|7 Wonders (2010)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [2.32]
|Player Count (recommended)
7 Wonders doesn’t really feel like a game that has aged well. It feels clunky and over-engineered. For all the speed of play it comes across as somewhat sluggish. It’s got a set of intuitive rules anyone can pick up but hides all the actual complication in the end-of-game scoring. Certainly for newbies there is little direct relationship between decision friction and the outcome of the game. As lauded as it is, sitting happily in the top fifty of all board games ever, it’s like a physical paraphrase of Mark Twain – ‘It’s a classic everyone wants to have played but nobody really should want to play’.
That’s not great in a game that’s only eight years old.
That’s a harsh introduction, and I’m going to spend a fair bit of time in this review gradually rowing it back in favour of something a little more nuanced. 7 Wonders is not at all a bad game. It’s a victim of its own success. Fundamentally it’s a game that has been obsoleted by others that have borrowed its conventions and aggressively streamlined them until all the rough edges have been removed. It’s still definitely something where I can see why it garnered the devotion and affection it did. It’s just… I missed out on all of that so I don’t have any particular skin in the game. Sometimes the key element that drives our perception of a thing is when we came to be aware of it. 7 Wonders arrived in my life too late for me to see it in its prime where it would have stood out as a rightful colossus.
You might think ‘Well, that’s hardly fair in a review’ but I have to assume anyone coming here looking for guidance on 7 Wonders is going to be in the same boat.
Let’s get the obligatory game description out of the way before I go too deep down that rabbit hole. This is a game of successively drafting cards where you and up to six other players will be building a tableau that represents a growing empire. Your cards represent natural resources to which you have access, civic infrastructure which you have built, military assets which you can deploy and technological innovations you have developed. Every round of the game you’ll take delivery of a handful of cards that are passed to you by a player to your left or your right. You’ll pick the best of what’s on offer and you’ll pass your bargain basement leavings at the same time as you take delivery of a new but similarly impoverished hand. You’ll do that until there’s only one card left and then that age of history is over. Over the course of the game you’ll go through three ages, each of them offering progressively more interesting and powerful choices. You’ll build glassblowers and libraries. You’ll develop a free press, fixed fortifications and brickyards. Eventually in the last age you’ll develop guilds that let you leverage your infrastructure for points, or even parasitically piggyback off of the civilizations of your neighbours.
Some cards have a cost to build, and if you have the necessary resources in your tableau you can immediately place them down in front of you to reap their benefits. Otherwise you need to go begging to your two immediate neighbours to give you a temporary bridging loan to meet the shortfall. You’ll have a small treasury to maintain as you play. Sometimes you’ll add cheerful cascades of coins as one of the players to your left or right comes to you with cap in hand for the temporary loan of a cup of parchment.
You might have noticed a theme here – ‘your neighbours’. 7 Wonders has a remarkably interesting setup in that everyone is playing for maximum points but you are only ever in direct connection with the players to your immediate left and immediate right. The players at the other end of the table may as well be hidden on an undiscovered continent for all the good they do you. You only ever trade with neighbours, you only ever pass cards between those same neighbours. War too – war never changes. And you only ever go to war with those that are physically closest to you around the table. It’s a continuation of awkward small-talk by other means.
The result of this is that the game is hugely textured by the existence of these multiple relationship triads. Everyone has a slightly different context for the competition, and that in turn creates shockwaves of incentive that ripple around the table in unpredictable ways. You look to your left and notice your opponent is building up a grand army. ‘Oh ho’, you think. ‘Not on your nelly, pal’. So you start picking up the military cards that come to you in the draft. You’re keeping an eye on the belligerence from Leftieopia while the peaceful people of Rightopotania eye your suddenly expanding military infrastructure with reasonable suspicion. ‘Not on your nelly, buddy’, they think.
Suddenly, everyone in your triad is obsessed with military cards and that makes everyone even cagier. Sometimes they’re enhancing their own military just because they’re scared of letting you advance yours. There’s a paranoia that comes from proximity because you are the only one that has exactly your neighbours. Everyone else has at least one neighbour that’s different. The interaction between these groups will create some wonderful byplay that results in hard information cues being softened into mere suggestion. It mirrors well the foreign policy complexities of the real world. The raw mathematics of game theory are nice and all but on the world stage they’re always reflected through a circus fun-house of mirrors.
You might invest in a military to make sure that your borders are safe. Reasonable. Prudent. A sensible policy for a wise empire. If you would wish peace, prepare for war. A few rounds later the player at the other end of the table suddenly finds they can’t defend their own land. Everyone upstream is suddenly focusing on an unspoken arms race and they only cottoned on to it after everyone else had beaten their ploughshares into sword. At the end of every age, all players are going to gain or lose points depending on their military strength – as such it’s not something you can easily ignore. War isn’t a conscious game state into which you choose to enter. The arms race is non-consensual.
These slightly weird relationships similarly influence science, production, civic infrastructure and such. While you never really engage with anyone but your neighbours you feel the after-effect of the priorities of even your most distant competitors as the ages go on. It’s an odd dynamic – a curious emotional detachment inextricably wound up with spooky action at a distance.
Complicating every decision is the wonder that you get dealt at the start of the game. These are multi-stage constructions that will need increasingly impressive yields of resources to complete as time goes by. As you accomplish the construction of these stages though they’ll give you additional bonuses. The pyramid shown above for example is worth twenty points if you can finish it.
Olympia on the other hand is a bit more complicated. It gives you the ability to trade with your neighbours at a discount. It will give you give victory points when you complete its second stage. The third stage lets you copy the scoring bonus of a neighbour’s guild. In order to claim any of these bonuses though you have to construct them in order and spend the necessary resources. That’s fine, but you also need to spend a card you would have otherwise drafted. As such, wonders are as much about being built at the right time as they are about being built at all. They have to happen when the card you use as their foundation doesn’t lose you something more immediately useful.
Each wonder is different, and they’re all double sided with slightly different arrangements. You don’t get to choose your wonder, which ensures that you can’t rely on a favourite tactic. However, that also means occasionally you get dealt one of the duffers and have to live with it for the rest of the game. That’s a big deal in a game like this though because the challenges are all relative – it’s about how well you do compared to the people around you rather than your ability to meet an objective challenge. Not everyone is going to have the same advantages. Moving your civilization in time with the beat of your wonder is vital. Your wonder ends up setting the script you need to follow in order to get the best results in an unsure and uncertain world of unknown opportunities.
And that’s where we hit the biggest problem with 7 Wonders.
This dynamic of interacting players is fascinating and it works well for ensuring a tight, fast game where you’re not overwhelmed by information. You can only ever impact on two players at a time and so you don’t really need to worry about what anyone else is doing. It’s out of your hands. The resultant bouncing of cards between all the intervening players means that you can’t even meaningfully impact on their civilization at all. You might want to send a good military card their way to cut into the scoring advantage of a far away neighbour but whether they get it is a roll of the dice. You send out the option across hostile territory but someone else might take advantage. That puts every player in a powerfully vulnerable position – the players to either side act as their pacer but their real competition might be neither. That has two powerful effects:
- You are dependant on the competence of an opponent’s neighbours for your own relative scoring success.
- The player that is upstream of the weakest player is going to have a massive advantage over everyone else.
Your role at the table is almost always going to be to act as a sentinel against the runaway success of the next player. You want to avoid passing them the cards that impoverish you in the scoring. As such, you’re often more interested in what you’re denying another player than you are about what you’re getting for yourself. There are lots of ways to score in 7 Wonders but sometimes what you really need to do is deny scoring. 7 Wonders is a weaponization of the concept of ‘hate drafting’ – to be forced into explicitly picking cards that are no use to you just to keep them out of the hand of an opponent.
Science is a good example of that – science scores wide (you want lots of different symbols) and deep (you want lots of the same symbol). Each set of three symbols gets you seven points. The more you have of any given symbol, the more points it gives you. Four tablet symbols for example would get you sixteen points. If one of those also contributes to a set, a single card might be worth fourteen points. That is a lot of points in a game of 7 Wonders.
You might find then that depriving the next player of a tablet symbol means you stop them getting those points, That’s almost certainly dramatically better than anything you’re likely to pull off yourself for a single action. Your job here is to maximise relative scores and you often do that by screwing an opponent. The player who is upstream of the weakest player doesn’t have that sentinel, or at least doesn’t have that sentinel keeping them reliably in check. 7 Wonders is a game where you are as likely to win based on seating order as you are on your level of skill.
That in turn creates a curiously inelegant juxtaposition of game systems.
You likely want everything that’s in your hand because every card is good in its own way, even if the meaning of good is a more emergent property. The evolution of the economy means cards will rapidly change value as time goes by – a production card at the start of the first age is worth dramatically less than one at the end of the second age. That then gets mediated through the filter of functional benefit – you might not see another brickyard in the third age but whether you should take it now depends on your own economy. Nonetheless, there is always an argument you can make for why you should pick every card you’ve got available and that’s the kind of design that can be absorbing. The best games in this space give you meaningful choices between a pile of options, each of which you genuinely want to take.
And yet it doesn’t seem to work that way in practice. Decisions end up being unsatisfying and perfunctory because you need to remember your role as the pacer of the civilizations around you. There’s almost always a card that is ‘best’ in any given configuration because the arms racing of scoring is intensely spatial. It’s you and your neighbours, nothing else really matters. This isn’t like San Juan or Race for the Galaxy where the chaos of the card draws leads to a controllable scenario. Ultimately you can’t react or improvise because paradoxically in decoupling your actions from many of your opponents the game causes you to focus too tightly on the ones that matter. In freeing you of the need to worry about everyone it forces you into almost claustrophobic co-dependency. Your decisions are all bound up in their area of meaningful effect and in such circumstances you need to play for local optimals if you want to run a chance of winning.
There’s no denying though that 7 Wonders gets better – a lot better – with familiarity. For everything I’ve written here there’s a reasonable counter-argument that opens up as you can assume competency from everyone at the table. The impact radius of drafting becomes greater and the path of cards through other player hands becomes more predictable. You can start leveraging the principle of sentinelship in your favour by passing someone a poison chalice and waiting for them to take a big ol’ drink. ‘Take the card you want but you’ll yourself by passing on those stables on which we both know the other player is waiting’. You can start to play the people as much as you play the cards, and that’s when 7 Wonders is at its absolute best. It shines brightest when it’s a game of opt-in Russian Roulette where you hope but can’t rely on someone pointing a gun at their own head and pulling the trigger. If you played 7 Wonders many times with the same people you’d have a much better time than what I’ve described above. When you can’t assume global competence, your drafting is a knife fight. You can only stick your decision into the ribs of the next person. When you know everyone else knows the game as well as you do, it can become something more akin to a sniper’s bullet.
The problem is that this is a game with a learning curve at odds with its design. It invites new players in with an approachable set of rules and an instantly intuitive gameplay loop. ‘Take a card, pass on the rest. Try to get the most points’. The problem is that it hides the consequences of those decisions until it’s too late to learn from them. ‘Oh, you didn’t invest in production in the first age? Well, you can’t do much in the second age but it’s too late now’. ‘Oh, didn’t do anything in the second age? Well, I’ll go find you some stuffed monkeys to play with because it doesn’t even matter any more’. You only really understand how the game works when you’ve played it a few times. You need to know how to play this well to wring the real enjoyment out of it. In the meantime, you’re making the game much better for the player after you in the draft and much worse for everyone else. Your mere presence distorts how much fun anyone is having in the game. You never really understand the importance of any of the cards until the final scoring and you see how far you fell behind. By that time it’s all but impossible to meaningfully pinpoint the wrong decisions because failure compounds quickly and heavily. You can draw some conclusions but the learning process is difficult. It’s like going through a university degree and getting a 2:2 with no feedback in the period between starting and ending. Why was that the classification you got? You’ve got some theories but really who the hell knows? You’re just going to have to keep doing degrees until you work it out.
It’s true of a lot of games that the first play is only an experiment and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. The problem is that 7 Wonders is so tightly interconnected in its systems that you likely won’t fare much better the second time. Sure, you understood the science better but look you neglected your military. Oh fine, you grasped how the cards chain together but you never really got into the tempo of production. 7 Wonders looks like an engine builder but it’s less meaningful than that. You’re not actually building an engine, you’re merely trying to gauge the speed it goes so you can hop on and off at a point when it’s most advantageous to you.
All of this converges into the biggest reason why I find 7 Wonders to be difficult to recommend. I can’t think of a single reason why I’d want to play 7 Wonders over Sushi Go, or Sushi Go: Party in a group setting of non-hardcore gamers. If it’s only myself and Mrs Meeple I can’t think of a reason why I’d want to play 7 Wonders over 7 Wonders: Duel. The gap between ‘ease of play’ and ‘transparency of mastery’ is so large that I can’t recommend it to inexperienced players despite its reputation as an ideal gateway game. The decision space of the game is so shallow that I can’t recommend it to more experienced gamers. My opinion on 7 Wonders isn’t that it’s a bad game – not in the slightest. It’s a very good game. I’d say more than anything else though it’s an unnecessary game for a collection – for whatever purpose to which you’d put it there’s something much better suited out there. That obviously wasn’t true at the time it was released, but it’s true of the time when you’re reading this review.
It’s a weird position to be in – 7 Wonders is a better game than Sushi Go in my opinion but there are vanishingly few situations where I would prefer to play it and even fewer where I’d want to introduce it to new people. I can see why others would disagree, but they can try to talk you into buying it on their own time and on their own blogs.
In other words 7 Wonders is a good game that I don’t think anyone needs to buy.