In media, there are at least a couple theories on how to build the story. There’s the cold open where viewers are thrown right into the plot, enticed with a murder or a chase. Then you have the slow burn. The slow burn starts– get this – slow and builds tension to a crescendo with the plot gaining momentum and pace as the story goes on.
Splendor, the engine-building game by Marc André, is the epitome of a slow burn. Set in the Renaissance, the game envisions you as a jewel merchant collecting rare gems to purchase businesses, land, or transportation while you seek to impress the nobles who may sponsor you or your competition. Fail and you’re doomed to a life with cheap plonk.
To put the lede out there first, Splendor is a wonderful game. As of today – November 2018 – it has a 7.5rating on BGG and was was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres back in2014. It’s still in wide circulation –both in game stores and in play. But is it worthy to be a classic on the order of Ticket to Ride? It’s thisclose, but not quite there.
What works? A lot, it turns out, with the most impressive element being the poker chips used in place of onyx, emeralds, rubies, sapphires, diamonds and gold nuggets.1 The use of high quality poker chips2 creates a sense of extravagant value every time you choose to pick one up. For a component that represents rare stones, these chips hit the mark. I desired to have them in front of me like Uncle Scrooge counting his money.
The rest of the game doesn’t live up to the theme. The other major component in the game are the development cards. These little things –which you purchase with gems – represent two things. First, they represent a source of gems – a mine, a method of transport, or a gem artisan working for you – that provides you a permanent gem. For example, you may purchase one with a ruby on it. That development card means that for the rest of the game, you will need to collect one less gem/poker chip to buy a development card that requires rubies. These development cards are also the main source of points – of which you’ll need 15 to win.
And yet – the fun remains.
André has pared this game down to a certain purity. Each turn players can choose one of two actions – collect three gems3 or use gems that you have to buy one of twelve available development cards that represents a sailing ship or a mine(assumedly where you are working those poor miners to death) or an artisan.4 Each development card has a cost in gems –ranging from the moral equivalent of pennies to costing a miser’s fortune based on how many points it is worth.
But why do you care about these development cards? The obvious reason is that the cards are one of two ways to get victory points. The more critical reason is that each development card also acts as a permanent gem of one type.
This economy – the collection of ships and mines that represent your permanent access to gems – is what I get most excited about. What starts as a slow, chess-like battle to buy inexpensive cards suddenly accelerates. Instead of buying cards worth no points,you’re thinking 2, 3 turns ahead. “If I can just get that card and then that card, then I can grab THAT card for free. And that card will give me 5 more points and I’ll win and..”
The only problem is your opponents are thinking the same thing and are constrained by the same twelve cards. It could be similar strategy. It could be hateful blocking. But there’s only twelve cards out there at a time. And what they’ve already done constrains their choices to even less cards. Suddenly, this little game of gem collecting is feeling a little…claustrophobic. You’ll be waiting for one type of development card – maybe red rubies – to come out so you can get that splendorous 7 point card and, suddenly it comes out right after your turn. Ohhh, the tension. WILL IT BE THERE ON MY NEXT TURN??
No. No, it won’t be.
Because everyone else is waiting on that card as well. Scarcity is the name of the game.
Splendor is considered a “light” game. It is light in the same way a light-weight fighter is a fighter. You’re still going to get punched hard. Everything is public information. When you look around the table, you can see what other people have in terms of gems and cards. So you know what they can purchase and reason out what they’re likely to purchase. Even with that information, there are times when you need that one ruby and Bobby is going to purchase it before you. But maybe a diamond will come out? Maybe cheaper?
Where it is light is the decision-making process. What you SHOULD do is obvious. The constraint is what you CAN do when turns come back to you.
And that constraint, that tension is what makes the game magnificent.
Let’s spend a few minutes talking about Splendor – The App. If you are interested in the game,I would recommend fully picking up the app. What does it do well? Not the background music. But it does do a good job of providing an overview of how to play the game and also recreates the tricky challenge of creating a solo experience that maps to the real one. You’ll likely win more than in real life, but it still provides the experience.