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Review: Cities of Splendor (Splendor Expansion)

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Cities of Splendor - Box

I was a latecomer to the Splendor love train. When it came out, I looked at it and thought, “That’s it?” Bear in mind, I was in a place in my life where I had time and energy for heavy games and something as light as Splendor was easily dismissed. But life changes. Not long after, everything did a 180 and I found myself with far less time and energy for gaming. I began seeking out lighter games which still possessed some depth, and that search led me back to Splendor.

I fell in love (or at least heavy like) with the base game, yet when I saw there was an expansion on the way, I thought, “Is it a good idea to mess with the simplicity of the original game? Isn’t the simplicity what made it great?” So with some trepidation, I took the plunge into expansion-land. So the question is, did Cities make things better or worse?

Are We Moving to a New Splendid City, or Taking Splendor to the Slums?

As I noted in the introduction, Splendor has become a solid game for us. But part of what makes it so attractive is its simplicity. It’s easy to set up, learn, and play, yet it offers some decent decision making and a sense of building a nice engine as the game progresses. The idea of an expansion, however, was worrying. Would it take away all of the good things we liked, or would it manage to add enough without destroying the original?

Well, yes and no.

What I most appreciate about Cities is the modularity of the expansions. There are four modules in the box and each is designed to be combined independently with the base game. Each module has minimal rules. (If you need a refresher on the rules for Splendor, you can check out our earlier review.) As a result, it takes next to no time to learn a module and use it.

Each module also has very few components, preserving the simple set up which is important to me. There aren’t a ton of extra boards or chits to deal with, especially since you aren’t combining everything together.

Cities of Splendor - Rule Sheets
Nice sturdy rule sheets for each module.

However, while this is a positive for me, some people are not going to be happy that all four modules are not designed to be combined. Now, I have seen some people on Board Game Geek trying it and you may be able to find workable ways to do so. However, you will not find those rules in the box. If you’re the sort of person who likes “everything but the kitchen sink” expansions where you can throw it all together to create a giant Frankenstein of a game, this isn’t going to be for you.

As for what I think of the modules, here’s my opinion of each, along with a high level overview of what each adds to the game rules-wise:

The Orient

This is my favorite. The addition of more cards is what I was hoping for most from the expansion and these deliver. Each card row now has two Orient cards added on to the end of it. The new cards are classified the same as the old cards and essentially “match” the complexity/benefits/cost of the original cards. So the Orient cards on the Level 1 row are the least expensive/lowest value, and they progress upward through Levels 2 and 3.

The addition of the Orient cards simply gives you more options. You now have new ways to build your engine. There are wild cards/bonuses, ways to gain more cards per turn, ways to get cards or bonuses without sacrificing gems, and the ability to reserve nobles, among others.

Cities of Splendor - Orient
Some of the new Orient cards.

These new cards are powerful, but not always worth the cost/sacrifice. Sometimes the effort to obtain them will hurt you more than help. You have to think a little more about what you want to pursue and whether or not it’s worth it.

This is still “Splendor,” just with more cards and new abilities. Very nice.

Strongholds

This is my least favorite. Strongholds allow a player to reserve a card. When only one or two of your strongholds are on a card, it is simply reserved for you. When you place your third stronghold on a card, you can buy the card. However, since your opponents have the ability to remove your strongholds on their turns, your claim on any card is never permanent.

The thing that bugged me most about this module is that the strongholds aren’t optional if you buy a card. If you use your action to buy a card, you must either place a stronghold or remove one of your opponent’s strongholds. I see what the designers are trying to do. They are trying to add interaction to a game that some people complain has little interaction.

Fine. But this feels overly aggressive and often not worth it. Often the placing and removing of strongholds just goes around the table. You place one, I remove it, Joe places one, Fred removes it, and so on. This leads to people just buying cards randomly to move a stronghold and the whole game devolves into, “Buy a card, remove/place a stronghold.” All of the careful thought, engine building, and elegance of the original game goes out the window.

Cities of Splendor - Strongholds
The stronghold tokens.

Since you can reserve cards with the regular rules, and those rules do not go away with the expansion, strongholds really adds nothing to the game other than a level of annoyance. In all our games, no one ever got three strongholds on a card before someone removed one. With more players, the game also slows down as people try to figure out who/what to target and so many cards can get blocked from purchase that all that’s left are the cards no one wants. Unless a card is bought and something awesome replaces it, it feels like a futile race to the bottom.

This one is a total pass from me. I never felt that Splendor needed any more interaction. I always felt that the ability to reserve cards, plus paying attention to what your opponents need and working to deprive them of it, provided plenty of interaction. Strongholds might work for those who really like to get in each other’s faces, but it didn’t work for me.

Trading Posts

This is my second favorite module and it’s a close race with the Orient for first place. There are five “trading posts” on the extra board and each one offers a special ability. At the end of your turn, if you meet the requirement, you can “buy” a space on a trading post. (Most require only cards/gems to buy, but one post requires that you also have a noble.) You place your token on the trading post and then you benefit from its power until the end of the game. These powers allow you to claim extra prestige points or earn extra gems.

Cities of Splendor - Trading Posts
The trading post board and tokens. (The thing above the board is the new start player marker.)

This one is similar to the Orient module in that it simply gives you extra ways to convert cards to points and gems. As with the Orient, this one adds a little more thought to the game. You’ll have to decide which powers to go for, based partly on which cards are available and your chances of getting a noble. The powers can be useful, but they aren’t necessarily the key to winning the game. That’s the fun: You have to evaluate your strategy. You can’t assume that just because the powers are there that they guarantee a win.

The only reason I really don’t put this in a tie with the Orient module is that this one is slightly fiddlier with the extra board and tokens. It’s a fine addition, though, and the extra powers are welcome.

Cities

I didn’t particularly like or dislike this module. In this module, the cities replace the nobles. You place three cities (no matter how many players) at the top of the play area. As with the nobles, if at the end of your turn you meet the requirements (in this case, gems plus a certain number of prestige points) for a city, you take its tile. Sounds like nobles, right? Not really.

The difference is in what cities does to the end of the game. When a player takes a city tile, the end game is triggered. The current round is completed and then you see how things stand. If only one player took a city tile during the round, they win the game, regardless of how many points they or others may have. city tile trumps all. However, if more than one person took a city tile during the round, the player among them with the most prestige points wins the game.

I don’t hate this, but I don’t like the way the end game feels artificially forced. In the base game with the nobles, you can still win even if you don’t get a noble. It’s not easy, but it can be done. With cities you have no choice but to chase the city tiles. And with everyone so clearly following one of three paths, everything feels more predicable and prescribed. Once you see what your opponents are working toward, you automatically try to shift to one of the other things. The freedom to do your own thing, or change up on the fly, is kind of lost. It’s no longer about gaining points however you can, it’s about getting that tile. It works, but it feels rushed, especially because if one person gets a tile during the round, everyone else has no choice but to rush to get one, too, to even have a chance to win.

Cities of Splendor - Cities
Some of the new city tiles.

I would much rather have seen more/different nobles here. That would have completed the “trifecta” of ideal ways to change up the game. The Orient gave more cards, trading posts gave abilities… More complicated nobles would have been the icing on the cake. As it is, the cities module gives you a little taste of what might have been with more/more difficult nobles, but at the cost of the freer, “do your own thing” feeling of the original game.


So those are my thoughts on the modules. Do I recommend this expansion? Well, sort of.

I would recommend this expansion if you’ve played Splendor a ton, you adore it, and you really want to try something new. Nothing is broken and everything works. What you like about it will likely come down to personal taste. I’ll probably always play with the Orient or trading posts, but only use cities occasionally. I doubt the strongholds will ever see play again.

However, if you’re new to Splendor, I don’t see this as a must buy. The base game has a lot of play in that box, so this isn’t really necessary until you’ve played the original so much that you’re ready to toss it unless you can find a way to change it up.

But that brings about what, to me, is the biggest negative of this expansion, and that is the price. The expansion costs exactly the same as the base game. (At least at the major OLGS’s.) For that price, if you’re tired of Splendor, you could just as easily buy an entirely different game and really change up your game nights. It would be up to you whether you love Splendor enough to sink that money into its expansion, or if you’d rather use the money to try something else.

Partly this decision will depend on how many of the modules interest you. If there’s only one standout module in your mind, then your value won’t be as great. (Unless you think that one module alone is worth the price.) But if all four appeal to you, then the value/worth is potentially greater to you. Since the modules don’t combine, you’re going to have to do some math/module valuation  to determine the worth to you.

Cities of Splendor - Insert
The box/insert. Oh, how I wish there was a place for the base game.

On the whole, this expansion did mostly what I like expansions to do. It changed the gameplay up enough to keep Splendor interesting and it did so without adding a lot of fiddliness or complexity. 

However, I can see people for whom Cities just isn’t “enough.” Perhaps it’s the lack of support for a fifth player (something a lot of people hoped for), or the fact that these modules are not really intended to be combined to make a mega-Splendor with lots more complexity. Nothing here drastically changes the game. Everything simply adds a little bit of oomph to what is already there. Nothing makes it a much deeper, longer, or strategic game. It’s all still Splendor, just with little twists. (Needless to say, if you hated Splendor, there’s nothing here that will make it better for you.)

One other negative to quickly mention is the fact that the expansion components don’t fit naturally into the base box (or vice versa). Your choices are to discard an insert (from either box),  modify or create a custom insert, or cram stuff into one insert or the other so that it fits, but is not nicely separated. This bugs me, possibly more than it should. But given that the expansion box is the same size as the base game and there’s not much in it, it’s simply a shelf hog.

It’s hard for me to unreservedly recommend Cities of Splendor, especially at its price point. This is extra true if you think that all four modules will not appeal to you and you only like one or two. However, if you love Splendor to death, or you can score a good deal on sale/trade, then it may be worth it for you. Otherwise, I still feel like there is plenty to love in the base game and certainly this expansion is not “necessary” in any way.

iSlaytheDragon.com thanks Asmodee for providing us with a review copy of Cities of Splendor.

  • Rating 7.5
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Summary

Pros

Low fiddly factor.
Since the expansions are played separately, they don't add much complexity/rules overhead.
Increases replayability/adds freshness for hardcore players.
Adds a little more to think about for gamers/experienced Splendor lovers.

Cons

Components won't fit in either box without insert modification/disposal or random cramming.
Expansion costs as much as base game.
No support for 5th player.
Expansions are not designed to be combined, which may affect your valuation of the game.
If you hated Splendor, this is still Splendor.

7.5 Good

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I’m also one of “those people” who likes dice and revels in randomness.

Discussion1 Comment

  1. Joseph E. Pilkus III

    Jennifer,

    I, too, came late to Splendor, having enjoyed much heavier games upon returning to the hobby nearly eight years ago. Then, about a month ago, while attending a local meet-up here in D.C., someone offered Splendor. I gladly accepted having never played it. Wow! What a great, accessible game with enough strategy and depth for the amount of time invested in the game. In the weeks and months ahead, I hope to check out the expansion and enjoy this classic title again and again!

    Cheers,
    Joe

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