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Designer Diary: Silver

Ted Alspach
United States
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Castles of Mad King Ludwig Collector's Edition on Kickstarter January 19th
Castles of Mad King Ludwig Collector's Edition on Kickstarter January 19th
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Board Game: Silver
While this is a designer diary, it's also in many ways a developer diary, as I tend to wear two hats these days. Despite having played what must be thousands of different board games over the years, I had never played a "point shedding" game until I was introduced to Cabo (first edition) at Greg Schloesser's weekly East Tennessee Gamers game night a few years ago. A recent transplant to Tennessee from California, I was discovering all sorts of great games that were super common in the southeast, while introducing west coast staples to the good folks here.

Cabo had been a surprise hit for the group. Lots of players who normally stick to heavier games enjoyed it, as well as casual gamers. I liked it right away, and when I tried to purchase a copy afterward, I discovered that it had been out of print for several years. After a little research, I found all sorts of similar card games that had the mechanism I call "point shedding", which is the process of reducing the sum of points in your hand by trading out your cards for other ones, and even reducing the number of cards in your hand overall. These games included Rat-a-Tat Cat, Skyjo, and the public domain Golf, played with a traditional card deck.

Cabo stood out because it provided abilities along with the base mechanisms, adding spice without too much randomness. It had a good chunk of interaction between players, a light memory element, and a dramatic reveal at the end of each round.

From gallery of toulouse

However, as a gamer, I wanted more. During many turns, I found myself going through the motions because there was an obvious play (take a lower card or one that matches an existing card) or no real option (just discard the card you drew).

With that in mind, I started working on a Cabo variant in which more cards had abilities. These abilities were offshoots of what Cabo did at a base level, but as I added them, the variant turned into something quite different.

Memory Issues

The first thing I did was to reduce the memory element by keeping cards drawn from the discard pile face up. These were known cards already, and by placing them face down in Cabo, you have to remember their value along with the other cards you've viewed. Keeping track of seen cards was tiring and sometimes frustrating, and players with highly developed short-term memory skills would do better than those of us without that particular talent. Keeping cards face up that everyone has seen created a more level playing field.

From gallery of toulouse

Abilitizing Face-up Cards

The next thing was to add abilities to the low-number cards that work only when face up in your village. One of the first cards was the Bodyguard (#3), which could protect another card in your village from abilities that allow players to move or swap your cards. I quickly discovered that the only way to get a card face up in your village to protect your other cards was to draw it from the discard pile. This caused players to hang onto unseen cards, making the "peek" ability (which allows you to look at one of your cards) much more valuable. Further, no one wanted to give up a face-up 3 because it handed a huge advantage to the player on your left.

From gallery of toulouse

Thus, two new abilities were added: the Exposer (#5), which allows you to turn one of your own cards face up, and the Revealer (#6), which allows you to turn any card face up. These cards were valuable in the early game as they allowed players to find out what unknown cards were, and maybe add an ability to the mix if those were low cards.

From gallery of toulouse

Other low card abilities came soon after: The Empath (#2) allows you to view a face-down card each turn, and for each Rascal (#4) face up in front of you, you can draw an extra card from the deck (returning unchosen cards back on top of the deck). Just having these three abilities made drawing a 5 or 6 an interesting choice. If you've seen those three cards in front of you, which one do you turn face up? Being able to view unseen cards is huge, but protecting your low value cards is also valuable, and then there's the extra options you have by drawing two cards each turn (which also tells you what the player to your left might draw). That sort of decision is the kind of thing I look for in games, where the right answer is both subjective and situational.

From gallery of toulouse

Later in development, I added the Squire (#1) ability. Having a 1 is valuable by itself (and an easy target for other players), so I gave him an ability that benefits everyone. For each face-up Squire, a card from the top of the deck is also displayed face up. Players can then choose from the face-up deck card, the unseen top card of the deck, or the discard pile. As a bonus, taking a face-up deck card keeps it face up in front of you, so you don't have to memorize what the card is and can use its ability if it is a low card. Face-up Squires help keep games different and fresh.

It's great to have all those choices, but not so great that the other players have those choices, too. When multiple deck cards are face up, your opponents can learn a lot about your hidden cards by watching which card you choose.

From gallery of toulouse

The last card to get a face-up ability was the Villager (#0). For a long time the Villager was just a zero, already an amazing card to have in front of you. During the thousands of playtest rounds, I realized that I wanted more tension; if no one called, the deck would slowly run out, and the round would end with more of a whimper than a bang. The Villager's ability changes that. The game includes only two Villagers, and if, and only if, both of them are face up in front of players, the round ends instantly. No one else gets a turn, and you have to turn your cards face up.

The interesting thing about this is that the game runs along as usual until one of the Villagers is turned face up. At that point, it's a time bomb, especially if you don't know where the other Villager is (or even if anyone has him). Anyone can turn over a card and it could be the other Villager, ending the game suddenly, so with one Villager face up, your strategy has to adjust for this sudden end because you don't want to be stuck with any high value cards. On the other hand, if you've got a pretty good hand and you know where the other Villager is, flipping him face up could be huge for you — a low score for you and a potential high score for your opponents.

Adios Cabo, Hi-Yo Silver!

It wasn't long before the game became more than a Cabo variant. It needed its own identity. I also realized some things that weren't working were holdovers from Cabo (first edition) and could now be easily changed. On the chopping block were the following:

• The Cabo theme (or lack thereof)

Board Game: Cabo

• The funky artwork of the original edition
• The lack of variety in special abilities with a single deck
• The name of the game
• Playing up to five players
• Having only four cards in front of you
• Pretending your cards match just to see what they are
• Different length rounds based on how many players were playing
• Playing until a player reaches more than 100 points total (the game was too long)
• The lowest total always scores 0 points, whether that player called or not
• You can play a round forever if no one calls
• The 50-point kamikaze (if your four cards = 50 points, you get 0, everyone else gets 50)
• Jumping back down to 50 points if you hit 100 exactly
• The dreaded 13 card (only useful for the kamikaze)

Theme On!

First up was deciding whether this new game should have a theme, and what it might be. As I developed the game, I had been using familiar names for the cards from our other werewolf games and tried to match up some of the mechanisms loosely. The numbers though...what could they be?

Well, in most of our games, werewolves are the bad guys, and usually you want to eliminate them, so the numbers became the number of werewolves in your village, which showed how many werewolves followed the different characters. Thus, the high-powered Robber (#12) would have twelve werewolves hanging around him, while the lowly Villager wouldn't have any. Treating each player's line of cards as a village worked well (an idea borrowed from Legend Dan Hoffman's excellent Ultimate Werewolf Inquisition). Other themes could have also worked, but it was nice to fold this into the werewolf mythos, with similarly named characters and abilities to other games.

From gallery of toulouse

No, Really, It's Not from 3D Software

While developing the game, I used artwork from our other games, usually One Night where roles matched up. Once the theme was locked down, I went in search of an artist to fulfill the vision I had, and finally found one: Andrey Gordeev.

Andrey's art is absolutely amazing, and I was thrilled when he agreed to join the project. He's still working on artwork for future games in the Silver line even now, and my favorite emails are the ones I get from him that contain new sketches and color versions of new roles. Andrey's art looks like something you'd see in a Pixar or Dreamworks feature, but he actually creates it all the old-fashioned way (well, digitally old-fashioned, by painting in Photoshop, not with a dedicated 3D program). Each and every character he's created has a ton of personality and all sorts of great little tweaks. Since you're slogging through this really long diary, here's a fun secret for you: Each card has werewolves on it equal to the number on the card. Some are obvious, while some are hidden. When you, erm, spot the Cow in Silver Bullet, you'll know what I mean.

Multiple Decks/Games

As there were more cards with special abilities in development than would fit in the game, I had been considering releasing this game on Kickstarter and using the other special ability cards as Kickstarter bonuses, then selling the bonus cards later as a bonus pack. It worked for the One Night games, after all.

But soon the number of cards in development was in the dozens, and I realized that the number would continue to grow. (We're currently testing about one hundred unique cards in addition to the ones that will be published this year.) That this might be a series of compatible games was forming as an idea, and I tentatively called the base game the A deck, with the next one being the B deck, etc.

The Game Names Themselves

As a game designer and publisher, trying to find a unique name for your game that somehow communicates what the game is about, while still being interesting and memorable is always a challenge — but in this case, the name came pretty naturally.

Once the Amulet of Protection (which had debuted in Ultimate Werewolf: Ultimate Edition) was added to the game, I didn't realize it, but the name was already decided once I started naming the decks/games with items alphabetically. The A deck had an amulet. The B deck should have (it seems so obvious now) a bullet! And what's more awesome for fighting werewolves than a silver bullet? Silver is something that's traditionally been used to defeat werewolves, so why not have a different object in each game? And they could all be silver!

The toughest part was deciding the name of the first game. I went back and forth between Silver and "Silver Amulet" for a while, before deciding on Silver, knowing that each follow-up game would start with the word "Silver" and have the item after it. The word "Amulet" is on some of the box sides, so if you do collect them all, you'll have a nice Amulet/Bullet/Cxxxx/Dxxxx/etc. display.

Goodbye, Player #5

Cabo supports up to eight players if you mix two decks together. Like "Trichu" (the horrendous three-player variant of Tichu), you should avoid this at all costs. With a single deck, up to five players could play. Unfortunately, this results in waiting wayyyyy too long for your turn, trying to track all of those face-down cards (since in Cabo every discard pile draw goes face down in front of you), and having opponents get five chances to destroy your call.

Four players makes the game more snappy, and with the new abilities, two and three players results in an entirely different feel. I've played hundreds of games at all player counts with Silver, and while everyone has their preference for the "best number of players", I truly couldn't tell you if one is better than another as I like all three different player counts for different reasons.

From gallery of toulouse

Hello, Card #5

Having four cards in front of you was less satisfying in terms of the rush you get when you exchange matching cards, so Silver starts with you having five cards. You still look at two at the beginning of the game, then have to figure out what the other three are. This fifth card provided more interesting options when you had face-up card abilities, too.

Fake Matchers, Beware!

The "fake matching card trade" trick that gamers did with Cabo always bugged me. In Cabo, you can always exchange any number of matching cards. If they don't match, you put the card you drew on the discard pile and flip your cards back down. The only penalty was a loss of your turn, but in the process, you learned what all your unknown cards were, without waiting for a "Peek" card. Gamers, hmmmph!

So a new rule said if two cards you tried to exchange didn't match, you had to keep the card you drew as well as the cards you tried to exchange. And if three or more cards don't match, you get the card you drew plus another card off the top of the deck. The goal was not to penalize folks who can't remember their cards, but to stop rampant fake-matching card trading, and it worked.

Consistency Between Player Counts

Because a Cabo deck ends up being smaller when you have more players, it changes the rhythm of the game, making abilities harder to balance.

In Silver, you deal out four sets of five cards regardless of how many people are playing. With fewer than four players, you place the unused sets of cards off to the side. This results in a deck that is always 31 cards (plus a face-up discard). It might seem like a little thing, but five extra cards in a three-player game, or ten extra in a two-player game changes the feel of the rounds as well as strategies — and not in a good way. Every round of Silver still has a varying number of turns (since players can draw from the discard pile as well as the draw deck), but there's less variance than if the deck was a different size for each player count.

Four Rounds Is Just Right!

Lots and lots of rounds of Silver later, we realized that a specific point total as game end wasn't right. Not only did it feel too long, there wasn't a good flow to the game. After a ton of experimenting with different ending conditions (Time limit! Lowest score to reach X! X successful calls! X rounds!), I settled on four rounds. It made the first game, as players learn the mechanisms and base strategies, take about 45 minutes, with subsequent games clocking in around 30 minutes.

Calling Is a Dramatic Event

Calling for a vote in Silver is higher stakes than in Cabo. In Cabo, you call "Cabo" if you think you have the lowest total. If you do, great, you get 0 points. If not, you get your sum +5, and the player with the actual lowest total gets 0. Calling isn't particularly a great strategy since if you have the lowest total you'll get 0 anyway, and you're mostly risking 5 points to end the round quickly.

From gallery of toulouse

In Silver, the reward and penalties are more dramatic. When you call for a vote in Silver, and you have the lowest (or match the lowest) number of werewolves in your village, you get 0 points. You also get the Silver Amulet of Protection, which gives you a special, one-time ability to permanently protect a card the next round. If you're wrong, you score the sum of your cards, plus ten points.

Rounds Should End, Right?

In Cabo, each round continues until someone calls. The deck is out? Shuffle the discard pile and keep playing until someone calls. In Silver, the round ends in one of three ways: someone calls for a vote, the deck runs out, or both Villagers are face up in players' villages. The round will end, often sooner than you originally expected.

Shooting the Moon

You have a way to catch the leader in Cabo — but only if things go according to plan. You must get both 13s and two of the four 12s, then someone else has to call, and no one can mess with your cards. Then you get 0 points and everyone else gets 50. I've played a lot of Cabo, and this is incredibly rare. We removed this from Silver because final game scores are much lower than in Cabo. Also, getting both 13s is easier because of the Master (#10) ability, which lets you grab a card of your choice from the discard pile.

If You Reach 100, Something Went Very Very Wrong

One cool thing in Cabo is that if you're losing, you can redeem yourself if your score equals 100 points exactly. It sounds hard, but it's fairly common among Cabo players. Since Silver scores should never get to 100 (at least, not with the base set of cards), we threw that rule out.

From gallery of toulouse

The 13 Is One of the Best Cards in Silver

As opposed to Cabo, where the 13 is only good for a kamikaze, the Doppelgänger (#13) in Silver automatically matches any other card(s) you are discarding, so having it in your village is a good thing (and it's usually a top choice when someone plays a Master, and a Doppelgänger is in the discard pile). Of course, if the game ends suddenly via double Villager exposure, you're hosed. But that edginess adds a lot of excitement to the game.

Cabo: Second Edition

Through all of the playtesting and developing of Silver, I had been trying to secure the license for Cabo itself. The good news, as you probably already know, is that we got it and made a whole bunch of little tweaks to Cabo, including:

• Cards from the discard pile stay face up
• A unicorn theme (some would say pasted on, but...whatever)

Board Game: CABO (Second Edition)

• Redid the artwork (inspired by the original very funky art)
• Removed the fifth player
• Added an anti-"fake matching card trade" rule
• Removed the "lowest total always gets 0" rule
• Changed the round-ending conditions to include running out of cards in the deck
• Lots of other little tweaks

All of which make Cabo even better!

Silver Now and Silver Bullet Soon

Silver launches with a limited number of copies at Gen Con 2019, and it should be available in stores in September 2019. Just one month later, we'll launch Silver Bullet at SPIEL '19. Silver Bullet has the same gameplay, but with fourteen new ability cards and a Silver Bullet in place of the Amulet.

From gallery of toulouse

As Silver was in development, there were a ton of ideas and thoughts about abilities. Only one ability from Cabo made it into Silver directly: the Apprentice Seer (#8), who can view a card in another player's village. "Peek" from Cabo was thrown out and replaced by the Beholder (#7), who can view two cards in your own village; knowing your cards is incredibly useful, and viewing two instead of one made a lot of sense with three initially unknown cards. "Swap" was also thrown out, replaced by the Robber (#12), who lets you steal a card from another player, then view your new card.

The new abilities in Silver Bullet change the game in some interesting ways, with a heavier focus on flipping cards face up and face down, the ability to use powers of cards you didn't draw that turn, and even the ability to slow down and speed up the round.

Board Game: Silver Bullet
A Grand Design for Abilities

Once you play both games, you'll see some underlying rules we have for what abilities do with certain numbers. The 10 card in all decks is some sort of Vampire who interacts with the discard pile. The 7, 8, and 9 cards give you more information about face-down cards. The 5 and 6 are about flipping cards, and the 11 and 12 are interactive cards that affect other players directly. There are other guidelines, and they'll start to become apparent as we reveal additions to the Silver line. That's right, we are currently developing a whole bunch of additional Silver games (after all, we have a whole bunch of cards to work with), with two or three scheduled for 2020, and even more in 2021 — and some of the abilities are crazy fun.

These guidelines were really important when developing both the base game and the sequels because these aren't just standalone games. You can mix and match cards from the games together by replacing all the numbers from one set with the same numbers from another set. We spent a lot of time with Silver and Silver Bullet playtesting combos, such as evens and odds, lows and highs, and even primes and non-primes. Those are all seven sets of numbers from each, but you can mix any number of numbers and the game will still be balanced and fun.

We did some testing of other ways to combine the game, and while they work, the end result wasn't as solid as simply removing all of one number from one game and replacing it with all of that number from another game (for any number of numbers). We tested having two of each number from two different games, having one of each number from four different games, randomly picking 52 cards from a giant pile of cards from all the sets available (that wasn't fun), and even playing with multiple sets of the same number (like twelve 3s, sixteen 9s, and no 1s, 2s, 5s, 13s, 0s, or 12s). But the most consistently good games were those that swapped out complete sets of numbers.

From gallery of toulouse

The Silver App

While Silver has been in development, we've been hard at work developing an app for it. This free app has all the cards in the base game and provides a compelling two-player (you versus the AI) game that allows you to try out the game to see whether it's for you. Look for the app on iOS and Android soon!

From gallery of toulouse

Special Silver Components

Once we decided on including a silver amulet, we were determined to make it metal. (Real silver would have been nice, but it would've jacked up the MSRP a little too much.) Both the silver amulet and the silver bullet are solid metal, with a great feel and great table presence.

From gallery of toulouse

Silver includes a scorepad that is fifty double-sided pages, good for one hundred games or even more if some are two player. It even has dedicated rows for subtotals (after rounds two and three), and a total row at the bottom.

From gallery of toulouse

The four reference cards are great for your first few games, telling you things you can do each turn, and what the icons on the bottom of the cards mean.

From gallery of toulouse

Because we knew that there would be more games in the Silver series, and players would want to combine cards from each game, we worked with Noah at Game Trayz to create an insert that allows players to sort each numbered card set in the game (as well as the set of reference cards), whether those cards are sleeved or not. Because Noah is awesome, he created a pocket for the scorepad, and then he went totally nuts and designed another pocket for the silver token that will be in each game, and gave it a snap-tight lid so your amulet/bullet/whatever won't fly around the box — all out of a single piece of plastic. Game Trayz rock, if you didn't realize that before.

From gallery of toulouse

The Silver Debut with Game Mats

If you stop by the Bézier Games booth at Gen Con (or SPIEL), you'll notice that our tables are covered with giant 36" x 36" player mats specially designed for Silver and Silver Bullet. These are so awesome that we had extra ones printed for Gen Con attendees. (They aren't included with the game, but should be reasonably priced.)

We'd love to have you stop by at Gen Con, take a look at Silver (and Silver Bullet), and maybe pick up a copy. We're tight on timing, so we've air-shipped only five hundred copies to the show, so stop by early if you think it's something you'll enjoy.

Now, I'm back to working on the next batch of Silver games due in 2020! Thanks for reading the Silver design diary!

Ted Alspach
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