listed at 45 Minutes per Game

by Ted Alspach December 17, 2019

Why Silver is Limited to 4 Players & Listed at 45 Minutes per Game

Why Silver is Limited to 4 Players and Listed at 45 Minutes per Game

By: Ted Alspach

While I’m blessed to be able to design and publish games for a living, I’m a gamer first and foremost. I love playing games—board games, video games, mobile games, whatever. I’m always excited to try out new games, hoping to find a jewel in the insanely large number of games being published each year. And when I do, I try to get as many plays of that game in as possible in a short time, because there will always be a shiny new game around the corner vying for my attention.

When you play a lot of new games, you get a whole bunch of people looking to try out those games. You want to fit them all in. Typically, the box has two really important pieces of information: the maximum number of players, and how long it takes to play. In some cases, these numbers are exactly what we’re looking for, and they’re accurate. In most cases, however, the numbers are exaggerated: the player count is at least one player too high, and the time is lower than the actual play time.

The reason for this is pretty simple: publishers want the greatest number of people to buy their game, and by increasing maximum player count, the game is open to larger groups. Similarly, many gamers look at play time to determine if the game is right for them; typically a game listed at more than 90 minutes removes a large chunk of gamers from even giving it a second look. A four-player game that takes 120 minutes doesn’t sell as well as a very similar five-player game that takes 90 minutes. (At least, initially it doesn’t. If that four-player 120 minute game is really good, over time it usually does well, despite the hesitation of larger groups and players looking for a shorter game.)


Bezier Games’ Player Count and Time-to-play Policy

For Bezier Games, our strategy line is medium-weight. Our most successful games in this area, Suburbia and Castles of Mad King Ludwig, are limited to four players with a listed play time of 90 minutes. Both were extensively playtested with five players, but the experience just didn’t live up to our expectations. 

For Suburbia, an extra player meant additional downtime between turns, buildings would come and go without one player ever having a chance to purchase them, and the static turn order prevented each player from directly interacting with two other players. Some of these issues were addressed in the Suburbia 5 Star expansion, but I still think the experience isn’t as good as with four players. 

For Castles, the master builder mechanic didn’t work nearly as well as with five players, giving the player who sets the room prices too much to consider. They would end up with a room more randomly than when playing with four players. And each player got to be the master builder at least two fewer times, taking away a key element of Castles gameplay and strategy.

In both cases, we decided fairly early in development to limit the game to four players. Then the games were tweaked and honed to work as well as possible with two, three, and four players (solo rules came after the multiplayer game was finalized). Though the game didn’t necessarily break with five players, the playing experience was notably worse for everyone.

This is where playtesting is invaluable. There’s a certain amount of time that just feels right for most games. Some end just as you are getting into the game and building an engine/set/whatever. Others overstay their welcome or drown players in too many choices near the endgame, making the last few turns drag on and on. In a perfect world, our strategy games would end just before the 90-minute mark on your first play with four players, including rules. Subsequent plays reduce that time to near 60 minutes. Suburbia and Castles work like that, so we put “90 minutes” on the box.

We do that because it’s annoying to sit down for a game and then have it take substantially longer than what is on the box. For Suburbia, while a four-player game with experienced players clocks in right around an hour, it’s still the right thing to do to put 90 minutes on the box, because the first game played (or a game with two or more newbies) probably will be close to 90 minutes. If future games take less time, great! But that first game is where we want to match your expectations.  



But Silver Works with 5 Players!

I recently played a game for the first time with a player count of 2–8 players. Our staff enjoyed the game with three players, so I was eager to try it out. I ended up playing it at a games day with the maximum number of players: eight. It was terrible. Really terrible. Burn the game and bury the ashes and post warning signs not to dig it up terrible. 

That was the only exposure to the game seven of us had. The player who brought the game told us that it is much better with fewer players, but the damage was done; I won’t be playing that game again soon regardless of the number of players, and my opinion of it is extremely negative. That game should never be played with eight players, even though it technically worked. I don’t know what the max number of players for that game is, but it shouldn’t say eight on the box if the experience will be bad.

You can technically play Silver with five players. You can play with six, seven, even eight players! The game doesn’t break if you do that. However, any number of players higher than four results in issues:

  1. The game is too short in terms of turns per player. There are five fewer cards in the deck, so instead of playing with 32 cards (which you always do with two, three, or four players), you have 27 cards in the deck. With 32 cards in the deck, each player in a four-player game gets at least eight turns each round (32÷4=8). In a five-player game, though, each player gets only five turns each round, because there are 27 cards in the deck (27÷5=5.4). Of course, players draw from the discard pile occasionally, so they might get a few more turns, but this is still a drastic reduction in the number of turns per player. If you went to six players, each player gets fewer than four turns per round. With eight players, there are only 12 cards in the deck, so some players might only get a single turn!
  2. There is too much time between your turns. Each extra player adds 33% time until it is your turn again. It’s easy to lose track of cards, what you were doing, and what your opponents are doing. Add to that friendly conversation, and your focus on the game might waver, making you less interested in the outcome.
  3. It’s really hard to call with more players. Calling for a vote is always risky, but even more so when even more people get a turn after you call.

The original version of CABO was 2–5 players, and the rules allowed for combining of decks for even more players. Unfortunately, all of the issues that applied to Silver (above) apply here as well, and playing with five players was typically not a very good experience.



A Game of Silver Can Be Played in 15 Minutes!

Yes, it definitely can. With two players, we’ve had games done in 10 minutes. But in all likelihood, a four-player game of Silver with experienced players will take a little over 30 minutes. For the first game, however, it’s going to run closer to 45 minutes, maybe a bit longer if all players are new. Still, we believe that the right thing to do is to list 45 minutes on the box, because that’s a more typical first game time.

Nobody gets angry when a game is over a little sooner than what’s printed on the box, but if a game sticks around for 30 minutes or more than what’s on the box, it can leave players with a bad first impression, and they don’t know if subsequent plays will be closer to the time on the box or not.

When developing Silver, we had a goal of 45 minutes for game length. Originally Silver had a 100 point goal, like CABO. When we realized that was way too high for experienced players, we moved it to 50, but that was still too variable; some games could be over in one or two rounds, while others could go on for more than a dozen. It turned out that four rounds was the magic number, which always felt like a full game without overstaying its welcome or finishing sooner than players wanted.


For a Really Fast Game, Try the Silver App

The Silver app (free for iOS and Android) lets you play two-player games against an AI, in about 5 minutes. It’s a great way to get familiar with the cards, and since it follows all the rules, you can teach others after just a few plays in the app. Watch for more cards from the new Silver games being added too! 


Future Silver Games

You know how I was just saying that playing Silver wasn’t such a great experience for five players? Well….we worked on it. And it’s likely that a future Silver game will make that experience a good one.  The rules will be modified, and we’ll add more than the standard 52 cards that come with other Silver games. So look out for that!

And the third game in the series, coming early next year, actually is slightly longer, because 1) there’s a little more strategy with some cards and combinations, and 2) you need to plan ahead more for calling (there are ways to set yourself up to be protected from other players after you call, but that comes with its own risks). 

However, we’re not going to change the time on the box, because in all likelihood, if you’re playing the third game, you’ve already played another game in the Silver series, and learning the new cards doesn’t add that much time to your first few games.

 Once that game is announced, I’ll be back to talk more about it, and maybe about the other two Silver games coming out in 2020. That’s a total of five Silver games before the end of next year!

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Ted Alspach
Ted Alspach