As regular readers of this blog know, I am a big fan of Splendor. Back in June I entered the UK nationals and came sixth, something which I keep shouting about even though there were only around 40 people in the tournament. I’m so proud of it, in fact, that I have even put it on my CV. Right after where it says what my degree is, it says “6th Best Splendor Player in the UK”. I’m contemplating putting it in a different font with giant arrows surrounding it, but that may be overkill.
All the same, in order to get ready for the national tournament I played as often as I could and, in hindsight, probably took it way too seriously. A close group of friends and family actually took it upon themselves to train me, however, there was still a lot of downtime in between gaming sessions where I could be practising. To fill these gaps, I downloaded the Splendor app on my phone. That way I could continue playing when on my lunch break at work, on train journeys, waiting for meetings, and, relaxing on the couch in front of Star Trek.
For those who don’t know the rules to Splendor, I am not going to explain here, just suffice it to say it is a resource management and set collecting game based around the concept of building up as much prestige as possible.
During the UKGE gaming season (April through June-ish), where my gaming group and I play more of the games we plan to play at the tournament tables at the expo, we played a lot of Splendor. It was only afterwards that it struck me how different the app was to playing real people. I believe a large percentage of this is because Splendor is as much a game about reading the other players as it about the maths behind playing the perfect game.
The Weakness of the App: Player vs Player
I’ve spent a long time on this blog writing about the maths behind Splendor; however, I have rarely touched on the human aspect, and it is a human game. This is why, in a way, playing the app is such a difficult thing to do.
You see, as easy as it is to sit back and say “oh the perfect game can be done in fifteen turns” or whatever, it is a kind of a fallacy. All great competitive games, all of the ones we love as gamers, require as much playing of the players as they do the playing of the game.
When playing the app, great as the app is, that playing the player becomes playing the algorithm instead.
Don’t get me wrong, the Splendor App does a great job; however, it is a very different experience. Playing an algorithm sounds like it should be a lot easier than playing people; however, it really isn’t. Instead of sensing real emotion, real empathy, and real human interaction we face an opponent who, intrinsically, behaves as a robot.
Facing a computer also raises a serious question in regards to how much the competition really knows in each game of Splendor on the app. When playing humans each player is self-contained. With the app, your results and hand are a part of that app. Where a human may forget what was reserved in each turn, an app will not. That makes the game incredibly difficult.
Splendor, ultimately, shares a lot with the likes of Poker. You need to know you can influence other players if you play well enough, that you can read them and predict their next move. That intuition doesn’t get taken into account when playing the app. The NPCs know you but it is hard to keep track of them.
The Strength of the App: Practice, Practice, Practice
The app is not all doom and gloom, however. There are a couple of great strengths it has over the tabletop game.
Firstly, it can be played anywhere, and it can be played solo. This makes it great for people like me, who enter tournaments, to try and play against as many playing styles as possible before entering. It can be invaluable, especially as (on the app game) it is possible to specifically change the playing style of the opponents you are facing. This means it is possible to make them more aggressive or more defensive depending on what you want to practice against.
The other major strength is that, in not being able to play the player, it forces you to come up with other strategies other than those you have grown most comfortable with. For instance, I am a huge fan of the “bull rush” strategy, or to begin reserving on turn one of the game. This can be effective at intimidating players with the meta-game, as they assume you know exactly what you are doing – even though most of the time you don’t have a clue and are rushing in head first (I speak from experience).
This tactic, the confident bluff, doesn’t work against a machine. They just continue and, due to the inability to visually see their hand at all times (in a way that is familiar and easy to digest at least), they can storm through that tactic with little difficulty. This means that you, as the player, have to adapt to an aggressive and perfectly calm opponent.
It is, to go back to Star Trek, a bit like playing Spock. They are logical, at all times. They never get flustered. They never waste a turn. This can be infuriating to play against, however, it can also be incredibly rewarding. There is a reason we play video games on ‘hard’ as, being forced to adapt to beat a game, to be forced out of our comfort zones, we learn from the experience. It is exactly the same with board games and, in this case, board game apps. One of the reasons we play games is to learn, and we learn most about ourselves when we are forced to change to overcome the odds.
So Which is Better?
Which is better? Although I would like to say it is difficult to answer, it is actually really easy to say. The board game is best. The board game version of a board game app always will be the better game because most tabletop games have been designed to be social experiences. As the late Gary Gygax said:
The essence of a role-playing game is that it is a group, cooperative experience.
It is exactly the same with board games.
That being said, the app has its place. It is a challenge and does present a different experience to the tabletop game. I would recommend giving it a whirl and seeing for yourself.