Review: Splendor09 Jul 2015 2
I'm not exactly sure how to write this review. Splendor is a card game which I've owned and played since it was released back in 2014. My kids love the game, as do many of the guys in my game group. I, however, do not love Splendor. In fact, I barely tolerate it. It's not a bad game by any stretch, it just doesn't push any of my buttons.
The app, however, is nearly perfect. Other than the lack of online play, it rivals every other digital board game out there, even what many would consider the grandfather of digital board games, Carcassonne.
This isn't the first time I've been this conflicted. The previously mentioned Carcassonne is a game I'd prefer to never play again, but the app is one I would easily recommend to gamers looking for a digital fix. Splendor isn't even the first Days of Wonder app where I've had this feeling. I loathe Small World with white-hot passion, and yet I cannot deny the app is a marvel. Of course, I didn't have to write a review for either of those.
So, how to rank Splendor? Come follow along as I talk my way to the stars at the bottom of the page. I can't promise it will make any sense, but if you've been reading my stuff for this long, that shouldn't be a surprise.
I think the first thing we need to talk about it the game of Splendor itself and why I don't like it. Now, you have to realize that I'm definitely on the outside looking in on this one. Hell, Splendor is so well loved it was one of three finalists for last year's Spiel des Jahres award. It's ranked in the top 100 games ever on BoardGameGeek (currently at 68), and when you zoom in on just Family Games, it's ranked in the top 10 (currently at 7). There's some serious love for Splendor out there.
Splendor puts you in the shoes of...well, it doesn't put you in anyone's shoes. It's an abstract game with a veneer of theme so thin it would shock Reiner Knizia. There are three decks of cards, levels 1-3, with the level 1 cards being the cheapest and level 3 being the most expensive. The cost of the cards is shown at the bottom in different colored circles, and it needs to be paid with gems of the corresponding colors. Each card corresponds to a gem of its own, however, and the gee-whiz mechanic of Splendor involves building this engine of cards that let you buy the more expensive cards as you go on. Don't worry, it will make sense soon.
Each turn you can take one of three actions. You can grab "chips" that represent the five gem colors. You can either grab three different colored chips, or two chips of the same color. You can only do the latter if there are a certain amount of that color still available in the stock, however. You cannot, for example, take the last two white chips. The second action is reserving a card. Here you simply select any card on the table and place it in your hand. This act will also nab you a gold coin, which is simply a wildcard and can act as any color gem. The final action is to buy a card, either from the table or from your hand. Here, you use the chips and all the cards you've bought to purchase new cards. The chips you'll need to discard, but cards remain in your tableau, giving you consistent buying power as your tableau grows. The goal in Splendor is to get to a point where you can buy cards without needing chips, thus increasing your tableau each turn without wasting turns grabbing chips.
You're probably asking what the point of all this is, and the answer is that staple of Euro games: Victory Points. Some of the cards will have a number on them indicating how many points that card is worth in your tableau. There are also nobles along the edge of the play field who will come to visit the first player who fulfills their requirements. For example, a noble may have images of four red and four white cards, so the first player who collects four red and white cards in their tableau will also get the VP from that noble. Splendor is a race to get 15 VPs, but sometimes even 15 points isn't enough. Once someone reaches 15 points, that turn continues to the end so everyone has the same number of turns. If one of the remaining players can top your 15 points, they'll walk away with the win.
It sounds great. In fact, writing about it made me wonder if I was crazy for not liking it, but then I went to play another game and it all came rushing back. Goodness, this game is dry. Chess looks like a tall drink of water next to Splendor. Remember that scene in Three Amigos where Martin Short drinks from his canteen and is rewarded with a face full of sand instead? Splendor wishes it were only that dry. It's a set collection game that is just a set collection game. There's no frills, nothing exciting, it's just blah. Like I said earlier, I don't hate Splendor, I just find it to be dull. Oh, and I should mention that I'm terrible at it. I'm routinely crushed by my kids, and I'm pretty confident that I've never won a game, so it's quite possible that my lack of Splendor love is simply because I suck at it. I'm willing to accept that. That said, I'm not driven to try and get better. In fact, I'm looking to sell my copy. Cheap.
So, that brings us to the app. First of all, it exudes polish. I'm not sure there's a better looking board game app on the market. Everything is clearly laid out and controls with simple taps exactly where you'd expect them. It's highly intuitive. There is the ability to play pass-and-play games, and I've done a few with my kids. Pass-and-play works, but as a game of Splendor moves on, the turns become one-click card buys, so the iPad really started flying around the table. There's almost too little to do on each turn for pass-and-play to feel comfortable.
Solo play is where the app really shines. There are multiple AIs that definitely feel different from each other. Instead of having AIs denoted by their difficulty level, each one is, instead, named after its play style. You can choose AIs that play randomly or more balanced. You can choose specialized AI, but I'm not sure what that means, only that I got my butt kicked when I played against two specialized opponents. The app will also randomly select your AI opponents if you'd like.
Besides solo games vs. AI, the game also offers up a Challenge Mode, which I've found to be my favorite part of the app. These are solitaire puzzles set up with the Splendor components, but using different--and sometimes crazy--rules. All of them have some goal to "win", like getting 15 points in 20 turns, but the rules can vary how many chips are available to how the cards are displayed on the table. Most of the challenges I've tried haven't been too tough, requiring a retry or two to get it, but there are a couple of scenarios that I'm calling impossible. I've tried so many times, and keep ending up just short in the end. Somehow, the challenges have made me want to play Splendor, which is saying something.
If we're looking for reasons to dump on the app, the lack of online multiplayer is the biggest problem I have. To be honest, I don't mind so much, but that's only because I don't really care to play more Splendor. The other issue I'm having is the animations can sometimes slow the game to a crawl. It's not terrible, but there's a definite lag between turns ending and the next turn beginning.
In the end, I would say that Splendor is a pretty robust addition to my online game shelf. Here's a game that I don't particularly care for, and yet I want to head back into it and finish the different challenges. That's something. Considering that most gamers adore this game, I'm guessing most of you will adore the digital version as well. The app certainly doesn't get in the way of the gameplay, and actually enhances it by making it easy to play and beautiful to look at.