There’s no doubt that board games can be a catalyst for wonderfully congenial experiences. Some of my fondest memories revolve around spirited table-top gatherings that have endured into the morning hours. But rounding up a group of overworked professionals has now become it’s own meta-game, requiring a healthy amount of strategy, persuasion, and occasionally- even a bit of deception. As such, electronic recreations of board games have gradually become the next-best alternative for when friends are unavailable.
With the release of Splendor for iOS devices, I’ve found myself in a decidedly different clique, competing against an assortment of Renaissance-era blue-bloods, each determined to control gem mines, shops, and transportation systems. While my competitors are little more that unnamed, silent portraits who follow one of five AI traits (balanced, specialized, opportunistic, random behavior, secret behavior), Splendor’s inviting and intriguing gameplay is compelling enough to evoke a sense of competition amidst a gallery of dour-faced drones.
Virtue is found in the simplicity of Splendor’s ruleset. Every turn, players may take one of three actions. On the right side of the board are piles of five colored gems; participants are allowed to either grab three jewels of different colors or two gems of the same hue. The one stipulation is a gem limit; if players exceed that number, they’re forced to forfeit any surplus stones. Second, players may purchase one of the resource cards on the table using their inventory of gems. Doing this offers two advantages: players either receive a permanent bonus gem which discounts any future purchases or they can accumulate a number of preset points capable of pushing players toward a fifteen-point victory.
Or they can reserve a card during their turn. Doing so removes the piece from the table, and also bestows a pieces of gold which can be used as a wildcard during purchases. The only other big nuance is the presence of nobles on the right side of the table. Earning the number of bonus gems shown on these cards also contributes to the player’s score, extending additional rivalry. Having not played the board-game previously, it took one trip through the in-game tutorial and two practice games until I had a firm grasp on the mechanics and goals.
What’s fascinating about Splendor is how the number of participants changes the strategy of the game. With just two players, chasing after the table’s high-scoring cards is fairly direct, with only a single participant interfering with your medium goals (which naturally, feed into your larger objectives). But with three of four others, players have to do their best amidst a constantly shifting environment where coveted cards are constantly being removed from play. What’s also great about the game is the accelerating pace of play. Early rounds are occupied by gem grabbing, with little reward. But before long, the bonus gems pay off, with players able to earn free points during consecutive turns. By the time the scoring reaches the ten threshold, Splendor becomes quite hectic with frequent scoring and the threat of a well-played turn ending the game.
I appreciated learning the game rules on the Days of Wonder-developed iOS App, which offered concessions like a green highlighting to signify any purchasable cards. Another perk, the game also offers an intriguing Challenge mode, where single-players are faced with a variety of trials set across a spinning globe. Each zone offers players a number of streamlined scenarios, each with game-altering variants. One trial tasked players with earning fifty points in twenty-five number of turns after giving the gamer a running start of five bonus gems.
The apps one omission is the lack of any online play, which could be disappointing for players uninterested or too talented for the game’s AI. Purportedly, Days of Wonder is working on an update that will remedy the lack of real-world competition, but for now, the only concession is a ‘pass the device’ mode for local participants. Although the developer can’t be faulted for their laudable adaption, but one issue I had with Splendor is the disconnect between the context and play. While the game’s mechanics undoubtedly delve into economics (offering a social commentary on how those with wealth are on the fast -track toward additional prosperity), theme in under-developed. As such, the game’s cards, depicting keen-eyed jewelers, merchant ships, and majestic European street scenes, amount to little more than bourgeois-eye candy overshadowed by their point totals.
Splendor was played on the iPad Mini 2 with review code provided by the publisher
Developer: Days of Wonder
Publisher: Days of Wonder
Release date: July 9th, 2015
Price: $6.99 via iTunes