Economic engine games are a popular sub-genre of heavy strategy games. They're demanding, but often bloated.
And frankly, most of them are about as exciting as the phrase "economic engine" makes them sound.
Splendor is different. Splendor takes the concept of buying stuff that lets you buy more stuff faster and slims it down. It's super easy to learn, quick-playing, retains a soupcon of chance and excitement and was one of my favourite tabletop games of last year.
Now it's off the table and on to iOS.
In the game, you're buying jewels. As you collect the shiny gems, you can keep reusing them in place of money to buy more gems.
The biggest, prettiest stones cost the most but are also worth victory points. And if you get enough jewels of the right colour, you attract the patronage of a noble for bonus points.
What makes the game work is that the gem cards and the nobles get drawn at random. Indeed the jewel cards get replaced as they're bought.
With the varied costs and point values of the cards and requirements of the nobles, this sets the texture of the game. Simple changes which result in surprisingly different play each time.
On your turn you can either take some money, buy a card, or reserve one for later. Playing is an exercise in skilled brinkmanship. Watching other players, wondering whether the coins or cards or nobles you need will still be there on your turn.
And if they're not, what then? Do you risk spending a turn reserving something else you think you'll want? Or filling your coffers with something different, just in case it'll come in handy later?
You're kept guessing, and competing, right up until the very end, when someone hits the victory point target and wins.
It's pretty obvious that it's a game based on maths and logic. Yet it strikes a sweet balance between being too heavy to be offputting and too simple to be forgettable. Welded to the accessibility of the game, it's a sure-fire winner.
Those same elements of logic and simplicity should make it ripe for digital conversion. And at first glance, this is an impressive adaptation.
It looks good, with all the vibrant colour and great card art from the game reproduced clearly on Retina displays. There's a solid tutorial to teach you the short rules and the interface is smooth and easy to use.
Playing against the computer is mostly fun. Rather than a selection of difficulty levels, there's a choice of AI opponent personalities.
They're of middling quality, challenge wise. Which is a bit disappointing, given that good play is just a matter of good mathematical modeling.
It won't take you long to learn to beat one or two, but playing against three or four of them is a different matter. Mastering these bigger games is a greater challenge.
Once you've done that, you can move on to the new challenges. These are a novel addition to this iOS version, not present in the original tabletop game.
The developer describes them as being like chess puzzles. Instead of playing against opponents, you have to leverage the game mechanics to achieve certain goals.
Like reaching a victory point target in a given turn limit, for example. Or playing with a timer ticking quickly down on each of your turns.
There are a lot of these in the game, and most are brief diversions that are too easy for experienced players. You can revisit them to get a better score, but the draw just isn't there once the novelty has worn off. A minority are more interesting, but they're hidden among all the other puzzles.
If you tire of playing by yourself then you can use the game in pass and play mode with your friends. And, at the moment, that's your lot. There's no asynchronous online play mode, although the developer has promised one is on its way.
We can only review a game as it stands, not on the promise of functions yet to come. Without online play, the shelf life of this game is a bit limited, even with the challenges. At this premium price point, that's not good enough.
It's beyond me why developers keep releasing board game adaptations without this crucial feature. Splendor is a great game, and this looks and feels like a great adaptation.
If and when online play arrives, you should snap it up. Until then, it's for existing devotees only.