Buzzworthiness: Splendor

I’ve played one of the Spiel des Jahres nominees this year.  And though it lost out to Camel Up, I still want to give a review for

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Splendor was designed by Marc André and published by new company Space Cowboys.  The game is for 2-4 players and lasts around 30 minutes.  The basic idea is that you are gem traders, trying to trade up to gain the best gems and thus the most prestige.

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

The game comes with 10 noble tiles, 40 poker chip gems, and 90 cards (three levels).  In the beginning, you lay out four cards from each level deck, as well as choosing as many noble tiles as there are players plus one.  Players start with nothing.  On your turn, you have four options:

  • You can take three gems of different types (there are five types – diamond, emerald, ruby, sapphire, and onyx).
  • You can take two gems of the same type.  You can only do this if there are at least four of that type available.
  • You can reserve a card by taking it into your hand.  This also gains you a gold token, which is wild.
  • You can buy a card from the display by paying the indicated cost in gems.

As you play, you’ll be building up cards in front of you.  Each one shows one of the gem types in the corner.  This symbol gives you a discount on future purchases – if you have two emeralds, you can knock two green off the price of any future cards you buy.

If, at the end of your turn, you have correct number of gem cards in front of you that match the set on a noble tile, you gain the noble tile, which is worth an extra three points.  Some gem cards also have points.  When a player gets up to 15 points, the current round ends so that everyone has had the same number of turns, and the player with the most points wins.

COMPONENTS: The components in this game get a lot of praise, and I agree with most compliments.  The cards are nice quality, and have different backs so you can easily tell which belongs in which row.  For people who are color blind, there’s also 1-3 dots.  The gem icons, too, are color-blind friendly – each gem has a different shape so you can tell them apart.  The noble tiles are pretty good quality, but this is the point were color-blind accessibility breaks down – the required discounts to earn a tile are just colored squares.  I suppose you could mock up a cheat sheet to know which one needs which gems, but the publishers didn’t help you out.

The majority of praise for these components goes to the gem chips.  They are not the cheapo plastic chips you might expect, but some real high-quality poker chips.  They are dense, there’s some heft to them, and they are fairly large (a little over 1.5 inches in diameter).  Space Cowboys could easily have used cardboard tokens, or even little plastic gems, but instead chose to go with these chips.  I’m guessing they’re going to be more durable, especially since you are constantly collecting and trading them in.  They definitely add to the tactile nature of this game.

I also want to applaud the insert for this game.  The chips all have their own slot (with a shallower one for the gold since there aren’t as many).  These slots have an indentation on the edge so you can easily get your fingers in.  Also, the compartment for the card has three dividers for the three decks, much like the dividers in Dominion.  This holds the cards in place whether the box is lying flat or on its side.  It’s far preferable to the standard card sized compartment that allows the cards to go everywhere in transit.  The only place I’ve had a problem is with the tile compartment, which just holds them all flat and doesn’t hold them in place.

The art in the game is fairly nice, but I find it to be a little dark.  I’ve mentioned before that the cover makes this game look more sinister than it is – the guy kind of looks like Jafar, and there’s a woman looking suspicious over his shoulder.  Also, I’m not crazy about the bright yellow box.  But the art is definitely good.  Overall, I give the components in this game a big thumbs up.

THEME: In Splendor, you are gem traders, trading in the gems you collect for materials and prestige.  But really, the theme is irrelevant.  You are never going to say “I’ll trade in these five sapphires and these three emeralds for this ship, which also gives me a discount the next time I spend emeralds, as well as increase my prestige by two.”  You’ll say, “I’ll trade in five blues and three greens for this card with a green discount and two points.”  Nor will you say, “I have four onyx and four rubies.  Now this gentleman who looks like Henry VIII will visit me and increase my prestige by three.”  You will say “I have four black and four red.  This angry dude is mine.  Three points.”

I suppose you could say that Splendor is a commentary on the nature of capitalism.  You begin with nothing, and by collecting gems and trading them in for incrementally better items, you can build yourself up into prosperity.  As you acquire more and more materials, materials will become cheaper, and may even be given to you without paying anything.  The rich get richer, and the wealthier you are, the more respected you will be.  This could spark some fascinating debates as to the validity and sustainability of such as system.

Or you could just have fun with the game as it is.

MECHANICS: Splendor is an economic game with a set collection mechanism.  As you play, you’ll be acquiring the right combinations of gems to trade in for cards.  The more cards you have of a type, the cheaper future cards will be.  The discount system in place helps keep the game moving despite the limited number of gems – there’s absolutely no way you’d be able to afford cards from the top row without them.

Cards are officially acquired by paying gems.  However, you can reserve a card at any time.  This serves several purposes.  First, you get a gold gem, which can be used as anything.  Second, you ensure that you will get that card.  Third, you ensure that no one else will get that card.  It’s a nice addition that adds more strategy to the game.

The nobles also add an interesting element.  They come to you automatically once their condition is met.  Each one has a configuration of gems, and everyone will be trying to collect the necessary ones.  This means that some gem cards will be in high demand.  In every game I play, it seems that one gem is more scarce than others.

Overall, I’ll say that the mechanics of this game are very simple, but are very clean and function well.  From the two different ways to acquire gems to the two different ways to get cards off the board, every action works well, and there is none that seems more important or powerful than the others – all will have their purpose and strength.

STRATEGY LEVEL: This game has a lot of strategic depth.  To be sure, there is luck in the game – you can’t predict which cards will come out, and there’s no way to plan for everything.  However, you can always pick a card or two from the top row and build to that, or try to maximize your ability to get nobles.  You can usually tell what other people are going for on the first turn of the game by the gems they take, and it typically takes three turns to claim your first card.  There’s also some push-your-luck as you determine how long you want to allow a card to be available as you rack up gems – every turn it sits out there is another turn that someone else might snatch it.  So while there is luck, there’s still a lot of strategic decisions to be made.

ACCESSIBILITY: I find Splendor to be an extremely easy game to pick up.  There’s only four actions, and choices don’t need to be agonized over.  This is a game I would classify as a gateway game – simple rules, plenty of strategy, and quick playing.  I’d recommend this both for gamers and people just getting into gaming.  I’ll hopefully be trying it on my parents next week – they’re the real test of accessibility in a game.

REPLAYABILITY: Because of the ever-changing market, I think Splendor has a lot of replayability.  There’s always going to be new combinations of gems to try, and different nobles are in every game.  After a lot of plays, it may start to feel like you’ve been there and done that, but I anticipate a lot of play before it wears out its welcome.  Also, it’s one of those games that you want to just set up and start again once it’s over, so that’s a good thing too.

SCALABILITY: Splendor plays from 2-4 players, and I think it plays very well with all numbers.  There are two reasons for this.  First, there are limits on the number of available gems – 4 with 2 players, 5 with 3, and 7 with 4.  This keeps the game very tight, and certain gems will constantly be scarce.  Also, the quickness of play virtually eliminates the downtime problem that plagues a lot of turn-based games.  You can only do one action per turn, so you really need to work out a plan in advance.  You can be thinking about this during other people’s turns, and while a plan might get shot down, there’s always something to do.  So yes, play well with 2, 3, and 4 players.

FOOTPRINT: Splendor is not a huge game, but you will need some space.  There are three card rows (four cards each), and you’ll need storage space for the gem chips and noble tiles.  Additionally, each player needs an area to keep their collected cards on display – the only hidden information is what cards you have reserved, and anyone paying attention will know what you took.  But you should be able to play it on a normal sized table, maybe even smaller.

LEGACY: As I mentioned, Splendor did not win the Spiel des Jahres this year.  I can’t speak to the other nominees, but I would say Splendor did not win simply because it might not appeal to families the way a camel racing game would.  Remember that failure to win the Spiel des Jahres is not an indicator that a game has failed – Puerto Rico famously lost out on the SdJ in 2002 to Villa Paletti, and look where they both are now.  I do think Splendor succeeds as a gateway game, and I think it’s a very good one.  Time will tell if it achieves the level of other classic gateway games like Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne, but it’s definitely a great one for the moment.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  From the stellar components to the quick and easy gameplay, this game hits all the right notes for me.  It doesn’t burn your brain, but still provides a nice puzzle to solve as you try to race towards your fortune.  I highly recommend it, and hope you get a chance to check it out.  Thanks for reading!

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