Splendor is a game in which 2-4 players are Renaissance-era merchants. You’re all vying to be the most prestigious merchant, which you’ll attempt to achieve by buying gem mines, shops and other things that merchants buy in order to be the best at what they do. If this sounds like a super lame game based on its premise alone, I don’t blame you. However, by dismissing it at face value, you’d be missing out on a really cool strategy game.
The Splendor experience is comprised of three different sets of components. The first is a set of colour-coded chips that will act as your primary form of currency. Each colour corresponds to a particular gem, except for the yellow ones, which act as a joker. Then there are development cards that represent shops, gem mines, people who would aid your business and more. Having said that, these items don’t actually translate into a benefit that is representative of the image on the card. Instead, each card you purchase will have a gem attached to it that can act as currency in future turns. More valuable cards will also have Prestige points attached to them, which you’ll need in order to win. Finally, there are square Noble tiles that can grant players with Prestige points after they hit specific milestones.
Setup is fairly straightforward. The gem chips are sorted by colour and arranged in a row. Then the cards are laid out in three rows of four based on the colour of their backing. Finally, three random Noble tiles are placed on the table.
When play begins, each player takes turns performing one of four possible actions. They can take three gems of different colours, take two gems of the same colour if that gem stack is full, use their gems to purchase a Development card or reserve a card. Reserving a card doesn’t allow you to use it until you purchase it in full in a future turn, but it does earn you a gold gem that can act as any one gem. In general, the game shakes out so that players start by collecting gems. Then, players will use those gems to buy Development cards. As the game progresses, players will then use a combination of gems and Development cards to purchase even better Development cards until someone hits 15 Prestige points.
If this sounds as dull as paint drying, I don’t blame you. This really is a numbers game at heart and its jewel merchant story to justify your in-game actions doesn’t really work. To be fair, I have no idea how one would re-imagine this game with a different theme, as the mechanics are so specific in nature. Once you get over that disconnect, Splendor really begins to shine off the strength of its gameplay.
As straightforward as the general flow of the game is, making decisions each turn will prove tricky. Due to the short supply of gems and the unconventional method of obtaining them, you’re going to have to think about which cards you want and how long it’s going to take for you to buy them. Reserving is a great way to save a card for yourself while getting paid for it, but the card itself can’t be used until you pay for it. You can also use reserves to stop someone from grabbing a specific card, but then you may have to waste one of your turns to do so. As the game progresses, different cards with different gem values will appear, which may or may not line up with the collection you’ve been building over time. Because the path to victory isn’t nearly as straightforward as it looks, you’re always in a position to make some interesting choices that could swing the game in your favour.
On paper, Splendor sounds like a really bland resource management game. In reality, it’s actually a very cool resource management game with a really bland and arguably nonsensical theme on top of it. Strip away the delusions of being a Renaissance-era merchant, and you’ve got a clever card game that is easy to learn, quick to play and one that holds its fun-factor for a long time. All things considered, players of all sorts should give this one a fair shake.