Playing together doesn’t always mean we’re specifically playing against each other. Sometimes we’re just trying to do the best we can, and that journey happens to hamper others by sheer proximity. Any number of worker placement games fit into this category, where you send workers out to certain spots that will activate actions, and thus blocking others from using that action for the round. That’s also what makes Splendor such a solitary experience: You’re building a foundation of gem holdings to reach for the points needed to win the game, but you’re all racing for the same cards to do so. This dynamic where you’re gently and very often inadvertently bumping up against your opponents’ plans is exactly what makes Splendor such a sublime, contemplative game.
The dynamic of a game is simple: grab some gems, turn them into holdings, then use a combination of holding bonuses and more gems to get even more holdings. The more holdings you get, the less you’ll have to pay for future holdings thanks to a bonus that each card provides. What’s more, there are three tiers of cards to choose from, each one progressively more expensive than the last. The game looks like it flows through the three tiers as three phases of the game.
In reality, you’re not going to ever touch that many cards in the highest tier. You’d be lucky to get one of those high-scoring cards in a game, though that’s by design since the amount of points you need to end it is a low 15. What ends up happening is you pick a goal to go for in the beginning of the game, then work your way towards executing it as best as you can.
The puzzle in Splendor lies in making a series of decisions that will lead you to the goal you’ve decided on and mapping it out, but then you also have to maneuver around everyone else doing the same thing. So maybe once or twice in a game, someone will take a card you were counting on, throwing your plans into disarray. You’re not just charting a course through these cards to achieve a goal, but you also need to be flexible enough to change course if something goes wrong
The beauty of Splendor is in the way all these dynamics braid together, how the game truly feels like it flows. The market of cards is small enough that you can’t help but trip over each other, but on the other hand, potential targets to go for are close enough to each other that you can recover with ease. The market is also constantly changing, but you’re never that far off from something else if your first choice is taken. The key to winning at Splendor is how well you flow with the game.
It’s at the nexus of the solitary and the group dynamics that Splendor gets its brilliance. You’re working on a ponderous, crunchy puzzle while the simple act of multiple people mulling over it diverts your planning, sending everyone spiraling to new trajectories. You’re playing alone, but only together does the stunning underpinnings of Splendor reveal themselves.