I’ve never really enjoyed super hardcore euro games like Agricola and its ilk and this has always seemed to me like a serious character flaw as a board gamer. To not get on with some of the hobby’s sacred cows was largely due to my own idiocy, way too much maths which gets exponentially worse when considering turns after the current one and the actions of other players. I can respect these games as fantastic interlocking systems and I won’t lie and say it isn’t satisfying when a year ends and all my lovely sheep start having babies (and all my actual babies eat my goddamn food), but it doesn’t get my blood up as much as a game where I can use an army to crush people with my tactical brilliance.
However if there were any game in the genre that you could get me to play regularly it would be Splendor, because it takes the principles of the genre and removes 99% of the extra stuff. Splendor will see you and your friends trying to create fantastic renaissance artworks to build your reputation and impress European nobles (Wait, no! Come back!). And how do you do this? With victory points, obviously.
The game play of Splendor is excellent in its simplicity since on your turn you can do one of only four actions. Two of these actions are about collecting what may be the greatest board game currency I’ve ever played with. Five different coloured gems represented by weighted plastic poker chips, which are lovely to hold and make a fantastic sound when you are stacking them to intimidate your opponents. For your actions in game you can take either three different coloured gems, or take two of one colour if four of that colour remain in the supply. The supply has a quite limited supply of gems is just the start of the passive aggressive interaction of Splendor. Diversifying the gems you take is very important to both leave your options open and to disguise your plans from your opponents, or you could hoard one colour if an opponent desperately needs it for something, although this is thankfully limited by the cap of ten gems you can hold at any one time.
Two more actions you can take relate to Splendor’s set of cards covered in amazing artwork. These cards have two key attributes, some victory points that inch you closer to winning, and they also reduce the cost of all future purchases by one of a particular colour. There are three tiers of cards, the first with few if any victory points, the second tier provides a few more points with the juiciest prizes reserved for the third tier. Each of these groups of cards is more expensive than the one before it and you will not be able to afford any but the first group by only amassing gems. This means you will spend some of the game building up an economy of tier one cards but at some point have to switch to grabbing tier two and three cards, whether you do that by buying more cards for discount or taking gems is a decision you will have to make. There are actually two ways to acquire these cards, either buying them with your gems and discounts, or you can reserve a card for purchase on a later turn. This has the excellent dual use of taking something you want and denying options to your opponents, with the added benefit that you can take a special gold gem which can be used as any colour you like.
Beyond the gems and the cards is one final element to the merciless economics of Splendor, the nobles. Yet more gorgeous art will see figures such as grumpy Henry VIII glaring down on you from the top of the marketplace. The nobles are tied in to the mechanic of the discounts on the cards you have purchased. When the collection of cards you have amassed matches the discounts shown on the nobles, one of them will wander over to join you and give you another sweet hit of victory points. Since only one of you can take each noble and they do not re-stock you end up faced with a dilemma, do you race with your opponents to cut them off from the nobles they’re aiming for, or save your efforts and pursue other nobles or none at all.
This limited set of actions that interact to form many possibilities, with the need to consider opponents moves but not direct confrontation, gives all the hallmarks of a solid euro game, one that i have found easiest of all to teach. This puzzle still has a serious flaw, it’s very hard. Never in a game have i seen so much silence, players staring at their cards and gems with gears visibly turning. I’ve played a fair few complex games, but there is usually a lot more action to chat about and threatening trash talk, in Splendor all your mental energy is thinking what will be a good move and maybe 5 seconds to actually take it. For this reason i feel Splendor is a game i can respect but not wholeheartedly recommend. I’ll definitely try out other games of this type, my eye is particularly drawn to Machi Koro, but for now I’ll stick to making pew pew noises as spaceships blow up over calm graceful economics.