Friday, January 06, 2017

Nachos Grande's Friday Game Review: SPLENDOR

Welcome to the first Friday of 2017 - and with that, my first Friday Game Review Post!

As someone who loves games (of all types), I'm hopeful that I can keep this new idea going throughout the year.  My plan is to use each Friday to highlight and review a game (most likely a game from my collection, but perhaps not always).  I plan to offer a variety of game types including board game, card game, and even video game reviews.

I expect that I will mostly approach games from the perspective of how much I enjoyed playing them, but there will be times where I may also include a bit in terms of how you can a game in the classroom (after all, I teach the Mathematics of Games and Gambling every semester so this is another topic that is near and dear to my heart)!

For the first review of the series, I'm going to take a look at one of my Christmas gifts from last year:  Splendor.

Splendor is a card game for 2 - 4 players and it plays quickly (30 minutes tops).  It's a game that is extremely easy to explain and set up - you can probably do both in under five minutes...but it offers enough strategy and depth to keep players coming back for "just one more round."

The premise of the game is that you are a merchant who is competing for nobles to visit, but quite honestly the theme isn't important to the game play.  Instead, what you get is an intriguing resource management / resource engine game where you are simultaneously trying to grow your own resource capabilities while limiting what your opponents can do.  You are also balancing purchasing cheap items (but not worth many, or in some cases, any points) versus buying more expensive items (which are worth more points).  In a game that only goes to 15 points, even two or three points one way or the other can mean the difference between glory and defeat.

The game of Splender begins by setting up the table.

There are three small decks of development cards (each clearly labeled with one, two, or three dots).  The one dot cards are the cheapest cards and are worth either 0 or 1 point each.  The two dot cards are middle of the road costs and are worth between 1 and 3 points each.  The three dot cards are the most expensive to purchase, but of course they are also worth the most (in this case between 3 and 5 points a piece).

For each deck, you create a row of four development cards (face up) from that deck so that there is a total of 12 face up cards on the table.  The remaining cards from each deck then each form a face down pile next to the face up rows.  In addition to the cards, there are also randomly selected (from a total of 10) nobles.  Each game uses n+1 nobles where n is the number of players in the game (so a four player game would have five nobles in play).  The nobles are all worth three points - and you cannot buy them.  Instead, each noble has a specific "requirement" that must be met - and the first player to do so gets a visit from that noble at the end of their turn (and the three points that go with the visit).

In order to get points, players must purchase development cards.  The development cards purchased must be either from the middle of the table or from the player's hand (more on that in a moment).  If a player takes a face up card from the table, a new card is drawn from the respective stack and placed face up (therefore you might end up turning over a better card for your opponent which is always a bit of gamble)!  You use a combination of your chips and your already purchased cards in order to buy new cards.

Once a player has purchased a development card, that card provides a small bonus (or discount) for future card purchases.  Each of the development cards produce one of give different gems (green emeralds, blue sapphires, red rubies, white diamonds, or black onyx).
I love the artwork on the game cards.

In the above example, the card with the ship on it is worth two points (as evidenced by the large two in the upper left corner).  The card costs 5 green emeralds (as indicated on the bottom left corner) and once the card is purchased, the card produces a green emerald for all future purchases.

However, not every card is quite that straightforward.  For example:

In this case, the card is only worth a single point but you need a grand total of 7 resources to pay for it (3 diamonds, 2 sapphires, and 2 emeralds).  Once built, this card produces one onyx for each future purchase.

It might seem like the first card is easier to buy since it costs less...but it turns out that getting five of a single color can often be quite challenging (especially if one of your opponents is also scooping up emerald producing cards for example)!

Besides buying development cards, the only other way to get points in Splendor is to have nobles visit you.  Each noble has a different requirement in order for that particular character to visit (and remember, you cannot buy nobles and all nobles are worth 3 points).

As an example, the noble on the left requires you have at four onyx producing cards and four ruby producing cards before he will visit.  The noble on the right requires three emerald producing cards, three sapphire producing cards, and three diamond producing cards before she will come visit.  Choosing which nobles you are going to try to "earn" is important in Splendor - most of the games I have played have come down to one player getting a noble visit (and the corresponding three points) just a turn or two quicker than someone else (with the quicker player earning the victory in the end).

While this may all seem a bit complicated, after two or three turns of game play it all becomes quite clear.  In fact, one of the great things about Splendor is its simplicity.  There aren't a lot of options in this game - on your turn you only get to do one of four actions in fact.

1.  Take 3 gem tokens of different colors
2.  Take 2 gem tokens of the same color (but only if the pile of tokens has at least 4 in it before you take any)
3.  Reserve one development card (put it in your hand, either from the table or from one of the three draw stacks) and take a gold token (joker or wild tokens)
4.  Purchase 1 face up development card from the middle of the table or one previously reserved card

And that's it!  First player to get a total of 15 points wins the game (with each player getting an equal number of turns).  Ties are broken by whoever builds the fewest total development cards.

Overall, I found Splendor to be a fun, quick game with enough strategy (and variance from game to game) to keep me interested but not so much strategy that the more experienced player was always guaranteed a win.  The game plays quickly - and I don't think I ever failed to play at least three games in a row, everyone I've played with has enjoyed it that much!  Another good thing about the game is that it seems to scale well whether you have two, three, or four players (the number of available tokens and nobles is the only thing that changes depending on the number of players).
One of the best storage boxes for any game that I've seen.  All components are top notch quality!

In fact, depending on your group's play style, Splendor can be played in a couple of different ways.  Some groups may prefer to simply try to outrace their opponents by buying the best available cards each turn and not worrying about what other people are doing.  Other groups may play more defensively, often snatching cards and putting them on reserve right before another player was about to purchase and play them!

The bottom line:

  • Easy to learn
  • Quick to play
  • Enough variance between games to keep it fresh
  • Light strategy to engage most gamers
  • Tremendous components (and even the box insert is great for storage)


  • Doesn't scale past four players
  • The quick games sometimes left me wishing the target points were higher
  • Luck can play a role at times as not all cards are created equal (even within the same "pile")

Overall score (out of 100):

There honestly isn't much that I'd change about this game.  For what it is, it is quite excellent.  It's not a three hour strategic adventure, but it is a nice transitional game that you can play with anyone.  I highly recommend it - and I think seasoned gamers and newcomers will both enjoy the game.

*Editor's note:  You may have noticed the link at the top of this post.  If you click on that link and buy this game (or any other Amazon purchase), Amazon will pay me a very small amount of money.  However, if enough people do that enough times, I'll eventually earn some cash that I can then use to buy even more games to review here!  I call it a win-win and I'd greatly appreciate it if you clicked through my blog anytime you want to buy something off of Amazon!  Many thanks.


Matt Stupienski said...

"Each game uses n+1 nobles where n is the number of players in the game."
You would use math terms...

I've played this game a handful of times. I agree with your "For what it is, it is quite excellent" line. I think this actually should have won the Spiel de Jahres in 2014 over Camel Up.

Easy to learn
Quick game
Great player scaling

Driven by 'powerful' all-accessible cards (meaning turn-order becomes a huge problem)
First two turns are hugely important and will most of the time determine the game. While there is more than one way to win, you can fall behind very easily (sometimes no fault of your own).

Nachos Grande said...

The last few times I played the game, if I wasn't going first I would take any card that cost a combined three resources (and a gold chip) rather than wait for someone who went before me to be able to afford the card outright. That seemed to work fairly well - your mileage may vary depending on your play group though!

The Dutch Card Guy said...

thanks, cool review and like the idea of reviewing some more so keep them coming !

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