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Splendor - The Jewel Duel

Steve @ Blue Herring Games Splendor

I normally have a pretty good Game Radar. On receiving a game I will:

  • blissfully pop out the cardboard chits and bits (“no, seriously, you can’t help”)
  • admire the pieces
  • read the rules
  • note in amazement the typo on the back of the box (“Did no one check to see that the printer had the correct font driver installed?” Perhaps a rhetorical question, perhaps directed ever so slightly at Queen Games’ Fresco…)

… and have a pretty good sense of who is going to like the game.

So a confession: I am surprised that Splendor has been so wholeheartedly embraced by my game playing family and friends. I obviously introduced it with some fanfare; its swag of awards warranted attention. But I still did not pick its popularity amongst my nearests and dearests.

My initial reaction was that Splendor was perhaps just too abstract and… thin? As an example, the gameplay involves:

.. selecting jewels

... to buy cards

.... to create more jewels

.…. to buy more valuable cards

...... to maybe attract a visitor

....... to admire your jewelly cards

........ built by jewels

......... and cards.

Accumulate cards and visitors worth 15 points and you have yourself a victory. So yes, abstract… and thin. But it works. It works because it is a tight race of a game that is remarkably addictive.

Take the following card. Well, not straight away. You are going to have to pay two diamonds (white jewels), 2 rubies (red jewels) and three… chocolates? But once you have bought this card you will receive 1 point (top left) towards your target of 15 target AND a permanent ruby (top right) available to spend each round.

 The cards are beautifully illustrated. Or at least I think they are. Look at the earlier card. No, really look at it. Look at it reeeeally closely. It is possible that this is the last Splendor card you will remember. Why? Because during the game you are going to be so focused on the card cost, the point returns and the permanent jewel that you will never see the images on them.

Here’s another:

It possibly has a boat on it. All I can see is a 2-point card that is going to cost me my stack of emeralds. And I was hoping hang onto my green (emerald) chips, as I can see my opponent also needs green chips. But I will get a permanent emerald if I grab this card now and… the image is gone. If your glance does linger on the tableau of cards laid out in front of, you will see some of the nicest images on a board game card that I can recall. But you won’t.

Second confession: I never really appreciated, until this review, that the card hues matched the jewel colours on the cards. My defence? The game is rather compelling. How much does the card cost, who else needs it, and what will it give me? Buy. Done. Next.

Turns are quick. Really quick. You can pick up jewels, or build a card with jewels you already have, or reserve a card for building later. This is not dissimilar to one of my other favourite family games, Ticket to Ride. Indeed, if you have the slightest attraction to the Ticket to Ride tension of pick a card / pick a ticket / make a route, you will love Splendor. Set-up is also quick, in the order of thirty seconds. This makes Splendor an opportunistic go-to game. Pie in the oven for half an hour? Enough time for a game of Splendor!

The streamlined decision-making makes Splendor *very* appealing to more casual gamers (that small group of people who - {gasp} - don’t actually read board game reviews). While I personally love a middling level thinky-game, many people I play games with would like to, well, relax. Splendor is definitely a light game. Any gravity and weight is largely confined to the lovely heft of the poker-style jewel chips. The rule booklet is slim and staple free; just three pages in a single fold booklet. It scales well, seamlessly in fact, from two players to four.

One gripe? Perhaps an observation? Mainly a gripe? I think the full retail price in Australia is on the steep side (at $70). Having said this, we have had more recent games of Splendor than other $100 games teeming with luxury wooden bling, or $30 games running on nothing but a ‘full tank of gas and half a pack of cigarettes’. (Really? No recollection? >It's a thing). But it could still mean that Splendor is slightly overlooked in the crowded and competitive local games store environment.

Splendor has drawn huge acclaim since its release in 2014, culminating in a nomination for the game of the year. The gameplay is honed down to next to nothing, much like the theme. It doesn’t matter; it is an addictive race with clackity chips, and cards that may or may not have a boat on them. All in all, a highly recommended family game.



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