…(And Why You Shouldn’t Be a Hater)

splendor box

Splendor, the 2-4 player light Eurogame about buying gems and impressing patrons, just did its best Lord of the Rings impression and swept BoardGameGeek’s Golden Geek Awards. It won Board Game of the Year and Family Game of the Year, and was nominated for Best Artwork and Presentation.

Until a few weeks ago I’d played Splendor twice, and panned the game while being generally dismissive of its popularity. It’s very light, the theme is tacked-on, and much of its appeal is based on the heavy, high-quality poker chips that represent gems in the game. It’s not a “gamer’s game”, it’s not deeply strategic, and it doesn’t engender any kind of special interaction between players. I said as much in the only negative board game review I’ve ever written.

I was totally wrong.

Splendor is undoubtedly guilty of the above things, and yet, it’s wildly popular. It’s a gorgeous game, beautifully crafted and it looks great on the table. It’s profoundly accessible, with the same “choose from three actions” design that makes Ticket to Ride and Alhambra so easy to teach and learn. The set-up and take-down time is measured in seconds, so there’s always time to play a quick game.

splendor pic

I played a two-player game of Splendor recently and loved it for the same reasons I love the first few levels of an MMO. The game progressed quickly, I made small choices, I was rewarded with small achievement after small achievement, and eventually I won the game. It was achievement addiction in board game form and I was a sucker for it. I’m shocked by how much I liked it, and it’s prompted me to reconsider my relationship with games, including my need to critique everything I play.

Ludology podcast host Geoff Englestein has a family motto, “Make Your Own Fun.” He mentioned this on a recent episode as a way to encourage his kids to make any game fun by molding the experience into something they’ll enjoy. There are many games that require this kind of proactive approach to the experience, like storytelling games and theme-driven games like Betrayal and Tales of the Arabian Nights. To paraphrase Geoff, it’s not enough to sit and wait for somebody to entertain you – you have to find ways to make fun for yourself.

Try new games, even if you don’t think you’ll like them. If you’re a game designer, you’ll get the most new inspiration from experiencing things outside your normal areas of play. As a game player, you’ll find that the occasional foray into a new genre will bring back that magic feeling of being new to the hobby, which should reinvigorate you when playing the games you already love.

splendor pic

The Golden Geek Awards reminded me that games don’t have to have incredible complexity or intricate stories to be fun. I don’t have to be a game snob; in fact, it’s better for me as a designer to be open to all possible types of fun. It’s more important that a game is fun than that it’s a marvel of design (at least when it comes to sales), and it’s just more satisfying to drop the need to be a critic and let myself experience games like I did when I was new.

Go find a game you don’t like, drop your guard, and see if you can put yourself in a place where you enjoy the experience. You’ll be a better game designer and a more positive member of the hobby as a result.

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JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas.

18 Readers Commented

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  1. Lewis Pulsipher on April 10, 2015

    I guess I have a higher standard in games. If the game doesn’t measure up (and most don’t), why play it (or worse, play it again)? Then again, I have never expected a game to entertain me, that’s mostly a video game attitude these days.

    I hope it isn’t quite like video game achievements, as I have always seen them as reasons to play a game that’s not (or no longer) worth playing. In other words, “achievements, my ass.”

    From a design point of view, people used to play hobby/serious games with the notion that the reward came at the end; now so many people want to be incrementally rewarded every time they take a turn. Quite different points of view.

  2. Eric @ Devious Devices on April 10, 2015

    Great article JR! I had a sort of inverse response to Splendor when I first played it, in awe of the simplicity vs. my addiction. With such a simplified rules set, I began to think of it more and more as sort of a “piece of a game,” rather than a whole. Like maybe the resource gathering system to a larger game. Almost as if it was incomplete, but somehow still self-sustaining. Either way, I love the game still and this article was a good reminder to pull it back off the shelf. Thanks!

  3. Pasquale on April 10, 2015

    Well, I’ve had the same first gut reaction to Splendor despite all the good reviews it’s been having. I guess as tomorrow is International TableTop Day, I’ll make the time to give the game a try. I can now recall that I felt the same way about Settlers of Catan about 20 years ago… before owning all the expansions and most of the different iterations.

    • JR on April 10, 2015

      Let me know how it goes! I’m @jayahre on twitter, I’d love to hear your report after trying it. Settlers was my gateway game, so I never had a chance to be critical, I fell in love immediately and it opened the door to my lifelong obsession… hobby!

      • Pasquale on April 12, 2015

        Well it’s not that bad, but it’s still not quite for me. The game certainly escalates well. I like the last 20% of the game more than the first 80%, which I can say about MANY good games out there. It’s certainly a good game to play in between the set up of meatier games. But for me, I can think of many casual games in this market space that I like much more – and are cheaper (I see it on Amazon now for ~$32). I might buy it someday in the future when it’s on sale for ~$15, then put it on my shelf and play it when guests or my children want to play it. Indeed, I think it’ll be great for my 5 year old in a year or two. I guess my issue is that I find it hard to look at Splendor in a vacuum for what it is – a not so bad, even good game. So I realize I’m the outlier as many people love the game, I just can’t get passed the fact of where it is relative to other games out there. My failing and my loss I suppose.

  4. David D on April 10, 2015

    I first played Splendor at BGGcon this past year and immediately liked it. It isn’t overly complex or heavy and there is a bit a strategy involved in your decision making. I feel it is a quick and fun game you can work in-between other more intense games, or as a good intro game to people who don’t regularly play board games. What I really like is that my 7 year old son was able to pick up on it and does really well, and sometimes legitimately wins. My 5 year old daughter loves to play as well and understands the basic mechanics & goal of the game, but the strategy part eludes her still. As a parent, I am happy to find interesting games that the whole family can play, without boring me to death, and prepares the kids for bigger and better games as they get older, so Splendor has worked out well for us.

  5. Lewis Pulsipher on April 12, 2015

    Sounds like it’s a game for children. Can a game that 5 and 7 year olds play intelligently, be a “hobby game”? Isn’t it necessarily a family game? *Shrug*

    • W. Eric Martin on April 14, 2015

      Does the distinction between hobby game and family game matter? A design can’t be both?

      • Lewis Pulsipher on April 15, 2015

        Yes, it matters. I don’t play family games, and I suspect many other long-time gamers do not. Family games are designed differently, with a different audience in mind, than hobby games, I think. My generation thinks of “family games” as Monopoly, Game of Life, and similar no-brainer kinds of things. When the Europeans started designing “family games on steroids” (Euro games) they left the family game category behind.

        • W. Eric Martin on April 15, 2015

          Left the category behind?! That’s what the Spiel des Jahres is all about! Family game has a different connotation in Germany and other parts of Europe than it does in the U.S., so perhaps what I’m thinking of in terms of family games (Zooloretto, Ticket to Ride, Dominion and yes, Splendor) differs from what you think of and we can chalk that up to generational differences.

    • David D on April 16, 2015

      Looking at the box it does say age 10+. My 7 year old happens to operate at a much higher level than others his age and older. The 5 year old can match colors, but that is about it. We kind of push our kids on their gaming skills though. If I invested the time, the 7yr old could learn Five Tribes or Lords of Waterdeep pretty quickly. I think there is a gray area in classifying something a hobby or family game only.

  6. Gamer Dave on April 15, 2015

    Lesson: don’t pan a game that wins ALL the awards without a very good reason. Good article. Family games are games you play with your families. And long time gamers will play the games they like with their families, whether its Monopoly, Splendor or Power Grid.

  7. Lewis Pulsipher on April 15, 2015

    Generational. To my generation, “family games” are games for adults who don’t normally play games, but do for the sake of the kids and, to spend time with family. They are also games for the kids, though not entirely kids’ games.

    Those adults want a game that either they already know how to play (Monopoly e.g.) or that is very easy to learn, and that requires next to no brain-work. For those non-gamers, games like LCR (which is Entirely Random), Five Crowns, Monopoly, and Game of Life are all they want to handle (I have some of my extended family in mind).

    As I understand it, Euros were a reaction to that, in large part. There was an effort to require some thinking. Those are not “family games” as my generation grew up knowing (I am 64).

    Contrast: to my generation these were kids’ games that (must be) played by adults; “family games on steroids” like TtR, are adult games that might be playable by some kids.

  8. Gamer Dave on April 19, 2015

    Great point on the generational aspect Lewis. I think the change in what is a family game had a lot to do with this. I think one reason why games were simpler and not played as much was because it wasnt as common for adults to play games; games were for kids. Now kids who played games are adults and have fun playing with their kids. I do think TtR is playble by kids and some other basic euros too, like Settlers. We’ve done it in our game groups before.

  9. Chris Backe on January 22, 2017

    I kind of thought the same thing first time I played Splendor – just this simple, odd game. I got TROUNCED.

    The second time I played it, I paid more attention to the suitors (?) and noted what the guy that won last time was doing. It wasn’t always obvious which cards he was going after, and the whole game took on this poker-like set of bluffing and such. I still lost in a close game with more experienced players.

    The third time, I paid a lot more attention, watched what other players were doing, noted at least two different strategies at play amongst the three opponents (quick pro-tip: reserving the three allowed cards to block someone else doesn’t help you attain *your* goals!)… I still lost… and I can’t wait to play again.

    • Tim on July 23, 2019

      I hope you have played again since and you’re now a pro! I enjoy playing the mobile version.

  10. Linda on March 15, 2019

    Games have one purpose; a way to spend leisure time in a pleasurable way. Play what you want and don’t play what you don’t. But don’t pretend that you are simply too good or experienced or cerebral to enjoy certain games. I personally don’t enjoy Splendor that much, but that has nothing to do with whether or not it’s a “good” game, it’s personal preference. I tend to like production and exploration games (Xia, Caverna, etc.) and I despise area control. But I’ll still play anything with my friends and family and I won’t try to make sure everyone knows how much better I am than them because they chose it. Get over yourselves, they’re games.

  11. Tim on July 23, 2019

    I play this game almost every week with family game night. I purchased the mobile version and play a lot online. My favorite games are those that are easy to set up and play, but have strategy embedded in them.

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