For the Win: Splendor

Posted by Elsie K on

Splendor Board Game

“For the Win:” is a series of blog posts taking a deep dive look at a particular board game, video game, or roleplaying game supplement. Don’t confuse this post with a simple review of Splendor (if you want that check out this amazing and adorable review of the game). The goal of this blog post (and each “For the Win:” to come) is to take a deep look at the mechanics of a game, the moving parts that come together to create the experience of playing a particular game, and most importantly TEACH YOU TO WIN. For some this may seem a bit technical, but for me, as a game designer, I can’t help but think about every game I play from this perspective.

Splendor is a beautifully simple game, for 2-4 players, that was designed by (French?) game designer Marc André.  According to the box each play through should take an estimated 30 mins to complete. Experienced players can run through a game in about 15 minutes, while novice play throughs can take up to an hour or longer if there is table talk. Despite this, I find Splendor to be my go-to, whenever a new player is approaching my table.

Released in 2014, the game's simplicity and elegance has earned it a sizable fan base amongst the board game geek community and it is currently rated at #165 on BGG.

an example of what a starting, first round of play, set up for the game splendor should look like. 3 rows of 4 cards with a deck bside them, 5 tiles above the cards, and 6 stacks of 7 colored chips above the tiles.

In the game, each player plays a renaissance merchant racing to grab gems, acquire property, and please nobility. Play proceeds in rounds, made up of each player’s turn. The final round of play begins, when any player reaches 15 victory points,  and at the end of that round, the player with the most VP wins the game.

At its heart, Splendor is a resource gathering and card buying game. These two mechanics, when used together are sometimes referred to as the single mechanic, “The Market.” Both these concepts can be found in a plethora of other games. The mechanics of “Card Buying” and “Resource Gathering” are frequently used by other games as part of a collection of many mechanics, with “The Market” often being used as a foundation for other mechanics. We see these two concepts often used in “Deck Building” or “Engine Building” games. However, what sets Splendor apart is the fact these two mechanics ARE THE WHOLE GAME. “The market” mechanic encompasses the whole of the game of Splendor, which lends itself very nicely to the theme of the game.

The resources, in this case gems (Sapphire, Emerald, Ruby, Diamond, Onyx and the most valuable, Gold) are depicted on high quality poker-like chips, called “clays”. On your turn you may collect 3 gems, 1 of three different color gems; or you may collect 2 of the same gem, provided that there are at least 4 gems in the pile you want to draw from; or, lastly, a single gold gem which acts as a “wild” and allows you to reserve a card. This simple 3,2,1, ratio makes deciding which gems to pick a straight forward (though sometimes tactically complex) process. One then uses these gems to purchase cards (properties) which give you discounts on future purchases, and sometimes rewards players with victory points.

There are 3 tiers to the market, with cards in each tier costing more than cards in the previous tier, and typically offering more VP. In addition to cards and chips, the game comes with a small deck of tiles called “nobles.” A noble comes and visits you (and rewards you with VP), once you meet the required number of cards of each color represented on their tile. (check out these free alternate nobles released by spacecowboys the games distributor)

Which brings me to the final mechanic which I would like to discuss before hopping into tactics and strategies: surprise victories in the final round. I cannot count how many times I have thought I was going to win this game, only to have someone get to 15, or 16, THE VERY TURN BEFORE I could execute my grand plan. The fact that the player that meets the end game requirements doesn't in fact end (and necessarily win) the game adds a level of secrecy that makes the game far more nuanced. If you want to win, your strategy cannot be transparent; you will need a plan of attack that is not obvious and that earns you a large number of VP in one final swoop, leaving the rest of the players wondering how you went from 9 to 16 so quickly.

Most review articles will teach you how to play a game, with my “For the Win:” posts will strive to teach you how to play a game well. That being said, here are a few tactics and strategies to keep in mind while playing Splendor:

  • Tempo: In my opinion THE MOST IMPORTANT (and the subtlest) aspect to this game is tempo. Which in the case of Splendor I’ll define as understanding the rate at which resources are being accrued and spent. 4 turns is the usual max number of turns a player can accrue gems before they reach the max of 10 and HAVE to spend (3+3+3+1=10 or 2+3+2+3=10), but the other ½ of the tempo equation is card buying. Remember once you buy a card your engine is forever improved by +1 of the gem on the card.  (Worth noting: a player who focuses on reservations can stretch this out to 6 even 7 turns.)
  • Color prioritization: Second to tempo, this tactic informs my gem choices more than any other. And I find that I use this tactic nearly EVERY time I play. The beauty of this tactic is that it’s one of the simplest and often most overlooked (usually until the end of the game). In round 1 of play, take a good long look at which nobles (tiles) are out. Find the color that is most common among them, and then focus on acquiring that color whenever possible. This puts you in a position early to nab more than one noble throughout the course of the game. (A note from my editor: taking colors needed for nobles also denies other players of the opportunity to unlock the most common color needed for the nobles, mwuahahaha.)
  • Denial via reservation: When I play Splendor, I am constantly looking at my opponent’s gems asking myself, “How would i spend those gems if they were mine?” By reserving a card an opponent was after, you can cause them to lose tempo. They have spent several turns saving for that card, with the card off of the table they will have to find new (usually less efficient) ways of spending their gems.
  • Denial via Color hoarding: There are only 7 of each gem (except the Gold gems, which there are only 5 of), so choosing to strategically horde a particular color can cut off an opponent's ability to buy cards they need to improve their engine. This is a particularly strong tactic when many cards on the table share a gem requirement. (A variation on this strategy is hoarding wild gold gems, one of my favorite tactics, and you will have to play me to see that one in action)
  • VP focus: Of all the tactics I have discussed, this is the most straightforward. Early in the game try and focus on cards in tier one with victory points. This will give you a lead over other players, which hopefully you can ride out through the end of the game. (Worth noting this tactic is easily countered by reservation, so consider using reservations of your own to ensure you get those early victory points
  • Build a rainbow: The first player who can “build a rainbow,” meaning they have at least 1 card bonus with each of the 5 color of gems, will be at a distinct and noticeable advantage over the other players. Some of the best players that I have played with swear by this rule (before VP even). Get a rainbow as fast as you can and it will make the rest of the game easier on you.

Well, there you have it folks. Retroforge’s deepdive, “For the Win: Splendor.” It is my hope that reading this has helped you up your game, sold you on the idea of buying this game, or maybe just made you think about approaching it a little differently the next time you play. 

a stylized photograph of a set up of Splendor,  ready for play

-This article was written by Retroforge, a geek and pop culture enthusiast and scholar. He lives in Las Vegas, where he keeps his finger on the pulse of all things geek and nostalgic. He writes about what excites him, and in his free time he often rolls twenty-sided dice.

To see more of his work check him out on Instagram @retroforged

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