21st Sep2020

‘Marvel Splendor’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

Whilst I’ve noticed an increasing number of dubious uses for the Marvel branding – including everything from sweets to underwear – Marvel Splendor is one tie-in that actually makes sense. The link between classic Splendor gameplay and Thanos’ quest for the Infinity Stones is so clear that I could imagine that whoever runs marketing at Space Cowboys leaping out of bed one night and shouting “Eureka!” as the thought occurred to them.

Anyway, it’s a concept that intrigued me right away, if only because I haven’t actually played the original Splendor, despite having heard an awful lot about it. Splendor is reportedly one of the classic gateway games, offering two to four players about thirty to forty-five minutes of winging building fun – helped immensely by the chunky plastic poker chips it uses to represent the in-game jewels.

In Marvel Splendor, the game is built around five basic gem colours – just as in the base game. This is inconvenient for Infinity Stone purposes, so the game introduces a sixth colour gem in a slightly contrived way, but I’ll touch on that later. The rest of the gameplay (at least to the extent I understand the base variant of Splendor) is close to identical.

The players set the game up by dealing out rank 1, 2 and 3 cards in three rows on top of each other. The rank 1 cards go at the bottom and cost the least, but offer minimal bonuses, whilst the rank 3 cards are expensive in relative terms, by may offer several bonuses. A number of location cards and an Avengers Assemble token are placed nearby so that all players can see what values are printed on them.

The game end trigger occurs when any player reaches sixteen points in token across the rank 1, 2 and 3 cards they have recruited, as well as any locations or the Avengers Assemble token, if they have claimed them. Everyone finishes their turn this round, and the player who ultimately has the highest score (not always the one who triggered the end game) will win.

To actually recruit cards, players will need to gather and spend the gem tokens I mentioned earlier. On their turn, a player may take three tokens of different colours or two of one colour (but only if there are at least four in the stack) into their hand. Either of these acts counts as the entire turn. They may instead reserve a card from the table by taking it into their hand, along with a Shield Token that can act as a wild gem, or they may recruit a card – either from those already reserved or from the table – by paying the gems it requires.

The interesting thing about this mechanic, and the Whole recruitment of cards (which in Marvel Splendor are all unique characters from the MCU) is that each one provides a gem to add to later recruitments. So for example, if you’ve recruited characters that provide a red gem and an orange gem, then next time you recruit a character that requires two red and two orange gems as it’s price, you’ll only need to pay one of each in tokens, since the gems on your cards will cover the other two.

As I mentioned earlier, there are only five basic gems in Splendor, and this carries into the Marvel variant in an awkward way, since the Infinity Gauntlet requires six. Marvel Splendor sidesteps this by adding a green (Time) gem to each level 3 card, meaning that every player must recruit at least one of those if they are to win. These gems have no other purpose except that in the Marvel mythos, the Infinity Gauntlet requires them.

Having not played Splendor, I can’t say how much difference it would have made to try and implement the use of a sixth gem during the normal course of gameplay, but the way the green gem actually is handled feels very painted-on to me. This is largely true for the whole idea, in fact, since there’s little rhyme or reason as to why recruiting characters to add their strength to yours in the form of alignment to one gem or another makes little sense – but the gameplay is certainly no worse for this theme, either.

One thing which is wholly attributable to the Marvel theme is the card artwork, which is both good and bad. Every individual card features a different character – including every major one and plenty of minor ones. The art is universally fantastic, but comes in three or four different styles – from classic comic to CGI style. I really didn’t like this, and I’d much have preferred a single style to be carried throughout.

Theme, artwork and Infinity Stone driven storyline aside, I can see why people love Splendor’s gameplay. This is a game that takes ten minutes to setup and learn, and which can be taught to a huge range of age groups and different levels of experience. You could easily have a family weekend with seven or eight-year-old kids playing alongside their grandparents, and because the Marvel theme is quite thin, it can be ignored completely whilst the gameplay shines through. Conversely, I can see how a young player who is invested in Marvel emotionally could build up a much better internal narrative than I’ve spun here.

Ultimately, Marvel Splendor is a very well made product that works hard to make the most of the theme. The range of depicted characters is broad and inclusive, whilst the artwork is superb (even if I don’t like the mixed styles.) The poker chip tokens are heavy and attractive, with stickers already in place. The rule book is brief and top quality, thanks to editing by Gaming Rules! I wouldn’t say you need to run out and replace your existing copy, but if you’re a fan of the MCU and Splendor is of interest, or if you’re buying a gift for a fan, then Marvel Splendor is a great investment.

**** 4/5

Marvel Splendor is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.


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