August 3, 2021

Classic Reviews: 7 Wonders Duel

Brant, 14 January 2020

On #TBT, we bring you the occasional classic article – an older review or analysis piece we wanted to rescue

Folks who pay any attention to my gaming discussion know that I’m crazy about 7 Wonders, the city-building card game from Repos Productions.  It’s a game I could play all day, every day and never get sick of playing.  For all it’s grandeur, however, it had a fatal flaw (and no, not the “Leaders” expansion) – the two-player version sucked.  I mean Aquaman-of-the-70s-level sucked.  Microsoft-Clippy-level sucked.  Panthers-in-the-Fog-review-level…  well, you get the idea.

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The box cover

7 Wonders scales incredibly well up to 7 players, but is dependent on at least 3 of them being around to play.  The two-player version forced players to alternate playing as a proxy for a third ‘free city’ that affected both players as though a third were sitting there.  Some things are clearly kept in the game: cards are color-coded to the type of building in your city (civic, military, science, etc); ‘building chains’ that grant ‘free’ buildings for having earlier ones built; resources needed for construction; and a game played in 3 ages.  But it was clunky, and ultimately made for a very poor game.

But to create a two-player version of 7 Wonders that retained the core tension of each turn – do I play this card or let it go and give my opponent a shot at it? – required a significant change in the mechanics.  You couldn’t just hand cards back and forth, because you know what’s coming, and you know what your opponent is going to do with it.  Additionally, with only two players, you only get two wonders.  A game about building the wonders clearly needs more.

click images to enlarge

7 Wonders Duel solves both problems, and with an elegance that’s almost annoying in how selfish the designers are in hogging two great ideas for one product line.

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4 of the available wonders

First, the easy one – players get to build multiple wonders.  There are 12 in the box (helllllllo, expansion possibilities!), and each player gets 4 to work with.  That said, there’s a limit of 7 that you can build in any one game, so if you get your four built before your opponent, (s)he’s out of luck.  Building the wonders are just like the original game – you ‘burn’ a card you would’ve otherwise played to build the wonder, provided you have the necessary resources.  Each wonder grants certain abilities, from extra resources to free actions to military power.  And there are wonders we haven’t seen in the base game yet, like the Appian Way.

The second challenge of the two-player game is recreating the “what card am I getting and how do I balance what I need with keeping my opponent off-balance?” tension of the game.  I’ve written about these mental gymnastics before.  Trying to figure out how to recreate this in a two-player game, though, is a tough nut to crack, and the Repos guys have done it well.

Rather than hands of cards that are passed around the table, the cards that represent the buildings in the city are laid out on the table in an array of that includes cards that are both right-side-up and upside-down.  This gives the players a sense of what cards are coming, but still leaving some intrigue and suspense about the cards that will appear as you work your way toward the revealed ones.  As the players will alternate taking cards from the array, and exposing the inverted ones that are subsequently ‘uncovered’, the strategies will change and players are forced to reconsider their short- and long-term goals with each card.  Moreover, when setting up the game, a handful of cards from each age are blindly set aside, contributing to the uncertainty of which cards are even in the game, much less visible in the array.

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The array, with some lower-level cards already exposed, and others still hidden

 

Players alternate picking a card from the array, and either building it, discarding it for cash, or using it to build a wonder.  Certain buildings grant immediate effects – cash or military points, usually – and some wonders also grant an additional turn immediately after their construction.  Otherwise, points are added much like the original game, as civic buildings, or economic ones, or the guilds contribute to your overall score.

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Resources, civic cards, and economic cards stack up just like the original game

 

Science and military cards were also re-engineered for the new two-player game.  Gone are the mathematical gyrations of trying to score ‘sets’ of scientific symbols, and wars are no longer fought only in the time between the ages.  When military cards are built, their ‘points’ are immediately applied to a track on the scorecard: pummel your opponent a little and (s)he loses some gold; a sufficiently-heavy pummeling will immediately end the game.  This keeps the players on edge whenever military cards pop up, as they can immediately ruin your day.  Science cards have a variety of symbols on them, and collecting a pair of the same symbol rewards the player with a choice from among several advances in knowledge (progress tokens) that grant larger bonuses, such as victory points, cheaper wonders, increased resource costs for your opponent, or straight-up gold.  There are 10 progress tokens in the box, but only 5 available in the game, so there’s variety and replayability built in.

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The full spread, with the 2nd age array on the left, and the wonders & scoring track on the right.

 

In case you haven’t already guessed, I totally dig this game.  It’s a perfect two-player implementation of the original that keeps players on their toes, planning on the fly, and engaged at every turn to focus on the action in front of them.  It moves quickly, so two players who know the rules can easily knock out 2-3 games in an hour, unless analysis paralysis kicks in (not unheard of in a 7 Wonders game!).  The artwork isn’t going to win any awards, but it is consistent, functional, entertaining, and appropriately reminiscent of the earlier game.  The new wonders, and the re-implementation of old favorites – are nice new change of pace for an older game.  I’ve got 15-20 games under my belt already, and my only regret with this game is that I don’t have time for more.

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New scientific symbols.

 


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Brant G

Editor-in-chief at Armchair Dragoons

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