The Tortoise, the Hare, and the Miser: A Review of Splendor (2014)

One of the more satisfying quick games of the last few years is Splendor, Space Cowboys’ card and chip collecting resource-management game. The theme of Splendor is that players are Renaissance gem merchants trying to acquire the most satisfying array of stones. Through manipulation of gems (symbolized by tokens) and purchased cards, players gain wealth and prestige, which is rated by Prestige Points. The first player to achieve 15 Prestige Points wins the game, and this usually occurs within 21-30 turns of the game depending on the skill and aggression of the players.

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To set up Splendor, you take the game’s three decks of cards—the 40 card Level 1 Deck, the 30 card Level 2 deck, and the 20 card Level 3 deck—put them on the left hand side of the table, and then draw four cards from each deck to lay to the right of these piles. Above the card decks, you place a number of noble tiles equal to the number of players plus one; as Splendor requires a minimum of two players and a maximum of four, this means from three to five of the ten nobles are in play at any one time. Then, you set the Emerald (green), Sapphire (blue), Ruby (red), Diamond (white), and Onyx (black) tokens in piles of four for two players, five for three players, or seven for four players. Finally, you place all five Gold Joker tokens with the rest of the gem bank, regardless of how many players you have.

Players start the game with nothing. The youngest player goes first. Each turn, players can perform one single action from the following list: 1) take three tokens of different colors; 2) take two tokens of the same color, with the stipulation that you can only do this from a stack of four or more; 3) purchase a card if you have the requisite gems; or, 4) reserve a card that you cannot afford by taking that card plus one of the Gold Joker tokens. Using option 4) is the only way the player can get a Gold Joker token. You would think that getting just one token is not as good as getting three, and you’re right that you won’t get rich if you’re constantly reserving cards for Gold tokens; however, the Gold tokens can be used as any other color, so they’re more versatile than the other tokens.

To purchase a card, you simply cash in the tokens that are displayed on the card’s front.

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Once you return one Diamond, three Sapphirea, and one Emerald to the bank, you can buy this card and get the permanent benefit of it as an addition to your wealth.  Because this card has an Emerald in the upper right, if I want to buy another card that requires two Diamond and two Emerald…

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…I only need to use two Diamond and one Emerald token, as I now have a permanent Emerald in my bank due to previous card purchase.

A handful of cards in the Level 1 deck come with one Prestige Point when you purchase them, the Level 2 cards come with between one and three Prestige Points, and the Level 3 cards come with between three and five Prestige Points.

Sometimes you can’t buy the card you want, or, more deviously, you want to remove from play a card that you believe another player is about to buy. To reserve a card, you simply take any card and instead of playing it in front of you, you retain it in your hand, and at the same time grab a Gold Joker coin. Then, on a future turn, if you’ve earned the resources to buy the card, you can buy your reserved card instead of buying one from the table. On the other hand, you don’t ever have to buy the card. Sometimes, players reserve a card simply because they didn’t want you to have a card, or because they just wanted the Gold Joker coin.  It is also possible for players to reserve “blind” one of the cards on the tops of the stacks. I’ve never seen this done in play, although in theory it can mess with other players’ expectations, especially the strategic players that like to plan their next move by considering what your next move might be.

While the game is often won by purchasing cards that bear a prestige point value, there is another way to earn points that is sometimes seized upon by patient players as their primary method of scoring.

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Meet Anne of Brittany, one of the nobles in the game. If she’s one of the five nobles in play, and at any point you have three Emeralds, three Sapphires, and Three Diamonds in card form, and not token form, only, then you have attracted the attention of this noble to your side of the table and earned her three Prestige Points. Attracting the attention of a noble is a free action that doesn’t keep you from taking your normal turn, either, although you can only attract one noble per turn. This means that if you have four Onyx cards, four Emerald cards, and three Ruby cards, and then buy a fourth Ruby, you have to pick between Henry VIII and Mary Stuart.

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Next turn, if no one else has claimed the one you left behind, you can take that one too.

The nice thing about Splendor is that there are a few different winning strategies to play. I have seen players win as the Tortoise, slowly building vast arrays of cards and attracting a fleet of nobles, or as the Hare, quickly going after just the one or two colors they need to snipe a few high point cards from the top. Experienced Splendor players prefer the latter strategy, which has caused me to develop a defense against it that I have mentioned in a previous essay: the Miser’s strategy. To wit, when playing the Miser’s strategy, you simply always grab tokens when there are three tokens to grab. Always being close to ten tokens will make the Hares struggle to get the resources they need for those quick and dirty buys, especially if you’re hoarding the colors they need for top row purchases. Obviously, you still need to buy occasionally, so that you’re not forced to return tokens to the bank. But right after you make a buy, replenish those coins, even when it means you have to pass up a free card. I understand that when you have one card of each color, the temptation to pass up all the free or inexpensive cards is very great. It’s natural to want to take advantage of your investment in these cards. If you’re doing that without a defensive wall of tokens, though, you’re providing too many scoring options for your competition.

Splendor is a celebrated game: not only has it won the 2014 Golden Geek Board Game of the Year, the 2014 Golden Geek Best Family Board Game, the 2014 Meeple’s Choice, and the 2015 Nederlandse Spellenprijis Best Family Game, it has also been nominated for a slew of other prestigious awards, such as the 2014 Spiel des Jahres. Best of all, however, is this game’s word of mouth, because there are so many satisfied Splendor players.

The mark of a great game, however, is that when you’re done playing it, you feel like playing it again. This is how you’ll feel after your first game of Splendor, or your eightieth. And, you can easily play two or three games of Splendor in an hour, since the game tends to be 20-25 minutes with experienced players. The more you play, the faster you play, and not only can I see a possibility for Splendor to become so popular as to take over your game night, I can also envision Splendor clubs in the next millennium or two, just like Chess or Checkers clubs, where you’ll be able to see tabletop enthusiasts and graybeards obsessively playing a classic game that they only know out of context from its vast history.

My one criticism of Splendor will lead to a recommendation.  There is a potential for vast Splendor skill differential, just as there is in any other fast tabletop game. Easy mechanics lead not only to easy instruction and transmission of the game, but also a tendency to repeat easy strategies.  Just as there are lots of Google searches that lead to how to win chess in four moves, what is less common but gaining traction are search results that tell you how to win Splendor with a two color strategy.  This is the primary reason that I developed my Miser strategy as an equalizer, which leads to my recommendation:  when teaching Splendor to friends and family, if you insist on going for the quick two-color win that you cleverly learned online, make sure that sometime between the first game and the second, you take a few minutes and lay out a few alternative strategies and defenses.  Just as you would teach your own children not to move their King’s Pawn in a game of chess (if you’re chess uninitiated, this can lead to letting your opponent checkmate you in four moves), teach them some of the equalizing moves that will mess with a more experienced player, such as playing Miserly and hoarding a full till of tokens, or reserving a blind card so that your next moves might be less predictable to your opponent.

Overall, though, Splendor is highly entertaining and completely satisfying.  Like Catan or 7 Wonders, there can be a sense of achievement even when you don’t win, as in your loss you have left a legacy of your investments on the table in your array of cards.  The game can be quickly re-set, so that within a minute of the game’s finish, another game can be in motion.  The varying decks and noble tiles mean that each game of Splendor will have different contours than the one before it, and hence Splendor has a lot of replay value.   And on a personal note, it is one of my favorite games, right after 7 WondersPuerto Rico and Broom Service, and the version of Splendor you can find on the App Store is my favorite boardgame app.  If you’re building a library of the best modern tabletop games, Splendor should definitely be one of them.

Buy Splendor on Amazon

Buy Splendor for Android on Amazon Appstore

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4 thoughts on “The Tortoise, the Hare, and the Miser: A Review of Splendor (2014)

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