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Gen Con 2022 Preview: Splendor Duel

W. Eric Martin
United States
Apex
North Carolina
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Board Game: Splendor Duel
As often happens at conventions, most of the games I played at Gen Con 2022 will be released in the near future, thereby giving me a chance to preview them ahead of time.

The two games I enjoyed most (that I can talk about at this time) are Splendor Duel and Sea Salt & Paper. The former game is from Bruno Cathala, Marc André, and Space Cowboys, and the latter from Cathala, Théo Rivière, and Bombyx. Given that I'm also excited about Sobek: 2 Players, a Cathala and Sébastien Pauchon design that Pandasaurus Games had at the show, not to mention Cathala and Rivière's Oh My Brain, now out from 25th Century Games, this event was pretty much a "Cathala Con" for me. For this post, I'll focus solely on the former game.

Croc from Space Cowboys told me that Cathala had reached out to Splendor designer Marc André with an idea for a two-player-only version of the game — which might seem odd given that Splendor already plays fine with two players — but André, perhaps considering the success of 7 Wonders Duel, said sure, let's collaborate. Space Cowboys didn't even know about the project until the designers were mostly done, but I'm sure the publisher didn't object to being delivered a spinoff title to the best-selling game in its catalog.

As with most spinoffs, Splendor Duel maintains as much fidelity to Splendor as possible: Take one action of several on a turn; have at most ten tokens in your reserve at the end of your turn; collect cards from three strength levels; reserve a card by taking a gold. The three main differences, however, are what drive everything in gameplay and what make this design compelling.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Set up and ready to play

First, you collect tokens by drafting them from a grid, taking up to three adjacent, non-gold tokens in a row, column, or diagonal, then adding them to your reserve. The grid contains 25 tokens at the start of play: four of each of the five colors, three gold, and two pearls. Roughly half of the cards in the game require you to hand in a pearl, so you'll compete for them constantly. (Gold can be spent as a pearl or as any color.)

As players spend tokens to acquire cards, you place those tokens on the refill bag. When someone doesn't like the choices on the board — which can happen quickly since both empty spaces and gold break up adjacency — you can decide to refill the board before choosing tokens for your turn. When you do this, the opponent gets a privilege token, represented by a plastic scroll. You then shuffle all the tokens in the bag, take them in a stack in your hand, then refill the board by starting at the center and following the line outward, dropping one token in each empty space. After a refill, you typically have a tightly filled space with a few outlying tokens, but with far fewer tokens than 25 since you both have some in your reserve.

At the start of your turn, you can spend a privilege token to grab any non-gold token from the board, then you take your turn like normal. If your opponent collects two pearls or three tokens of the same color in a single turn, you receive a privilege token to compensate for the random token placement that fell their way.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
The board after a refill

Second, some cards have one-time special powers that you gain when playing them, so you value cards in more complex ways than Splendor cards that feature only a color and (possibly) points. These powers are:

• Gain a privilege token.
• Take another turn.
• Take a token matching the color of this card from the board.
• Take a non-gold token from the opponent.

I used this last power multiple times against Candice in our game, and it's a great two-fer power serving as both attack and resource-building toward your next card. If someone is clearly working toward a particular card — and you can't reserve it away due to a lack of gold on the board (as you must take a gold in order to reserve) — then swiping a token can be devastating. They might need to refill the board to get that last token again, which gives you a privilege token and knocks them out of rhythm.

Third, instead of mirroring Splendor's 15-point threshold for bringing about the end of the game, Splendor Duel gives you three victory conditions — 10 points in a single color, 20 points total, or 10 crowns — and as soon as you meet one of them, you win.

As with the addition of one-time effects, this change complicates how you value cards. In all likelihood, you'll value everything somewhat while keeping your options open and looking for opportunities, especially since crowns serve as a victory condition on their own, but they can also help you toward victory elsewhere. When you acquire your third crown, you take one of the nobles on display, and with six crowns you take a second noble. The game includes only four nobles, and they are worth 3 points or 2 points and a special power. These points aren't colored, so they help only toward the 20-point threshold, but the powers (stealing a token, taking a privilege, or taking another turn) are flexible.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
My holdings, which include 20 points of victory

In my game with Candice, I raced to six crowns relatively quickly — as in Splendor, the initial focus is all on token collection until you have enough cards to accelerate further card acquisition — then Candice reserved a two-crown card, and I was somewhat adrift given the lack of crowns in the card pool. At some point I reserved a colorless 6-point card that costs eight white, then managed to get another white card, that allowed me to get a black card that costs 4W3G, which got me a joker card I made white, and the 4 points from those three cards, along with the 6 from the closer, brought me to exactly 20 points, a total that had seemed quite distant just a few turns earlier.

As intended, Splendor Duel mirrors the feeling of the original game, such as the slow early game in which you are finding your footing and figuring out which of the high-level cards to target, or the desire to reserve a card an opponent is eyeing only to see something even better be revealed. The spatial puzzle of the token collection is a welcome addition, and it combines well with the color starvation you might try to practice on an opponent, with you holding off on spending tokens until after they refill the board to make it harder to get what they need.

The pearls add another wrinkle to gameplay. If your opponent lacks a pearl or gold, then you know which cards are currently inaccessible to them, which helps you better determine which cards they are targeting should you want to acquire or reserve them first.

Given the strength of both this game and 7 Wonders Duel, I'm sure that other designers would be eager to hear from Monsieur Cathala about any ideas he might have for duellifying their creations...
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