When the tabletop game Splendor earned what is in effect the People’s Choice Award in board gaming last month, it set off a storm of controversy on Board Game Geek, the same site whose 1 million-plus users gave it the Golden Geek Game of the Year.
That award has traditionally been given to more complex games, but Splendor took the top spot despite its simple rules and relatively quick play.
In the game, two to four players ages 10 and up spend about 30 minutes attempting to gain fame by becoming the best gem merchant. The game is by designer Marc André with art by Pascal Quidault. It was published by Space Cowboys and Asmodee. It retails for $39.99 and can be found at most online retailers for about $10 less.
But does it deserve the Golden Geek Award, and last year’s nomination for Germany’s Spiel des Jahres, widely considered the top honor in the tabletop gaming world? Obviously, thousands of people think so. (It lost the Spiel des Jahres to Camel Up, by the way.)
How it works:
On a turn, players can do one of only a few things: Take two gems of the same color (provided there are at least four available); take three gems of three different colors; reserve a card, putting it face down in front of them, and taking a gold, which acts as a wild token; or purchase a card by spending the number of gems indicated on the card.
Purchased cards always give players a discount on future purchases. Each card has a gem in the top right corner that can be substituted for a gem token throughout the rest of the game. Many cards also give a point value.
Lower-level cards are easier to purchase, but give fewer points. Higher-level cards are more difficult, but they give as many as five points. Players can also try to collect sets of cards, which can earn a visit from a noble worth three points.
The first player to reach 15 points wins.
Why you might buy Splendor:
Splendor offers a rare mix of real strategy with extremely simple rules and setup. You can have the game on the table and get new players started in less than five minutes.
Because the cards are constantly shifting, players’ decisions must shift, too. There is plenty to keep players occupied when it isn’t their turn.
There are at least a couple of viable strategies in Splendor. Players can go for lots of low-scoring cards, or they can work primarily on the higher ones.
The game also has a nice pace. It starts out slow, as players find themselves spending most of their time collecting gem tokens to get the cards they want. But as they build up their cards, the game takes off quickly. They find they already have what they need to grab a card, or even two, forcing some interesting decisions.
The artwork is quite nice. It’s not clear if Quidault intended it, but the pictures on the cards give subtle reminders of the human cost of the gem trade without being outright depressing. Giving each gem a different shape as well as color helps those with color blindness and other vision challenges.
Why you might not buy Splendor:
Splendor‘s strengths are also its weaknesses.
The game is simple. It keeps shifting, but the optimum choices are fairly obvious.
It has lot of depth for a quick game, but for someone who wants a more challenging experience, Splendor isn’t a great fit.
Quick games often allow for lots of socialization. Splendor doesn’t do that as well. People will be staring at their gem piles, their own cards, and the cards available, often in silence. That speaks to its interesting choices, but players may feel like they are playing alone, or that they are a victim of their opponents’ choices.
If all of the higher-level cards require gems that aren’t available on the lower-level cards, the game can bog down for a while. This creates the promise of more strategy, but it can also lead to people scratching their heads instead of playing.
I understand the appeal of Splendor. This is a fantastic game for introducing people to the strategy of engine-building, which is often used in more complex games.
It’s pretty, the tokens feel solid in your hand and clink together in a satisfying way.
The game is easy for new players to pick up, so people who have played a lot probably won’t slaughter the newbies.
Does it deserve its accolades? I’m not sure about that. I’m not sure I care.
Splendor is a good game with mass appeal. And the masses approve.
Full disclosure: I received a review copy of Splendor from Asmodee Editions. I was not required to write a positive review. This is my honest opinion.