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Splendor Duel Reworks One of the Best Recent Board Games for Two Players

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<i>Splendor Duel</i> Reworks One of the Best Recent Board Games for Two Players

Splendor is one of the best new games of the last decade, with a strong balance of strategy and luck, a scant three-page rulebook, and a concept that’s easy even for non-gamers to grasp. It has almost no direct interaction between players, however, and it’s probably better with three or four players than it is with two, although I think it works well at any player count. Thus we get the reboot Splendor Duel, a two-player version of the original game with a smaller box and several new rules that add some player interaction while also making it different enough from the original game to justify its existence.

Splendor Duel still resembles the original game at its core: Players collect tokens in several colors and use them to buy jewel cards that are arranged in three rows on the table, with the first row the cheapest and the third the most expensive. Each jewel card you buy also counts as a permanent token of its color, and you must buy at least some of those to be able to afford the cards in the third row. You may also ‘reserve’ a card from the table, gaining a gold (wild) token in the process.

In the original game, you could take three tokens of different colors or two of the same, but here, there’s a small board with a spiral track on it that you fill randomly with tokens of all colors, including gold and the new pearl (pink). You may take up to three tokens in a line, including diagonal, except for the gold tokens, which you can still only get by reserving a card. If you happen to take three tokens of the same color, your opponent gets one of the game’s three Privilege scrolls for later use.

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The second major rule change is that most cards in the game have powers on them that you activate when you buy them. One such power gives you an extra turn to take immediately, another lets you steal a token from your opponent, another gives you a Privilege scroll from the supply or your opponent if the supply is empty, and a fourth lets you take a token from the board that matches the card’s color. The last power is a permanent one, where the card is a wild color that you must choose when you buy it, although you must already have at least one card of that color.

There are just three Privilege scrolls in the game, so there’s a strong incentive to use them when you have them before your opponent gets to steal one. You can use one as a free action to take any token (except gold) from the board, giving you the chance to get up to four tokens in one turn, or just to grab the one token you need to finish a card. If, on your turn, you wish to refill the token board from the bag, your opponent gets a Privilege, possibly from you, further encouraging you to use them up when you can.

The Noble tiles from the original game are replaced here with four Royal cards that you acquire by buying cards with crown symbols on them. When you get three crowns, you choose one of the available Royals; when you get to six crowns, you choose another one. They’re worth victory points and three of them have additional powers on them. The game ends when one player meets any of the three victory conditions: 20 or more total victory points, 10 or more crowns, or 10 victory points in a single color (including any wild cards you’ve added).

The downside of Splendor Duel is that it’s quite a bit more complicated than the original; the first game had a short rule set and you could explain it in a few minutes. Most of the rules, if not all, are intuitive, but in Duel, the token-selection mechanism is far less so, and it adds some complexity that is absent in the original. The powers on cards are easier to understand, and fortunately the Privilege tokens are simple to use, with just one function (gaining a single token). The upside is that it is far more directly competitive than Splendor itself is—you’re taking tokens from your opponent, and blocking them is a more productive strategy than it is in the original. I also love that it’s in a smaller box, since the original Splendor’s box is mostly dead space, and two-player games should be highly portable. I don’t think this spinoff was necessary, but if you love Splendor, and often play it two-player, this is definitely worth having.

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Space Cowboys, publisher of Splendor and Splendor Duel, also introduced an original two-player game earlier this year in Botanik, a tile-laying game that offers a novel selection mechanism and has a highly challenging scoring system that makes the game deceptively hard. Players don’t take tiles directly from the supply/market, but must place them on a central board with three rows—one for each player and a central “registry.” You place a tile you want on your side in a space where it matches the central tile in either color or shape; later, when either player places a non-matching tile on top of that central one, it “releases” the tile so you can place it in your play area. Tiles have pipes on them that must connect at the end of the game for those tiles to remain in your play area and score. You get one point for each tile in a group of at least three adjacent tiles of the same color. You also get one point per white flower on any tile, and three points for every plant or vegetable tile (all of which have three flowers on them) that directly connects to a tile of the same color. There are also five wild tiles with faces on them that, if released to you, allow you to take a tile from the central row instead. The game ends when all tiles are placed, although you can easily end up without any legal moves by the last round, which I always find a bit frustrating. It’s another small-box title, playable in under a half an hour, but more complex than Splendor Duel because of the peculiar (but fun) selection mechanism.

Botanik Score: 7.5 out of 10.


Keith Law is the author of The Inside Game and Smart Baseball and a senior baseball writer for The Athletic. You can find his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.