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Splendor Review

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When I cracked the shrink on Splendor (what happened to the missing ‘u’?), I got a nasty surprise. I really thought that so many people had taken the piss out of the overuse of the “Renaissance merchants impressing nobility” theme in games that it had rightly been killed, had its head cut off and its mouth stuffed with garlic-infused meeples that it was gone forever. Yet it it was again, in my hands, in 2014.

But review copies are review copies, so with a heavy heart I began to dig into the box. A deck of cards with some lovely, if rather generic, artwork depicting various scenese of Renaissance life. Some delightfully hefty gem tokens in various colours. A punchboard of nobles and a page of rules. So it was easy to learn, and it looked nice.

Perhaps it wasn’t going to be quite so awful after all.

It was ludicrously easy to learn. Each turn you either grab some gems, spend some of your collected gems on buying a card, or reserve a card to buy later, keeping out of the greedy mitts of your opponents. Each card requires you to pay with a different combination of gem colours but itself contributes a gem to all future purchases. Some are also worth victory points, and you can also get these by “impressing” (oh, God!) one of the nobles with your gem collection. First one to fifteen points wins.

Nowadays I try not to do such an obvious and tiresome thing as a whole-rules paragraph near the beginning of the game but I really couldn’t help it here. It’s just too simple. A child could play this. My children did play it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After reading it, it sounded way too simplistic to even be interesting. My lack of enthusiasm must have shown to the people I cajoled and begged to play it with me: all refused. But eventually, I got my long-suffering family to agree to help me out.

And then I learned a variation on the old saw that one should never judge a book by its cover: one should never judge a game by its rules.

What Splendor actually feels like is a peculiar variation on Ticket to Ride. It’s got the same desperate vibe of trying to collect sets in order to steal goodies from under the nose of your eager opponents, the same teeth-grinding frustration when someone else does it to you.

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But all the rough and ready edges of that design have been gently smoothed away, a set of mechanics moulded and shaped by the passing of the years. In place of randomly collecting colours toward your sets, you choose what you want. Instead of pot luck when it comes to grabbing routes you can “reserve” the ones you really want, at the cost of a turn’s play. Rather than the iron consequences of stolen routes forever closed to you, there’s the hope of a new card that might, just about, fill the same gap if you can get to it first.

The sum effect is one of replacing randomness with choice. How you feel about that depends on how you feel about that great cosmic balance in game design, whether you favour excitement over strategy, thrills over plans.

But Splendor does something that Ticket to Ride does not. Slowly, as you begin to collect cards, it becomes apparent that this is actually a super-simple economic engine game. Your primary purpose early in the game is to buy cards that help you buy bigger cards, on and on up the tree until you can get the fat victory point cards and win the game.

That this ends up happening with incredible speed is another of the game’s surprising pleasures. You only need fifteen to win, and some of the big cards are worth five or more. It’s quite possible for a game that’s been ticking along at a quiet pace to suddenly break into desperate tension as everyone makes a break for victory at the same time, with the win often going in unexpected directions.

Splendor isn’t everything. The theme is comically pointless, and while the stripped down mechanics pack in an impressive amount of variety there’s unlikely to be enough there to sustain real long-term interest. I’m not even sure it’s everything it thinks it is: while moderately strategic, a lot can hinge on what cards come out and turn order.

But Splendour undoubtedly is a quality addition to that small but vital genre of catch-all medium-light hobby games that seem to offer a little bit to please pretty much anyone, like light glittering on the surface of a gemstone. Enough simplicity for anyone to learn, enough strategy to exercise the strategists, enough randomness to satisfy the gamblers, enough interaction to engage the warriors.

Augustus Review

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You might pick up a game clearly emblazoned with the legend “Rise of Augustus” expecting a wargame about the final wars of the Roman Republic. But you’ll have been cruelly fooled: the game is actually just called Augustus and is a light family Eurogame that casts you as assistants to the first emperor, controlling provinces and senators through the distribution of resources. Quite how the “Rise of” got tacked on to the English edition is beyond me.

You might also expect a game that comes in a box the size of the original Arkham Horror to be packed with a similar amount of heady cardboard goodness. And in a sense, there is, in the form of a truly colossal box insert to stop the few components rattling around. That’s a little unfair since the game is hardly expensive, but it’s annoying to have something taking up so much shelf space unnecessarily, just to store two sheets of tokens, a deck of cards, a few wooden meeples and a score pad. And it has to be said that the stylised art is wonderful.

Put all these things together and you get a game based heavily on cheap-ass gambler’s favourite bingo. Indeed if you read critical comment on the game elsewhere you’ll see it attracts a surprising amount of venom for daring to be so mainstream. This is also unfair. Not only because the fact it’s mainstream means the game is directly simple and accessible, but also because the designer has gone to considerable pains to spice up the old classic with a generous dash of modern gaming.

For starters you’re trying to match symbols drawn out of a bag rather than numbers. That might sound like a thin veneer of theme, and it is, but it also means the odds are weighted more in favour of some symbols than others. Instantly, there is light strategy: you get a choice of objectives in the form of senator and province cards, each with a different mix of symbols needed for completion, so players need to spread their bets according to the likelihood of the draw. But there’s another catch. Rather than simply marking off every matched symbol as it comes up, you only get seven legion pieces for the job and so must focus on certain objectives over others in order to complete a card and free some legions.

Further opportunities for strategy exist in scoring. Objectives are worth hugely variable amounts of points, with easier cards worth less meaning clever players can adapt their style to focus on quicker or slower objectives depending on who else is playing. But many don’t have a fixed value but are instead calculated on other factors. How many of a certain symbol there are on the cards you’ve won, for instance, or the number of provinces of a certain colour that you complete. In addition there are some bonus tiles for the first player to reach certain goals, like collecting three Senator cards or the first to six overall.

Okay, so it’s hardly demanding. But that’s part of the charm of the game. It’s incredibly accessible, desperately easy to pick up and play being based on a culturally familiar game furnished with appealing art and a few extra rules and taking less than thirty minutes to complete. That makes it a superb family game. Everyone in mine liked it a great deal, even people normally resistant to games. In fact, playing Augustus made me realise that many of the other titles people had seemed to enjoy like Carcassonne and Kingdom Builder had largely been merely tolerated. My seven-year old daughter loved it so much that she asks for it constantly and is refusing to play anything else.

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In some respects, that’s a surprise. There are elements to Augusts that don’t fit well with the stereotypical family game. It can, for example, occasionally get quite nasty. Many of the objective cards, in addition to scoring points, also have a special power. Most of these are fairly innocent, such as giving a player some free legion placements, or an extra objective draw, but a few are directly interactive, forcing other players to remove legions or even completed objectives. Hardly a recipe for group harmony.

In addition there are bonus tiles for the player with the most objectives that produce gold and wheat. I say “most” but in fact as soon as someone draws level on production count, they can take the tile away from the player who currently has it. It’s an odd mechanic, this. Not only is it potentially upsetting for a young or casual player, but it can terribly imbalancing. There aren’t many objectives with gold or wheat on them, so often the first player lucky enough to grab one gets the bonus points, and it can be decisive in determining a winner. And when the game is over, there’s an annoying period of score toting rather than an immediate winner, which is rarely a crowd pleaser for non-gamers.

And yet the evidence is clearly that Augustus works as family fare. Not only from my own household, but from the testaments of other players and the fact it got nominated for this year’s Spiel des Jahres. So, given the huge appeal, why isn’t it sat at the top of every gamer’s family-friendly collection?

The answer, sadly, is because it doesn’t work all that well as a gamer’s game. Essentially it’s far too lightweight, but neither thematic nor exciting enough to compensate. And it has a number of features that can actually make it actively annoying if played with people inclined to take games too seriously. Players who want to win will do well to keep a close eye on what other people are collecting to try and deny them the opportunity to collect bonus cards. In reality that means frequent pauses while everyone looks over everyone else’s objectives. And the really competitive will be motivated to do things like try and track everyone’s scores as the game goes along, which slows it down to a snail’s pace of excruciating tedium.

But if you can keep things clipping along at a fair pace, though, it can be fun. And as a gamers, there’s immense pleasure to be had from owning a title that can draw family members together so effectively and let you watch them enjoying themselves so thoroughly with your favourite hobby. But really, deep down, I think I’d rather they went back to Kingdom Builder and Carcassonne instead.