What to play this weekend: Splendor

You're a renaissance merchant with an eye on the jewel trade. A shrewd business person, you buy and sell precious gems like so many Big Macs. A ruby the size of your fist? Pfft. That's nothing to you. You invest in mines, recruit artisans and develop trade routes. Your work attracts the attention of nobles and royalty, and your prestige soars.

Such is the theme of Splendor ($6.99, universal) by Days of Wonder, a great tabletop game that has made its way to the iPhone and iPad. I've played the tabletop version several times and after spending several days with the iOS version, I find it a worthy successor. It does suffer a bit, as I'll explain, but overall it's a faithful adaptation of a fun game of buying, selling and racking up points. In fact, the digital version adds something that the tabletop version lacks that I like a whole lot. Here's my look at Splendor for iPhone and iPad.

There are three main components in Splendor: gems, noble cards and the other cards available for purchase. The latter come in three categories: inexpensive, moderately expensive and -- I bet you see where this is going -- very pricey indeed.

To begin playing, the cards available for purchase are sorted into piles, and the top four of each are laid face-up for all to see. The five types of gems are sorted into piles and finally several noble cards are chosen and placed face-up in the play area (the number of players determines how many nobles show up).

Let's play!

On your turn, you may take one of the following actions:

  1. Take one of three types of gems.
  2. Take two of one type of gem, provided there are at least four in the stack.
  3. Buy a card, provided that you can afford it.
  4. "Reserve" a card you can't yet afford.
  5. Receive a visit from a noble.

Each card that's up for purchase has: a cost, a bonus gem and potentially a prestige point value. When you pay a card's cost with the gems you collected on previous turns, you gain the bonus gem displayed in its upper right-hand corner, as well as any prestige points in the upper left.

Bonus gems count towards your gems on hand. So, if you want to buy a card that costs three blue gems and you've got two on hand plus one blue bonus, you may purchase that card. Bonus gems are also what attract the nobles.

Each noble has a cost, or a certain number of gems that will attract them to your merchant stand. Note that only bonus gems count towards this cost, and therein lies the game: collect the right gems to make the right purchases that will attract the right nobles. It's a card game but it's more like chess, as there's always an optimal move on the table for what you're trying to do. The question then becomes: can you see it?

Earlier I mentioned reserving cards. To reserve a card, you take it into your hand, as opposed to laying it out in front of yourself. Cards in hand are not scored and do not count towards your collection of bonus gems. However, a reserved card comes with gold, which is a sort of wild card and can be used as any other gem. Finally, reserving a card can really screw up what your opponent(s) is trying to do, so pay attention. Reserving is the only way to get gold.

On the tabletop

The components are very nice-looking, with great art. The breakout star here are the gem chips, which have the weight and feel of high-quality poker chips. It's great fun to have a stack of them in your hand and to hear the "clink!" as they drop against other. I often find myself fiddling with them between turns. It's quite addictive, and something I miss while playing Splendor on my iPhone or iPad.

On the iPhone/iPad

First, the good. There's no lengthy setup, shuffling or sorting. There are no piles to knock over. Also, the digital version keeps track of scoring for you, and even highlights cards that you can afford to purchase. The digital game also features a fantastic tutorial, which you can replay as often as you like. But what's really cool about Splendor is the challenges.

Not available in the desktop version (at least, not without a lot of careful setup), Splendor challenges vary the gameplay in fun and interesting ways. For example, I recently played one called "The siege of Vienna." The flavor is that the Ottomans have besieged Vienna. The Sultan is demanding a tribute in the form of a specific collection of jewels, or his army will breach the city walls.

To win the Siege of Vienna challenge, you must gain 15 points within 24 turns. Cards are drawn in a predetermined order. A "super noble" is in play, who is worth a huge 10 prestige points, and there are five gems of each color available.

Talk about replayability! The challenges add a whole new level of fun to Splendor and there are a great many to choose from.

There are a few cons that I must mention. The first is inevitable when comparing games like this: I miss manipulating the components! Ah, those click-y gem chips are just so much fun to play with. Also, keeping track of scoring is fine on the iPad's large screen, but the numbers are very tiny on the iPhone.

There's a pass-and-play mode, which I like, as well as a solo mode. No asynchronous play, though. Bummer, dude.

In conclusion

Splendor is a best-selling game and for good reason. It's easy to learn, fun and always different. The digital adaptation is very nice, and the challenges put it over the top. I whole-heartedly say, Splendor is what you should play this weekend.