Brant Guillory, 17 April 2019
For a lot of people, their “go-to” game is the game they boot up on the computer when they have time to kill in the evenings, or over a weekend when they’ve got the game on TV and want to safely ignore commercials. And while I have a few casual “go-to” games in the digital world, I would be remiss if I failed to extoll the virtues of my tabletop “go-to” game for multi-player gatherings: 7 Wonders.
For most wargamers, 7 Wonders barely registered on their radar. A fast-playing European production, 7 Wonders has an abstract combat mechanic, and one that can be safely ignored and still result in a resounding victory. With so little battlefield relevance, it’s not wonder that many grogs steered clear of 7 Wonders when it was released. Their loss. Seriously.
The core schtick of 7 Wonders is a play-a-card city-building mechanic where players use resources to build parts of their cities, including attempting to build one of the Wonders of the Ancient World. The original game came with players’ boards for the widely-acknowledged 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, but subsequent expansions (including a brand-new pack of boards) give players almost 20 options around which to build their cities, including the Colosseum, The Great Wall, and Stonehenge.
Everyone is dealt and initial hand of cards from which to play. Pick your card, play it simultaneously with everyone else, and pass your hand to the next player while receiving cards from the player in the other direction next to you. Rinse, repeat. Again, very simple mechanics that take about 20 minutes to explain to even the most novice boardgamer. But oh, the decisions…
To me, the “go-to”-ness of 7 Wonders is summed up in two key points. First, you are confronted with a variety of genuinely difficult decisions. Second, this is a game that you really don’t mind losing, because you’ve often built a pretty cool city in the process.
The hand-wringingly-tough decisions as a player can make an other fast-playing game seem interminable, if you have a player who suffers from analysis paralysis. However, it doesn’t take too many turns through the game to empathize with players being forced to make hard decisions. Do I play a resource card that will help me build my wonder? But wait, if I get the Altar, I can play the Temple for free next age, and then the Pantheon after that – big points, baby! – but what if the guy next to me sees what I’m doing and buries it? Oh hey, look, Henry just played a brick resource card, so I can always buy brick from him when I need it for my wonder. Just make sure you remember to keep the cash on hand. Oh hey, if I can get the Marketplace out right now, then I’ll get the Caravanserai for free next age, and that solves my brick problem. But crap, Cindy is also playing for yellow cards and will probably get the Caravanserai before I ever see it. Ah hell, just build a science card and take the freebies that come with it next age. Crap. Clayton just played a military card. I’m going to get pummeled unless I get my own out there. But dammit, I think they’ve all passed me already. Ugh!
And that internal monologue takes place in about 45 seconds. Then you get the next set of cards passed to you.
Building your city, though, almost becomes an end to itself. While you are trying to win the game, there are no shortage of times in the game when you’re thinking “man, wouldn’t it be cool to have a Scriptorium, Library, and Observatory?!” It doesn’t matter what points might be coming in, or what you might be giving away to the next player. You’re just trying to make your own city as cool as you can, with the kinds of places you’d want to find in an ancient city. So that Pawn Shop that gives you a handful of points, but no subsequent bonuses? Meh, build it anyway, but make sure you put it on the table next to the Tavern and Gambling Den (rather than stacking by points type) so that you build your own little red light district. Want to build an economic powerhouse? Load up on the yellow cards, but if you do that, you’ll get stomped on by your neighbor’s military. The blue cards build your civic pride as your monuments and palaces dot the skyline, but don’t offer any crossover bonuses based on other things you’ve built. Still, it’s cool to have a Palace, Town Hall, Temple, Garden, Statue, and Courthouse and have a city your residents can be proud of.
Every game plays out differently. Every hand has its own agonizing decisions. Every plan you start with inevitably goes awry and you’re adjusting as you go to make the most of the hand you’re given. But in doing so, you build a grand and vibrant city with its own character and personality and even if the points don’t fall your way, you can look down and smile and think, “Man, that’s a city I would love to explore.”
The game is played in three “Ages” as the buildings get slightly more complex as you go. After each age is a very simple round of military combat, although some cards in later expansions allow you to duck combat and force your neighbors to face off instead. Some cards in Ages I and II allow you to build things for free in Ages II and III, respectively. But altogether, the entire game takes about an hour, whether you’re playing with three or seven. Because everyone puts their cards into play simultaneously, it scales well with more players, and it’s only during final scoring that a larger number of players is noticeable, as each player’s points are added individually. There are currently two full expansions, and a ‘mini’ expansion of some new player mats. Of the two expansions, Cities is outstanding, adding some nifty new twists to managing resources and injecting a nice ‘underworld’ feel into the game. Leaders is far less impressive, primarily injecting bombast into the game with overarching personalities that tend to dominate the development of your city before you’ve even had a chance to really develop it. You can probably guess which expansion I prefer, eh?
If you’re a fan of city- and civ-builders, strapped for time, or want an interesting strategic challenge but don’t have a fellow grog to join the fun, you’d do a lot worse than 7 Wonders. To give you a sense of its appeal: I have played 7 Wonders with a well-known wargame designer, his daughters, a former comic-book author, a high-school math teacher, my son, and my mom. And they’ve all come back for more.