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Review: Splendor

8

Splendor box

 

The life of a jeweler. You thought it was enough to sell what you had to buy that diamond. But then that diamond gave you opportunity to acquire that emerald, which gave you opportunity to acquire that sapphire, and now you’re a full-on gem merchant. Well, might as well use your newly gained gems to attract powerful nobles to your booth. Who knows? At the end of the day, you might be the most splendored gem merchant of them all.

How It Works

Splendor is an engine- and tableau-building game for two to four players. Players are merchants acquiring and trading gems to attract powerful nobles. The player with the most points wins.

At the start of the game, each of the three decks is shuffled, with four face-up cards placed next to the deck. Each pile of chips is stacked near the cards (with a certain number removed, depending on the number of players), and noble tiles are shuffled, with one revealed for each of the players plus one.

Splendor set up for four players. That is a nice looking array.
Splendor set up for four players. That is a nice looking array.

On a turn, players may perform one–and only one–action:

  • Take three chips, each from a different stack
  • Take two chips from the same stack if that stack has at least four chips
  • Reserve a card from the display or the top of any deck and claim a joker chip
  • Purchase a card from the display or hand, paying its cost in gems and placing the card in tableau

Each card in the game has a cost in gems, and each card provides a gem that gives its player a discount on future cards. Having multiple cards of the same color can also attract nobles: at the end of a turn, if a player has the right configuration of cards, a noble visits for free, giving that player the noble tile and 3 points.

When one player reaches 15 points, the round is completed (i.e., each player takes the same number of turns). The player with the most points is the winner.

Each card in Splendor has a cost (lower left), a point value (upper left), and a gem (upper right) that provides a discount. Oh yeah, and gorgeous artwork.
Each card in Splendor has a cost (lower left), a point value (upper left), and a gem (upper right) that provides a discount. Oh yeah, and gorgeous artwork.

Diamond in the Rough, or Fool’s Gold?

Splendor is a hard game to write about. Well, not that hard–I love it. But in trying to convince you that you should love it too, I come up a little empty. The theme is well-worn and boring to most, and let’s be honest: theme isn’t the strong suit here to begin with. The rules are simple, but some might call them simplistic. In fact, the thing I keep coming back to is the chips. THE CHIPS. So let’s begin there.

CHIPS. These are heavy-duty and excellent to hold. They're not quite like clay poker chips, but they have a similar weight. Point is, these chips push the game over the top for me.
CHIPS. These are heavy-duty and excellent to hold. They’re not quite like clay poker chips, but they have a similar weight. Point is, these chips push the game over the top for me.

Splendor has incredible components. The game comes with three stacks of cards, lavishly illustrated (seriously), along with ten noble tiles depicting famous historical persons who might visit your jeweler. The card design is perfect, conveying all the necessary information in a clear way that still allows the art plenty of room to dazzle. (The cardstock isn’t my favorite, but since you only shuffle once per game and don’t handle the cards, really, it’s not an issue.) But while some publishers might be content to stop with great artwork–what more could players want?–Space Cowboys/Asmodee has set the bar higher by including heavy-duty poker chips for the gems that players spend in game. I was quite surprised when the box arrived at my house, because I had read the component list in advance, and the box was far heavier than it should have been. Again, THE CHIPS make themselves known as soon as you lift the box. The game would be playable with cardboard discs, or even different denominations of real coins, or paper money, etc. But the poker chips are perfect. Not only do they make it easy to tell at a glance how many chips are in each stack (which is important information), they give players something to clank together while considering their next shrewd move. Their physical weight conveys the weight they play in-game, and the nod to poker in this design choice reveals how much of the game is trying to read what other players are doing. The poker chips are something you really have to handle to believe. In fact, were it not for the publisher’s relentless extravagance in the component choices, I’m not sure this game would stand out or receive the attention it has been receiving.

The rulebook front and back. Surely there are lots of rules contained within, right?
The rulebook front and back. Surely there are lots of rules contained within, right?

But Splendor isn’t just its components. Those are great, but there are plenty of games that have fantastic components that I don’t like. (See: almost every game by Fantasy Flight [!].) The components only direct the eye to the otherwise unassuming gameplay of Splendor. I mentioned that, were it not for the chips, I think this game would be receiving much less attention, and I stand by that. The reason is that the rulebook is four pages. In a hobby that is increasingly moving toward rulebook tomes and increased complexity, Splendor has the audacity to hit the scene with a slim and trim rulebook, whose first page is the cover illustration, whose two intervening pages are mostly diagrams, and whose final page is the designer’s shot at humor. And that simple rulebook bears out in teaching the game. I don’t think it has taken me longer than five (maybe even three) minutes to teach Splendor to each new group I’ve taught it to, and at the end of the explanation the players have full comprehension of the rules at hand. The game, aside from its production, looks not just simple but simplistic.

This is the inside of the rulebook. And that's about all you need to know how to play. And no, there's no insert--the rules fit almost completely on two pages. Fantastic.
This is the inside of the rulebook. And that’s about all you need to know how to play. And no, there’s no insert–the rules fit almost completely on two pages. Fantastic.

And yet the game is incredibly compelling and not simplistic. Simple, yes, in that it’s easy for players to understand the entire system. But as is common in many of my favorite games, while the framework is simple, the choices are not. This game falls squarely into the Spiel des Jahres mold. It’s approachable, it’s simple, and it is fully directed by player choices. As in Ticket to Ride, each turn is a simple decision between a truncated set of options. You can do only one thing, and the four things are easy to understand. But the tension in the game is that you want to do everything, and you need to do it now, so you have to determine which choice is most efficient. Do you go for the cheap cards, which better your economy but don’t provide points? Or do you eye the more expensive cards, spending more time saving but increasing your score at a more dramatic pace? Splendor is a race game, and because of that, it is an efficiency game. The goal isn’t just to acquire parts to build an engine, it’s to make a working engine and rev it first. And finding the path through the cards toward victory is not so simple.

This noble will not deign to visit your jeweler until you have three onyx, three rubies, and three emeralds. Best get cracking.
This noble will not deign to visit your jeweler until you have three onyx, three rubies, and three emeralds. Best get cracking.

The reason for this is that Splendor is very interactive. It doesn’t have to be, in that there’s no direct conflict. You can’t sabotage another player’s holdings, and they can’t sabotage yours. But if you’re playing an isolated game, you’re probably not winning. The game involves a common array of cards that every player can purchase from. This means that any player can buy any card on any turn. Worse, they can’t just buy cards (in that they need the gems to pay for them), they can reserve cards for future use from right under your nose, for their own benefit or just to spite you. This presents players with a dilemma: collect chips now to buy the card with greater efficiency later, or reserve the card now to ensure later purchase? Reserving a card is not the ideal choice since it takes two steps to get the card into your tableau, and getting a joker chip is not as efficient as collecting chips in other ways. But if you take the efficient route, and especially if it is obvious to the other players which card you want, that card might not be there by the time you can afford it. So players must balance efficiency with opportunity. And in addition, you have to watch what other players are doing because noble cards can come in an instant, granting a player three points (which is nothing to sneeze at). Again, this makes the path toward victory difficult to discern.

There is the further interaction of removing cards from the array. The card array reminds me very much of the trade row in games like Jaipur or Ascension or Star Realms. Players want to acquire cards, yes, but by acquiring cards, they open the market for the next player in turn order. With the noble tiles dictating which gems are most valuable in a certain game, this can be devastating. Of course, players may always reserve a card blindly from the top of a deck, but this is a risky endeavor and not often (or lightly) embarked upon.

1-IMG_1510
All of the noble tiles. Can you identify who they represent?

Splendor succeeds because of its limits. It seems like pesky niggling rules to tell players, “Only ten chips! You can only take two chips if a pile has four!” But these two small wrenches in an otherwise smooth system keep the game compelling. They make it so players can’t hoard chips, and they also ensure that every player will have opportunity to get chips from the piles: after one player takes two of a color, chances are no one else will be able to (at least in a two or three player game). And these two rules also heighten competition, which is fierce in this game.

If there’s anything to say against this game, it’s that some players won’t like it. I know, I know–obvious. But let me illustrate the kind of player who won’t like this game. I used to do Sudoku puzzles over my lunch hour (the life of a rock star!). One of my coworkers looked over my shoulder and said, “Oh, I can’t do those. How do you know if you’ve already done a puzzle? They’re all the same.” And I couldn’t really rebut her. Truth is, I didn’t know if I had already done the puzzle I was poring over then, or if I’d done it a hundred times. That’s not the point: the point is that sometimes doing puzzles is fun, and it’s the process rather than the solution that’s fun. Splendor is kind of like Sudoku in this regard. It’s not necessarily a puzzle, but the same cards are in every game, and while the nobles change from game to game and thus make different gems more attractive in different games, the play process is very similar from game to game. Splendor, while Dominionesque, doesn’t have Dominion’s variety (although there are plenty of Dominion haters despite its variety). Some players will think the game plays too similarly. Me? I don’t care–I love the competition, of trying to outguess and outplay my opponents.

A sample tableau. This player gets a big discount on cards that require rubies!
A sample tableau. This player gets a big discount on cards that require rubies!

Of course, this leads to the real negative of Splendor–I’m not very good at it. One of my coworkers is a Splendor savant, and he has won every single game he has played. The only games I’ve won have been outside this context. I’m still trying to find a way to outplay him, but that may never happen.

And you know what? I don’t care, because I’m willing to keep playing, because the game is fun regardless of victory (although victory would be nice every once in a while). I should mention here that the game is fun for all player counts. The difference is that, as in most multiplayer games, the ability to plan is inversely related to the number of players. The game is tactical anyway, but it’s more tactical with four than with three and with three than with two.

Everything fits neatly in the insert, and it mostly stays put, though things will move around if jostled too much. The only disappointing thing is that it's hard to get the cards out of their slot. (And the slides that look like they're meant to hold the cards aren't large enough to hold them standing up. Bummer.)
Everything fits neatly in the insert, and it mostly stays put, though things will move around if jostled too much. The only disappointing thing is that it’s hard to get the cards out of their slot. (And the slides that look like they’re meant to hold the cards aren’t large enough to hold them standing up. Bummer.)

Splendor is an excellent game. It’s about as distilled as an engine-building game can be, and in this case, it’s a good thing. I can’t decide if Splendor fits my definition for a filler game. It’s certainly simple enough, and short enough, and has few enough components to be (if you ditch the box), and yet the game doesn’t feel like a filler. The tense decisions are sometimes brain burny (but not too brain burny), and because of this there isn’t a lot of room for conversation. No matter. The game is short and fast-paced and you’re likely to want to keep playing game after game, so that by continual play you will wear out the Splendor master in the chair next to yours and maybe, just possibly, best him in one…more…game.

Just try Splendor. It’s great.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee for providing us with a review copy of Splendor.

Summary

  • Rating 9
  • User Ratings (2 Votes) 9
    Your Rating:
Summary

Pros

  • The components are incredible
  • The game is super easy to learn and teach, and it's compelling to play
  • Simple decision tree evens playing field between novice and experienced players
  • Short playtime gives it that one-more-game compulsion

Cons:

  • Same cards come out each game, which may limit replayability for some
  • Box is larger than it needs to be (although the insert is great)
  • I never win
9 Excellent

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

Discussion8 Comments

    • Hmmmm… I see that others have gotten theirs to stand up. Mine still won’t. I think my insert is defective, which is a bummer. Still, it’s not a deal breaker by any stretch.

  1. Unfortunately those nice components come at a price and that’s my biggest con for this one… nice looking game, but for the $40 price tag there are meatier options on the market.

    • “Meatier options,” yes, but that implies that meatier is better, and that’s not always the case. I don’t think this is improperly priced, especially if you buy at a discount (~$25 online).

      Of course, it won’t be for everyone. But my friends and I have thoroughly enjoyed this game.

    • I know I’m posting a month later and you probably won’t be checking this again, but you can certainly find the game much cheaper. I ended up picking mine up for $29 with free shipping on Amazon. It’s definitely worth 30 bucks. I watched it for a while before it dropped to that price though, the price fluctuates.

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  3. I played this at Origins last week and LOVED it! I played a lot of great, fun games at the con, but Splendor was the only one that I finished playing and just went “I need to play again right now”. And that is definitely not the reaction I expected based on the quick run-down I got before trying it out. I am really glad I decided to give it a try and even more glad that I bought it. Special thanks to Jason and Andrew for playing it with me at the Asmodee booth!

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