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Subject: Splendor: A Worn Box Review (or: Mmmmmm... poker chips.....) rss

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Tim Hange

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A worn game box, to me, is a beautiful thing. In my case, it means that the game has been dragged to parties and events, lent out, and requested so much that despite my best effort to keep my games in decent shape the box is falling apart… I mean, look at this thing! It has transcended being an item in my collection, and become an object of enjoyment among my friends.

Splendor is not a perfect game, but it does certain things so incredibly well that it may as well be. Before I explain that statement, let’s do a...

Brutally Over-Simplified Overview:

In Splendor, you are a jewel merchant who for some reason gets to pick up these beautifully tactile gems (on the right of the picture) and put them in your collection, so that in later turns you can buy the publicly available gem cards (on the left of the picture). You’ll do this by taking gem chips from your personal stash and paying the cost in gem chips that is on the bottom right of the card that you are trying to buy.

The numbers in the top left (if any) are the victory points you get for having the card in your collection. The gem in the top right means that because you have this card in your tableau, you now get a permanent discount on any further cards you buy.

So if your tableau looks like the one above, you get a discount of one blue, two white, one red, and one green on any cards you want to buy from the table. That's fewer chips you are going to have to collect.

Two other things: There are these nobles that join your side if you can impress them by having certain kinds of gem cards in your tableau. They are worth points.

Yeah, they all look pretty grouchy. Lighten up guys!

Also, you can reserve a card from the public area by placing it face down in front of you. You can pay later to add it to your tableau. Doing this earns you a gold, which is a wild-card chip.

Once one player makes at least 15 points, you go round the table to make sure that everyone has had an even number of turns. Whoever has the most points at that point, wins.

Why it’s so good:

The Gem Chips: If you get a thrill out of sitting at the hold-em table shuffling chips, you may already love this game. The gems feel like decent home quality poker chips. Man, it’s satisfying to clink them from the supply onto your stack, or clink them back to pay for cards. And yes, I shuffle them between turns. Publishers, take notice! Quality, tactile components get a game to the table more often!

The play time: Short. Experienced players with low AP knock this thing out in 20 minutes max. 30 minutes is not unusual for a four player game.

Simple Play Explanation: On your turn you can:
•take three different color chips
•take two chips of the same color if that stack has four or more chips
•reserve a card
•buy a card from the center of the table
•buy a card in reserve.

That’s pretty much it. It rarely takes me more than five minutes to explain this game.

Wonderful One-action-per-turn Tension: You can only do ONE of the above actions per turn which means that you are going to have to leave some opportunities on the table for other players. The farther the game progresses, the more you may have to leave out there (more on player interaction in a moment).

What could be better.
I’m going to pick a bit at the theme, but not too much. This is an abstract game with a theme that is a bit more than tacked on, but that still doesn’t make too much sense. Gem chips buy gem cards which produce an unlimited supply of gems for buying other cards. Hmmm.. When a game’s mechanics are so fun, however, this becomes VERY forgivable in my book.

Addressing some common criticisms:
I’ve given a lot of thought to two common complaints I have heard about this game: A lack of good choices and randomness.
The complaint here goes something like this: Players just kind of sit around the table, buying cards they hope will help them get big vp cards later on. Still, you don’t really know what cards are going to come out next. So in the end, you’re building an engine, but the path to victory is fluid and random, meaning you have no idea if you’re building the right engine. You just sort of play and hope for the best.

My opinion: This is mostly not a game problem. This is a player problem!

Because of the simplicity of the game’s mechanics, people can just sit around the table, and buy cards without giving too much thought to strategy. When that happens, yes, it will feel uninspired and random. There is also some “luck of the refill” to be sure. Sometimes you snatch away a card from the table, only to re-fill with something that helps your opponent.

Both of these factors can be dealt with by simply doing two things:
1.PLAN AHEAD: Worried about hitting a moving target? As soon as it becomes apparent that your tableau is favoring certain colors, reserve the matching high-point cards away. You have a definite goal to shoot for now. Look for ways to daisy-chain purchases so that the card you are buying this turn helps you buy a card the next turn. Identify early on what nobles you will shoot for, but be willing to change if the cards on the table don’t support your plan.

2.CHOOSE TO INTERACT WITH (aka, mess over) OTHER PLAYERS! That’s part of the game. If a player has four diamonds in their stash, and there is a 5vp card out there that can be bought for seven diamonds, you need to reserve that away from him. Pay attention to the other player’s stashes—it’s public information in this game. You’ll start to understand what it is they are going for, and you’ll be able to buy it away, and perhaps integrate it into your strategy. One of the most common and avoidable mistakes is made when there is a choice between two gems of the same color. If you can afford both of them at the same price, but the other player can only afford one of them, then buy the one the other player can afford. Instead of you both ending up with a gem this turn, you get a gem, and he has to wait another turn! This is especially helpful when you are both going for the same nobles.

If you take this approach, you’ll discover that there is quite a bit more control in this game than meets the eye. Splendor look gentle and innocuous, and it can be played that way, but it is best played as a cutthroat game. A little mean? Perhaps, but the randomly helpful refills, and short play time mitigate the emotion.

Summary:
Splendor looks beautiful on the table and has components that are fun to handle. It is easy to learn, quick to set up and tear down, has a short play time, and is accessible to those new to the hobby, while providing enough strategic choices to satisfy veteran players. The theme is a little thin, but the elegant design of this abstract game makes it almost unnoticeable.

Though players must respond to an ever-changing strategic environment (based on how the cards on the table refill), choices can be made to mitigate this variance and move toward definite goals. Flexibility, however, is important, as is cutting other players off from their goals.

I use Splendor as a tool to get players into the hobby. It makes a great filler, and a great “second table” game at game nights. I also play it as a main course, especially if time is limited. This isn’t an epic game, or one that will create great stories you’ll remember. It’s just a good, solid, not too heavy but still satisfying abstract game. And it has chips...beautiful poker chips... Mmmm.

If there is one box I am tempted to say belongs in everyone’s collection, it would be this one.
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Max DuBoff
United States
New Brunswick
New Jersey
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"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
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Great review!

Board Game Greek wrote:
Both of these factors can be dealt with by simply doing two things:
1.PLAN AHEAD: Worried about hitting a moving target? As soon as it becomes apparent that your tableau is favoring certain colors, reserve the matching high-point cards away. You have a definite goal to shoot for now. Look for ways to daisy-chain purchases so that the card you are buying this turn helps you buy a card the next turn. Identify early on what nobles you will shoot for, but be willing to change if the cards on the table don’t support your plan.

Or just reserve the big cards early and win before anyone has nobles. #hightier
 
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mike williams
United States
Sumner
WA - Washington
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Very good review of my favorite gateway game. I think everyone I have introduced this game to has ended up purchasing it themselves since it is so easy to learn and fun to play, with a decent amount of strategy to it, and we typically don't play very cut-throat like you explain. I prefer longer strategy games, but I enjoy lighter games as well, especially games like this that you can introduce people to the hobby with. A must have in a well-rounded collection.
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Greg Darcy
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Great review, but I think you are a bit harsh on the theme.

If you pay attention to the card art, you will realise it is not

Quote:
Gem chips buy gem cards which produce an unlimited supply of gems for buying other cards.


but rather

"Use your wealth to buy a mine which ensures your supply of gems into the future." As well as mines there are also things like gem cutters which taken together become vertical integration which means you control the entire supply chain. Which means more profit (i.e. gems) for you.
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Tim Hange

Missouri
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Thanks for the reply. Yeah, I hear you, I know the cards are meant to be production facilities, but it still feels thin to me. Thematically, what does pulling free chips from the stack represent? I wouldn't want a thing changed, however, because the game works so well!

Sometimes a game will explain its theme, but in reality, you just don't feel it as you play. Lords of Waterdeep and Trajan are great examples. No matter what it says in the rulebook, playing them feels like moving bits to get other bits and points. Both do this so incredibly well, however, that they are among my favorites. To me, Splendor falls in this category.

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culix _
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Wonderful review! Thanks for writing this.

I had never heard of this game but now you have convinced me to get it It sounds like a blast.
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Evgeni Dimitrov
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For some reason, most of the people i know liked it. I do not find any them .. but I do not find themes in most of the games. it is boring, and the only way to interact is to take somebodys cards. Got it at discount for 20Euro, played couple of games and sold it. But people still like it a lot, it is like pandemic.I can not find a reason to play this instead of TTR.
 
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