Thursday, July 23, 2015

Games That Don't Suck: Splendor

(For a list of games in this series, click here and scroll down.)

The latest entry in our series of “Games That Do Not Resemble Monopoly in the Least, and Thank Goodness for That” comes from the same company that produced Seven Wonders. It also employs two of the same mechanics as its Belgian predecessor, drafting (players take cards from a common supply) and engine-building (players accumulate advantages based on previous card buys). Technical and intimidating as this may sound, Splendor is an even easier game to learn, and a quicker one to play, than Seven Wonders. Ostensibly, the players (2-5 of them) take the role of Renaissance princes trying to amass wealth in the form of precious gems, buildings, ships, and artwork. That premise, though, is just a thin skin overlaying a simple game with potential for deep play.

The game “board” consists of twelve face-up cards in three rows, ranked according to their expense, and replenished as players buy old cards. Each card bears a colorful illustration, a cost, and a banner identifying the assets it gives the purchaser. All cards supply one permanent gem, which the holder may spend on all subsequent buys. Many also give victory points, of which players need 15 to win. Players purchase cards with gems, usually several gems of different types: rubies, emeralds, sapphires, diamonds, opals, and wild-card gold pieces.

On his or her turn a player can take three gems of different colors, or two gems of a single color (if that gem stack is full), or buy a card. S/he may alternatively reserve a card for future purchase, taking the reserved card in hand and acquiring a gold piece at the same time. The gem supply is limited, and all of a player's assets and cards (reserves excepted) always remain on display, so adept players can interfere with one another's plans by taking scarce gems or buying cards they think someone else wants. Limiting inter-player interference are a 10-gem ceiling on each player's hoard, and the possibility that a card even more useful to one's opponents will replace the card one has just bought.

Adding another layer of complexity to the game are nobles, large cardboard counters, each bearing the image of a Renaissance monarch or aristocrat, who permanently “visit” players who have amassed sufficient wealth. One can only “purchase” nobles with permanent-gem cards, usually four of each of two colors or three of three. Each noble counter gives the recipient three points, but acquiring them can distract players from buying expensive permanent-gem cards with a higher point value. The noble “option” multiplies the pathways players can take to win the game.

I find Splendor strangely mesmerizing. The quality artwork and the solidity of the gem counters and noble tokens draws one into the game's mental space, and figuring out which path one will take to victory, and which combination of gem tokens and permanent-gem cards will take one there, presents the mind with an ever-shifting puzzle. One must also keep in mind the progress of one's opponents and measures one can take to slow them down. It's a short game for all that, usually lasting only 25-30 minutes. As with Seven Wonders, I have almost never been able to play just one game of Splendor at a time.