Board Gaming, Guest Posters, Randomly Awesome

The Ultimate Gateway Game: Splendor vs. Pandemic

pandemic

     VS

splendor

A couple of posts ago, local celebrity and teen heartthrob Jamey Stegmaier suggested that he and I have some written discussions about various games and that the fruits of said discussions could be blog content. We have several such discussions in progress, and it’s been a lot of fun. With any luck, this can become a regular-ish feature, if not strictly between Jamey and I, then other famous guests. Here is the first of these discussions, enjoy!

jsblogI’m going to start off with a bold statement: I think Splendor is the ultimate gateway game. It’s super easy to learn, it’s forgiving when you make a “bad” decision or are trying to figure out what a good decision is, it’s quick to play, and it’s interesting enough for experienced gamers to want to play it with newcomers. I love a lot of things about Splendor, but I think that’s the standout element of it to me. So here’s my challenge: Can you name a better gateway game than Splendor? If so, what holds Splendor back from occupying that position for you?

 

joepicYep, that’s a bold statement all right. Splendor has everything you want in a gateway game. It’s easy to teach, reasonably entertaining, doesn’t have a lot of moving and confusing parts, and has a solid aesthetic appeal. It really can be defined as a total package. It IS a great gateway game. But the ultimate? That I’m less convinced of.

Neither of us can argue the numbers. Games like Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride have ferried SO MANY people from one group to the other. They’ve also been out for a long time. Time will tell if Splendor gets a Super Awesome Mega Bonus Happy Time 10th Anniversary Special Edition. We can’t say that Splendor is comparatively speaking not as solid a gateway game, because it hasn’t been out long enough to establish itself as such.

So then we have to look at the definition of “ultimate gateway game.” When I look at a gateway game, I’m looking to show someone that game design evolution has some a very very long way since Risk and Monopoly. I’m looking to CONVERT people. While Splendor does a decent job of this, I would like to tender my nomination for “ultimate gateway game” to Pandemic.

While I tend to avoid absolutes (best, worst, etc). Here’s why I think Pandemic is a better gateway game than Splendor.

1. Co-op games are a relatively new phenomenon to board gaming, and still pretty much unknown to the larger game playing American populace. This novelty factor is a big deal. There’s no learning a new game and assuming that you will lose because you’re “the new guy.” The fact that everyone wins or loses takes that individual pressure away.

2. Pandemic is easy to teach. The actions are simple to understand, and you pretty much have it figured out what you can do by your third turn. Not what you SHOULD do, mind you, that’s something else entirely.

3. Pandemic has a MUCH stronger narrative. It’s an immersive experience with a great tempo. You feel the tension. The individual roles go a long way in getting people “in” the game. When Epidemic cards come up, there are moments of sincere dread. Losing Pandemic is only slightly less fun than winning it, and winning it feels more like an accomplishment.

4. Pandemic broke through! Splendor is a great game. I own it. I enjoy it, I have used it as a game to teach people unaware of the subculture. When that person goes to Target, they are not going to find Splendor. They can find Pandemic. Admittedly, this point bears less weight in this day and age of online shopping, but Pandemic is still infinitely more accessible than Splendor at this point.

Clearly at this point, I have you wriggling in the crushing vice of reason and you’re sorry you ever had the gall to recommend Splendor as the ultimate gateway game. Many games carry that title, and as referenced earlier, some of which may be popular as they are “classics.” Ignoring the influence that these classics have on modern gaming (It’s safe to say that maybe Terra Mystica wouldn’t exist without Settlers of Catan), if some of these classics were just being released now, do you think that they would still have the power to breakthrough to the mainstream?

 

jsblogWow, you’re not pulling any punches here, are you? I like it!

For me it comes down to this: Which game would be the easiest to teach my parents (and still be enjoyable to me at the same time)? I can’t think of another game that would trump Splendor on that list.

Granted, Pandemic is a great game. I’ve even brought it home to my parents twice now thinking we would play, but whenever I think about actually introducing it them, I think of the elements of the game that wouldn’t work well for a non-gamer (particularly the very clunky rules about not being about to pass a card to someone if you’re in the same city as them unless the card you’re passing is that city), and I end up picking a simpler game.

If I had to pick a cooperative game to introduce to my parents, it would be Forbidden Desert, hands down. So Matt Leacock is still getting some love here.

Back to Splendor, though. Perhaps this is more of a question of: Is a cooperative game the ultimate gateway game, or a competitive game? The thing about Splendor is that it gives people the opportunity to feel clever throughout the game, even if they’re playing it for the first time. People like to feel clever, especially if they don’t have to devote a huge amount of brainpower to it. So while cooperative games do make great gateway games, I’d rather go with an easy competitive game like Splendor.

If I have one gripe about the game, it’s that players can play the entire game without saying a single word. There’s still interaction, but it really can be a silent game. How big of a problem do you think that is?

 

joepicWhich game would be easiest to teach to your parents? I think you might be selling your parents short here. They are *your* parents, which suggests two things, from what we know of you. You are a great lover of games. Odds are good that you played games with your family growing up, though maybe not games like we have nowadays. The point is, your parents are likely game friendly. On the chance that they aren’t, they are still *your* parents, and are likely rather proud of the darling/juggernaut of the indie design community their son has become, and would be willing to get on board with something important to their child. In either case, you’ve got a rapt audience, but for sake of argument, I think you’re trying to say “generic parents” (read: Squares from Squareville) and not “parents of Kickstarter rock star Jamey Stegmaier.”

This begs another question though, who is the most likely target for a gateway game? Parents seem a little on the unlikely side unless you are still living with them. Co-workers, non-gaming friends and romantic prospects all seem much more likely targets. It may seem like I’m changing the subject, but I think that this is an important factor in this argument.

Splendor is definitely a super easy game to teach, and as you mentioned, the enjoyment of the game is unhindered by the teaching process. I recently taught someone Guildhall, and when they struggled with it, I was mildly frustrated by my inability to better communicate how the game works. Guildhall, by the way, while delightful and one of my all time favorites, is NOT a gateway game.

I don’t feel there are many stumbling bricks to learning Pandemic. I recently taught a few of my parents’ friends (so the appropriate age/interest demographic you’re talking about) and while the thing you referenced is probably the most difficult thing to convey, they took to it very easily, because I let the theme explain the rules. I referred to the city cards in trade as samples of the disease in question, and you have to be in said place to collect said sample. Done, confusion ended. People are already excited about getting into roles here, so this isn’t a big stretch. It also really makes some of the roles (like the one who breaks this rule by exchanging any cards as long as you’re in the same location) shine more.

Forbidden Desert hands down? While it is a simpler game than Pandemic, I would choose Pandemic every day of the week and twice on Sunday. I enjoy Forbidden Desert, but it lacks the tension of Pandemic. ALTHOUGH: this may be extremely subjective opinion. I’ve never lost Forbidden Desert, and I never felt really threatened by the prospect of losing. Jamie Toon told me that he has only beaten Forbidden Desert once, but also says that he beat Robinson Crusoe (and handily) the first 3-4 times he played it. (It took me at least 3 tries to beat the first scenario). With Pandemic, I have only had 1 blowout victory, several skin of my teeth victories, and I’ve lost count of how many defeats that ranged from “Holy hell were we unprepared for this” to “Pfft. We got this sh – – wait, what do you mean we lost?” to “What just happened? We didn’t even have time to say goodbye!” The greater point being (and this ties back to Splendor) is that the game is almost unfailingly tense and delicious. The execution of the theme is close to flawless, and creates its own fun. It gives the game personality. You come up with nicknames for the various roles and the diseases. Win or lose, you want to play again. And again. And again. Splendor is a solid introduction to gaming, but it doesn’t generate the excitement to play more like Pandemic does. It’s enjoyable, but it doesn’t create a hunger. Wouldn’t you agree that that, perhaps more than anything else, is crucial to what makes a gateway game what it is? After all, when using something as a gateway game, you’re not just trying to sell them on one game, you’re trying to sell them on thousands. Splendor does a great job marketing for itself. Pandemic does a great job marketing for the hobby.

To its credit, Splendor does allow one to feel clever pretty easily. The issue with this is twofold. First, said cleverness, well…isn’t always clever. My first few games, I was intent on building an engine to take the cards I wanted with barely any interaction with chips. I didn’t want to have to fight over certain colors, so my “answer” was to make it so I was never dependent on that aspect of the game. I built my engine and separated myself from the rabble squabbling over chips. Somehow, I won doing this. Once. My “strategy” actively went against the goals of winning the game. I proceeded to lose my next several games despite ending with a card scoring engine. One of the games was with my girlfriend’s mother, who I was teaching (she won, by the way). After the fact, she said she didn’t understand what I was doing. I explained the rules, and how to win, and she focused her efforts on point cards. Simply amazing. I explained how to score points, and that’s all she focused on. Meanwhile, the person who theoretically knew what he was doing came in a solid 6 points behind. Oh, but my engine! My other issue with the cleverness, is that in my opinion, it isn’t very deep, which translates to a lack of lasting satisfaction. It’s good for what it is.

In the bigger picture, I think competitive vs. cooperative in terms of gateway games is a different discussion. I raised my point about Pandemic because that’s part of the allure. Prior to Pandemic and its ilk surfacing to the public and escaping the subculture, how many cooperative games could one have easy access to? The fact that it’s not what people are used to goes a long way in securing its charm.

We do agree on your last point though, Splendor is a game that can very easily go quiet. While this isn’t necessarily problematic, I think it defeats some of the purpose of what a gateway game should do. It’s a fun experience by itself for sure, but again, you want that fun to last, and it’s more likely to leave an impression with a greater social focus. After all, this is one of the reasons that we gamers love games. They provide a fun activity and backdrop to a social engagement. I own many games that can be played single player. How often do I do so? Almost never. I like being around my friends sharing in an enjoyable experience. Games like Pandemic force social interaction, which lends itself well to banter and jokes. Anything like that for Splendor has to be manually added, which sometimes people don’t make the effort to do. It’s not a problem mechanically for the game, but I think it potentially detracts from some of the reasons we play games in the first place.

 

jsblogI certainly don’t want to sell my parents short—after all, they learned Viticulture as their very first Euro game. I just learned a lot about what a gateway is from that teaching experience (I think that’s when I first realized that Viticulture is not a gateway game).

I like your explanation of the cards representing samples. But if you have the sample and you’re carrying it around the world, why can’t you just hand it off to anyone at any time?

Splendor “doesn’t create hunger.” I agree with that. Pandemic is certainly one of those games that you want to play again immediately after you lose. I was just listening to a game design podcast yesterday about how mobile games use that strategy to hook people on the games. Games are just hard enough that you lose and are a little frustrated the first few times you play Level 1, but that frustration actually makes the game more fun—you’re thrilled by it, and you want to play again right away. When you finally win, you’re filled with a huge sense of accomplishment. Pandemic does that really well.

In your paragraph about cleverness I think you unwittingly support my point about Splendor being a great gateway game. As you indicated, the game gives you the opportunity to pick and pursue simple strategies, and even win with them! That’s great for a gateway game.

This has been a great discussion, and I appreciate you talking about Splendor with me. This is your blog, so you get the final word: What are your closing thoughts?

 

joepicI threw my girlfriend’s father into Viticulture on Xmas Day. This was his first euro-style game, and first worker placement game. He had amassed quite a hoard of coins, but it wasn’t until the very end of the game that he realized that money did not equate to victory. It was interesting  to be reminded of how concepts like Victory Points that exist within a game with money can be a mildly jarring concept to someone more familiar with games like Monopoly. Given, in many games, money serves as VP, but I digress. He’s played 3 games with us now, and only one would I consider even kind of a gateway game, For Sale.

I’ll tell you why you can’t just hand off your samples to anyone anywhere, because Science. Don’t ask me how you can convert samples into one way airfare either.

That kind of narrative hook is one of the main reasons I think Pandemic is the superior gateway game. Both games are fun. If I play two games of Splendor back to back, it’s because someone said “Want to go again?” and I thought “Sure, why not?” If I play two games of Pandemic back to back, it’s often a case of “We were SO close! GAH! We HAVE to play again!”

My win in the referenced game of Splendor may be less of an endorsement of “any path is viable” and more a condemnation of my opponent for somehow losing to that completely backwards strategy. 🙂

I agree that this was a fun talk, and I’m looking forward to future discussions about games. Interestingly, in thinking about this, it’s curious that one other factor never came up. Splendor would be much easier to teach to children than Pandemic, and your point about allowing everyone to feel clever through simple strategies is even more pronounced here. Children are a powerful demographic for this. I’m trying to raise a small flock of mini-gamers myself, and this was a big reason behind me purchasing Splendor in the first place. As for my closing thoughts, I think that both of these games are great for what they are. They are both fantastic for teaching people about the kind of awesome gaming opportunities there are now, they are both pretty accessible. I’m glad to own both, though I will say that looking at a longer timeline, Pandemic has more staying power. There have already been two successful expansions for it, as well as a dice game. Splendor may get expansion someday, and I can see a few ideas for how that might come to be, but when we’re looking at years, Pandemic is likely to see more play time from both of us.

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13 thoughts on “The Ultimate Gateway Game: Splendor vs. Pandemic

  1. Thanks for letting me be a part of the conversation, Joe! I like the way you ended it, and that’s a great point about bringing kids into games.

    Also, the insight about Viticulture is really interesting. In real life, money is one of the few quantitative measures of success, so I can see how a newer gamer would associate it with success in a board game.

  2. I’m with Joe on this argument.

    The big issue here from my perspective is appeal. Pandemic, while having slightly more complex rules, has much wider appeal – the idea of fighting diseases is conceptually clear and innoffensive. It’s heroic without being excessively geeky, like superheroes.

    Very few people hate Pandemic, and most who don’t like it have simply played it, enjoyed it, and then moved on.

    Splendor, however, has divided appeal. Some people really love it, but for the gameplay. Others find it completely boring. Ultimately Splendor is a game system front and center, and not everyone gets all that into manipulating a game system. Most people will enjoy getting into a game EXPERIENCE. Pandemic provides a game experience layered over the game system, which allows people to get into playing the game. Splendor requires you to get into the game system, because outside of that there is no experience.

  3. Very interesting debate! Another thing that I think I would say is in favor of Splendor is that I like more mechanisms will translate into learning future games better/more quickly than the mechanisms in Pandemic.

    I think that the resource collection/management, set collection, and engine building present in Splendor will better prepare newcomers to play more games than the action allowance and general coop mechanisms in Pandemic will.

    1. Hmmm. This is a good point. Not enough to sway me, but definitely something that bears mention. Now I want to sit here and ponder about what other games these two can help transition into. I recently picked up Sushi Go and after a couple of hands with the kids, I knew that in a year or two, I could spring 7 Wonders on them. Thanks for reading!

  4. What a great blog post! Joe – I came here through Jamey’s FB page, but I think I will stick around a little! You both have really great points. Personally, my views are more aligned with Joe’s.

    That being said, I have had zero success with Splendor with tiny table toppers (or kids) because there is nothing that pulls them in. Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert (ok – not Pandemic, but these are in the same vein), on the other hand, have been wildly successful in engaging children (for me). In fact, I taught Forbidden Island in a local grade 2/3 class to reinforce their geology curriculum (plate tectonics, erosion, global warming – all of these can be used to explain why the island is sinking in the first place). There were ~30 kids in the class, and now many of them own the game because they enjoyed it so much. My point here is that I find that there are a lot of games that are excellent and have a “toy like” quality to them that really engage the kids, which elevate these games above Splendor as an opportunity to engage kids (for me).

    That being said, this conversation has motivated me to break Splendor out again and try it one more time. Thanks again for the very interesting read!

    Cheers,
    David

    1. Thank you for the kind words, I hope you enjoy whatever other scribblings you come across while you’re here.

      That’s very cool that you used Forbidden Island as such a learning tool. I need to figure out how to teach important things with Chaos in the Old World now. Thanks for reading!

  5. Thanks, a fun read!

    I find pieces that I agree with in both of your arguments. I definitely agree with Joe in that the theme has to be a factor and Pandemic wins there hands down – fighting diseases is a great universally appealing scenario.

    However, I think co-op games do take away some of new players’ independence. While your discussion focused on “being clever”, I think it extrapolates to many other feelings, mostly the sensation of agency over what’s going on in the game – to me hitting that nail on the head is an important piece of an introductory experience. You have to feel ownership of what you have achieved in the game and I think it works best when it’s yours alone.

    My personal introductory favourite is Carcassonne. The rules can be explained in 2 minutes. It is very intuitive and appealing. Players can have great sense of pride in seeing the results of their work. And yes, I have taught it to parents and yes, they bought their own copy 🙂

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