I first heard about Splendor in connection to its Spiel des Jahres nomination last year. “I got this new game called Splendor,” my friend told me, displaying a box that promised adventures in jewelry. “It’s up for the Spiel des Jahres!”
So we played it exactly once and were slightly dismayed to discover a little math puzzle. We shouldn’t have been surprised, since “spiel des jahres” is German or Portuguese or something for “boardgame themes are pointless exercises in appeasing people with no imagination, but we’ll barely attempt them to disguise the fact that we’re just making math puzzles”. I am paraphrasing, since I don’t actually know German or Portuguese. The shorter translation is “Eurogame”. Settlers of Catan, Carcassone, and Ticket to Ride — all games I’ve owned, played, and no longer own — have all won top Spiel des Jahres honors.
After the jump, so why am I playing an iPad port of Splendor?
I’ve jumped into the iOS port of Splendor partly because I’ve been taken lately with a game called Elysium, which seems to be on its way into the category of fascinating failures (stand by!). Both Splendor and Elysium are published by an offshoot of Asmodee called Space Cowboys. The boardgame publisher, not the Clint Eastwood movie about old actors riding the Space Shuttle into orbit and saving the world. I figure any company that publishes Elysium knows what it’s doing so maybe I shouldn’t have written off Splendor so quickly.
I was wrong. I should have written Splendor off so quickly. It really is just a math puzzle. Oh, sure, it’s supposedly about jewelry. As you can tell from the pretty pictures, it’s about digging up, transporting, refining, and selling precious gems. And if you believe that, I’ve got a plot of land to sell you as represented by this map/deed on a Lost Cities card.
Because really you’re just collecting sets to turn in for cards that help you collect more sets and eventually cards that also give you victory points. First player to fifteen points wins. That’s all there is to it. It’s a dry exercise in competitive mathing that happens to have pictures under the numbers. I’m sure some boardgamers — most likely Germans — appreciate the finer points of blocking other players, reserving cards, and anticipating that point when you transition from building up an economy to building up victory points (that transition is the fundamental strategy in Dominions, another Spiel des Jahres winner I no longer own).
But I am not a German. I want gameplay mechanics to somehow evoke the theme, which is what makes Elysium a fascinating failure and Splendor just a failure. I grant you that outside a game of Diablo, I’ve never dug up, transported, refined, or sold precious gems. But nothing in the act of collecting sets and turning them in for cards makes me think of that process, despite the pictures under the numbers. And if a game isn’t going to evoke a theme, it should at least give me some sort of innovative or distinct gameplay mechanic. Set collecting isn’t that. If I want to collect sets, I’ll go play a CCG. At least Lost Cities has a combination of pushing your luck and bluffing. At least Power Grid has you shoveling coal into power plants. At least Ra has era-spanning monuments, mortal pharaohs, and fickle floods. Splendor has a picture of a guy looking at a diamond.
But the iPad version of Splendor at least pushes the limits of math puzzling. Because in addition to letting me play the boardgame Splendor, it sets up a series of challenges that play with the rules around the basic gameplay. There are speed runs, limited resource puzzles, escalating difficulty trade-offs, and generally a whole mess of variations to this otherwise dry math drill. In addition to beating the AI — a disappointingly simple matter — at least I have a set of challenges to solve. It doesn’t tap into what I like about boardgames, but it does serve as an addicting little time waster. Okay, so I didn’t get the cards I needed that time to beat this variation on Splendor, but I got close! Let me try again. It reminds me of the iOS ports of Lost Cities and Carcassone by Coding Monkeys, a team of boardgame enthusiasts who know how to build the trappings of an actual game around a Eurogame.
Of course, there’s always multiplayer, which makes even the dryest game designs better. Oops, there isn’t always multiplayer. Splendor on the iOS has no support for online multiplayer. Why would you nose your way onto the iOS marketplace and hope to compete with all those boardgame ports with asynchronous multiplayer, but leave out the asynchronous multiplayer? The Splendor publisher did the same thing with Small World, but they eventually made good with an update. Maybe by the time I finish these challenges, an update will add multiplayer which I can then ignore in favor of better games.
The OFFICIAL [caps theirs] digital adaptation of the best-selling board game Splendor. The goal of the game is to build the most impressive jewel trade and become the best-known merchant in the world. The player with the most prestige points wins thzzzzzzzzzzzzz...