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Subject: The Easy and Not-So-Easy Pieces of Splendor: a 10x10 Review rss

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Pete K
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“Tycho Brahe had an idea that was different than anything proposed by the ancients: his idea was that these debates about the nature of the motions of the planets would best be resolved if the actual positions of the planets in the sky were measured sufficiently and accurately. If measurements showed exactly how planets moved, then perhaps it was possible to establish one or another viewpoint. This was a tremendous idea – that to find something out, it was better to some careful experiments than to carry on deep philosophical arguments.”
- from Six Easy Pieces, by Richard Feynman (originally, 1963)

The physical sciences has been the beneficiary of some truly great teachers, and Richard Feynman was of course one of them. Virtually anyone capable of reading this article, or learning the game I describe herein, could easily digest physics in the form of his Six Easy Pieces and (with a little more effort) Six Not-So-Easy Pieces. In the first volume is one his famous analogy relating the scientific method with learning the rules of chess. They’re highly recommended reading. mb

It’s no surprise to anyone who has read or watched enough game reviews that the virtue of simplicity remains vastly underrated. A game as widely appealing and as perfectly constructed as Splendor tends to get overlooked in seasonal best-of-the-year lists, which exist to serve game buyers more than game players.

The Easy and Not-So-Easy Pieces of Splendor: a 10x10 Review

I bought Splendor after hearing about its relative simplicity and wide appeal. A frequent criticism – it’s relatively themeless – has also been levied against other favorite games, such as Dominion and Lost Cities. It’s true that Splendor will not make you think you’re hitting some elf over the head with the business end of a morning star, but the artwork and components are top-notch and do not intrude on the gameplay. I bought and enjoy the game for the gameplay.



Splendor is not necessarily an abstract game, either. It works wonderfully for two, three or four players and beginners can learn to compete against more seasoned players very quickly. These traits are not shared by chess, go or any other well-known abstract game. Moreover, the opportunity to switch strategies mid-game exists, at least in my mind (and I’m no expert), without necessarily sacrificing one’s chances of winning.

I’ve played Splendor around twenty times this year, mostly with my family. As with my other “10x10” reviews, this article follows the experience of playing a game at least 10 times within the calendar year. Since the game has had to generate enough interest to be played fairly often, and that I do not review anything whose appeal I do not understand, this article – and others like it – will be positive.

mb The Easy Pieces mb

Since my claim is that the game’s simplicity is one of its primary qualities, the rules and components are described together. Each player gets the same number of turns in the game, which lasts until the end of a turn where at least one player reaches 15 points. Points are scored continuously as cards are collected from a common tableau. The tableau comprises of three rows of four cards each, with each row being populated by its own deck. On his or her turn, a player will collect chips, use chips to buy a card from the tableau, or take a card (and a gold chip) in-hand for later scoring.

The artwork on the cards tells a story of gathering gemstones, crafting them in a workshop and marketing them.

The cards belong to three decks, but the rules for each card are the same. The top of each card depicts a gem (white, red and blue in the picture). Two of the cards also have a number at the top, which show how many points they are worth when purchased. Along the bottom-left of each card is the list of gems needed to buy it. These gems are a combination of symbols on the cards a player already has – and keeps throughout the game – and chips, which are turned it to the bank. Hence, the card on the left might be worth getting in order to spend less chips for cards like the one on the right.

The size of the chips make the collecting and anti-hoarding rules easy to follow and enforce.

The thick chips have the same color scheme as the gems on the cards, to demonstrate their common value as currency. Each turn, a player may take three chips from the bank, but they must be of different colors. Alternatively, a player can grab two chips of the same color, but only if this results in at least two chips of that color being left in the bank. Games with two and three players will involve a bank of less chips of each (non-gold) type, so the supply will be limited. Hoarding chips of certain colors is a plausible tactic, but players are limited to keeping a maximum of ten chips at once.

The gold chips are special “wild” gems, and can only be obtained when a player takes a card off the central area into his or her hand. A gold chip is taken in the process, making this action not so much a default “pass” but a viable choice in the game. In a later turn the player can then lay down the card by spending an adequate supply of gems, instead of buying a card in the tableau. Only three cards can be reserved by a player at one time (like the game St. Petersburg), but no penalty is incurred by having these cards unscored at the end of the game (unlike St. Petersburg).

The content of the bonus tiles strongly influence the direction of the game. Here, collecting white cards is critical, but black and red cards will also be very important.

There are also bonus tiles revealed at the beginning of the game, one more than the number of players. These are worth three or four points and are collected when a player has the required combination of cards: the left tile requires four red cards and four green cards. Only one tile can be taken per turn, which can factor into end-of-game tactics.

mb The Not-So-Easy Pieces mb

Learning how to play is obviously simple (I just described the entire game), but developing a consistently winning style of play is more difficult. What follows is an example 3-player session:



Here we see an unusual draw, where the bottom row of cards is dominated by white. White is an important color for bonuses, because two tiles require 4 white cards. There are also no blue or red cards within easy reach and no green cards in the first row. Blue and green are especially important in getting other cards, so one might predict that the race for the bonus tiles will be slow. The choice to grab scoring cards from the second and third rows instead appears more enticing.



At this point, the center player has the scoring advantage (10 to 5 to 5), without a marked disadvantage in total number of cards in the tableau. This situation came about from staying committed to scoring three higher-lever blue and white cards, while the other two players were more reactive and chased the second (3-black, 3-red, 3-green) bonus tile. For them to catch up, this tile has to be claimed soon, and the center player must somehow get blocked from taking two tiles (presumably the 4-white, 4-black and the 4-white, 4-blue tiles). It is the center player’s turn, and he will choose to reserve the 2-point black card (first card in the middle row) and claim a gold coin, in order to get to 12 points the next turn.

The reveals a 1-point red card, which the left player will buy in order to move one card away from the (3-black, 3-red, 3-green) bonus tile.



Another red card is revealed, which the right player cannot buy (one white gem short). At this point, his chances of getting the 3-3-3 bonus tile are looking poor, and he elects to claim the third-row white card (7 black gems required for 4 points).



Only a handful of turns remained in the game, since the center player was able to accumulate first-row cards and eventually claim a bonus tile (4-white, 4-blue) to reach 15 points and end the game. The other players were in a race to second place (tie at 11 points). A 4-point margin of victory is an atypically high gap, probably caused by the unbalanced layout at the beginning. I have seen most games end with the winner one to three points ahead of second place. mb

As the session photos above attempt to illustrate, there are interesting decisions to make in almost every instance; or at least from the beginning and through the middle turns. Much depends on when certain cards come off the deck for each row, and for different reasons. Cards in the bottom row are most useful for chasing the bonus tiles, since buying them will build the player’s wealth of gems quickly and efficiently. Cards in the top row are worth valuable points, often more than the tiles, and can be reserved for later scoring. Cards in the middle row add points and can also be useful for purchasing other cards in the late game, when turns spent on gathering chips feel especially expensive.

When a newcomer has played one or two games, they can often be very competitive and get their share of wins. Knowing the decks over time may produce an advantage, but beginners can benefit with an understanding of the game’s symmetry. For instance, the 40 cards in the first deck has 8 cards of each gem type, with an equivalent distribution of cheap and expensive requirements. This means that cards of a certain type are due to appear if they haven’t already after several turns. The easy learning curve means that most games between players of varying experience levels will be tight and involve challenging decisions in the final turns. For this reason, Splendor makes for an excellent gateway or family game.

mb The Verdict mb

Splendor is my new-to-me game of the year 2014. It features multiple paths to victory and stands up well to repeated plays. It obviously does not have the variety offered by a game like Dominion, but is easier for new players to compete and does not feel prematurely decided. Dominion is a favorite game of mine, but at a certain skill level, it feels like a stochastic puzzle whose critical choices are usually made within the first handful of turns. Splendor at least supports the feeling of tense, important decisions almost the entire way through. Splendor also compares well to 7 Wonders, because it is quicker to teach and does not require a large number of participants to include the most interesting possibilities of the game. However, Splendor serves as a complementary piece to a collection including these great games, rather than an alternative to them. Moreover, Splendor fills a critical role as a gateway designer card game in the sad world where Lost Cities and other great Cosmos titles remain out of print. mb

Note: This is a "10x10" review, meaning that it was written after being played 10 times inside of a year. For other game reviews written within the 10x10 challenge, see this geeklist. mb


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Matthew Roskam
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Outstanding, insightful review.
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Pete K
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Mwroskam wrote:
Outstanding, insightful review.


Thanks so much. Any edits I make to the original post are to correct grammatical errors.

It looks like I took a shot at seasonal end-of-year lists, but the fact is that I do read/watch them with much interest. I might be feeling the Christmas hangover, but Splendor's absence from so many lists seems a little unjustified.
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Pete K
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NOTE:

Due to some slow feedback from the BGG "pending" response, I thought there was an error and I resubmitted this article. This resulted in a duplicate thread that I deleted as soon as possible. I apologize for the confusion, and hope this didn't cause any memory holes, exceptions, etc.

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Jonathan Rosenberg
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Wonderful review! I just bought Splendor a few days ago, and have played it 3-way (8 times) and 2-way (over a dozen times). It is very much as you describe -- elegant, simple, multiple paths, ability to shift strategies.

There's also great tactile pleasure in playing and, for those who enjoy RPG and related video games, something akin to leveling up -- you start out "weak," but there's deep satisfaction in being able to say, midway through the game, "I'll take this card for free."
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A J
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Thanks for the review. Just thought I'd mention that Lost Cities is back in print.
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