Designed by Antoine Bauza
Published by Repos Production (2010)
3 - 7 Players ~ 45-60 minutes
(OK fine... 2 - 7 players but I don't like the 2 player variant)
Every now and then a game comes out that revolutionizes the industry. In some cases, the game introduces a brand new concept that establishes a whole genre (think Dominion or Magic: The Gathering), but in some cases it’s just such a damn good game that it becomes the definitive representation of an existing idea. 7 Wonders wasn’t the first game to rely on drafting as it’s core mechanic, but it is THE game known for it. Seven long years of gaming innovation has happened since its 2010 release, so let’s take a look at how the grand-daddy of drafting has held up.
As I said, 7 Wonders is a game of drafting. Players represent rival cities in ancient eras, competing for economic, military, and scientific supremacy. Each turn players select 1 card from their hand, then pass the remaining cards to their neighbor. The selected card can be built, discarded for money, or be used to build up a stage of your “wonder”, which is an asymmetric power granting a variety of bonuses at each stage, thematically tying to the classic 7 wonders of the ancient world.
This “pick a card, play a card” routine continues until the cards run out signifying the end of the current “age”. As each age ends, some cleanup happens where players are awarded points if they have more powerful militaries than their neighbors to the left and right; then new cards are dealt. Three ages are played in total, each with increasingly powerful buildings, allowing for meaty yet nerve-wracking decisions about how to focus your efforts, and worse, what you are leaving available for your rivals. After the third age, players count up points based on the contents of their city and the game is done.
Boom, easy-peasy; 30-45 minutes to play a game. But like the best games, for all it’s simplicity, 7 Wonders hides a rich, strategic underbelly bursting with possibilities that make for an engrossing, and highly replayable experience.
Rainbow in the Dark
Cards and stages of wonders have a variety of costs and effects, but generally they fall into two camps; production (grey, brown, and yellow) or points (green, red, blue, and purple).
Critical to your success in 7 Wonders is ensuring that you can buy the cards. After all, as buildings become more powerful, they also become more costly. Most cards require that your city produces one or more resources, otherwise you have to pay a trade fee to your neighbors (let’s just call them Jeff and Tina) to use resources produced in their stupid cities. Sadly, most cities will never be able to produce all 7 resources, let alone multiples as required by some late game cards, so ultimately you’ll have to rely on Jeff and Tina's stupid cities at one point or another. It’s actually a small but excellent example of the balancing act that 7 Wonders makes you pull. Do you give your opponent money that just helps them out? Or maybe you pick a card that produces resources that you know your neighbor doesn’t produce, in hopes that they will be coming to your doorstep when they need that sweet, sweet silk.
But wealth and production only gets you so far, and in the end, points are the name of the game. Each color represents a different flavor of getting points, allowing you to make some strategic planning and specialize in one or more fields. Red cards add to your military strength, securing points at the end of each age. Green cards represent science, exponentially becoming more valuable with each card collected (Hot Tip! Don’t let Jeff or Tina collect all the green!). Blue cards, while somewhat less flashy than their Christmasy cousins, are a solid investment as they straight up award points listed on the cards themselves. Then purple cards, which are randomly added into the 3rd age deck, award points in a variety of unique ways based on the contents of yours and your neighbor’s provinces.
Two things that are woefully underappreciated about 7 Wonders are the look and feel of the game. First off, while there are few individual pieces of artwork in 7 Wonders that are “iconic” and memorable, the game generally has very high quality art and more importantly, a cohesive aesthetic. The drafting mechanic is definitely an abstraction of civilization building, but through the beautiful art, the trade and military struggle with neighboring cities, and the construction of wonders, this game is both engrossing and highly thematic. Some people may argue that abstractions can’t be thematic, but those people (Jeff and Tina) are wrong.
Strangely, 7 Wonders also has a kinesthetic physicality that I really like. By no means is it a dexterity game, but players simultaneously picking and passing cards creates an almost assembly-line like rhythm that encourages players to maintain pace and not fall into a pit of analysis paralysis. Everyone conducting the same motion at the same time, turn after turn, makes a communal, almost ritual-like feel that is unique to the game.
Time After Time
I have played a lot of 7 Wonders since it’s release, and one of the most remarkable aspects is how well the game has held up; and there are a few really good reasons for that.
First and foremost, the game is clever without stooping to pretension. For example, by limiting trades and military conflict to your neighbors on either side, the game ensures that you’d have a similar experience whether there are 3 or 7 people at the table. Furthermore, the core mechanic of drafting may seem foreign to new players, but as soon as they’ve taken their first turn and passed a stack of cards to the left, it becomes immediately intuitive; usually giving players a “That’s so simple, why don’t more games do that?” vibe. Even the seemingly complex iconography is easily deciphered beyond your first game, and the box comes with handy reference sheets to make sure players aren’t lost.
But what makes 7 Wonders have a ton of staying power is what it does that other games can’t. It delivers a strategic game of economics and city building in about 45 minutes regardless of player count. Don’t get me wrong, the strategic depth will never rival something like Food Chain Magnate or Brass, but in a world where many people buy games and never find the time to play them, 7 Wonders delivers a fun, approachable, and strategic experience that towers above games that occupy similar play lengths.
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
While I’m obviously a big fan of 7 Wonders, I don’t love all of it. Specifically I think the 2 player variant is terrible. Now, in the rulebook it notes that designer Antoine Bauza invited his friend Bruno Cathala to help him design the 2 player variant, which is great because I LOVE Cathala, he may very well be my favorite designer of all time. But the management of a dummy third player is way more work than it is worth and it undermines the general flow and feel of the game. Functionally the 2 player variant works, but I would much rather play a game designed around 2 players. Fortunately Bauza and Cathala teamed up again to make the amazing 7 Wonders: Duel, which far better interprets the formula in a deeply strategic game for 2 players.
The only other bad thing I can say about the game is that it can be a pain to set up and learn out of the box without someone guiding you through the game. With so many new symbols being thrown at you, the need to set up the decks correctly for the number of players, and the unique mechanics that are pretty seldomly used in other games, this is one that I’d recommend learning from another player or at least watching a learn to play video online. Just remember that it’s totally worth it and once you are a turn or two in, it’ll all make sense.
Innovation attracts imitation, which often leads to improvement. This is why so many of the most iconic and important games of this hobby seem stale after a few years. On the other hand, 7 Wonders blended drafting and abstract civilization building in such a powerful way, that it left very little to improve upon. 7 Wonders remains the preeminent drafting game of this hobby 7 years in, and remains a fresh, strategic, and thematic experience fit for newcomers and veterans of the hobby. While it is far from my favorite game in my collection, it is one of the most flexible and consistently enjoyable. For it’s broad appeal, unique and unparalleled mechanics, and overall fit and finish, 7 Wonders remains one of the most easily recommendable games in my collection.
For more 7 Wonders goodness, check out:
7 Wonders Duel Review
Interview with Bruno Cathala (co-designer of 2 player variant and 7 Wonder Duel)
7 Wonders Broken Token video review