Review of 7 Wonders: Believe the Hype
Designer: Antoine Bauza
Time: 30-45 minutes
Times Played: about 10
Reviewed by Larry Levy
“Hyped” is one of the most misused words in the gamer’s lexicon. In common parlance, it means something that is extravagantly praised before it even makes its first appearance. These days, though, a “hyped” game has come to be simply synonymous with a very popular one. Many gamers refer to a game as hyped when they don’t think it’s as good as the rest of the gaming world, a subtle insult that simultaneously puts down both the design and its misguided supporters. The implication is that the game doesn’t deserve its lofty status and that its supporters are rating it on reputation, rather than its quality. Hence, I’ve grown to dislike the word, because of the inappropriate and unfair way in which it’s usually used.
However, sometimes genuine hype truly exists. That was certainly the case with Antoine Bauza’s 7 Wonders. Early last year, people in the industry started talking excitedly about this game that could handle up to 7 players in a half hour. Then, the prototype got some early play at The Gathering in April last year, with mostly rave reviews. It was unquestionably the most anticipated game of the Essen crop. That, my friends, is the true definition of hype. And the good news is that 7 Wonders very much lives up to its advance notice. It accomplishes just about all of its very ambitious goals and does so in an entertaining and very replayable fashion.
In 7 Wonders, the players represent one of the great cities of antiquity, each of which has the ability to build one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. They will construct structures, make scientific discoveries, and win military victories, with the overall goal of getting the most victory points, just as was the case in real life. (The proof of this last point comes from Julius Caesar’s famous quote, “Veni, vidi, VP”.)
The major mechanism in 7 Wonders is derived from a card distribution method used by many Magic: The Gathering players called a booster draft. If, like me, you were never snared by the CCG craze, the method works like this. The players are dealt a number of cards face down. Each player chooses one of the cards dealt to him, then passes the remaining cards to his neighbor, whereupon each player chooses a second card from those passed to them, passes the remaining cards, and so on. This is a nice way of distributing cards to players because it minimizes the luck of the deal and leads to some interesting decisions. Many fans of Agricola use a booster draft to distribute the Occupation and Minor Improvements cards prior to the game.
Booster drafts have been used in non-CCG games before this. Perhaps the first usage was in 2004’s Fairy Tale and it got a number of people pretty excited. 7 Wonder’s main twist on the mechanic is that each card is revealed right after it is chosen, as opposed to waiting until all the cards from the deal are selected. This enables the players to take into account what their opponents are doing.
7 Wonders begins with each player taking 3 coins and a player board, which shows the 2 to 4 stages of their wonder. The game consists of three Ages, with different cards dedicated to each age. At the beginning of an age, each player is dealt seven cards face down (pleasingly, the number 7 is a recurring theme in the game). They choose one and then pass the remainder to their left-hand neighbor (cards are passed to the right during the Second Age). Each player simultaneously plays their selected card, then they choose a card from the stack that was passed to them. This continues until there are only two cards left in a stack; one is chosen and the other discarded. Then, you proceed to the next age.
Each card can be used in exactly one of three ways. The most common way is to reveal it, check to see if you can play it (more on this later), and place it in your display. The second way is to use it to build the next stage of your wonder. Each stage has a requirement and a benefit. If you meet the requirement, you can place your card face down under the stage on your player board to show that you’ve built that portion of your wonder (any card can be used). The third way is simply to discard the card and take 3 coins from the bank.
So what do these cards do? There are 7 different kinds of cards (naturally!) and they’re used in different ways. There are two kinds of resources (raw and manufactured), but both work pretty much the same. Most cards in the game and all of the wonder stages require resources in order to be played. There are 7 different resources; each player begins the game with the ability to use one and the others can be acquired by playing resource cards. Each instance of a resource in your display can contribute one copy of that resource when building cards. You don’t store excess resources; in fact, no tokens are provided for them. You either have enough resources available to you in order to play the card, or you don’t.
If you had to rely only on your own resources, that would make things pretty difficult. Fortunately, the great civilizations believed in the ancient maxim, “Sharing is caring” (they also knew it was pretty lucrative, too). If you lack a resource you need to build a card, but one of your two adjacent opponents has it, you can use it merely by paying her 2 coins (this is the principal use for money in the game). Happily, this doesn’t stop her from using that resource herself, so it’s a win-win. At least your neighbor might as well view it that way, since she can’t stop you from renting her resource.
What are the other types of cards? Civilian structures do nothing but give you victory points. Commercial structures do a variety of things, including giving you VPs and money (based on the cards you and your neighbors have played), providing resources that can’t be rented, and giving you a discount on buying resources from a neighbor (you only have to pay 1 coin).
Science cards introduce a set collection aspect to the game. There are three different sciences and at the end of the game, you score points both for how many you collected in each category, as well as for how many complete sets of three different types of science cards you have. The latter give you more points, but that’s mitigated by the fact that some of the science cards can be built for free if a card from the same category was built during an earlier age.
Military cards add some direct player interaction. Each military card gives you 1-3 points of strength. At the end of each age, compare your strength with that of your two neighbors. For each neighbor your strength is higher than, you gain victory points (1 VP for Age I, 3 VPs for Age II, and 5 VPs for Age III). For each neighbor your strength is lower than, you lose 1 VP. This is a nice system, as it allows a player to get a good return for focusing on military, while not totally slamming a player who finds himself sandwiched between two warmongers.
Finally, there are Guild cards. Each of these yields VPs at the end of the game, usually based on the cards your neighbors have played. For example, one gives you a VP for every Civilian building on your left and right. There are 10 Guild cards in the game and at the beginning, a number equal to two more than the number of players is added to the Age III cards. This adds some variety and some surprises (although showing which Guild cards will be used at the outset is perfectly reasonable variant). Guild cards can be some of the most lucrative cards in the game, but are also among the most expensive.
After Age III has been played out, all the VPs are added up. This includes points earned for Wonders, for Civilian and Commercial buildings, Science points, Military points earned during the game, points for Guild cards, and 1 VP for every 3 coins the player has. A very nice pad is provided that makes the tallying a snap. Most VPs wins, and the victorious civilization will earn the right to live on and create viral videos and reality TV.
7 Wonders does a lot of things right, but perhaps its greatest accomplishment is that it’s a game that the vast majority of gamers will like at least a little. It’s fast, it’s fun, there’s plenty of decisions to be made, and it handles any number of players effortlessly. It’s the perfect “let’s play something while we’re waiting for the other group to finish” design, but it can also be played pretty seriously. It’s really rare for one game to be able to accomplish all of those things and that’s the source of its great popularity.
Bauza’s implementation of the booster draft was clearly his most important design decision. By allowing simultaneous choices, but still giving the players information as the round proceeds, any number of players can be accommodated without turning things into a total crap shoot. But just as important is the variety of cards and mechanisms he employed. Players will want to maximize their resources, money, military strength, science, abilities, and, of course, VPs. Decisions must be made about which to focus on and which to ignore and that’s what makes the game so enjoyable.
I feel the game is highly replayable, although some might disagree. There are seven wonders that can be assigned to a player (eight, if you count the rather bizarre Manneken Pis expansion, which, like the publisher Repos, hails from Belgium), each of which has different abilities assigned to its stages. The wonders each have an A and a B side, which differ slightly, so there are a good number of starting positions. As mentioned, the Guilds also add variety. Finally, each game plays out very differently, since the way the cards are grouped affects gameplay significantly. Fans of other fast playing card games might point out that there isn’t a broad strategy space, like Race for the Galaxy, or highly different starting positions, like Dominion. But given that 7 Wonders is lighter than those games, I think there’s more than enough replayability to keep players happy for quite a while, or at least until the inevitable expansions appear.
While 7 Wonder’s claim to fame may be how well it plays with lots of players, I definitely prefer it with fewer. It’s best with 3 or 4, in my opinion, as you’re directly competing with all or almost all of your opponents. There’s more control as well and it’s far easier to see what everyone is going for. It’s also pretty good with 5, but with 6 or 7, it feels as if the opponents furthest from you might as well be playing another game. However, many groups (and families) like to play a single game together rather than split up and for folks like that, the fact that the game is still feasible with as many as 7 makes it a real godsend.
I really have only one nagging concern about the design. You make lots of decisions during a game of 7 Wonders: Some of them are automatic and some take some real thought. But it’s not clear to me that most of them matter a great deal, at least in terms of wins and losses. You can play a very sound game, but lose because you were dealt three great cards in a stack, rather than having them split up in three stacks. Or because a neighbor got a key military or science card at the right time. Or because the “perfect” guild wasn’t one of the ones added to the Age III cards. On the other hand, all of those things might go right and you’ll win easily. There’s also the actions of your opponents, some of which might have seemed like a toss-up to them, but which turned out to be critical to your fortunes. I’m not really sure about this and in any event, I’d need a lot more data to determine if it’s true, but it does seem as if the feeling of control in the game might be a false one and that chaos, well hidden but nonetheless present, is doing more to decide outcomes than player choices. Even if this is true, it’s not a huge issue, because the game plays so fast and the gameplay is so enjoyable that I don’t take winning all that seriously. Still, it does reduce the attraction to me a bit. I will say, though, that good players seem to perform better than less able ones, so this effect might not be as pronounced as I think it is.
One of the dangers for any hyped game is false expectations (Tempus, anyone?) and 7 Wonders is no exception. Some people will look at its great popularity and exalted position on the Geek (it’s currently the 14th ranked game) and assume that it must be a deep, strategic game (like most of the other highly ranked games on the Geek). Those people will be disappointed. 7 Wonders is a middleweight game that, because it plays so fast, feels almost like a filler. It has plenty of decisions, but none of them are deep and the strategic space is fairly narrow. It’s meant to be played quickly, not to be subjected to heavy analysis. If you approach this game the right way, as clearly most people have, you will very likely enjoy it. But, based on some comments, a few people viewed it as the second coming of Agricola and it’s nowhere close to filling those shoes.
There are plusses and minuses in the job Repos did on the components, but most of my feelings are positive ones. The cards are oversized, which I consider a very wise decision. The cards are the game, after all, and deserve special treatment. The downside, of course, is that you’ll need a fairly large table if you want to play with 6 or 7. The artwork is very attractive and takes up a lot of real estate on the cards; again, a good choice, as this is the primary thematic aspect of the game. Bold colors were used to distinguish each type of card, which I really like; in addition to making the cards easily distinguishable (even from across the table), it’s a very appealing look. The iconography is exemplary: large and easily understood, which is important given how often you’ll be checking out your neighbors’ holdings. The cards don’t feel flimsy, but they do show wear disappointingly quickly. That’s definitely an issue, particularly given how expensive this game is, but it hasn’t really been a problem for me, because this isn’t the kind of game where you have much opportunity to distinguish cards from their backs. You can always sleeve the cards, of course, but no one has bothered to do that in any of the groups I play with and that’s a good thing.
The wonders are cardboard player boards that, like the cards, are attractively illustrated and clearly marked. But many of them begin to warp after just a few plays. Again, a disappointment, but not a real issue so far. The coins and conflict tokens are nice looking. Finally, easily the worst part of the production is the insert, which has got to be the flimsiest piece of cardboard I’ve ever seen in a game. Get rid of it the first chance you get, which will give you plenty of room for the numerous expansions which are sure to follow. So overall, some definite missteps in the physical production, but the cards, the stars of the show, look so good I’m willing to overlook most of the transgressions.
So, in the final analysis, 7 Wonders isn’t the greatest thing since sliced bread (that would be Wonder Bread – ha!). In fact, it isn’t even my favorite game of 2010. But what it is is a very enjoyable, very replayable game that keeps coming out and figures to do so for some time. In fact, not only have I played this back to back, but I’ve even requested such a rematch on occasion; those who have gamed with me can tell you what an incredibly rare occurrence that is. There’s always some new approach you want to check out and even when you recognize that you may not have complete control of your fate, it’s awfully fun trying them out. Antoine Bauza set himself an ambitious goal and met it very well; we are the happy benefactors. So if you’re wondering how a game can possibly handle seven players in only 45 minutes with no downtime, pick up a copy of 7 Wonders (when it finally becomes available!) and wonder no more.
Rating: I like it
Other Opinionated Gamers
Dale Yu’s Opinion (over 15 plays): Larry has done a fantastic job of describing how the game works. When I first played the game (at the Gathering of Friends 2010), I instantly fell in love with it. I loved the idea of card drafting, reminding me both of M:tG card drafts as well as Fairy Tale. I also liked the scaling from three to seven players. An added bonus was the quick playing time – most games with players familiar with the cards should take 20-30 minutes. 7 Wonders is still amongst my favorite games from that cohort, and I do believe that it stands a good chance of being nominated (deservedly so) for the Spiel des Jahres. Since its release at Essen 2010, I have had a chance to play it a number of times – and while I still like it, it has fallen out of the “I Love It!” category for me.
The main reason for this is the fact that it scales to seven players. While it is still nice to have a game that seven people can play all at once, it’s rare for me to ever want to do this. As most of the interaction in this game involves only your RHO and LHO, I’ll pretty much not even see what the two players on the opposite side of the table are doing until we tally up the points at the end. Yes, I understand that I probably should be paying attention to what everyone is doing in order to play optimally – but I find that I’m unwilling to invest that time and energy into what is otherwise a lightweight game. Without any compelling reason to interact with those people opposite me, we might as well be playing separate games — which is what I will usually recommend if 7 people want to play: splitting up into a 4p and a 3p game rather than trying to play 7 Wonders (or anything else, for that matter) with 7 players.
The other thing of mild annoyance is that there is no easy way to check that all players are paying appropriately for their buildings or are building cards they are able to build. What I have found is that everyone is so focused on what they are doing, that as cards are played simultaneously, things get missed. I’d estimate that in over 50% of the games of 7 Wonders that I’ve played, at least one building was built incorrectly by one player or another – either by not having the right resources, not having enough coins to pay for the resources, or by building a second building with an identical name. However, despite these issues, this is still one of my favorite games from Essen 2010, and its versatility and short playing time will keep it coming back to the table often. My impression currently is: I like it.
Greg Schloesser (Over a dozen plays): On rare occasions, a game is published that causes such a stir that it is akin to a virtual earthquake within the gaming world. The normal buzz surrounding the release of a new game is replaced with a deafening roar, and there is a frantic clamor to acquire and play the game. Such a phenomenon has happened a few times in the past, and it is happening again. The sensation this time is 7 Wonders by designer Antoine Bauza.
The game’s simplicity belies the strategies and decisions that are present. Players must make decisions as to which cards they seek to construct, realizing that by concentrating on a few categories they will likely be forced to neglect other categories, most likely to their detriment. Further, this decision is influenced by the strategies being pursued by one’s neighbors. It is also wise to keep an eye on what resources your neighbors are producing – and what they are not producing – so you can plan accordingly.
Choosing which card to keep can be tough, as there are usually multiple cards that are beneficial and fit your strategy. Plus, the knowledge that you will be passing a desirable card or two to your neighbor is troubling. Sometimes a card would be so valuable to your neighbor that you opt to keep it instead of a different card that you coveted more. While these decisions are angst-inducing, their resolution is generally quick, so the game moves along at a brisk pace.
For me, the only knock against the game is that you can only significantly influence and be influenced by the players to your immediate right and left. You have little real influence on the remaining players and, indeed, may not even be able to see what they are collecting. Since you are not concerned with these other players, however, it does have the benefit of keeping the game moving along as there is little need to assess their holdings.
This drawback, however, pales in comparison to the excitement and brilliance of the game. There is a persistent tension of trying to collect the cards you desire. Yes, much of this is dependent upon the cards you are passed, but everyone is forced to pass along valuable cards. So, the odds are good you will be receiving cards that are beneficial. It is fun and challenging to construct a set of cards that enable you to construct more valuable and beneficial cards as the game progresses. It is not exactly an “engine building” game, but it has some of the elements.
7 Wonders is an amazing design. There aren’t many games that can pack this much tension, decisions and strategy options in a 30 – 45 minute time frame, while accommodating up to seven players. The game seems to have all the elements to give in great longevity in a hobby where most games fade to obscurity after just a few years. It also has all of the elements that should make it a front-runner to capture industry awards such as the Spiel des Jahre and International Gamers Award. Although this is a year wherein there have been numerous promising games published, 7 Wonders seems destined to rise to the top.
Matt Carlson (about a dozen plays, mostly 5-7 players): Larry nailed it when he said, “perhaps its greatest accomplishment is that it’s a game that the vast majority of gamers will like at least a little.” It plays fast and everyone is occupied, making it a solid game for intermediate or beginning players. My gaming group(s) are big on social interaction and so I’m someone who has played with 6 or 7 quite a few times. Those that complain about the lack of interaction across the table can just play a sub-game with the players to their right and left. If you beat them, you won your own little 3 player game.
7 Wonders’ greatest weakness comes in the random card distribution. If your best three cards are clumped together at the end of the game, there’s simply nothing you can do. Perhaps it should be compared to Cribbage where even the best players lose frequently, they simply win more frequently than anyone else. I want to put 7 Wonders in the “I Love It!” camp, but I’ve been burned a few too many times by bad card draws. That said, there isn’t much else I’d rather play at the start or end of an evening that can finish in 30-40 minutes.
Patrick Brennan (8 plays, through the range of 3 to 7 players): It’s a really nice ramped up version of Fairy Tale, which is a good thing because FT is one of my all-time favourite 10 minute games. If you’re intent on the win, it has the same “gamble and hope” strategy requirement as FT, eyeing off what the people around you are collecting, going for something else, and then hoping the cards you want come to you drip fed one at a time and not all bunched in one hand, and that other players won’t also start collecting them before you. At 30 minutes or so I don’t mind the lottery feel though, and I’ve enjoyed each playing. I know it’s not going to be dripping with depth, but it’s one of those games I’ll enjoy whenever pulled out. The one big downside not yet mentioned (for us here in Aus anyway) is the ridiculous retail asking price (~A$75) for what’s nothing more than a card game filler with some cardboard pieces and money thrown in. Let’s hope the second printing gets its act together in this respect.
Frank Branham (perhaps a dozen plays, through the gamut-t of players): It is a lightweight, almost forgettable Euro-y point grabbing game–except for one feature: you are always playing. That’s all it has going for it, but it is enough to make it addictive and forgive the bad things. Takes too long to set up and score compared to the play time. Some of the Wonders are just boring. And it has this odd thing going where I’ll almost always play it, but I’m not overly fond of it. Strange dichotomy there.
Joe Huber (4 plays): There is a fair bit to like about 7 Wonders, which has been well summarized by Larry and the other reviewers. But I found my second play less enjoyable than my first, and my third still less enjoyable. All of which is enough that I have no interest in playing the game further at this time. I think Patrick’s comparison to Fairy Tale is apt; I found the game similarly unsatisfying. 7 Wonders has the advantage of a more interesting set of mechanisms underneath, but the net result is the same for me – too many obvious choices, too little interaction with players not directly adjacent, too much of one’s strategy dictated by one’s wonder.
I think the striking contrast for me is between 7 Wonders and either Race for the Galaxy (which is a favorite) or Dominion (which isn’t, but mostly because of cards with “take that” effects). In Race for the Galaxy, one receives a hand of cards, and can plot out both short and long term goals, knowing that one may be banking on finding cards that mesh with the path chosen – but that one can utilize the cards in hand, at the expense of having to build more slowly. In Dominion, the set of cards one will see is known; the unknown is how the cards with come back out. Again, there’s imprecision in carrying out a plan, but there’s no difficulty in planning. In 7 Wonders, I’ve never felt that ability. If my neighbors choose to build military, I won’t see the cards. If I see multiple cards that interest me, I must simply pick one; unless playing with few players, I won’t see the ones I pass on again. And if a get a bad hand – that’s where the contrast is sharpest. In Race, I can explore for a reasonable chance of a good card, and use the “bad hand” to pay for it. In Dominion, I have a bad turn – but with the knowledge that the next hand should be better. Here, there’s no such promise; if I choose a path, the cards I need could all be in the same hand, or one in each hand but arriving in a manner that others will pull them first – or the cards can fall just right.
Kris Hall (5 plays or so) Frank hit the nail on the head for me: it’s always your turn. It’s a fast fun filler and it’s always your turn. It may not be my favorite game of the year, but it may be my favorite filler.
Mark Jackson (6 plays, I think…) While I really enjoy the game for many of the reasons outlined above (zero downtime, civ building fun, good-looking cards, etc.), I haven’t been able to pull the trigger yet & buy myself a copy. Part of that is the price (it seems high for what’s in the box) and part of that is the question about game play depth – am I playing the game or is it playing me?
A couple of “just in the news” notes from BGN: there will be an expansion entitled 7 Wonders: Leaders… and that the much-maligned box insert will be replaced with a nifty plastic insert in the next printing.
Doug Garrett (15 plays) I’m in the “Love It” camp and continue to enjoy the game’s interactivity with one’s neighbors. I can’t recommend the 2-player game outlined in the rules, and unlike others have mentioned I actually enjoy the games with 5-6 players because of the greater variety of cards available.
James Miller (many plays) A couple of points that I’d like to make. First I’d like to pick up on Larry’s comment about false choice. I think he may be spot on with this. During the game you are only choosing 18ish cards to either play, wonderize or throw away (for coins). It is hard to start the game with a detailed strategy and follow that through. It is very much a tactical game. The issue is that you really can’t spend too much time dithering either. Should I go this way or that? You had better decide quickly. That means that many of the choices you make, especially towards the end of the age, are not really much of a choice. Many people are loathe to look a gift choice in the mouth and are quite happy making non decision decisions.
Secondly, many people have mentioned that playing with five or more players might lead to a feeling of disconnectedness from your fellow players. This is something that I think is pretty common with some very popular games. You could also say that about the third and twelfth domino in a line. Sure the third domino only interacts with the second and fourth but it has a big impact overall.
You may think that from those words I may have kept some harsh words in reserve. Quite the contrary. I like the game a lot. I’m not a person that will play this game (or any other game) twice a week for the next 57 weeks so I don’t often think about the re-playability much. It offers a lot of game for the time it asks of you and if 7 Wonders is asking I’m answering.
Andrea “Liga” Ligabue (many plays) I have already wrote about 7 Wonders on WIN and ILSA since it is one of the hottest games from 2010 Essen list. I think it is great what 7 Wonders offers in less than 1 hour of play. Tense, deep, funny and not too long: something really close to what Dominion was able to do. What I really like in 7 Wonders is how it scales with the number of players and how the interaction with the neighbours is implemented: something really new. I think (and I hope) we will soon see new games using the draft mechanism and the interaction with neighbours in the same way. Not simple enough to be an SDJ candidate but a good competitor for IGA and DSP.
Mary Prasad (one play) I have mixed feelings about this game. I don’t like games with a lot of luck or lack of decisions. The game I played had 7 players and, while it played quickly, it wasn’t much fun. For one thing, in other card drafting games I was able to see at least some of the same cards again – not so with a full complement in this game. Also, being able to only use resources from the people immediately next to me was a big limitation in my game – both of the players next to me did not build resources because the players on the other sides of them did, forcing me to build all my own resources thus giving me less “other” plays. My card choices were also limited because of all this.
That being said, I believe this game would be much better with 3, or possibly 4, players. I am not sure it will surpass some of my favorite games with card drafting: Notre Dame, Fairy Tale, or Magic: the Gathering, but I am definitely willing to try it again with less players, and even look forward to it. Also, because it is a quick game, it might make a nice filler.
Jonathan Franklin (eight plays) – I love the art and the ideas behind 7 Wonders. It fills a great niche, quick game with up to 7, but for me, there is nothing that compels me to suggest playing the base game again. I would happily play it if someone wants to, but in my games so far, I have not felt a sense of achievement when I won, nor a sense of ‘what could I have done better?’ when I lost. Because of the draft one – play one pattern, I don’t get to choose the order in which I play the drafted cards, which can be part of the fun in Fairy Tale.
I feel its real promise is as a skeleton. It is a sound system with interesting cards that have variety, but I did not get any ‘aha’ moments playing the base game. All that said, I know there are expansions coming, the first one being Leaders. That excites me. As the system gets richer with these additions, assuming they are not purely more of the same, I expect that I will be actively requesting it.
Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers:
I Love It! (10)….Ted Alspach, Doug Garrett, Kris Hall, Stephanie Kelleher, Patrick Korner, Andrea Ligabue, Craig Massey, James Miller, Greg Schloesser, Brian Yu
I Like It (11)….Jeff Allers, Frank Branham, Patrick Brennan, Matt Carlson, Luke Hedgren, Mark Jackson, Larry Levy, John Palagyi, Mike Siggins, Rick Thornquist, Dale Yu
Neutral (6)….Jonathan Franklin, Wei-Hwa Huang, Joe Huber, Mary Prasad, Valerie Putman, Tom Rosen
Not For Me (0)