CHENNAI: In Splendor, you and your fellow players take on the roles of Renaissance gem merchants competing to build the best business empire. Doing so requires you to buy gem mines, means of transportation and establish large storefronts; and, if you do all those well enough, you might even attract the patronage of a noble.
What this actually amounts to is using gems, which are the currency of Splendor and are represented by extremely nice poker chips, to purchase cards of varying costs. These cards are the building blocks of your fledgling enterprise and reward you in two ways. First, some cards are worth points, which is how you win the game. More expensive cards are also the most lucrative in terms of points, while the cheapest cards often won’t give you any points at all. What’s the point of those, you might ask. Well, they also make you better at buying other cards. Say you’ve bought a sapphire mine. That means you get a discount on every card you buy that requires sapphires for the rest of the game. And those discounts stack, meaning that you’ll go from struggling to buy any card at all to picking up cards for free or thereabouts towards the end.
It’s not always clear when that end will be, though, because Splendor is a race — the player who gets to 15 points first triggers the end of the game, but doesn’t automatically win. The round has to finish first, which leads to some deliciously tough decisions — okay, you could get to 15 points right now but do you want to? What’s your opponent got up their sleeve? Could they get to 16? You have no way of knowing until you let it play out, and that tension surrounds every move you make once you get into Splendor’s endgame.
What I love most about Splendor is its sense of escalation. At the beginning, you’re scrounging around while desperately trying to save up enough to buy a measly mine or two. At the end, however, you would have built this juggernaut of an engine, and that lets you buy the most prestigious cards without flinching. Many board (and video!) games incorporate this rags-to-riches progression, it’s a fundamental element of game design. That said, very few games manage to condense and refine that feeling of escalation into a game that lasts less than 30 minutes once everybody knows what they’re doing.
And it’s that combination — accessible rules, an engaging and constantly changing puzzle to solve on every turn, extremely tactile components, and a package that never overstays its welcome — that’s made Splendor a hit with everybody I’ve introduced it to. New gamers or old, they’ve loved it — it’s crunchy enough that you can sink your teeth into your strategies and it’s addictive enough to keep you coming back for more.
(Arjun is a gamer, book lover and an all-round renaissance man)