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A Rich Setting

A Glimpse into the Historical Background of Splendor

17 May 2016 | Splendor


Splendor is a strategy game that is at once easy-to-learn and fascinatingly challenging. On another level, it immerses players in the fiercely competitive and lucrative Renaissance jewelry trade, in which a very shrewd jeweler could not only become rich, but gain the favor of kings and queens. From the mining locations and storefronts depicted on the cards to the portraits on the noble tiles, the game is steeped in rich historical detail. 

Today we’re going to explore a little of the history that Splendor is built on.

From the Earth’s Four Corners 

Like spices and silks, gemstones were rare, expensive, and highly coveted in Europe during the Middle Ages. Gems were believed to be living and growing things, or to contain spirits that made the stones shimmer and sparkle. Some types of stone were thought to protect against illnesses or threats, including toothache, hangovers, poisoning, and the evil eye. But in the Renaissance, gem stones became more readily available. Advances in stone-cutting technology made diamonds, sapphires, and other stones sparkle in ways they hadn’t before. New global trade routes and better navigational tools made it easier for merchants to import jewels from as far away as Burma, or the “New World” of the Americas. A collection of jewelry known as the "Cheapside Hoard" demonstrates how truly global the Renaissance gem trade was. Buried sometime between 1640 and 1666, the hoard contained emerald from Columbia, topaz from Brazil, diamonds from India, rubies from Burma, and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. As such, the cards of Splendor accurately depict elephants carrying sapphires across the plains of southern India and camels transporting onyx across the Sahara desert. 

Emeralds from Brazil or Columbia, Onyx from Egypt, and Sapphires from India or Ceylon

Kings and Queens 

All of Splendor’s noble tiles depict Renaissance era kings, queens, popes, and other gentry who actually lived, and in whose lives, jewelry played an important role. The most recognizable noble in the game is probably Henry VIII, whose tile echoes the portrait that was done of him by Hans Holbein, the legendary painter (and jeweller). Henry VIII did not only use jewelry as a means to reward loyal courtiers and woo women, but he wore copious amounts of jewels in his clothing. An inventory of his possessions made upon his death included twenty-five tunics covered in diamonds and other gems, twelve girdles covered in rubies and pearls, jewel-encrusted daggers, a salt cellar adorned with six massive sapphires, and much, much more.

Queen Mary I of Scotland (Mary Stuart) was in her day just as notorious as Henry VIII for her love of gems. At the peak of her power, she was somethnig of a fashion icon, pioneering new styles of jewelry and gem-studded clothing. Like Henry VIII, she used gems to secure the loyalty of her followers, managing to sustain the habit throughout a seventeen-year imprisonment. However, during this time, much of Mary's jewelry collection was also sold off by the Earl of Moray. The jewelry sold included a collection of black pearls which was bought by none other than Elizabeth I of England—Henry VIII's daughter and Mary's destested rival. 

Henry VIII of England and Mary Stuart

Queen Isabella of Castile is said to have been admonished by her priests for wearing too much jewelry, particularly for often wearing in public a ruby and pearl necklace given to her by her husband. It is also said that she sold a substantial amount of jewelry in order to fund Columbus’ all-important voyage to the Americas. While it is true that Isabella chose to fund his explorations, it is unlikely that she sold any jewelry to do so—and Spain would ultimately draw such incredible profits from their American colonies as to render Isabella’s investment quite insignificant. Similarly, there is a legend that Anne of Brittany pawned her jewelry in order to fund a war when she was still a child. No one has yet proven—or conclusively disproven—this story, but Anne did prove to be a shrewd ruler, both economically and militarily.

Isabelle of Castile and Anne of Brittany

The Artisan Sultan 

One noble in Splendor did not only buy, purchase, wear, and give away jewelry, but he also was schooled in how to make it. Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to 1566 and contemporary of Henry VIII, ruled over a territory that stretched from Persia in the east to Algeria in the west, and from the tip of the Arabian Peninsula nearly all the way to Vienna. Yet before he came to sit on a golden throne covered in precious gems, Suleiman was actually trained in goldsmithing and jewelry-making. This training gave him a life-long regard for artisans and craftsmen. As sultan, he helped to create numerous guilds that ensured their members' regular wages and opportunities for advancement. He encouraged jewelers and other artisans to come to Istanbul, making that city a center of the international gem trade, a crossroads where the raw stones from India and Africa would be cut, polished, and set into jewels.

Play with History

Splendor is so well-crafted mechanically that we can overlook the game’s rich engagement with history. But every time you play it, you are engaging in the same competition for resources and battle for patronage as did the most renowned jewelers of the renaissance. You will know that your sapphires come from India and your emeralds from the Americas. You’ll know if your work has caught the eye of Henry VIII, Suleiman the Magnificent, or Isabella of Castile. And perhaps that will make your game a little more splendid!