One of three nominees for the 2014 Spiel des Jahres award, Splendor is a card-and-token boardgame that combines elegant, simple mechanics with an intense competitive element for a quick, smart 30-minute playing experience. There’s just enough randomness in the cards to level out the playing field for younger players, but the game still requires some skill and foresight for success. It’s a new favorite in our house, with my 8-year-old daughter requesting to play it every afternoon when she gets home from camp.
Splendor players take the role of gem merchants, attempting to amass riches by purchasing gem cards from the central 3×4 grid, which will allow the player to purchase more valuable cards worth one to five prestige points apiece, or to win a “visit” from one of three to five nobles, which is worth an additional three points. The currency to purchase cards starts as gem tokens, available for free from the central bank, coming in five varieties: ruby, emerald, sapphire, diamond and onyx, as well as the wild-card gold tokens. On a turn, a player may take three gem tokens (not gold) of three separate colors or two tokens of the same color, as long as the bank’s pile contains at least four of that stone. The player may also choose to purchase a card from the table using a combination of tokens or of cards he’s already purchased, returning the tokens to the bank but retaining the cards. Or, he may “reserve” a card from the table, taking it without paying for it yet, keeping it face down in his space until he can purchase it, and receiving one gold token at the same time.
Each card has a gem at the top of it that replaces a token when the player wants to purchase another card. As the game progresses, therefore, some cards from the table will become free for players who have bought enough gem cards to cover the cost, and other cards that would be impossible to purchase because their costs exceed the available supply of tokens then fall within reach. Acquiring the right mix of cards becomes key, which involves anticipating which more expensive (and thus more valuable) cards you might wish to purchase later in the game and building your supply to meet those goals.
Other players will be working toward the same goals, however, and once a card is purchased or reserved from the table, it’s replaced with the next card in that row’s deck, a random draw that can put a serious crimp in your plans if you’d spent several turns buying cards to set you up for the big buy. There’s a limit to how much players can compete for the same cards because the supply of tokens is so limited (equal to the number of players plus two), but if players have acquired deep columns of gem cards, their purchasing ability becomes so strong that it will be harder for competing players to anticipate their plans.
Splendor plays extremely well with two players, unlike most games designed for more, but the game experience is very different with three of four. A two-player game includes less direct competition for cards or tokens, even though the number of tokens is reduced to four of each color. Taking two of a color at once is rarely an option, but with twelve cards and three nobles visible on the table, the path of least resistance is often to just go for whatever gems (colors) your opponent seems to be avoiding and going for those bonuses. With three or four players, however, long-range planning is limited by competition for tokens and cards and the increased turnover on the table. The bottom row of cards, the most expensive row and the row that returns the most prestige points to the purchaser, can prove deadly if two players are quietly targeting the same card.
The game ends when any player reaches 15 prestige points between her purchased gem cards and any visits from nobles (when a noble visits you, you keep the tile), after which any players remaining in that round get to take their turns so all players have made the same number of moves. This takes 20-30 minutes in our experience, and turns are fast once all players are familiar with the game and can think ahead to their next moves—until someone gets their pocket picked and has to come up with a new plan on the fly. Blowouts are rare, a key criterion for a successful German-style games, and victories of one or two points are common, as the distribution of point values across cards is narrow, and all noble visits are worth three points. With just the right amount of randomness and simple rules that, without pictures, could fit on one side of a sheet of paper, Splendor is one of the best new games I’ve tried this year and a worthy nominee for the industry’s most prestigious award.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.