You can’t always depend on mass appeal to assess the value of a commodity. Consider, for example, the popularity of reality TV, or the long-standing appeal of afternoon soap operas.
In one of my regular perusals of the shelves of my FLGS (Cape Fear Games, Wilmington, NC), I came upon Splendor, by Marc Andre′, and was struck, immediately, by the mystical quality of its box art (Pascal Quidault); the deeply shadowed eyes and hawk nose of a cowled head, with fingers embracing some sort of metal tool and a sparkling, large gem dominate. Behind and to this figure’s right, the head, slender neck, and partially revealed bosom of a woman, with two loose tendrils of hair, framing a face. In the upper left, a gown-and-capped male figure, holding a book. Intriguing, to say the least, but by habit, I noted the name of the game and looked it up on BoardGameGeek when I got home.
I was surprised to discover that in a very short amount of time (since its 2014 publication), it had worked its way among the Geek’s Top 100 games to #75, with an average rating of 7.62 among 8,853 respondents. In a database of over 76,000 games in which the #1-ranked game (Twilight Struggle) has been rated by nearly 19,000 gamers in 10 years, this was pretty impressive. Of the 1,632 gamers who chose to comment on the game, 44 of them gave it a 10 rating, and a total of 239 ranked it at 9 or above (they occasionally employ decimal points). Again, though, I had to keep reminding myself that shows like The Bachelor and Duck Dynasty manage to get renewed, season after season, because the advertisers notice that they are wildly popular. Didn’t have to buy or request a review copy of Splendor from Space Cowboys (one of eight international publishers), because daughter and son-in-law had bought it already. We played it twice in quick succession, and I damn near won the first game. As usual, familiarity tended to breed a little over-thinking, and I was way off the mark the second time.
It is a simple game, which is both good and bad news, depending on your perspective. It is certainly one of the keys to its popularity, while at the same time, the source for much of the lower-rating criticism its garnered on the Geek (“What?! Really???,” said Boom Chakalaka, who gave it a “1” rating. “How anybody likes this nonsense is beyond me.”)
Well, Boom (and others who share the opinion), we “like this nonsense” because it’s fun. Simple process game, where you’re trying to get to the goal of 15 Prestige Points ahead of your opponents. Yes, it’s engine-building. True, it’s not wildly interactive, beyond attempts to thwart opponent acquisitions. And no, there is no combat. Yet for all of that, and granting it a “filler” label, the game is a lot of fun. It draws an “8” from me, without hesitation, and could climb with exploration of different player numbers.
Here’s what you’ve got: Three decks of cards – 40 Level 1 (green), 30 Level 2 (tan) and 20 Level 3 (blue). You lay out a display of four each of these three levels, keeping the remainder close at hand as a draw deck. From among 10, you draw either three (two-player), four (three-player) or five (four-player) Noble Tiles and display them above your card display. You have five sets of seven gem tokens (emerald, sapphire, ruby, diamond, and onyx), and one set of five gold tokens (Top-notch, serious poker chip quality tokens, by the way). You will use either seven (four-player), five (three-player) or four (two-player) of the gems and all of the gold tokens, regardless of player number.
The 15 victory points you are attempting to acquire ahead of your opponent(s) can be found on the cards, each of which bears a cost in gem token combinations, the depiction of a single gem, and the victory points associated with possession of the card. Example; a Level 3 card worth three victory points, shows an onyx, and costs three diamond tokens, three sapphire, five emerald and three rubies. The more victory points available on a card, the higher the cost (the 40 Level 1 cards contain only five cards worth one victory point, Level 2 cards offer two and three victory points, and Level 3 cards offer four and five victory points).
You’re not likely to be snatching this example card up on your first turn, because when you start out, you’ve got nothing. On your turn, you have three options: 1) Collect three gem tokens of different colors, or two of one color (if, and only if, the stack of them has at least four when you choose; you can not have more than 10 gem tokens in your possession), 2) grab an available card from the display, put it in your ‘hand’ and take a gold token (a ‘wild’ token, that can be used as any other gem; you are allowed only three cards in your ‘hand’), or 3) buy a card from the display, paying its illustrated cost in gem tokens and placing it in your private display.
For each card of a specific gem type you have in your private display, you can deduct that amount from the cost of a card you’re purchasing in the future. If you are in possession of all of the cards necessary to fulfill the gem tokens required to purchase another card, you get the card for free. The seven, six or five Noble Tiles that are above your card display, are all worth three VPs, and feature, like the cards, a combination of gems, but they’re not indicators of purchase price. The gems depicted on the Noble Tiles, when exactly matched in your display, earn you the relevant Noble Tile.
And that’s it, all, by the way, wrapped up in a single-sheet (four sides) rule book. You’ll be looking for ways to purchase no-victory-point cards from the Level 1 display to begin a collection of gem types that will reduce the cost of cards in Level 2 and Level 3 (the engine-building). Sometimes, you’ll run a little operation that’ll net you significant VPs by hoarding a particular gem token, and combining it with gold (wild) tokens to purchase a card with a single gem cost, like 6 diamonds, or emeralds. If you’re paying attention to your opponents, you’re likely to find ways to thwart their aims while you’re at it.
So, a terrific game and well worth the generally-under-$30 price tag. We should look forward to future publications by this Marc Andre, who previously published Barony, about which I know nothing, but am likely to search. Splendor, by the way, was a candidate for the 2014 Spiel des Jahres, losing to a game called Camel Up. Don’t fear the ‘nay’ sayers. While true that it’s not the sort of deeply complex game appreciated by a lot of BoardGameGeek patrons, there’s plenty to like.
Splendor, by Marc Andre with artwork by Pascal Quidault is published by a variety of companies, including Space Cowboys. It is intended for ages 10 and up, though it could easily be played by astute, younger players. It can be played by two to four players (and there’s an entry in its BoardGameGeek page, offering a solo variant), and true to the box, takes about 30 minutes; 45 if you could explaining it to newcomers. It retails anywhere between $25 and $30, with some bidding wars offering even lower prices.