Review: Splendor

splendorboxSpace Cowboys is a new company consisting of game designers old and new, and Asmodee is going to be distributing their games in the U.S. Their first release is Splendor from Marc André, ostensibly a game about trading and selling gems in the middle ages. Not a very exciting theme, but what about the game? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

Components: There’s not much in the box here – 90 cards, 10 tiles, and 40 tokens. I absolutely love when games splendorgameare easy to set up and tear down, especially as I get older (Qwirkle comes to mind), and this game fits the bill – yet it didn’t seem like a whole lot in the box for $40 MSRP. However, if you’ve read about Space Cowboys (this is their first game), one of the guys behind it is Sebastian Pauchon, who is also behind GameWorks, and they are known for amazing components. The art on the cards is great, but the tokens are what impressed me the most. I was disappointed at first that they weren’t actual plastic gems (like in Gryphon’s Bazaar reprint), but these tokens are very beautiful and very thick and heavy. It’s amazing how heavy the box is! The whole game lays out very nicely on the table and is very, very beautiful, so I think that justifies the price. My completely minor niggle is that there’s not quite enough space in the very nice insert for cards to fit while sleeved (at least not with FFG sleeves), and it’s so very close! Tighter sleeves like Ultra Pros might work, though.


Accessibility: Let me be clear – these are some of the simplest, cleanest rules I have ever read. It’s a very good translation of the rules, which are themselves rather simple. The whole game simply comes down to taking gems or buying cards, with just a few tiny twists thrown in. I felt like I could play right away before I even had the game in front of me. When I see something like that, I want to take it as far as possible, and so I always nitpick about “little” rules. The two in this game are that you can’t take 2 gems of the same color if there aren’t at least 4 left of that pile, and you can’t have more than 10 gems at any time. I wrote an entire audacious paragraph before I had played the game about ways those could have been avoided. When I played the game, though, I realized just how crucial they both are to the strategy of the game (and got a nice taste of humble pie).

There’s also a rule that you can’t snag two noble tiles in one turn, but I don’t see why not. What’s wrong with giant point swings? Someone might get steamrolled, but that’s also how glorious comebacks happen, especially since the game can definitely have runaway leaders even with this rule. The rule isn’t hard to remember though, and obviously the playtesters have played the game much more than I have (see humble pie above). Overall, the game is very, very easy to learn, and you’ll know what you’re doing very early on in your first game.


Depth: This game reminds me of the engine-building of Donald X. Vaccarino’s Dominion mixed with the gems and exchanges of Sid Sackson’s Bazaar. Since those are two of the best board game designers in modern history, that’s pretty high praise. You are constantly trying to figure out how to buy that next card – but do I build up my engine with more cheap cards, or do I go for points? What’s my opponent going to try to take – should I deny him? I have the rare chance to snag two gems of one color – should I do it? You also have to keep the Noble tiles in mind, as they have helped decide the winner in all of our games so far. There’s a lot of luck of the draw with what cards appear from the deck, but I feel like it’s one of those games where a skilled player will win most of the time, with just enough luck for a newbie to have a chance.

I’ve only played with two so far, but I can easily see that as with Dominion, more players will cause more chaos without necessarily causing more fun (too much stuff to track). However, it’s probably best if you learn this game with someone and play it just with them a lot at first, since runaway leaders are quite easily possible. A lot of people don’t like that, but to me, that’s just another sign that the skilled player is the most likely winner – which is good.


Theme: My biggest complaint about the game is the overused theme. As I saw a commenter suggest on BoardGameGeek, it could have been buying weapons or recruits to take down monsters or armies (or something more original), but medieval merchants are both overused and unexciting. That being said, the artwork for this game is great although somewhat repetitive, and the simple, elegant design really draws you into the act of playing the game, if not the theme. Which leads me to another point: the game is so abstract (it’s actually rather Knizian) that the theme is mostly irrelevant anyway. But it’s still a gorgeous game, not only in the general artwork but also the graphic design. Splendor has a lot of math going on, but the smooth, simple design “hides” the accounting aspect. For example, they could have put “+1 [gem icon]” on the top-right corners of the cards instead of “[gem icon]” by itself, but it’s clear as it is and also prettier and less ugh-math-cringe-inducing. The art and layout are a triumph all around, even if the theme is boring. One last defense of the theme, though: it’s a bit more gender neutral than something blood’n’gutsy like I suggested above – my wife was interested in playing it because of the great art, and she probably would not have been as enthralled with a bunch of guns and grenades.


Fun: I have to say, when I found this was designed by Marc André, I was surprised and a little apprehensive. I’ve played Bonbons and while it’s a gorgeous game, it’s clearly meant for kids, and was very unexciting to me. Just like I was wrong about those little rules, I was wrong here too. This game hits all the right notes for me – engine-building, card play, quick set up and tear-down, and it’s highly replayable. The game is also surprisingly short, but still packs a lot of punch. At first it seemed a little unsatisfying that it ended so quickly, but I think it’s just long enough to be interesting and just short enough to make you want to play again. (We played it five times the day I received it!)


Splendor packs a lot of the engine-building fun of Dominion in a very clear and simple package that also borrows a lot of flavor from Sid Sackon’s Bazaar, all in 20-30 minutes. If that sounds like something you’d enjoy, then go out and buy this one as soon as possible!




5 out of 5

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