Dale Yu: Review of Splendor

Splendor

  • Designer: Marc Andre
  • Publisher: Space Cowboys
  • Ages: 10+
  • Players: 2-4
  • Time: 30 min
  • Times played: >10 with review copy provided by Space Cowboys/Asmodee

splendorr1

Splendor is one of the new Spring 2014 games that I have been anticipating for awhile now.  I was first exposed to the game last summer at Origins, and I was impressed by it back then.

Splendor is a quick playing abstract engine building game.  The object is to be the first player to score 15 victory points.

The board setup is simple.  There are three levels of cards (each being progressively more difficult to purchase and worth more VPs).  Each of the three decks of development cards are shuffled and four cards are laid out from each deck to form a 3×4 tableau.  On the top of the tableau, some noble cards are revealed (from a total selection of 10 in the box).

Each of the development cards has a purchase price in gems – found in the bottom left corner.   The upper right corner shows the type of gem that this card can provide you in future purchases. Finally, the upper left corner shows you the victory points, if any, provided by the card.

On your turn, you really only have three options.  You can:

1) pick up gems from the supply.  You either choose to take one gem of three different colors OR you choose to take two gems of the same color, but only if there are at least 4 gems of that color available.  At the end of your turn, you can only have 10 gems in your hand, if you have more, you must discard down to 10.

2) reserve a development card. You can take any of the face up cards OR the topmost facedown card from any of the decks.  When you do this, you also get to collect a gold (wild) gem token from the supply.

3) buy a card.  You can buy any of the 12 face-up cards or a previously reserved card in your hand by paying their cost in gems.  You can use gem tokens that you have collected in previous turns as well as using gems provided on the development cards that you have previously purchased.

That’s pretty much it.  On your turn, you do one of these things, you check to see if you win a nobles tile,  and then the next player goes.  Oftentimes, less than a minute passes before the game gets back to you to go again!  As I mentioned earlier, the goal is to be the first player to 15 – but how do you score those points?

splendor2

There are really only two way to score points in Splendor.  First, many of the development cards score VPs (in addition to providing you with buying power).  Most of the level 1 cards are worth 0VP but a few are worth 1VP.  Second level cards all score some points, ranging from 1-3 VP.  The third level cards, which are also the most difficult to purchase are worth between 3-5 VPs.

The other source of VPs are the nobles tiles.  At the end of your turn, you check to see if you qualify to earn a nobles tile.  If you do, you simply pick it up and add it to your display.  They are each worth 3VP, and they are earned if you have a pattern of development cards that match the requirement on the tile.  (For instance, the guy who kind of looks like Spock is earned by the first player to have 4 development cards that provide a blue gem AND 4 development cards that provide a white gem)

The game continues until someone scores 15 points.  The current round is finished so that all players have an equal number of turns.  Ties are broken in favor of the player who has the least development cards.

My thoughts on the game

From my perspective, this is a very enjoyable game that hits a lot of my sweet spots.  It plays quickly with very little downtime between turns.  It is super easy to teach, and its streamlined rule set means that even non-gamers can quickly learn and enjoy the game.  As it stands now, it would be one of the games that I think will be nominated for SdJ next month due to its (lower level of) complexity and simple rule set.

More than a few gamers have commented at the essentially abstract nature of the game, and I’ll have to agree that there isn’t much story here – but that’s not the sort of thing that makes or breaks the game for me.  I think the pure engine building mechanic is enjoyable and challenging on its own.  According to the rules: “In Splendor, you take on the role of a rich merchant during the Renaissance.  You will use your resources to acquire mines, transportation methods and artisans who will allow you to turn raw gems into beautiful jewels”.

In my experience with the game thus far, most games start with players trying to pick up as many first level cards in as quick a manner as possible.  Once their purchasing engine has been seeded with development cards, then players decide whether they are going to try to go for their VPs via the nobles tiles or via the 3rd level cards.  A lot depends on the tableau – sometimes the purchasing requirements for the higher cards are somewhat synergistic.  Sometimes, the nobles line up well to what you’ve already managed to pick up.

In either event, you need to make a decision quickly and then stick to it.  There simply isn’t enough time in the game turn-wise to change strategies.  The game is definitely a race to the VP finish line, and competition is fierce for cards and nobles.

There are only 10 nobles tiles in the box, and in setup, you randomly choose n+1 tiles to use in that particular game.  One of my semi-beefs with the game is that there are times when the requirements for the nobles tiles when the requirements overlap a fair amount – and the game becomes much shorter – as it is more a race to see who can acquire the right colors first.  For example, in my most recent game, three of the nobles cards were:

3VP for 3 brown / 3 red / 3 green

3VP for 3 brown / 3 red / 3 white

3VP for 4 brown / 4 red

My younger son managed to be quite lucky and have the majority of brown cards flipped up into the display at the start of his turn.  He quickly had a monopoly on brown and was able to win all 3 nobles cards without much competition from us.

In some ways, it’s nice that not every game plays the same, but it also makes the game a bit too short for me!  (Who would have ever thought that you would hear me complain that a game is too short!)

Another semi-beef with the game, but not a game breaking one, is that it seems that the first player has a distinct advantage – as they have first opportunity to choose cards as well as the first opportunity to win a nobles tile.  By the end of the game, I’m not sure how large of an advantage this really is, but there is definitely no compensation for going later in turn order to offset the timing advantage represented by going first.

Both of these complaints are minor, and like Dominion (a game that I am intimately familiar with and one which has a similar uncompensated first player advantage), the short length of the game and the luck inherent in the game make these both non-issues for me in the grander scheme of things.

Overall, I have enjoyed my games of Splendor, and it is definitely one that will remain in the game collection.  I do think that this is the right level of complexity for the Spiel des Jahres, and I strongly believe that this will be one of the nominees when the short list is announced (assuming that this game has adequate German distribution).

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers:

Dan Blum: It’s a decent little game, and I would be fine with playing it more, but I don’t think I will miss it if proves to be flavor of the month and vanishes from the scene soon. (Which is not a prediction that it will do so.) I can’t point to anything I dislike about it, but I just don’t find it as engaging as some other relatively simple set-collecting games (e.g., Ticket to Ride).

 

Wei-Hwa Huang: I’m not sure if the multi-player game is better, but as a two-player game, this didn’t work for me.  In a engine-building game like this, there’s supposed to be one major source of tension: when do you stop making your engine better and start going for victory?  I think Splendor fails to get this tension correct.  The reason is simple — if you can’t buy a card that improves your VP, then there’s usually a card that improves your engine.  Either some player gets a string of good luck and happens to always have VP cards they can afford — or everyone ends up with a “perfect engine” that can buy anything they want.  The net result is that I feel on average every game ends up lasting the same number of turns, and the tension that the game is supposed to have doesn’t exist.

 

Joe Huber (1 play): Splendor was, unquestionably, one of the hits at The Gathering of Friends this past month.  So I’d take this with a grain of salt, but – I didn’t see much to the game.  The biggest issue I saw was that _all_ cards improve your engine, but only some provide victory points – and in ratios that didn’t make sense to me.  There is, logically, a larger number of victory points awarded for cards that require a concentration of one type of gem – so far so good – but those cards also cost less.  For example, one of the first level, 1 victory point cards costs 4 of one good – an amount that can, optimally, be collected over two turns, though three turns (with four gems left over) is more likely.  In contrast, the same level of card requiring four different gems – easier to collect – requires 5 or 6 gems, and is worth no victory points.  I took a “grab efficient cards” approach, and won handily, without any particularly good luck as to which cards came out.  The game works smoothly, and is reasonably pleasant – but I really didn’t see any reason to bother with a second play.

 

Greg Schloesser (1 play):  There was a noticeable buzz about Splendor when I arrived at the Gathering, so I was interested in playing it.  My one and only play so far left me wondering, “Why the buzz?”  The game was very, very dry and bore absolutely no relation to the exciting theme that Dale describes in his review.  As Joe mentioned, some cards appeared to be vastly more beneficial than others, with no significant increase in cost.  I also found the start player advantage to be too pronounced.  It certainly seems as though it was designed to be a fast filler, but it is prone to over-analysis as players contemplate options.  My biggest complaint is that I found it unexciting and rather pedestrian.  I’ll likely play again, with hopes my opinion may change.

 

W. Eric Martin (25 plays on a review copy): Splendor’s theme washes away like dirt from the gems that you’re supposedly uncovering, but the appeal of the game isn’t the theme. Rather it’s the race for 15 points and your need to find the shortest path that will get you there. The problem is that you have no idea what that path might be as you don’t know which cards will be revealed during the game, so you dart this way and that through the cards on display, sometimes getting lucky with a card flip that provides either exactly the gem that you want or a cost that allows you to pick up the card for free, but more often than not you need to hedge your bets and collect chips that allow you to swerve in whatever direction presents itself.

 

As Joe mentioned, you want to grab those efficient cards before others do, partly so that you benefit instead of others but also so that you can grab the joker tokens and keep them out of others’ hands. One thing that didn’t become apparent until after a few plays is that you can often choke off a color thanks to the number of tokens in the game differing with the player count. By sitting on jokers, you can discourage others from reserving a card in their hand (as then they get only the card with no joker), which means they might instead try to collect tokens first, which means you can sometimes take the card they were saving for the turn before they would have acquired it. Now they have a pile of tokens but likely not in combinations that get them anything so they need to take yet more tokens, etc.

 

Luck in the card draws swings both ways, and I find that new players often overvalue the ability to pick up a level 1 card for free, choosing to take that card instead of doing something that moves them toward the noble tiles or the high value cards. Such luck distracts them, and as with Dominion (to continue Dale’s comparison) I beat newcomers at Splendor because they’re distracted by free actions (as with a “Village” chain) instead of making progress toward the finish line.

 

I’ve not noticed a start player advantage. Yes, the first player can choose chips or reserve a card before anyone else, but noble tiles require at least eight cards to be claimed and that first card isn’t make or break because many more cards will be turned up in the rounds to come. Snatch and reserve the cards that others want, or take the tokens that they’ll need to build those cards. You have plenty of opportunities to mess with others and relish in small victories on your way to the goal.

 

Mary Prasad (3 plays): Splendor is a nice family game but it doesn’t really do much for me. There is just too much luck in the card draws (and I don’t seem to be very lucky); I agree with Greg and Joe’s comments. I liked the 3 player better than the 4 player (too much chaos). I’d play it again – it’s short enough – but I won’t go out of my way to seek a game.

 

Jonathan Franklin (5 plays): People like getting stuff.  This game scratches that itch.  Yes, you are building an engine, but I think there is a baser pleasure in thinking of the tableau as shopping.  Basically, you go to the bank, place an item on hold (in your hand), or buy it.  As it is, it is a fine after dinner on a school night game.

 

I like it because in an odd way, it feels like an adventure/race game.  Have you played a game where you buff your character too much and then crush the boss, wishing you had taken him on earlier?  In this game, the tension is when to stop taking 1s and start targeting 3s.  If you think of it as a 30 minute adventure/race game, Tier 1 are the mediocre tools Indy needs to get better tools to get the idols and valuable tools that he needs to defeat the bad guys.

 

Larry (2 plays):  I can see that folks might like the stripped down nature of this game, but I much prefer designs with more moving parts.  I also didn’t care for the luck factor and accidental screwage.  If some friends really wanted to play and they promised to play quickly, I could be talked into playing this again, but I’d also be just as happy if it never hit the table again.

Brian (4 plays): As one would expect, those with fewer plays don’t care as much for the game and see it as too dry or luck-driven. At the same time, those with more plays who enjoy the game see a nice level of subtle strategy in a quick filler. I’m leaning towards the latter category. Without the ability to reserve cards and the notably limited supply of gold this game would indeed be little more than a semi-predictable but luck driven event. With the ability to reserve cards and manage other player’s access to gems it becomes a tense race. Yes, with the players all at the same level of skill the outcome may come back down to luck, but that is to me simply more apparent in such a simple game, but no more true than in quite complex ones. There is still plenty of room to err.

 

I had the option to pick up this title or Russian Railroads and decided on Splendor. Not because I’m confident it is a better overall game, but because I am quite confident it will get far more play in my collection. I’m sure it will be something I can show to newer gamers with success. It is accessible, attractive and nicely tactile. Meanwhile, they will lament their luck while noting under their breath that the same experience player seems to consistently get the breaks. And, I suspect it will be a good title for learning how to take hold of a game and leverage those odds to your favor.

 

Karen (8 plays): So far, every time I have played this game, we always immediately play it again.  It’s over very quickly and although I have yet to win, I enjoy the collecting of the gems and trying to race to get the 15 points.  And the game plays so quickly that I don’t mind the screwage when someone steals the card I have just set myself up to claim.  I will happily play this one again.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:

  • I love it! Dale Y, W. Eric Martin
  • I like it. Dan Blum, Jonathan Franklin, John P, Brian Leet, Karen Miller
  • Neutral.  Greg Schloesser, Mary Prasad, Larry
  • Not for me.  Wei-Hwa Huang, Joe Huber

 

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About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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3 Responses to Dale Yu: Review of Splendor

  1. Ben (chally) says:

    I’m late to the party, as usual, but I found Splendor to be…well, splendid. It’s a simple little game, to be sure, but the pace is quick and the decisions are interesting. I was surprised to read so many others to describe it as an engine-building game. In particular, I don’t see it as a game where one ever switches from engine-building to VP collection. Rather, I have had much success with reaching for VPs early and often. The 2s are really my comfort zone, and both of my wins (in three games total) occurred without me taking a single nobles card. Being a confrontational player, I agree with Eric’s assume to that resource depletion and card denial are both viable and enjoyable skills to develop with experience. Is it perfect? No. But it is an impressive offering from a fledgling company, and I can certainly understand the Spiel des Jahres talk, even though I don’t think it will ultimately garner a nomination. I like it!

  2. Eric Martin says:

    We’ve played this over ten times, mostly all 4 player games. What has come to light, at least in the multiplayer games, is that a player can win handily almost every time by never, ever holding a card/picking up a gold gem and simply buying whatever card is available and trying get as many different colours as possible. Because the cards churn so much, it’s completely suboptimal to ever take only one gold chip (except perhaps one turn before claiming the win). It’s been kind of a disappointing to us and the game has completely lost its shine.

  3. Randy Cox says:

    I agree that there’s no theme (but I very rarely know what the theme of a game is supposed to be anyway). But I just don’t believe there’s a game here. It’s a mechanic, or series of mechanics, that you sort of work through until the game is (very quickly) over. I truly don’t believe you have all that much control, so you’re really just going through the motions and watching to see what happens. A lot like watching a TV show.

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