Splendor is one of those games that feel like they have been around forever, like Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne. Easy to teach, nice production, great flow, maybe a bit bland after repeated plays but always good to have in a collection. While not the deepest game, there is a nice meta game of seeing trends in the market or blocking your opponent from acquiring certain cards.
I played Splendor a lot when the app came out as my partner at the time also greatly enjoyed playing it. There is something addictive about the reward cycle in Splendor, and the app made it that much quicker to play a couple of rounds in between things. At one point, we had so much practice that it almost felt like being on autopilot and even with expansion content, it always ran the risk of feeling stale.
It’s been a couple of years and by now I only play Splendor maybe once every other month. Still, the announcement of a dedicated 2-player version got me excited. I greatly enjoy for example Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small, Le Havre: The Inland Port and Curious Cargo, all of which are more or less loosely inspired versions of their more famous bigger originals. There is something about combining the head-to-head situation of a 2-player game with the need to condense rules to fit the smaller format. So let’s see how the formula worked out for Splendor Duel!
Compared to the original, the tiny box of Splendor Duel contains a surprising amount of components. Of course there are jewel cards in three different categories of complexity and an assortment of plastic tokens. However, both tokens and cards are substantially smaller which briefly feels disappointing before realising that this makes the box very compact and ultra portable. This is a great game to just throw into a bag and can be played on the smallest of tables.
The cardboard nobles of the original have been replaced by four noble cards which however work very differently (more on them later). There’s now a small fold-out board that shows a grid and spiral path as well as a bag to house the tokens. At the start of the game, all tokens are mixed in the bag and then placed on the market board starting in the centre and following the spiral path. This is one of the major changes compared to original Splendor: one cannot simply pick three tokens of one’s choosing but instead has to pick them from the board.
Continuing setup, the custom inlay also contains three plastic scrolls which are nicely detailed. Two of those are set aside and the third given the player that doesn’t go first as a conciliation price. Finally, there is a cardboard piece that shows the three different victory conditions, another departure from original Splendor.
The fundamental principle of Splendor is still the same: get tokens, buy jewels with those tokens and thus get rebates on future purchases. But a player’s turn now starts with two optional actions. First, a player can exchange scrolls against any tokens from the market except gold. This is quite powerful and as a result, you want to avoid this as much as possible and not give your opponent a free boost.
Only afterwards, the player can optionally replenish the market. During the course of the game, players pick tokens from the market but when they spent them, those tokens first go into the bag, not back to the market. Only when one of the players decides to refill the market will the tokens becomes available again. The upside of refilling is of course the first pick of the newly replenished tokens. The downside is that the opponent gets another of those scroll pieces.
The player’s main action is then one of the three familiar actions of the original, but each with a new twist: picking new tokens happens by taking three (or less) consecutive tokens in a row, column or diagonal. As you can imagine, after a few actions of taking tokens, the market gets quite barren. It also allows you to mess up your opponents plans by taking tokens in such a way that they will only get two instead of three tokens. However, the situation gets more difficult for yourself as well as the combination of colours you want might be impossible to acquire in a single action. It gets even worse as gold tokens are also placed in the market but cannot be taken with this action. They effectively act as blockers, restricting the possible choices even more. To make it yet more difficult: when a player takes tokens from the market and picks three of the same type – or – picks both of the available pearl tokens, the opponent also gets a scroll. So in general, the market makes getting the right tokens tricky and puts more emphasis on being efficient in the cards one buys.
The next possible main action is to reserve a card from the market.Sam as in the original, a player can only have three cards on their hand and will receive a gold as reward for reserving a card. However, due to how the market works, it gets way more likely that this action isn’t even available to you because there is no more gold in the market to take!
Finally, a player can purchase a card by paying the price printed on the card. As with the original, already purchased cards offer a rebate and now in some case even save two tokens with a single card. There are also colourless cards which the player has to associate with one colour during purchase and they then act as a rebate of that colour.
Special Bonuses and Crowns
So far, so relatively normal. The market makes getting the right tokens more difficult and the fact that replenishing the market is something that players in general want to avoid make reserving cards more difficult. The biggest change however comes in the added functionality of the jewel cards. Some of them have special icons on them, allowing the player to get an additional token from the market, steal one from their opponent, take another action, get a free scroll, or even take an additional turn! These are all one time effects that happen at the time of purchase and as such have to be timed well.
The other new element is a crown that is printed on some of the cards. When a player gets their 3rd or 6th crown, they are allowed to pick one of the aforementioned nobles which not only are worth VP but also come with a bonus action.
End of Game
The other reason to get crowns is that they are required for one of the new victory conditions. A player now wins when reaching 20VP, 10VP from cards of a single colour, or from getting 10 crowns. Which of the three is the easiest part to victory depends on the initial card market and what your opponent is aiming for. For example, if there are multiple blue cards with VP on them in the market, it might best to save a bit longer to get the right tokens instead of just buying as cheap as possible.
Unfortunately, there is no official solo mode. I say unfortunately, because BGG user Tom Scott has published an excellent solo mode that I have enjoyed a lot. It only requires six additional cards and if the publisher had added them to the game, it would have increased the value proposition even more. If you are interested in playing solo, do check it out!
I was a bit trepidatious as I purchased the game since initial reviews seemed to be lukewarm. Luckily, I enjoy Splendor Duel quite a lot. Not only is the compact form factor great for just throwing it in your bag and take it anywhere, the new additions to the core formula add a puzzly component to original Splendor. Splendor already was a mix of efficiency management and holding out on buying mediocre cards such that the opponent doesn’t get first pick on whatever enters the market as a replacement. By introducing multiple new chokepoints, this is dialled up a notch and adds that little bit of spice that original Splendor was lacking on repeated plays.
The card market and scrolls turn Splendor Duel into a giant game of chicken where players try to delay needing to refill the market as much as possible. I’ve found myself multiple times where I was looking for something, anything to do such that my opponent would be forced to refill instead of me. In a number of cases we both would have loved to just reserve something but there was no gold available in the market because although it had been spent, it was still waiting in the bag until the market is refilled.
There are also now 2 pearl tokens which are required for more complex/valuable jewel cards. These are of course prime targets for a) buying on first chance or b) stealing with the bonus action of a jewel card. Similarly, cards with scroll or extra turn bonuses are highly contested and allow for amazing combos (e.g. I buy this card to get another turn to buy that card to get my third crown to get that noble that gives me a scroll). Even the scrolls can get contested as there are only three of them and if there is none available, a player can instead take it from their opponent.
The only downside I’ve found is that putting spent tokens in the bag and refilling the market breaks the flow a bit. But otherwise I don’t really see a downside compared to original Splendor. The rest is more a matter of taste. I can imagine that for some players this giant game of holding out and more thinky way of getting new tokens will detract from the fun core formula of Splendor. From what criticism I’ve heard, most people primarily either don’t like the new art or the reduced size of tokens.
For me, I really like the gorgeous cartoonish artwork on the new cards, the ultra-portability, that the take-that element is there but rather small, the nice inlay, the different paths to victory. Speaking of which, so far in our games both 10VP in one colour or 20VP seemed to be very viable strategies where getting 10 crowns never really happened. But it seems possible, since there are cards that come with 2 crowns at once and of course the noble bonuses are a nice boost to get.
All in all, great little game. It won’t blow your socks off but if you were looking for a way to make playing Splendor 2-player (or solo) more attractive, look no more.