Gaming Unplugged: 7 Wonders

January 14, 2011

This civilization-building game designed by Antione Bauza (Ghost Stories) will task you with taking your randomly-selected ancient city from nothing to dominance in three ages (rounds). From three to seven players can participate (the game also includes an advanced 2-player option), but no matter how many are actually playing you are really generally concerned with three until the final scoring: you and your immediate neighbors.

Also independent of the actual number of players is the time it takes to complete a game; generally a half an hour is all you need, although a few learning games are to be expected that might take as many as forty minutes if someone is particularly prone to analysis paralysis.

The quick play time is due to simultaneous execution of actions each turn. An age consists of each player playing six cards, one at a time. A card can either be built as the indicated building for its indicated cost (if any), used as part of your city’s Wonder if you have access to the required resources, or discarded to gain three coins. Resources are generated by previously-constructed buildings (each city has an inherent resource available as well) or purchased from a neighbor for two coins; some buildings allow you to build a specific building or two in the following age without paying its cost, which can be very useful, although it is worth remembering that you cannot have two copies of the same building in your city. Each player is dealt seven cards, but it wouldn’t be much of a game if you just had to choose six of them and play them out — which is where the real fun of 7 Wonders shows up: drafting.

Of the seven cards you are dealt, you will only play one; the rest are passed to one of your neighbors (to the left in the first and third ages, to the right in the second). After everyone plays the card they selected, you pick up the passed cards and select your next, repeating this process until the sixth action when you choose one of the final two passed cards to play and discard the other one for no effect. Being aware of what resources and/or free buildings are available to the neighbor receiving your passed cards is a key strategy (and one of the few times non-neighbors are even remotely relevant to you); “eating” a key card as part of your Wonder or for coins can be very useful. This can also be important when considering the green “science” cards, which score based on completing sets of  them (including both sets of one of the three types as well as sets of all three types) and can be devastating if someone is allowed to collect them unchecked.

Interactions with your neighbors are not just restricted to commerce and strategic card denial. At the end of each age, neighbors wage war with each other by comparing the number of shields they have in their city. Whoever has the higher total across each neighboring border earns extra points (one in the first age, three in the second, and five in the third), while whoever has the lower total loses a point; ties score no points. Losing a battle is always just a single-point penalty, so arms races are rarely worth the effort — although a six-point penalty (three losses each age to each neighbor) could be crucial, as scoring is often tight. Every three coins is also worth a point at the end of the game, although it is almost always better to spend to build cards (by buying resources from neighbors) rather than hoard cash.

As the game progresses, the available cards change. The first age is mostly basic resources and a few small bonuses. The second age has essentially double the potential resources, while the deck for the third age contains no resources at all but instead contains a randomly-chosen subset (two more than the number of players) of ten “guild” cards that provide bonus points (mostly) based on what your neighbors have accomplished. The number of players also dictates which cards are present in each age’s deck; each card has a number from 3+ to 7 on its face, indicating how many players allow that card to be used, and removing the invalid cards is the only real set-up required. This makes some cards rarer than others in certain configurations, but mostly exists just to balance everything out. Each of the cities’ Wonders have various benefits to constructing each level, although on Side A all Wonders’ first and third stages are identical (save cost); every city board is two-sided to provide more replay variety, and both sides are balanced to play against any combination of A and B sides.

7 Wonders occupies a curious borderland between “filler” and “main” game. Anything that can comfortably accommodate seven players is a useful addition to any gaming group, and the quick set up and play times ensure that it won’t overstay its welcome. The retail price of fifty dollars seems a bit much for 160 large cards, some cardboard, and a few wooden disks, but the true value of 7 Wonders lies in its versatility.