Review: Cities of Splendor

citiesofsplendorcomponents

Length

Release Date
Designer: Marc André
Publisher: Space Cowboys / Asmodee North America
Category: Expansion, Family Game
Player Count: 2-4
Price: $39.99 MSRP
Splendor was one of the largest successes of 2014, establishing Space Cowboys as a studio capable of excellent games with quality components. The game won many awards, and was nominated for the coveted Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year in Germany) as well. It’s one of my top picks from 2014, and now one of my favorite games of all time. I’ll never forget the first time I sat down to play it with my wife—we played five games in a row!
Splendor‘s strength is in its extreme simplicity, and how its victory condition is inextricably tied to its engine-building. Yet some gamers insisted that the game was too simple. Whether you agree with them or not, Spendor now has an expansion with four new modules to increase the game’s complexity and interaction. Do they make the game better or worse? Let’s find out!

Content Guide

Most of this game is just about converting gems to victory points, and the artwork is primarily just of buildings and landscapes. I can’t think of anything positive or negative to say here.

Review

I’m going to discuss the four modules individually, but before I do that, let’s talk about the overall picture. The expansion comes in a box the same size as the original game, which I find strange, simply because I could see them getting confused on store shelves. Furthermore, the box doesn’t need to be that big, as there isn’t physically much in the box. There are 30 cards, a few tokens, one small supplemental game board, 12 plastic Stronghold tokens, and 7 cardboard City tiles—oh yeah, there’s also a first player token, which I now hand out at the start of a game and then completely forget to reference. So I’m pretty shocked that the game is as expensive as the base game ($39.99 MSRP). However, the more I think about the price, the more I realize that Splendor itself was criticized as overpriced—let’s be honest, there’s very little in the box—but that didn’t stop it from selling like hotcakes, and its components are very high quality. This box has about the same amount of stuff as the original. I think what puts me off is the expansion being just as expensive as the base game. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a game do that before, unless the expansion was also a standalone game.
The other, smaller issue is that the expansion rules only recommend that you play with one module at a time, so there are no rules clarifications for crazy people like me who insist on combining them anyway, and one is incompatible with two of the others. The new effects have also changed the language of the game, referring to the icons used to for future discounts as “bonuses,” where each card was previously just called a “development card.” At first I thought this was an ambiguity, but looking back at the original rulebook, the word “bonuses” is actually used, it’s just that the new lack of a one-to-one correspondence requires a change in language. Now, let’s look at each module individually, and see if the gameplay makes the expansion worth it anyway!

The Orient

The Orient is by far the best module in Cities of Splendor. Here, each of the three rows of cards are augmented by two special cards from a new red deck, so that each row is now five cards each. There are ten total cards in each of the three new Orient decks, and seven different actual abilities.
The abilities are fairly straightforward, yet intensely powerful. Even in the first row, one card counts as two wild tokens as a one-time use, and the other acts as a wild bonus that augments any card you have out. Those are both incredibly useful. The first can help you grab mid-range cards easily, and the second can make getting nobles much easier, particularly when a single color has dried up. At higher levels, you can do things like get two cards at once, reserve Nobles, or score points by simply sacrificing cards (“bonuses”) instead of paying gems. One rules clarification missing from the rulebook is whether you would lose Nobles if you sacrificed the bonuses used to attain them. I would assume not.
In our first few games, we couldn’t help but excitedly snatch these cards up, but they aren’t necessarily strictly better than old cards. Most of them do not give points, and gunning for them has an obvious opportunity cost. But simply having more options to choose from, and in particular, cards with cool special effects, make this an easy, fantastic inclusion. If someone likes Splendor and wants me to show off the expansion for them, this is the module I’m pulling out first.

Trading Posts

The Trading Posts module also promotes special effects, but takes a different approach than The Orient. There are five abilities that all players can achieve, simply by having the required bonuses (one also requires a Noble visit). Once you’ve achieved the requirements, you simply indicate with a Coat of Arms token that you have the ability and you can use it for the rest of the game. For example, once you have two white bonuses, you have the permanent ability to take a third gem of a different color when you use the standard action of taking two gems of the same color. All three action abilities are extremely useful, and the last two abilities are actually ways to score extra victory points.
The strangest thing about this module is that the requirements for each ability are static, which really surprised me. I would have expected them to vary from game to game. However, after playing with this expansion, I don’t mind it. You will rarely ever get more than maybe three of these abilities in a game, and the actual cards and Nobles in play will force you to adapt as to which abilities you consider and when you go for them. Randomizing the requirements would have been somewhat redundant in that sense, and this is more streamlined. I really like having permanent effects for the entire game, and this one is just barely a notch below The Orient for me. These two modules stand far above the other two.

Cities

The namesake module of the expansion, Cities, shakes up the game by replacing the Nobles entirely. Now, to win the game, players must complete one of three particular objectives (there are seven in the box, but three are always used, regardless of player count). If a player completes one, the game ends that round, and if no one else grabbed a tile (you can’t grab the same one), that player wins. If two players grab one, then most victory points is the tiebreaker. Another missing clarification from the rulebook: I assume if it’s still tied, you then use the base game’s tiebreaker, which is the fewest number of development cards / bonuses.
The intent of this expansion, as I understand it, is to increase competition among players by requiring them to do certain things. For example, in one game our objectives required 11 points but 3 bonuses each of 4 different colors, or 13 points and 4 red bonuses and 13 black bonuses, or just 17 points. In that game I went for red and black bonuses, while my opponent went for the 11-point card, thinking it would get him there faster, but the lack of white cards showing up gave me the game, and I was aggressive about reserving white cards if they came up, once I realized he was pigeonholed in that regard. So, the expansion did work as intended.
Playing with this expansion was fine, but it didn’t feel like anything different than normal, other than it felt like I had fewer options than usual, which I disliked. Usually, you can try for a Noble, or you can go for big points and ignore them, but now you have no option. You Must Do One of These Things. The other big problem with this expansion is that it can’t possibly integrate with the two really good expansions that are intertwined with Nobles.
I really, really do not understand why this module is not just more Nobles with much crazier patterns than 3/3/3 or 4/4. Like, six of one color of your choice, or two of every color, and so on—basically, very similar to what’s on the City tiles, but would have actually integrated with everything else. That would have been fantastic, and I hope to see a BGG promo pack or something similar like that in the future—after typing this up, I literally went onto BoardGameGeek and bought a copy of the Promo Noble Tiles from Geek Market. They could have even just kept Nobles in the game and made them required on some of the City tiles. It’s incredibly strange that this expansion does all kinds of things except the most popular “more of the same” (no new standard cards or Nobles). So, even though I didn’t mind this and like it better than the Strongholds, its lack of integration with The Orient and Trading Posts means that I will rarely play with it.

Strongholds

Both last and least, the Strongholds are a variant that adds more aggressive interaction, but in a somewhat frustrating way. Also, unlike the picture here, there are three of each color, not four. The way Strongholds work: after you buy a development card, you can place a Stronghold of your own on a card with no other player’s Strongholds, or you can return a Stronghold to another player. While a card has a Stronghold on it, only that player can buy or reserve that card. If you put all three of your Strongholds on one card, you can buy that card after your main action as a second action, but you still have to pay for the card.
Soon I’ll delineate my thoughts on Splendor versus the good-but-over-hyped “Splendor killer” Century: Spice Road. One of the reasons Splendor (even without the expansion) outshines Century is that it actually has a fair amount of interaction. Limited gems and the ability to reserve a card you know someone else might want give it a much stronger feeling of playing against the other players instead of beside them while you all live in your own bubbles. Strongholds, however, take this a bit too far. Reserving a card has an opportunity cost—you have to spend your turn to do it, and you can only reserve, at most, three cards. The Strongholds give an extra benefit when you’re already doing something useful, and force opponents to buy cards to deal with it. In a two-player game, it’s either a pointless zero-sum game of taking the same Stronghold on and off again, or it’s a mutual respect for economic advantage while both players spend three turns at a time working towards a bonus action. In either case, it’s not particularly interesting, and it’s also very easy to forget to actually do the Stronghold action, since Splendor is usually such a snappy, fast game. With three or four players, that extra time thinking about what to block or remove multiplies, and it can also be particularly frustrating, when up to nine (!) of the twelve cards can be blocked at one time!
The redeeming element of Strongholds, though, is that it can actually be combined with any of the other modules, and I’ll talk more about that below. For that reason, I’m more likely to play with this again over Cities, even though I like it less. I’ll never actually play with this alone, though, unless someone seriously demands it—I would rather use any of the other, more interesting modules. As a brief addendum, it’s also worth mentioning that an important clarification is missing from the rulebook: on the turn you place your third Stronghold, can you then take the bonus action and buy that card (and then place a Stronghold) again? We played that you could, and it’s pretty powerful when you can actually do it.

Combining Modules

They told us not to, but they couldn’t stop us! I haven’t been crazy enough to try three of these at once, but we’ve done a couple of pairs. Again, let’s put them in order of preference.
The Orient + Trading Posts: This was so much fun. I wouldn’t do it every time, and I would certainly introduce them to players one at a time. But when you feel like playing a “megagame” like when you throw in all the 7 Wonders or Carcassonne expansions at once, this has that feeling. There are some crazy combos that can be done between the two modules, like buying the 2-white-bonus card from The Orient to immediately get going on the corresponding special ability from the Trading Post. However, it’s definitely a lot to keep track of, and we had a couple of players be so focused on the fancy new cards that they forgot that they had even earned special abilities from the Trading Posts! So I would play a few games with each separately before doing this, but it was a very fun way to play. And having all those cool powers actually accelerated the game; our four-player game felt faster than usual, rather than being seriously drug out like so many “megagames” can be.
However, because this is technically forbidden in the rules, the rulebook is missing some important clarifications. We played with the following interpretations: the wild- and double-bonuses from The Orient count towards abilities from the Trading Post, and when you sacrifice bonuses for level-3 Orient cards, you do not lose abilities from the Trading Post if you dip below the requirements. We also played that if you buy an Orient card that nets you a second card, you only get one gem back with the corresponding Trading Post ability (a gem back each time you buy a card). I don’t really understand why the rules don’t go over these—surely they knew we’d do this anyway.
Cities + Strongholds: Since Cities is only compatible with Strongholds, I felt I had to try it. This was not a good idea. Both of these add somewhat frustrating ways to block other players, and then they compounded on each other. Cities forces you down certain paths, and then Strongholds gives you a really beneficial way to keep your opponent off of those paths, without any downside. Particularly in our two-player game, it felt like one player could just run the table if they timed their Strongholds right, which is very frustrating. I might use Cities again alone, or augment The Orient or Trading Posts with Strongholds, but I will not be trying this combo again. It was too much in the same gameplay direction, if that makes sense.
The Orient + Strongholds: This was basically my attempt to redeem the Strongholds, since they narrow the gamespace while The Orient opens it up. I thought it would make the Strongholds both more interesting and less annoying. While that was somewhat true, choosing what to block out of 18 cards instead of 12 simply made the Strongholds even more of a drag. Players would already often forget to do their Stronghold actions because doing a second thing on your turn simply feels odd in Splendor, but now, once reminded, it would take them a very long time to decide what in the world to block. It made the game take a bit longer than it should have, and didn’t actually affect the outcome of the game in any meaningful way. Eventually, we went back and forth on stopping each other from the triple-Stronghold free actions, and there was maybe one Orient card that I wanted that another player blocked, but I simply reserved the top card of the Orient deck and found something sufficiently similar (there aren’t very many different cards in the Orient decks). I don’t think we’ll try this combo again.
Other combinations: We haven’t tried the “megagame” of Trading Posts, The Orient, and Strongholds, and we probably won’t anytime soon unless we are feeling particularly loopy. I already felt like the Strongholds just got in the way of enjoying The Orient, and mixing The Orient and the Trading Posts was awesome but already at the edge of reasonable. I may still try the combo of Trading Posts and Strongholds, because the Trading Posts may give guidance as to which colors should be blocked by the Strongholds. But the best “combo” setting is definitely Trading Posts + The Orient, in my opinion.

Conclusion

On one hand, this expansion is slightly frustrating, because I recognize it could have been about perfect. The Orient and Trading Posts, combined with new Nobles, proper rules for combining the modules, and gems for a fifth player (the one tiny edge Century has on Splendor), packaged in a $30 MSRP box, would have been amazing. But I also recognize there are players out there who may have wanted a meaner, more interactive Splendor, and Cities and Strongholds certainly move Splendor in the opposite direction of the nearly-multiplayer-solitaire of Century—I have a feeling these people are not playing Splendor anymore, and probably aren’t going to buy this. For me, I came for the cool new effects and powers, the icing on the cake for so many of us engine-builder lovers, and I was not disappointed. Yes, the expansion could have been a bit better, but the good parts are fantastic, making the expansion worth its hefty price tag. Splendor fans rejoice!
Thank you to Asmodee North America for providing a review copy of Cities of Splendor.

The Bottom Line

 

Derek Thompson