The gaming world is absolutely abuzz with talk of Space Cowboys’ debut game Splendor from designer Marc André. It was recently nominated for the Spiel des Jahres and is considered the front-runner for the win. It’s no surprise, as the game is utterly fantastic – check out our review here. Now Marc answers our burning questions about the game as well! Thanks so much to François Doucet at Space Cowboys for doing the translation of Marc’s answers!
Tell us a bit about yourself – your day job, your history with gaming, other hobbies and interests, etc.
I was born in a family where gaming was very important and bound us together. My father made me play chess at a very young age, as he was president of the local club. As a teenager, I was very much into roleplaying games. As a Economics major, I mainly worked in trade. Buy, sell and make money out of stocks was kind of a global strategy game for me and I loved it. However, it was also very time-consuming so I gave up that kind of work and decided to focus on my family life.
Can you tell us a bit about the origin of Splendor? It seems to be a very carefully designed, classical game. You mentioned in an old interview you design games by tweaking old games and putting restrictions on yourself. Is this part of how Splendor came about?
Splendor is based upon a mathematical frame, that’s why it seems so “classic” and regulated.
Deconstructing a game then reconstructing it in a totally different way was and still is an essential part of my way of designing a game.
But I’m not a beginner anymore, although I keep on learning! So, Splendor has no direct link with any other game.
How did Splendor end up with Space Cowboys – did this come from Sébastian Pauchon at GameWorks publishing your other game Bonbons?
It was not through Sébastien. Actually, I met Croc at a festival in March 2012. Croc worked for Asmodee at the time, and the game was developed there first. The people who worked on it (Croc and Philippe, under Marc Nunés’ direction) decided to leave Asmodee and create Space Cowboys. They took the game with them, which was fine with me. I don’t care much about the logo on the box. What matters is people involved with the game are the same from beginning to end (the commercialization).
Space Cowboys is a brand new company with lofty goals. Was there any kind of unique pressure for this game to be especially good, since it was their first product?
I guess there was for them! My only concern was a bit different: initially, people thought of Space Cowboys as a new society with experienced people doing games for the “core players”, while Splendor is, as you know, a family game for everyone! But it turned out very well.
Along with the previous question, how was the theme decided? Was there concern that this theme is too common, or is that exactly why it was chosen?
Splendor is an abstract mechanical game and my prototype didn’t have any theme. Finding the right one was one of the toughest and most time-consuming part of the design process for the team.
Were you surprised by the Spiel des Jahres nomination? (I wasn’t!) What do you think of your chances?
The initial reactions were very good. Both from people at conventions and members of the hobby as a whole. So, I can’t say it was a complete surprise, but it was very, very good news! I’m so proud and happy to go to Berlin. To me, the nomination itself is a real award ! So, I won’t bet, but fingers crossed!
Did you have a hand in the final rules-writing? Many French and Swiss games have very poor English translations, but Splendor is one of the best rulebooks I’ve ever read – I knew how to play before even having the game in front of me. Who can I thank for that?
There were some modifications from the initial design. Croc was in charge and I trusted him fully. I don’t know how the translation was done, but be thankful I wasn’t involved !
(François : We send our texts to a translation team in Canada. Then we revise their work in order to keep the “feel” of the original rules)
As a mathematician, I’m interested in that side of development. How did you decide the numbers for the cards, both points and costs? I’ve noticed some asymmetrical costs, and I was a bit surprised by the difficult-to-grab cards in the middle row that require five or six of the same color as the card!
Splendor is based on the availability (or lack) of tokens, balanced with the permanent bonuses on the cards you buy. The five different resources combined with the actions you use to get tokens (and the restrictions I put on them!) allowed me to create a variety of cards with many varied costs. The more tokens of a specific color a card needs, the harder it is to buy. The harder it is to buy, the more prestige points you get.
As all cards give you one bonus token and only one, you face the perpetual Splendor dilemma : buy high value card now, which will take some time, or build your engine to get these cards cheaper… which takes time too!
In our experience in 2-3 player games, only one or at most two cards are bought from the top row, meaning you are stuck with the cards laid at the beginning of the game if you want to buy a Row 3 card. Does this sound accurate to you? Is that an intentional part of the design?
In the first games, cards should be bought in a pyramidal way. More Level 1 cards than Level 2 ones, and a few Level 3 at the end of the game. But this is not the only viable strategy.
We’ve been quite surprised in the tournaments played in France, as some people win games with very few cards, and almost no Level 1 cards ! They don’t really build an engine and go for the big points in the last row, being very aggressive with the reservations of cards and acquisition of tokens.
Some very small rules make a big impact on the game – such as the fact that you can only take 2 gems of the same color if there are 4 or more sitting there already, and you cannot have more than 10 gems. How did these rules come about? Were they just things required to make the central mechanism keep from breaking, or were they introduced to make the game more interesting?
As many authors, I can play a few turns of a game in my mind, even if there is no actual prototype yet. This helps me a lot with the design process.
I created the Splendor rules in this way, before designing cards. The values and costs of the cards were thoroughly tested and revised, and the prototype was a very evolving one !
Therefore, the rules and restrictions of Splendor are necessary to the game, as a whole. You can’t subtract anything while keeping the balance (and interest!) of the game.
Along the same lines, do you feel like the ruleset is as simple as it can possibly be while remaining an interesting game? Was this a goal of yours and of Space Cowboys?
The ruleset is exactly like the game I presented them: streamlined and easy to learn.
Several reviewers (including me) have said the game feels like a 90’s Knizia game. Who are some of your favorite other designers?
Here are the games which inspired me: Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride. I studied them very carefully, as each of them is a perfect example of a modern family game.
They all combine fluidity and simplicity. That’s why the golden rule – One action (out of four) in your turn – became obvious.
Another important aspect of game development is of course the component design. To what extent do you think artwork and components affect the enjoyment of a game, and to what extent does a game exist independent of its components? (Certainly the chunky gem pieces are huge part of Splendor’s appeal!)
It’s a very important part of my creative process. More than art, ergonomy matters as it helps the instant understanding of a game. And editors are sensitive to this aspect too.
We could have used cards for resources, but I wanted something very different from the development cards. The big tokens came to mind because you needed to handle and pile them up the whole game. My first prototype used the golden tokens of a Serengeti game.
What have you been reading/playing/watching/enjoying lately?
I’m currently reading The Sword of Truth, a Terry Goodkind series of fantasy books and it’s great. When I don’t play with my own games or prototypes, I play Love Letter with my wife and son.
What’s next for you in game design? (Splendor expansions?)
My next game will be Terra Nostra (maybe not the final name !), edited by Matagot. It’s a game of placement with moves and blocks. No randomness in it, with a smooth gameplay (one action per round), I think it’s a “family plus” game, as we say.
No extensions on the line for Splendor. Still, I created a kind of “follow up” to Splendor, tentatively named The Crown, which uses the same mechanic, with more actions and options, and a much more present theme. To be continued…
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks for the interview. And thanks to François who translated your questions and my answers.