Splendor (2014)

You can find our accessibility teardown of Splendor here.

People have been raving about Splendor for a fair amount of time now, and until I actually played it I was somewhat mystified as to why. The theme seemed boring, the mechanics seemed banal, and the core gameplay challenge seemed almost impossibly trivial. Even the box looks spectacularly uninteresting, like a parody of other board games. I was pretty surprised by how much I actually liked it. It’s especially surprising given how consistently I am absolutely *crushed* by Mrs Meeple. It’s okay though, I shine under pressure – I’m like a diamond. That’s very appropriate for this particular game.

Splendor box

Splenbore more like.

There seems to be something of a trend in board game aesthetics. The games that have turned me off so effectively with the box and the theme have turned out to be some of the most interesting titles on my shelves. It was true of Concordia and it was true of Suburbia. By now I should stop judging the game by its box, but sometimes that’s very difficult. Even with this psycho staring at you from the front:

Close up on eyes

I WILL END YOU

He’s not looking at his gem. He’s looking at you. He’s weighing you up as to whether you’re worth the effort to knife in a dark alleyway. Don’t sleep with this box in your bedroom.  You’ll only wake up in the middle of the night to find him standing over you with a diamond-tipped drill, an evil look in his eyes, and alarmingly tumescent undergarments.

Gem cutting

I cut this gem, and now I’m going to cut you.

Opening up the box doesn’t exactly fill you with much enthusiasm either. There are a handful of solid tiles, a few counters, and a deck of cards. It’s a case-study in affection deficit disorder – I was ill disposed to the game from the start and it had to somewhat unfairly overcome my curmudgeonly prejudices.

Then I actually picked up the counters and suddenly things started to change. They’re basically weighted poker chips, and poker chips have always been seductive. They whisper gently that everything will be okay if you just go all-in this round. You’re finally going to win! Your children are going to have shoes! Your wife will leave that used-car salesman and come back to you! You’re finally, FINALLY, going to stop drinking. You’re going to get your life together this time for real, just see if you don’t. All it’s going to take is the one final big win that you’re statistically guaranteed at this point. The chips feel nice and heavy in the hand, and clink together with all the subtle, enticing melody of a siren’s call.

Yeah, it’s safe to say Splendor doesn’t take long to ingratiate itself once you get past the first impressions. The quality of the components is luxurious, and it starts to live up to its name.

Poker chips

I’m going all in! Look, I have a hand of ALL REDS.

Aside from the yellow bordered chips, each of these is a kind of gem – they’re the currency of the game, and you’ll be trading them constantly between your resources and the common supply. Really, they had to be solid and sturdy to deal with the traffic they’ll see. The yellow chips are gold – basically a wild-card that you can use in place of any other gem. They’re very useful, because those gems are in constant contention between everyone sitting at the table. The number of gem tokens in play depends on the number of players – for two, there are four of each except for gold. Highly valued gems are going to be rarer than hen’s teeth before too long.

Decks

These gemstones are somewhat lighter than I thought they’d be

The game comes with three decks of cards, each of which contains increasingly expensive gem sources. These are development cards, and we’ll use the gems we collect to pay for them. To start the game, we deal out four of these from each deck and make a kind of marketplace:

Marketplace

I was really just looking for a pint of milk

Each of the cards is marked with a cost, down the left hand side, and a gem they produce in the top right corner. Some of them have a number at the top left.  This is the amount of ‘prestige’ they give to the player that owns them. When someone gets to fifteen prestige, everyone else gets to finish the current turn and the game ends. This will happen distressingly rapidly, and usually well before you’re prepared for it.

Card closeup

With every purchase of a gem mine, we will break the back of the down-trodden working classes for free.

The card on the left here costs a robust four emeralds, but grants its owner a prestige point and a permanent supply of one diamond – think of that like a gemstone you can spend but never have to give up. Alternatively, think of it like a discount – the more of a gem supply you have, the fewer tokens you need to cash in to buy a card. You can reduce the cost of cards down to nothing if you’ve got enough production. The card in the middle requires one each of diamond, sapphire, emerald and ruby and gives a permanent onyx in return. The card on the right requires three onyx and produces a sapphire. Some cards are inherently more valuable than others – for some, you will pay a lot to get a little in return. You will. I know you’re thinking ‘I am a savvy gem merchant and I will never buy over the market price for these shiny things’, but you’re going to eat those words in a few minutes.

You see, once you’ve dealt out the cards you then deal out the nobles – one for each player, plus another one. These get set up at the top of the game area:

Nobles

Don’t look at us, you frightful oik

Once a player has achieved the displayed number of cards of a particular type, that noble comes to visit them and stays. This grants a permanent prestige bonus in addition to those claimed from development cards. Can you see now why you might want to pay above market price for any given gem type? Basically what the nobles do is create a value economy – there’s an equivalent number of each gem card in the deck, and an equivalent overall cost for each. The nobles distort that by adding additional benefits to certain gem types. Ruby and emerald cards are especially value in this setup, because they’re the gem-types most desired by two nobles. As you buy up the cards, you’re bringing yourself closer to the victory points nobles give you. For gem types that are shared between multiple nobles this system can create a significant degree of competition over increasingly scarce resources.

Close up on noble

Unhand me, you disgusting poor person

This noblewomen wants you to have four ruby cards and four emerald cards – tokens don’t count, she’s interested in your gemstone infrastructure. When you buy the card that makes this set, she’ll come over to you and nobody can lure her away. You can only lure one noble per turn, but chain together a few good sequences of gem acquisition and you can very rapidly upset the equilibrium of the game.

Starting game state

Gems is a battlefield. Are a battlefield? Am?

And that’s the setup – you can be done in sixty seconds if you’re quick. And at the end of those sixty seconds you have one of the most instantly tractable and yet compellingly complex puzzles in board gaming. It’s an engine building game in its purest, most naked form – and it glitters like the diamonds you’ll be looking to acquire. From turn one, everyone is eyeing up the path to maximum prestige, working out whether it involves the nobles or whether it’s best to focus on buying the high end, extremely lucrative cards at the top of the track:

Expensive gems

Uh – do you offer any kind of financing?

You’re not going to be able to get them to begin with – you’re going to have to work your way up from the bottom row, to the middle tow, to the top. But then, if you’re investing heavily in a noble acquisition strategy you can buy the bargains at the bottom provided you don’t mind slim pickings for other prestige. Is that a good idea? It might be, depending on what your opponents are planning, and how consistently you think you can nab the cards you want.  The competition over particular cards is going to be driven in part by the nobles, and maybe you’d be better focusing on buying up the middle and top tiers while everyone else battles over the cheap bottom row.  Everyone is going to want certain cards, and whether they get them depends on the luck of the draw and their order of play.

Every turn, we get to do one of four actions. We can take up to three tokens of three different colours. We can take two tokens of the same colour provided that there’s at least four of them in a stack. We can purchase a development card with a combination of temporary tokens and permanent cards in our hand. Or, we can ‘reserve’ a card – we each have an allowance of three cards we can reserve into our hand. We don’t get the benefit until we buy them, but we can remove them from the marketplace so that nobody else can have them. When reserving a card, we also get a gold token – it’s a great way of breaking a shortage that someone else may have engineered in terms of token availability, because the gold tokens are wild-cards.

It’s hard choking off the supply though because each player is permitted only ten tokens at a time. If they draw more, they have to discard back down to their hand limit.  When development cards are bought, the gemstones over and above what the cards permit make their way back into the supply. You can temporarily restrict availability, but remember – each card that anyone buys increases the effective supply of tokens in an individual player’s economy.

Let’s say we’ve got two players here. Player one picks up a handful of tokens to begin their turn:

A handful of gems

This will be chump change before too long

And that’s that turn over. Just like that! Turns are very quick and very easily handled, although before too long a kind of unbearably tense analysis paralysis becomes the norm. You spend time stressing over which card will maximise your strength while minimising that of your opponents. Not only are the turns over quickly, there aren’t an awful lot of them and they’ll escalate in importance until the game comes to a crashing, and often jarring conclusion reached amidst an undiscriminating orgy of victory point acquisition.  You’ll grab cards wildly, hoping they’ll satiate your lust for victory – you won’t care if they’re diamonds, emeralds, horses, cats, vacuum cleaners – it’s all about reaching your point climax before everyone else.

Player two grabs a few tokens of their own, and player one repeats to end up with a nice pile of gems that could now be leveraged into buying a permanent development… on the next turn. Oh god, every time you give over control of your turn you’re risking your opportunity to purchase the cards you need. It’s always a good idea to pick up the best cards you can except it’s absolutely not always a good idea because you’ll need to save up to get the best cards EXCEPT THEY MIGHT BE PURCHASED BEFORE YOU GET TO THEM! Every turn feels perfectly weighted, like the gem tokens you’ll be nervously playing with as you try not to give away your almost palpable desire for a particular card in the marketplace.

Player two collects some more tokens, and player one pounces – purchasing an expensive diamond mine for a phat stack of shiny, shiny gemstones.

Diamond mine

Free slave-labour with every purchase

The tokens go back to the supply, but now player one has a permanent diamond available for buying future cards. Was that a good move? Nobody knows! It was a move, and that’s all that matters. It does mean that the cupboards look a little bare, but what can you do about that? Nothing, that’s what. Having bought that card, a new one is dealt into its place. The gems must keep flowing.

Play continues agreeably in this fashion, with the picking up of tokens, the spending of tokens on cards, and the gradual construction of an effective economic engine. Every so often, the tempo of play is interrupted by a crafty reservation, picking up an especially choice card and bringing it into your warm bosom, protecting it from the deprivations of the free market.

Reserved card

Buying this one on lay-away

Before too long, you’re no longer bothering with the temporary trappings of tiny tokens, but instead simply grabbing cards off of the marketplace for free, funded by an economic engine of staggering power:

Gem mines

As rich as an astronaut

After a while, you’ve got so much gem production that you can start looking at the higher tiers of cards where the costs are much larger but so too is the associated prestige. All the while you’re keeping an eye on the nobles too, because they can turn a healthy lead into a painful deficit in the space of a single turn. With the engine we can see above, we can draw one of the noblewomen to our cause and gain the victory points she provides:

Summoning a noble

No-one farted, my lady – the mines just always smell like this.

And here is where the value economy of Splendor shows its clever design – nobody else can get her, and so her absence has once again altered the economy of the game. She doesn’t get replaced, she’s just gone and suddenly sapphires, rubies and emeralds have lost a little bit of their shine. Were you doubling down on those to get access to the noble that just disappeared behind the closed doors of your opponent? Let’s hope that doesn’t screw you too badly, eh?

Part of the problem you have to deal with here is that gems breed gems, and someone that gains one noble is often well placed to nab another. Sometimes you’ll meet most of the requirements for one noble on the way to another. Sometimes your engine of production will nicely dovetail into a noble’s requirement just as a consequence of how you’ve acquired the cards in the first place. You can’t take your eyes off of your opponents for a second, because sometimes they’re just a card away from triggering your ruin.

At later stages of the game, it becomes a brutal punch-up to stop your opponents getting the cards that will entice the nobles they want.   In the process all you’re doing is clogging up your own engine with useless cruft you didn’t really want.  At best, what you’re doing is delaying the inevitable, or pushing up the price to what you hope is impossible to meet.  You can get in the way of your opponents, but that’s not going to win you the game.

Red gem

My preciousss

Both our players here are now competing over a noble, and both require a ruby to collect.  The cheapest ruby card in the marketplace costs an eye-watering five onyx, which player one cannot afford but player two can. Player one reserves it, earning the gold token that brings it into affordability – it can be bought in the next round.  Reserving, or even buying, a card is always a risk – what if you end up replacing that card with a more affordable card of the same type? You’d feel like a fool then, but what else can you do?

By the end of the game affordability isn’t the real puzzle – it’s maximum milk for minimum moo. Just because you made the acquisition more expensive, it doesn’t mean you prevented it:

An expensive red gem

Buy this one and we’ll throw in the horse.

It turns out, player two can afford the more expensive ruby card which gives her three prestige points.  She buys it, brings it into her hand, and that moves her ever closer to victory.  Not only that, she now has twelve prestige points and the game ends at fifteen. In trying to lock down the cheapest ruby, you ended up encouraging her to progress further towards victory. But maybe that was her plan all along – maybe she was picking up onyx just to make you think she was aiming for a card she wasn’t.. Maybe she was trying to throw you off the scent so you didn’t go for the same card as her All’s fair in love and splendor.

the three final victory points she needs to win comes from the noble she lures into her household.  Even if it didn’t the marketplace is full of affordable victory point cards at this point.  The only question is if attaining three victory points is a a one or two turn maneuver. Except remember that everyone else gets to finish the final turn and it’s absolutely possible for a clever play to end up netting one of your opponents the largest final total and thus the win. In a close game, that final turn may involve buying the development card that recruits the noble that pips you at the post – ending the game is a risk you need to weigh up based on the achievability of victory for your opponents.

You spend so much time concentrating on your own engine that you run the risk of neglecting that which your opponent is putting together. There comes a point when you look over at their seven or eight prestige points, look down at your own and find that you haven’t yet gotten around to claiming any. Your eyes meet, and suddenly the race is on. The tempo of the game doesn’t so much modulate as accelerate. It’s easy to get distracted by the shiny things you’re buying, but once it becomes obvious you have greater ambitions everyone starts to focus on the market of prestige, rather than the economics of supply. Turns then become increasingly valuable, until the only real calculation that shapes your strategy is the number of turns it’ll take to carry out, divided by the number of opponents that might snatch the key cards away from you. The game pretends you have one single kind of currency – gems. Really, you’re balancing gems against time and the cost of opportunity more than anything else.

Engine building is a common part of many games, but for most it feeds into some larger goal. Splendor is a game where you develop an engine so that you can develop an engine, and for all its sparse austerity it shines all the brighter because of it. As a consequence of the purity of its design, it’s quick to set up, spectacularly easy to learn, and yet you can easily lose yourself in its glinting facets. It starts off with a collegiate competition over the abundant treasures of the marketplace, but before too long it’s the gaming equivalent of an after-hours Glasgow pub-fight. Everyone is knocking lumps out of everyone else in the hope they can survive to the end. That would create the context for an exhausting game if it weren’t for the upwards gear-shifts the pace takes throughout. In twenty or thirty minutes you’ll have experienced the highs of success, the lows of betrayal, and the despair of your own defeat laid out in front of you with all the precise inevitability of a grandmaster’s chess match. It’s the kind of game where you can confidently say ‘Checkmate in four’ and know there’s nothing your opponent can do to prevent it. But you shouldn’t, because you’re not playing chess and you’ll just confuse and annoy everyone. If you must, say it quietly in your own head.

I want to have something critical to say here, but I don’t really have much that I can hold against Splendor. I remain of the opinion that the theme is criminally bland, and that it is at best a veneer over the mechanics. This could have been a game about livestock farming or space combat with no significant changes. In the end, you’re cashing in X tokens of Y to get a card of Z, and there’s no reason it had to fall back on the tediously overused theme of Renaissance mercantilism. Look beyond that though and you’ll find a gem that really shines – perhaps a touch too simple to really be a phenomenal game, but with more than ample depth to be an excellent one. We give this one four shiny diamonds in a luxury velvet presentation case. Go get it.


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