Review: Splendor – All that Glitters is Not Gold

Splendor is a very good game. It was nominated for the 2014 Spiel des Jahres, and I had heard a lot of good things about it. I bought it and played several games, but I have mixed feelings about it. I really wanted to call this review “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” but I thought that would be misleading, because I didn’t love the game. I am very glad I played, because it does a lot of things very well. Overall, Splendor is a good reminder that a game that is interesting is not necessarily a game that is fun.

What You Get

SplendorBox

A heavy box, but somewhat light on components

  • 7 tokens for each of 5 gemstones: Onyx, Diamond, Ruby, Sapphire, Emerald
  • 5 tokens for gold, which acts as a wild card.
  • 90 gem cards, showing a gemstone, a gemstone cost, and value from 0 and 5 points
    • 40 level 1 cards, 30 level 2 cards, and 20 level 3 cards
  • 10 Nobles tiles showing a card cost and the fixed value of 3 points
  • 2-page rule book

The box is much too large for the contents of the game. It could easily fit inside a box one quarter the size. What you do get in the box is very nice quality, though. The gemstone tokens that make up the core mechanic are thick, heavy, and even come pre-stickered. A smaller box would be heavy for its size. The artwork on the cards and tiles is attractive and well done, but you’ll mostly ignore it, because the theme doesn’t really contribute. The graphic design is also very good, because it is simple and clear, though some of the point values on lighter cards can be hard to read across the table.

What You Do

Splendor is a streamlined engine building family game, built on a simple system. Players are racing to 15 points, earned from played cards and nobles. There are always four cards of each level in the display, refilled from the decks. The only change in setup is the number of tokens and nobles you use.

On your turn, you have four simple options: Take 3 different gemstone tokens; take 2 same gemstone tokens (if there are at least 4 of that color); take a card from the display into your hand and also take a gold token (if there are any); and finally play a card in front of you, either from the display or from your hand. You can never have more than 10 tokens, or 3 cards in your hand.

In order to play a card, you must pay the appropriate mix of tokens shown in the cost. Each card you play provides a bonus that reduces the cost of future cards. That is where the engine building comes in to play. You can also claim one of the randomly selected “nobles” tiles if, at the end of your turn, you have an appropriate mix of cards. Once a player has reached at least 15 points, the player with the most points at the end of that round wins, so you can still score points if you are later in the turn order.

There is a medium-low level of interaction in Splendor because while the tokens and cards you take do affect what is available to the other players. But hurting your neighbor is usually a secondary thought. The biggest point of interaction is deciding when to take a card, versus leaving one in the display, because each card you take makes a new one available.

SplendorAngle

My tableau in front of the the gem supply and the card display

What I Liked

The core gameplay of Splendor is difinitively elegant. This simplicity makes it an excellent game for casual players, which is why it was nominated for the Spiel des Jarhes. It sets up and teaches quickly. Splendor has very tight gameplay, and almost every turn is an interesting and difficult decision. You have to weigh the balance of taking the card you want, and taking the only chip in a color you need. There is a small but distinct risk-reward element in trying to decide what you need to do, and rewards skillful play more than luck. This gives choices a delicate balance between tactical and strategic play, considering how to best spend your tokens now versus the longer term bonus and points from each card.

What I Disliked

SplendorTableau

My final tableau, the others looked similar

The theme is basically absent from play. This is just a good abstract game with pictures of jewels, but it doesn’t draw you in. This isn’t a problem if you’re looking for something light. But the rules explain the game as players acquiring mines, transportation and artisans. There is no distinction between these on the cards. As a simple engine builder, it has a slight problem with snowballing. Games tend to be close, so it’s not quite runaway leader, but it can be hard to catch up if you get behind. The more cards you have, the more your cost for other cards is reduced. It does seem to be balanced against the length of the game, though. The length is another concern for me. Although this should be a quick game, all the games I played with serious gamers took at least twice as long to play as expected. I was also disappointed that this game doesn’t play 5 players, though the down time might be too great, because you can’t do much on another player’s turn. For long-term replayability, although each game will be unique, there is really only one type of card. The long term strategy doesn’t seem to have much variation, because it does not seem advantageous to specialize in any gem type, or jump ahead to more expensive cards, and there aren’t any options to focus your engine.

Conclusions

A lot of people have noted the similarity between Splendor and The Builders: Middle Ages. Both are focused games built around engine building. But the The Builders is more of an economic game about maximizing each turn, while Splendor is more about carefully planning your next 3-4 turns. Because of that, The Builders has more opportunities to pull off a series of great moves turns, which makes it a lot of fun. But because the pace is fixed, Splendor provides few opportunities to make big moves.

Splendor also made me think of another drafting-based engine builder, 7 Wonders. But 7 Wonders has much more variety in the card abilities and costs, plus the added element of building a wonder. Splendor is much simpler by comparison, for better or worse.

Both The Builders and 7 Wonders immediately suggest possible expansions, but I don’t see as much opportunity for Splendor. Another color would throw off the balance of cards, and there aren’t enough mechanics to interact through special abilities. Currently, everything contributes to your engine in the same way, at the same rate, so at the very least, I’d like to see options for 2-gem cards with no points. Part of what makes an engine builder great is the balance between running the engine and building the engine. But this engine-builder really only has one speed: casual.

All in all, it feels a little expensive for what you get. But what it does, it does very well. It takes a standard Euro-game mechanic and simplifies it into a very accessible game. Decisions are interesting, but it isn’t quite as fun as I wanted it to be. I wanted more moments of excitement within the game. We had a lot of fun being goofy when we played, but the game didn’t contribute to that. Even though Splendor is a highly polished game, it just doesn’t sparkle enough to hold my interest.

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