So. Let’s talk about Splendor. If you’ve ever imagined yourself as a gem merchant trying to establish a trade network during what I would approximate as the Renaissance, this is probably the game for you. Let’s be real, though: who hasn’t? Unlike the past few microgames I’ve talked about, Splendor is a short-but-weightier (comparatively) game that’s what we would typically call an “engine-building” game for reasons I will explain later. In it, you vie to impress nobles visiting your gem … emporium? with a show of your fabulous wealth. You accrue wealth by taking gems and using those gems to build up your network. It’s every small child’s dream. Let’s get started.
This game doesn’t take much time to set up (you’ll notice that I tend to get games like that, with some exceptions). In the box are three decks of cards, a handful of tiles, and six sets of chips. Let’s discuss them in the exact opposite order I listed them, starting with:
- Chips! These are your gems. Set them aside somewhere where all players can grab them. Use five non-gold gems for 3 players, and four non-gold gems for 2 players. The gems come in six colors:
- Ruby. These gems are red.
- Sapphire. These gems are blue.
- Emerald. These gems are green.
- Onyx. These gems are black.
- Diamond. These gems are … white. Well, that worked about as well as expected.
- Gold. These gems are yellow. These aren’t quite gems, though. They’re wilds, and can be as any gem when buying something. More on that with gameplay. Also, always play with 5 of these.
- Tiles! These are your nobles. Each of them have some number of cards of some color on them, and that’s how many cards of each of those colors you’ll have to have to impress them. For instance:
This noble (probably Machiavelli, but I keep calling him Vladmir) will earn you 3 points, but only if you have four sapphire and four diamond cards in front of you. Shuffle the stack and set out X nobles, where X = number of players + 2. Also, name them. It makes the game a bit easier to process.
- Cards! There are three decks of cards, each with dots on them. You’ll want to set each deck up so it has space for four cards on its right, and make a column of the three decks as so:
- Level 1 cards have one dot, as you might guess. They have a green back and go on the bottom, but they aren’t worth many (often 0) points.
- Level 2 cards have two dots and a yellow back, and they go in the middle.
- Level 3 cards have three dots and a blue back. They go on top! While they’re worth the most points by far, they’re also very expensive.
Now, put the top four cards of each deck in a row next to their corresponding deck. These are the available cards that can be bought. Your play area should look like this, if you’re playing a two-player game:
Let’s get started.
Splendor is pretty simple to play. On your turn, you can do exactly one of X actions:
- Take three gems; one each of three different non-gold colors. You cannot take gold gems this way. This means that you could, for instance, take one blue, one red, and one white gem and add them to your collection. Note that you can only have ten gems, max, at any time. If you have more at the end of your turn, you return gems of your choice until you have ten. This is usually a bad idea, so sometimes it helps to take fewer gems, like so:
- Take two gems of one non-gold color. Note that you can only take two gems if there are four or more currently in the stack. Just something to keep in mind.
- Take a face-up card into your hand and take one gold gem. If there are no gold gems left, you get nothing. Sad. Only you get to see cards once they’re in your hand, but you cannot have more than three cards in your hand. If you have three, you can’t take more cards or gold until you get rid of some of those cards in your hand. How do you get rid of cards in your hand? Well,
- Play a card from your hand or a face-up card in front of you. Note that you have to pay for a card by returning the number of gems of each color on the card to the bank. But what do you get in return? Well, let’s look at a card as an example:
This sapphire costs two sapphires, two emeralds, and three rubies to play, but when you play it it produces one sapphire and gives you 1 point.
Here’s the cool part: Producing a gem PERMANENTLY reduces the cost of all cards by one gem of that color, for you. This eventually allows you to get cards for reduced gem counts, even free! This is also how you attract nobles; they only show up for cards in front of you, and you get them immediately rather than having to use an action to buy them. That’s a pretty great way to get points.
And that’s it! That’s how you play. Once someone gets to 15 points, you finish that round (so everyone gets an equal number of turns), then the player with the most points wins. It’s similar to Dragon Slayer‘s rules for ending the game.
This is a pretty strategy-heavy game despite being a tiny bit random, so I’ll try to talk a bit about a few best practices for the game.
- Pay attention to the nobles. They’re worth 3 points and don’t require an action to take, so if you take a 5-point card and that gets you a noble, you just earned 8 out of the 15 points you need to win. Nobles either have three sets of three gems or two sets of four, and this usually implies a few things:
- Try to see what gems, if any, are shared between nobles. If their sets are completely disjoint, that’s actually not bad, as it means you won’t necessarily be fighting everyone. But if all three, four, or five of your nobles need rubies, the game is gonna be a mess.
- Figure out if you need to play deep or play wide. By playing deep I mean focusing on one gem, and by playing wide I mean trying to have the same number of each gem. Usually the nobles you get dictate this, but also look at the Level 3 cards to see if they share any gems in common. That being said:
- Usually, playing wide is better than playing deep. I have only seen a handful of games won by someone playing deep. Usually a balanced approach means you get a lot of cards for free, meaning you get a lot of nobles, meaning you win, usually.
- Don’t be afraid to get aggressive. If another player is going to win if they take that sapphire, take it into your hand! You’ll get one gem that can be played as a wild, and you’ll deny them the card they need. If you’re planning to do that, though, you might want to keep in mind:
- Beware random chance. Sure, you might have just taken the card they need, but you flip the top card off the deck to replenish it, only to reveal a cheaper version of the same card. This can be a bummer, but that’s how it goes. Sometimes it helps to stockpile gems instead of buying a card for that reason, but remember that you can only have ten gems.
- Free cards are pretty much the best thing. They’re a free “-1 to all costs for this gem” for the rest of the game. The reason this type of game is called an engine-builder is because once you get a good system going you shouldn’t really have to take many gems again. I almost always recommend free cards, unless you’ve already gotten a few nobles and just need to end the game.
- Don’t forget about Levels 2 and 3. It’s easy to focus on getting free cards in the beginning/middle of the game, but you might still be able to get cheap cards that also earn you points, and while more cards are good, more points are better. Don’t be afraid to buy from Level 2 if people are still buying from Level 1, unless you can get a free card. Honestly, a lot of winning strategies ignore the nobles and just go straight for cheap Level 3 cards.
- Pretty much never take two gems. Yeah, honestly, that move kind of sucks. Like if you’re in a bind and you absolutely want to be able to buy a certain card, go for it, but you’re just signalling to every other player what card you want. Your reward will probably be them snapping that card up into their hand just to spite you. Which sucks.
Pros, Mehs, Cons
I kind of like the meh’s. I think I’ll keep them.
- Amazing components. Let’s take a brief pause so I can gush about how nice the gem tokens are. I mean, they’re incredible. Like actually one of the nicest sets of components I’ve seen in a game. They’ve got a considerable weight to them, so they’re satisfying to pick up and hold, which is amazing. The cards and tiles are nice, but the gem chips are just, top-notch.
- Easy to learn and teach, but difficult to master. It’s got a really nice learning curve to it, so it’s a game that I often take with me to introduce to people. It doesn’t take long to explain or play, but there’s a pretty good level of strategy to it for its length.
- Just, a great game. I have not yet introduced this game to someone who hasn’t liked it. That’s a pretty big plus for me, especially with people who aren’t huge on typical tabletop games. It plays very smoothly with people who have played it a lot, meaning it can be played very quickly, and it’s a satisfying strategy game as you build up your gempire.
- Solid replay value, given what it is. Surprisingly, the nobles and three decks mean you’re very rarely playing the same game, so it has a good amount of replay value. The nobles alone can cause you to seriously reevaluate your initial strategy, which is great. I’d love to see an expansion with more variety, but I’m not sure exactly what it’d do.
- Very well-balanced. The game feels aggressively playtested and high-quality for the effort. You don’t get any weird inconsistencies or slow points in the game — it’s always a pretty active experience. I’d say that’s a hallmark of good design.
- The art is … fine? Earns a solid shoulder shrug from me. A few of the cards are just some random guy. The theme is unique, but it’d be nice if all of the cards were, too. I do like that Level 1 is mines, Level 2 is transport networks / appraisers, and Level 3 is shops. That’s a nice touch.
- Not much player interaction. You can take a card that someone else wanted, sure, but other than that you could just play a solo version where you have like 30 turns to score as many points as possible. Actually, not a half-bad idea. If you’re looking for a super social / interactive game, you might want to look elsewhere.
- New players often get wrecked by veteran players. Just a consequence of strategy games without a ton of randomness. New players also tend to leave good cards on the table, so it usually pays for an experienced player to sit after a new player. Try to avoid that, if possible.
- The box is stupidly oversized. I can fit this game in one snack bag and one sandwich bag, and the box is, like, 8.5″ x 2.4″ x 10 .8″, roughly. (Thanks Amazon!) It’s a nice box, but really that’s just obnoxious.
- Weirdly intense. Usually when I play with people they’re thinking deeply enough that nobody talks, which means this isn’t really a social or a party game; it’s more a warmup for a strategy-focused evening. I wouldn’t go straight from Splendor to Anomia or Avalon; I’d probably go to Castles of Mad King Ludwig. Just a thing to keep in mind.
I’m conflicted on Splendor. On one hand, I think it’s an amazing game and everyone should have it in their library. On the other, I don’t play it nearly as much as my love for it would suggest. While I’d like to say it’s because I don’t have as much of a taste for serious strategy games, I actually think it’s because I was on a bit of a hot streak and now I’m not inclined to play again and lose. Welp.
In all seriousness, though, Splendor is an excellent game for a small group — if you’re looking for a game that will occasionally cause you to rack your brain thinking of avenues for success. I think it’s definitely a gem (heh) (heh) (heh) for your collection, and if you’re thinking about it, get it. Like I said, I’d love to see an expansion, and it seems just popular enough to be a possibility. While more nobles would be nice, it’d be weird if they added like, an extra level of cards. Maybe have some sort of events or something? Who knows.
I’d highly recommend this game. It’s really great!