Splendor | Principal Platforms: iOS, Android, Steam (version tested) | Developer: Days of Wonder | Publisher: Days of Wonder | Genre: Strategy | Year: 2015
Splendor is a name that I heard quite often in board gaming circles and after playing this digital adaptation on Steam recently, I can see where the buzz was coming from.
This fairly recent mobile port by developer Days of Wonder is a direct translation of the competitive multiplayer strategy card game from designer Marc André and publisher Space Cowboys.
Players assume the role of Renaissance era merchants as they seek to secure cards that represent the various mines, cargo ships and bazaars responsible for the acquisition and distribution of their valuable gem stones.
The first thing that strikes you about Splendor – other than its rather fantastic artwork – is just how simple it is for a novice to jump into the game.
On your turn you are presented with a selection of simple actions that allow you to either take gem tokens from the available stock, reserve a card in the central area, or alternatively purchase a card outright with the gem tokens and gem bonuses that you currently have available.
The cards in the central zone each sport a different coloured gem stone from a selection of five, namely: ruby, sapphire, emerald, diamond or onyx. When you purchase one of these cards it is added to your tableau, thus granting a discount bonus (depending on the card’s printed gem stone) and 0-7 victory points that will determine endgame scoring.
If you choose to reserve a card you won’t actually get to grab any gem tokens that turn, but the action does still reward you with a single gold piece that acts a ‘wild’ gem of any colour that you might need in the future.
Alongside the table you’ll also find several randomly dealt noble cards that will grant additional victory points to the players who acquire sufficient gem bonuses of a particular colour group, so striking a good balance in the hue of cards that you collect can be fairly crucial as the game goes on.
Once any player has managed to earn 15 victory points, the current game round finishes and the final scoring is totaled to decide a winner.
Focusing on the game design itself, Splendor is fast to learn and the equally swift pace of play gives it an addictive ‘one more go’ sensation that’s hard to resist.
Despite its inherent simplicity, there are some interesting layers of strategy bubbling beneath the surface and although it might take you 5 minutes to pick up the basics, it will likely take another 5 hours before you’ll really begin appreciating the most efficient paths towards victory.
Like most “Euro” style board games, Splendor features very rigidly defined mechanics at the expense of theme, but what helps it succeed is the variety of strategies that you employ from session to session.
Specializing in a specific type of gem, or “buying all the greens” for example, could be a legitimate approach should the initial setup feature several high-scoring cards with a suitably steep emerald cost.
Alternatively you might decide to downplay the importance of the expensive tier 3 cards entirely and balance out your purchases as equally as possible in order to attract the lucrative noble cards into your tableau.
It’s even possible to play an opportunist role; collecting as many gem and gold tokens as the limit allows whilst waiting for the other players to reveal the cheaper bonus cards that will allow you to maximize your profit margin.
You won’t ever get into the feeling of being an actual gem dealer, as Splendor is more a game of numbers than anything else, but the wonderful artwork from artist Pascal Quidault certainly does a good job of making each card evocative of its period setting.
Reputedly inspired by Anglo-saxon artists, Quidault effortlessly breathes life into what could easily have been a very sterile game with his various illustrations of appraisers, expeditions and Renaissance settlements giving the production a certain level of authenticity and class.
Much of what I’ve said above translates into the Steam version very well. The high definition UI and card graphics successfully remain true to the original game and there’s some added value in the form of crafty AI opponents, achievements and a handful of single player challenge packs.
Similar to chess puzzles, the themed challenges in this digital version are an interesting addition that task a player with striving towards a particular goal such as earning a set amount of points in a limited number of turns or collecting a combination of cards without the assistance of added gem tokens.
Whilst the difficult challenges in this sense do provide a satisfyingly “thinky” experience, it has to be said that there’s really not enough of them.
The easy challenges by comparison – which sadly represent the bulk of the pack – are too often dull and repetitive affairs that sometimes don’t even present you with a failure condition; usually meaning that you simply need to collect points aimlessly until reaching a preset amount. The idea is for you to try and beat your best times, but it doesn’t work as a substitute to the better thought-out puzzles and instead they just come off as boring.
Some of the nuance in Splendor’s flow of play is also lost when playing against AI opponents. I haven’t played the original board game itself, but I can easily see the potential that exists for blocking competing players.
Are your neighbors targeting a lot of red cards? Then reserve those cards away from their grasp or stockpile the tokens they need to make certain purchases; always trying to nudge them into altering their tactics on the fly.
Splendor is not a game of direct interaction, but the competition over resources is sorely missed in the digital version as AI players mostly seem to ignore your efforts in favour of building their own point-accumulating engine.
There’s no online mutliplayer included in the digital rendition either, although there is a hotseat multiplayer mode for up to four players as well as leaderboards for those players who are willing to register an account at the publisher’s website.
Perhaps the most jarring facets of the Steam version though are the rough edges brought about by its port over from mobile devices.
Some of these gripes are minor, like the multiplayer section which is still named “pass and play” (instead of the more traditional “hotseat”) and the menu dialog which asks you if you wish to “exit the app” instead of “exit the game”.
Other problems are more severe however, like the fuzzy or sometimes missing text on the challenge menus, the overly repetitive music and the lack of difficulty settings for the AI players.
The Splendor store page on Steam is also inundated with customers reporting crash-to-desktop errors and I can attest to experiencing a dreaded CTD once myself when trying to start a new game from the main menu.
These problems certainly make the Steam version a disappointment at times, but I don’t feel that they’re serious enough to deter from the strength of the original game’s design as it’s that strong on the basis of its own merits.
Translating a former Spiel des Jahres nominee was always going to be a dicey proposition and as such, this version of Splendor is a visually faithful, if sometimes flawed rendition that still delivers a heady fix of strategic card-collecting from the comfort of your PC.