Critical Play – Is this game balanced? – Splendor

One game that I love to play is Splendor, a strategy boardgame designed by Marc André and published by Space Cowboys and Asmodee. It is a multiplayer card game where players are gem merchants of the Renaissance, developing gem mines, transportation, and shops to accumulate prestige point. The game is for 2-4 players and a player wins when they earn 15 points at the end of a round.

Balance with asymmetry

Splendor is a turn-base game so there is asymmetry to resources, timing, and decision making. The first player has a slight advantage in the beginning of the game because they can acquire the most strategic card on the board. This advantage is magnified if players have the same strategy (that is, they want the same cards). The first player’s advantage is somewhat offset when a new card is drawn to replace it. If it is a strategic card, other players are first in line to purchase it. Turn-based games will always have asymmetry because players have to anticipate and change their strategies based on other players’ actions.

Balance across strategies

There are different strategies to win. Players can focus on getting prestige points from acquiring 1) a few cards with higher prestige points, 2) many cards with lower prestige points and 3) favors from nobles.  Different strategies are suitable for different player counts. I found that with 2 players, acquiring few cards that have high prestige points is the dominant strategy. The game become more competitive because both players are vying for the same cards. This could be frustrating because winning sometimes boils down to luck – who can grab the best cards first. When there are 3-4 players, there are more ways to win (no dominant strategy) because there is more competition for the same number of cards. Players typically split up in their strategy – some would acquire cards with higher points, some would aim for cards with lower points. Both strategies could supplement points with favors from nobles. The balance is less of an issue with more players.

Balance between game objects

There are 3 level of cards, each with different cost and benefits. Costs are denominated in 5 gem tokens (lower left corner). Gem tokens buy cards that give the same type of prestige points (top left) and/or 1 permanent gem token (top right). There are two balance issues: 1) it’s cheaper to acquire higher level cards and lower level cards and 2) the cards within the same level do not have similar cost/benefit ratio.

The Splendorificness of Splendor! — Meeple Mountain
Types of cards

First issue – The first level cards do not reward any prestige points. They only help players acquire permanent gems which can be used as resource to acquire future cards. They serve as means to an end, and not the means. A skilled player would also avoid acquiring these cards , since they don’t advance winning (getting prestige points) in the most efficient manner. The second level card are better than first level, since they award points and gems. However, the cheapest and effective cards are level 3 cards since a player need fewer cards (and turns) to win.

Level 3 – Less expensive cards with 1-2 resource requirement
Level 3 – More expensive cards with higher resource requirements

Second issue – For the same level, some cards 1) cost a combination of 3 -4 gems, while others 2) cost 1-2 tokens.  The cost/benefit ratio of the latter type of cards are higher. In my opinion, it is much easier to acquire fewer of the same tokens than to acquire more of different tokens.  In fact, there are only 2 types of cards really worth in level 3. The cards that require only 1 and 2 resources. The other four types are more expensive. It requires one less of one type of resource than the other four; however, it requires 12 resources in total.

Splendor can rebalance the game by adjusting the cost and benefits of certain cards. For the first issue, we can require players to have a number of cards from each level as a win condition. This would encourage players to acquire cards across different level. This change should be combined with increasing the cost or decreasing the benefit of the cards to make cards. This makes cards within a level more fair and attractive to bought. It also prevents players from competing for the same cards.


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