You know those moments, when you finish a game, and you are still running the little things you could have done differently through your head, and all you want to do is reset right away and try again because you were just loving it? That was Splendor. All three times I’ve had the chance to play so far have been the same. I have lost three times, and loved every minute of it, thinking that I was just one or two little missteps away from winning. It is quick, easy to learn, and the components are nice. But most of all it is deceptively simple, with some real strategy. Or at least it feels like real strategy, so much so that it may not matter just how deep it is, because it is fun and compelling. Let’s talk about Splendor.
Splendor is a card-drafting, resource collecting game designed by Marc Andre and published by Space Cowboys. It plays with 2-4 players and is suggested for 10 and up, although I think 7-8 year old kids could play and enjoy, but the strategy would suffer a tiny bit. In Splendor you are a merchant of the Renaissance trying to build your gem-selling empire.
There are six currencies represented by fantastic, hefty poker chip-type markers with their respective currency beautifully illustrated on them. There are rubies, sapphires, diamonds, onyx, emeralds, and gold which is used as a wild card. Gold can only be acquired by reserving a card, but more on that later.
There are three decks of cards that represent merchants, mines, caravans and the like that can be bought to give you prestige points, but also add to your resources to purchase more cards. Tier one cards are relatively inexpensive, but are usually worth zero prestige points, but occasionally they are worth one point. They are all a currency type that is added to your pool. Tier two cards are more expensive, and will likely require having a few tier one cards to afford them, but they will earn you a few prestige points as well as giving you another resource to use for purchasing other resources. The third tier of cards are expensive, you won’t be getting these bad boys without having a good number of other cards purchased, but they are worth a lot of prestige points.
Once your little empire is impressive enough, one of the nobles might pay you a visit. There are noble tiles on the table that have a resource requirement. Once you have the cards to meet their requirement, that noble comes to visit you, and they give you prestige points. Once a player gets 15 prestige points, that starts the final round. When play comes back around to that player, the game is over and points are tallied.
On your turn you choose from one of three actions. You can take chips, purchase a card, or reserve a card. Taking chips means you can take one each of three of the five gemstones, or two of any one type of gemstone. You can only take two of a kind if there are four or more of that gemstone available. Keep in mind that the number of gems is limited based on the number of players, so grabbing resources gets to be very strategic as supplies start to dwindle. It bears to mention that players can only have ten total chips at a time.
To purchase a card, you may choose a card that they possess enough resources to purchase and place that card face up in front of them. You now have the resource depicted on that card permanently in your resource pool, and you get any prestige points printed on the card. The resources used to buy that card return to the bank. You’re building up that little empire, keep at it!
To reserve a card, a you may choose any face up card and put it face down in front of you for later purchase. When you reserve a card you also take one gold piece from the bank that you may use as any type of gemstone. You might want to do this if there is a card you know you might need later for a strategy to get a certain noble to visit you or to be able to afford a certain third tier card. You might also choose to do this just to be tricky and keep one of your opponents from getting a card you know they need. Every time a card is removed it is replaced with another card from its deck.
That is it. That is the whole game. It is very simple to understand, and the mechanic is straight-forward. So why do I love this game so much? What is it about this simple little card-drafting, resource management game that is so compelling? Is it really all that good?
In a word, yes. It certainly is, and how. There are elements of pushing your luck, and there is a sublime tipping point in this game that makes it seem like you are always just about to break away and make it to your win strategy. Then one of your opponents comes along and buys the card you needed, or woos the noble you had your eye on and you have to scramble and come up with another plan. But that is okay! Because there is another strategy right in front of you, and you just shift to that one. You never feel out of the game, and you are always getting new shiny things!
This game is light, but it is somehow deceptively so. Because about 15 minutes into this light little filler, you’ll find yourself analyzing every possibility for the next three or four possible moves. And then the board changes and you do it all over. It is still light, but it feels hefty in the moment. The theme is almost irrelevant. The artwork is really nice, and the gemstones are cool, but the paintings don’t even have to be on the cards, and the gemstones could have easily been different types of produce, or coins, or raw resources, or anything. But gemstones work, and like I said, it doesn’t even matter. It doesn’t take away from the charm of the game.
But that tipping point. You want to buy new resources every round, but you have to decide how many of the cheap ones you should buy before saving up for the expensive cards that give you points. At the end of the day, this is a pretty simple little math game with amazing components, and great balance that feels like it is on the tip of a pin. That is the key to winning, finding the tipping point. But let’s say you misjudge. No biggie, just wipe the board and reset. You’ll want to anyway. And besides, it only takes 30 minutes. So grab Splendor and play a round or 10. You won’t be sorry.