Designed by Antoine Bauza and Bruno Cathala
Published by Repos Production (2015)
2 players - 30 minutes
You know what I love? Two player games. You know what is not a good two player game? 7 Wonders. Yes, yes, I know, there are plenty of people out there who LOVE the two player variant, but I just can’t be bothered with it. It’s too much of a hassle to manage the dummy province. Fortunately, 7 Wonders designer Antoine Bauza and his fellow french-game-designer-buddy Bruno Cathala have given the world the incredible 7 Wonders: Duel. Now you and your significant other / house cat / arch-nemesis can finally square off in a card drafting battle for the ages.
The Way of Things
7 Wonders: Duel adapts the look, feel, and overall flow of the original in a way that creates a satisfying 2 player experience. The game is played over three ages (rounds) in which players take turns drafting “age” cards from the table to earn points and advance their strategies. Unlike the original which had you trading hands of cards to pick from, cards are arrayed in alternating faceup and facedown overlapping rows on the table, forming a shape each round. Only cards that are totally uncovered are available to be drafted, so the cards in the top rows are only accessible toward the end of each round. As facedown cards become “unlocked”, they are flipped up and can be drafted like anything else. Like the original, once you draft a card it can be kept in front of you, discarded to gain coins, or be placed facedown to build one of your four wonders, which are drafted at the start of the game.
Both age and wonder cards have a variety of costs and effects, but generally they all serve one of two purposes; advance your economy, allowing you to purchase more cards; or advance your standing in one of the game’s three victory conditions. Yes, three victory conditions; the heart of 7 Wonders: Duel. You see, the game normally ends at the conclusion of the third age, crowning the player with most points the winner. BUT, if a player possesses six of the seven science symbols, or advances the military track to their opponent’s province, they immediately win the game. This amps up the tension to 11 as you manage short and long term strategies at the risk of instant loss or victory.
It’s important to note that both military and science provide bonuses throughout the game even if you don’t achieve sudden victory through them. Collecting two of the same science symbols allows you to select one of the scientific achievements made available at the start of the game, rewarding you with immediate or ongoing effects. Likewise, the military track causes your opponent to lose coins as you march the shield token closer to their province, and gives you bonus points at the end of the game based on how close to their province you got. This is a really smart piece of game design to incentivize these two types of cards, encouraging players to deviate from their core strategies and always feeling rewarded throughout the duration of the game.
The Tug of War
By adding victory conditions separate from point totals, Bauza and Cathala have created a savage game of tug of war that fights on three fronts. Suddenly, your opponent’s province is equally as important as you carefully select your card for the turn, taking into account what opportunities you leave available. There will be many turns where you choose to buy or discard a card for money just to deny your opponent a quick victory. Or stranger yet, you may pass on a card that you desperately want because you don’t want to grant your opponent access the cards above it.
Resources will also be a point of contention as you play the game. With each new age cards become more expensive to purchase. While you can always trade coins to the bank in place of resources the cost goes up for each good of that type in your opponent’s province. Again, this reinforces the themes of confrontation and denial that is central to the 7 Wonders: Duel experience. Like a knife fight in a phone booth, the game feels intensely desperate and claustrophobic as you delicately plot each move.
Now don’t get me wrong, this brutal game of push and pull isn’t entirely uncivilized. Unlike most confrontational games, Duel never feels punitive. You aren’t destroying cards or taking holdings belonging to an opponent, you are merely trying to outpace them in one of the three paths to victory. Players who normally shy away from aggressive games will still find joy in cleverly balancing their selections; playing defensively to withstand their opponent’s advances and seeing through to a point total victory at the end of the third age.
A Tidy Design
I’m happy to report that the aesthetics, iconography, box insert, and components are just as well thought out as each of the game’s mechanics. The heavy cardboard used for tokens gives it a satisfying tactile experience on par with a larger game, the iconography is intuitive and easy to understand once you’ve read through the rules, and the art is vibrant and eye catching. That said, after several games I still can’t recall any specific images from the game aside from the box art. This may be a product of the game’s reliance on set pieces and landscapes rather than characters, but I thought it was worthy to mention that while the art is impressive as you play the game, it’s not particularly unique or memorable.
Also on the subject of components, one of the most commendable aspects of Duel is its replayability. The game comes with a few more wonders, age cards, and scientific advances than you play in any given game. Not so much more that it becomes random and unpredictable, but enough so that you will have a unique experience with each game. Each session I’ve been able to craft unique strategies to the opportunities the game presented to me, which will go a long way in keeping this game fresh after a dozen or so plays.
The End of the Third Age
Duel is a strange little beast that strikes a delicate balance between scale and depth. For its tiny box and short play time, the game is both heavily thematic and strategically rich. The paths to victory are aggressive and confrontational without feeling negative and punishing. Players feel both immensely pressured, yet always empowered. These contradictions are what makes Duel such an incredible game, but is also the source of many of the caveats I have in recommending it. If you are looking for a short game that doesn’t take too much brain power after a long day, this isn’t for you. If you are looking for a long, heavy game that you can spend a whole evening on developing your strategies, again, this isn’t for you. And if you want a game that is versatile enough to accommodate a broad range of players, this game is especially not for you. But if you are looking for a strong two player experience that satisfies the “big game itch” in a small package, taking only about 30 minutes of your precious time, this game may be damn near perfect for you.