Splendor was very hot for a while, and won quite a few awards. I missed it during its peak, and only played it for the first time recently.
This is how a game is set up. 5 random noble tiles are picked from a pool of 10 - those at the top of this photo. There are 3 levels of cards varying from cheap to expensive. For each level, four cards are drawn and laid out in a row. Whenever a card is bought or reserved, a new one is drawn to fill the blank. There are six types of chips, five are gems (black, white, red, green, blue) and the sixth type is gold (yellow).
The objective is to reach 15 victory points. Some cards are worth VP. Nobles are worth VP. Once a player reaches 15VP, the game ends after the current round, and the highest scorer wins. On your turn, there are only two types of action to pick from. First, you may collect gems. If you do so, you may either collect three gems of different colours, or two of the same colour. You are allowed to do the latter only if there are at least four gems left in that specific colour. The second action type is claiming a card. The cost of a card is specified at the bottom left corner. To buy a card you pay the required gem combination to the bank. Cards are gem producing facilities. Once you own a card, on every future turn it is considered to produce a gem of a specific colour which you can spend on buying a new card. Cards effectively give you discounts for future cards. E.g. if you already own two blue cards, you only need to pay one blue gem chip to buy a new card that costs 3 blue gems.
Every card produces only one gem. The three levels of cards differ by cost and VP worth. Cheaper ones tend to have low or no VP value. Expensive ones have higher VP values.
You may reserve a card without paying its cost. In this case you still claim it, but you place it face-down in front of you and you don't get to use its ability yet. In addition to the card, you also take one gold. The gold chip is a wild chip and can stand in for any gem. On a future turn you may pay the full cost of the card to turn it face-up.
The noble tiles specify the conditions you must fulfill to claim them. The conditions are in the form of specific combinations of cards. Once you meet the criteria, you immediately claim the corresponding noble. This does not require an action. Nobles are an important source of VP.
That's basically it. It doesn't sound like much, but let's look at how it feels during play.
I arrange my cards and chips this way so that at a glance I can easily tell what I can afford to buy, or what I'm short of to buy a certain card.
I played two games, both with 4 players, the highest count. At BGG most people think it's best with 3, but 4 seems to work quite well too. After Ainul explained the rules, I thought this game seemed rather simplistic. Your turn is very very simple. The actions are all straight-forward. You do need to have some short- or mid-term goals, and you need to spend a few turns achieving each of them. The game is a race to 15VP. What's interesting is how you get there. Splendor is a development game. Every card you buy contributes to your engine. Every card improves your buying power. You are constantly building your strength. You need a decent engine to be competitive. In my first game I focused very much on the engine-building. My reasoning was that if I could quickly build a strong engine, I would be able to run faster and outscore my opponents. I bought many cheap cards, because in terms of production capacity they were most cost-effective. Being able to buy more cards also meant it would be easier to win nobles. The nobles are the long-term strategy aspect in Splendor. You have to plan for them and watch which ones your opponents are going for. They are worth about 3VP each, and can easily become the difference between winning and losing.
My strategy was balanced development - having some of everything.
After the first game, I realised focusing too much on engine-building was not a good thing. I felt I was wasteful. I should not have delayed going for the VP cards for so long. I had underestimated the tempo of the game. A strong engine was good, but if I didn't use the capacity much, I probably shouldn't have developed that much capacity in the first place. This game is about developing just enough for you to be competitive in scoring. Overcapacity means waste. Identifying what's most worth doing and finding a path and a combo of cards that get you to 15VP most quickly are what make the game intriguing. When the 12 starting cards and 5 nobles are laid out, you can already start thinking about your strategy. You need to keep reevaluating and adjusting your strategy as the game progresses, depending on what your opponents are doing, and also what new opportunities present themselves.
Whenever a new card is drawn to replace a purchased (or reserved) card, the situation changes. Sometimes at the start of your turn a new card comes up which you can get for free. I like this aspect of the game. I like surprises. Other than this randomness, the game is an open information game. If you like to calculate things to death, you can. Your opponents' cards and chips are all open information. There are no dice and no probabilities to worry about. The only uncertainty is what cards are coming up next. I welcome this. This keeps the game lively.
Player interaction is high. You must watch your opponents. You don't want to keep getting in situations where you painstakingly collect gems to buy a card only to have someone else buy it just before you can afford it. You need to gauge when to fight and when to avoid a fight. If nobody can afford a particular card which you want, you can probably wait a little longer before buying it. If you see that an opponent who wants the same card as you will beat you to it, you probably should concede this card and shift your aim to something else. What throws a wrench in the works is the reservation mechanism. Suddenly you realise you cannot be sure anymore of your calculations. This reservation rule is a stroke of genius. Being able to reserve a card and take one gold sounds overpowered, but it is not. After reserving a card, you still need to spend a future turn to flip it. The gold sounds nice, but it is still just one gem, compared to the three gems you can take on a normal turn. Reserving a card is not to be taken lightly.
In Splendor you need to have a clear long-term plan, and you need to stay flexible with your mid-term tactics. The game situation constantly changes, and you must take these changes into account. You must not take actions on a whim. Your actions should be aligned towards a clear goal. Else you would be wasting actions.
Pay attention to your opponents and know what they want, be it cards or nobles. Know your enemies, so that you know how to pick your battles. In this photo, the cheapest cards have all been bought, so there are only two rows left. Of the 5 nobles, 3 have been claimed, so only 2 remain at the centre.
I did not have expectations before playing Splendor. I knew it was well-received. What I had gathered from the various comments was that it was a light family game, and it was mostly abstract with a pasted-on setting. Now that I have played it, I find there is some depth to it that is not immediately obvious. There are some complex games where despite the many rules and different ways of scoring points, once you start playing them, you have a clear idea what needs to be done in order to do well. You know the pros and cons of your options. Splendor works the other way round. The actions are simple, but I find that it is not always easy to tell whether an action is good or bad. There is an opaqueness in the strategy. I mean this in a good way. It is not that the rules confuse you and you don't know what you should be doing. It is that many things are interlinked, and there is uncertainty in the cards which are yet to come, so it is hard to be precise about how valuable an action is. Sometimes it is not even a question of more valuable or less valuable. It can be a question of valuable or not valuable.
You can play without thinking about these too much. It is a very accessible game and it can be played in a relaxed manner. It works well as a family game.
The setting of Splendor is indeed pasted-on. Behind the facade, it is an abstract development and race game. But what a beautiful facade it has. Splendor is clever game with plenty of juicy decisions.
The excellent artwork makes playing the game a joy.