App review: Splendor

App review: Splendor

Renaissance jewel collecting game Splendor is simple, addictive and elegant. But does it still sparkle on your Android or iOS device?

Splendor game app screenshot
This digital adaptation brings the tight, economic design of Splendor to your phone or tablet.

On first inspection, 2014’s Splendor seems like a perfect candidate for a table-to-touchscreen translation. A simple, streamlined competitive puzzle that casts players as renaissance jewel merchants, it scratches the same sort of quick-and-brainy itch as games like Two Dots or Candy Crush Saga, with the added advantage of not attempting to wring cash out of players in the insidious form of in-app payments.

The digital version plays identically to the cardboard original. On each of your turns you’ll choose to either acquire some gemstones or use the ones you’ve already collected to buy new developments – mines, ships, showrooms – for your burgeoning jewellery empire. It’s slick, tight and breathtakingly elegant, and it’s been admirably recreated here. The app retains the original game’s beautiful oil-painting-style artwork, and it employs an array of sound effects to give a suggestion of the tabletop version’s riffling cards and clicking plastic chips.

Splendor game app screenshot
Splendor comes with a quick and clear tutorial – something other tabletop-to-app conversions still sometimes lack

But if Splendor gets things right aesthetically, in other respects it has some flaws that are impossible to ignore.

The app comes with a selection of AI opponents, each of which behaves slightly differently, prioritising different cards and adopting their own individual tactics. Unfortunately though, they’re all about as intelligent as a bucket of bricks. Once you hit on the winning strategy of identifying the most valuable developments and ruthlessly pursuing them, there’s nothing apart from catastrophic bad luck standing between you and victory.

To make matters worse, there’s no online multiplayer option, so unless you have a human opponent to hand for some pass-and-play action, you’re stuck competing against these digital dullards. You’ll win comfortably more than 90% of games, and if the apps on our phones ever become self-aware and attempt to overthrow their human oppressors, we can only hope that they’re all as cunning and perceptive as this.

The game does attempt to compensate by making its single-player mode a little deeper. There’s a set of challenge scenarios where you’ll have to complete certain objectives under slightly tweaked rules. But with a game as mechanically simple as Splendor, there aren’t all that many rules to tweak, and removing a couple of cards or applying a time limit doesn’t do much to change the overall feel.

Splendor game app screenshot
The app comes with a single-player challenge mode, but its appeal is decidedly limited.

Despite these failings, though, this isn’t a terrible adaptation. Like its tabletop big sibling, Splendor on your phone is indisputably pretty, and if you’re lucky enough to have some human players around, it’s a great stand-in for the physical version. If you’re likely to use the pass-and-play multiplayer mode, buy it in a heartbeat. If not, though, this digital port of a board gaming gem is a dull, tarnished rock by comparison.

For this review I tested the Android version of Splendor on a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 phone.