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Splendor exhibits all the challenges of going from tabletop to tablet

Tabletop-to-videogame adaptations typically go one of two ways: either the developers take inspiration from the art and themes of the original game and further illustrate them through animation, dialogue, and cinematic conceits, or they directly replicate the physical game in videogame form as closely as possible. An old title like Battle Chess, where the queens and knights animate brief melee encounters when capturing one another, aligns more with the former. The game still plays like the chess you know, but in a manner that could only exist as a videogame. The gem-collecting and trading game Splendor opts for the latter, more literal adaptation route. It’s a choice that lovingly recreates the game’s cards and tokens in virtual space, but is too indebted to the tabletop experience to shine on its own.

Days of Wonder’s Splendor is a critically acclaimed tabletop game where 2-4 players take turns drawing gem tokens to trade in for cards that grant them different denominations of points depending on how expensive the card is. There are a couple other considerations for players to make as they go along, but collecting and purchasing is the core system at work. The first player to 15 points wins, and one game takes about 30 minutes to complete. Splendor, like Days of Wonder’s exceedingly popular Ticket to Ride, strikes an effective balance between simple rulesets and complex possibilities. You aren’t likely to win a game on chance alone, but luck can certainly play a crucial role. The game requires a strategic mind and a watchful eye to excel, but never at the expense of accessibility or brevity. There’s no game board, but the Renaissance-inspired art on the cards is colorful and crisp, and the gem tokens have a well-crafted poker chip-like feel and weight to them.

Splendor, the videogame, works in a near identical fashion. Each of the game’s assets is rendered to best mimic the physical playset with the touchscreen background filling the role of the table. The game doesn’t take the Battle Chess route; card artwork doesn’t “come alive” and gem tokens are still flat poker chips, not virtual gems themselves. Splendor doesn’t present itself as anything other than a tabletop experience, and brings with it some of the “boardgame night” ambiance and sense of tactility that make tabletop games appealing in the first place. However, playing games with others is a key component to most tabletop games and also a point where Splendor falters as a tabletop-to-videogame adaptation.

At launch, there is no online play in Splendor, leaving the less-than-ideal pass-and-play mode as the only multiplayer option. While not a dealbreaker, pass-and-play is more inconvenient on mobile devices than, say, a home console game on a TV, due to the fact that players aren’t just taking turns with the controller, they’re passing the screen around, too. Imagine a game of Scrabble where you can’t get a clear look at your letters or the board unless it’s your turn. You can still play of course, but the game does bog down considerably if you’re trying to keep tabs on your opponents and adjust your strategy accordingly (cue flashbacks of my indecipherable Clue notepads).

Splendor doesn’t present itself as anything other than a tabletop experience 

Alternatively, you can also play solo against AI opponents in standard matches and special challenge scenarios, but these modes are somewhat anti-climactic and lack the hooks of the game as a social conduit. The AI bots you compete against have a few preset behaviors like “opportunistic” and “balanced” that you select beforehand, and the challenge mode constructs a few sets of situations for earning points within a fixed number of turns, among other preset limitations and multipliers. The problem with both is that there’s not a compelling progression from one match to the next or incentive to keep coming back, other than it being decent practice for gearing up to compete against other human players.

I can’t help but relate the adaptation issues Splendor encounters to the fact that the game so closely adheres to the form and function of a tabletop game while appearing on mobile platforms that can only loosely approximate that physical and social experience. There’s a disconnect where Splendor (the videogame) doesn’t justify itself as a virtual tabletop simulation aside from its devotion to its source material. It’s commonplace in games to have ads for other products by their creators within their menus, but Splendor’s ad for the tabletop version of the game feels more revelatory than most—like the whole game is actually an ad for the physical incarnation.

And it’s an effective ad to boot. The core of Splendor is a smart, accessible strategy experience, and you get a taste of that from the mobile game. But more than anything, Splendor just whetted my appetite for playing it with actual cards and tokens, which even it seems to acknowledge is the game’s ideal form.