In 7 Wonders Duel, a 2015 game published by Repos Production and designed by Antoine Bauza and Bruno Cathala, two players compete over resources, commerce, military, science, and culture to become the top civilization. At its core, this is an engine building game where players take turns adding cards from a central market to build their civilization.
The common market is laid out in an overlapping pyramid shape. You can follow a handy schematic at the start of each age, with rows alternating between face up and face down cards. Only cards that are not covered by another card are available to the players, which forces enterprising players to plan ahead for cards that will be made available later in the round.
On a player’s turn, he or she will take one of three possible actions: purchase a card and add it to their civilization, trash a card and gain gold, or build one of their available “Wonders of the World.”
There are three ways to win–– and prove once and for all that your civilization is the top dog:
- Military victory= When one player marches all the way to the end of the military scoring track.
- Science victory= When one player collects six unique science tokens.
- Culture victory= Whoever has the most victory points collected throughout the game if neither condition 1 or 2 is met at the end of the third age.
Why It’s Wonderful… (Heh)
Short. This game actually plays in about 30 minutes as advertised on the box (a rarity in the world of board games). There will be 60 actions taken in every game of 7 Wonders Duel, but most turns you will be much shorter than the 30 seconds implied since it is easy (and essential) to plan ahead.
Of course, a short playtime isn’t praiseworthy alone. Tic-Tac-Toe is a much shorter game, and I wouldn’t call it great.
The remarkable achievement of game design here is that 7 Wonders Duel manages to pack a full civilization building experience inside that 30 minutes of game play. It presents players with surprisingly rich strategic and tactical decisions on each turn, and carefully tailored mechanics evoke progress with each move.
The strategic decisions are evident right off the bat. The first thing you’ll do in a game of Duel is draft the Wonders cards. These are the “Seven Wonders of the World,” expensive building projects that will grant one time powerful effects when built.
Both players begin the game with four, but only seven can be built over the course of the game. This race to finish constructing Wonders will make players want to select Wonders that require similar resources to build. That said, with three ways to win, it is also wise to determine how you intend to win the game early on and draft Wonders with powers conducive to that strategy. This tension between efficiency and effectiveness will remain a constant theme throughout each game of 7 Wonders Duel.
In the game play itself, long term strategy should stay at the forefront of players’ minds. As I referenced earlier, the pyramid of cards forces players to look ahead in order to be successful. The pyramid, a mixture of open and hidden information, should clue players in to what resources they’ll need to purchase the cards most vital to their long term goals, and when they are or may be coming up.
The strategy, while important, is just the staging for the battle. It is in the tactics of decisions made on each turn where the war is fought. For example, I’ll often look ahead and know what card I need to get my engine going, but thinking through how to make sure I get that card is a very different thought process. I have to ask myself interesting questions like, how can I progress the game in such a way that my opponent is forced to uncover the card for me to claim? Or more interesting still, if I must uncover the card, giving my opponent the option to purchase or trash it, then can I hide how important that card is to my plan or incentivize (see: coerce) them into taking something else?
Furthermore, players always need to keep in mind what their opponents are going for. This is a two-player game, meaning that every point their opponent doesn’t score is as good as a point for themselves. Often the right play is not the one that furthers your strategy the most, but one that forces your opponent to stumble. Discarding a card that your opponent needs to produce clay for several of their Wonders can be a game winning play.
I’ll admit that the tactics in this game are not particularly thematic. I can’t figure out how discarding a clay reserve your opponent needs and gaining gold for yourself makes any sense at all in the context of civilization building. But in a quick 30-minute game, I’m willing to live with some abstraction.
In fact, I think the designers were intentional about the abstraction, and did so in way that conveys the most important feeling of a civilization building game – progress. The most obvious example of this is in the structure of the game. You play through three ages, each one with progressively more advanced and expensive cards. In a concrete sense, you are advancing your civilization from groundwork previously laid. Another mechanic evoking progress is linking. Many cards have a symbol on them, which will allow you to purchase a card with the same symbol that shows up in a subsequent age for free.
Of course, all of this building up culminates with the construction of your Wonders. Nothing says sweet, sweet progress like long term plans coming to fruition.
I love the war track for this feeling as well. It functions like a tug of war, starting at zero that when moved all the way to one end will trigger the military victory.
As you can imagine, this is a pretty powerful incentive to fight back. What you end up seeing is the tide of war moving back and forth over the course of the game – an abstraction of shifting boarders, armies encroaching on enemy’s territories, and armies pushing back.
Perhaps once I’ve played 7 Wonders Duel another 20, 30, or 50 times, I’ll have found these issues to resolve themselves to a large degree. I would think this is certainly possible for the 8th highest rated game of all time on BoardGameGeek (at the time of writing). So I will label these things that gave me pause in my first handful of plays as simply concerns.
The major thing, which some scouting online quickly revealed I’m not alone in, is that there appears to be some balancing issues between the card types. Namely, the science cards are too weak and the commerce cards are too strong.
In my dozen plays, I have yet to see a science victory, and I’ve really gone all in on it at least a couple times to test its viability. I’m sure it will happen at some point. I got close both times, but it just seems like you either have to get very lucky or your opponent has to be totally asleep at the wheel in order to pull it off. To achieve the science victory, you need to collect 6 different science symbols. Unfortunately, your opponent usually just needs to discard/purchase two science cards throughout the course of the game to shut the door completely. Therein lies the problem: your sunk cost in going for the science victory is high, and your opponent’s cost to block is very low.
Furthermore, there is nothing gained from getting close to a science victory, unlike the military track that awards bonus points for how far advanced you are (not to mention destroying a few of your opponent’s coins along the way). As a result, falling just short almost definitely equates to a loss by victory points.
Compare this to the commerce cards. These allow players to reduce the cost of purchasing certain resources by 50% or more, depending on your opponents production, or just give the player gold for free. This is already incredibly valuable in a game where money is scarce. On top of this, however, they provide the absolutely insane passive bonus of one extra gold every time you take trash a card for gold action for the rest of the game. It’s hard to exaggerate how valuable this is.
The commerce cards are so good that I’d say you need to purchase them any time they are available to you, and if you cannot, then you should trash them so your opponent can’t get them. I’ve played two games against players who didn’t realize this and I ended up with all of the commerce cards through the first two ages; both of my opponents didn’t even want to finish the third age or count scores, realizing the insurmountable hole they were in.
I will note that a nice thing about a game like this is that it self regulates. If both players know that the commerce cards are this important and play accordingly, then it isn’t as much of an issue. Same with knowing that science cards should be a low priority. That said, balance is still a concern for me for a couple of reasons.
First the difference in power level is hidden information for new players. Most will go into the game with the expectation that it is reasonably balanced, and rightfully so. Here, if they pass up commerce cards for resource production in the first age (a seemingly reasonable thing to do), then the game may already be over. This isn’t the end of the world and some advice before the game can do a lot to mitigate potential frustration, but I do think this is a concern for a quick light game you will want to teach to lots of new players.
The other problem with unbalanced cards is that it limits options in game. Ideally if I pick wonders that support the science plan, then I should be able to pick up science cards without feeling like I’m throwing the game. Unfortunately, when I go for this strategy now, as I still want to accomplish the science victory some day, I know I’m not playing optimally.
Again, maybe once I’ve played 30 times and science has won a handful of them, then I’ll feel different, but for now it’s a concern.
The other issue is that this game can sometimes feel milk toast. It’s pleasant and good but missing excitement. There are really cool plays you can make by chaining Wonders together (many give you an extra turn after construction).
I’ve built all four of my Wonders in one turn one time. That was cool, but I’ve come to realize is a pretty typical play, rather than the highlight real moment when I first saw it happen to me.
Winning with military is certainly dramatic as both players are scrambling to pick up any military cards they can, and I assume science would be very much the same, but these are rare occurrences.
Far more often it will come down to victory points, which is kind of a vague way to decide which civilization is best. One player may win with slightly more victory points culture cards and military prowess compared to their opponent who had more scientific knowledge, money, and built more Wonders.
Suffice it to say that coming down to victory points can be a bit anticlimactic. This is only exacerbated by the fact that if someone is going all in for military or science then the game is essentially over the moment that they realize they can’t get there, and playing out the rest of the game is just a formality.
Once again, I’ll say that it is possible that this feeling will change once I’ve played more games with more experienced opponents. Perhaps when both players start out determined to play the best game they can and win with victory points, then it will come down to a dramatic one or two-point win. That just hasn’t been my experience so far.
I wish the science cards were a little better. Maybe collecting 4 different ones should also allow you to take a progress token in addition to collecting two of the same, which is slightly aggravating in its own right because collecting matching science symbols pulls you in a completely different direction from the science win condition. I wish the commerce cards were a bit worse. Maybe it two commerce cards should be required to provide one extra coin when trashing a card, or they should simply cost a bit more to build. I wish the conclusions of my games were a bit more dramatic and emotional. All these things kind of bug me about this game.
BUT – when I take a step back and think about all the awesome things this game does well it is easy to overlook those minor annoyances. There is no other game in my collection that I’d rather play with two when I only have an hour, 45-minutes or even just a half hour of time. Playing 7 Wonders Duel is not the most fun that I have playing any game ever, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a blast to play.
All things considered I’m giving this game 4.5 chickens*.
This split between 4 and 5 is to give the game room to change my mind one way or another over future plays. If I play more and some of issues begin to work themselves out as the meta in my apartment advances, then I could see 7 Wonders Duel moving up to a five. If these concerns continue to nag on me, then maybe my interest will wane over time, moving it down to a four. Only time will tell. For now, however, a 4.5 seems perfect.
For what 7 Wonders Duel sets out to do, it accomplishes masterfully. Every time I play, I’m floored by the smart and sleek game design. Even if imperfect, as all games are, It’s my favorite two-player game that plays in under an hour, and one I’d recommend highly to veteran and novice gamers alike.
*Chicken Fryd Games Rating Scale for reference
1: Won’t play – This game has nothing of value.
2: Begrudgingly Play – It’s not for me, but there are at least some good things about it.
3: Gladly Play – This isn’t a game that I need to own, but I like it overall.
4: Actively Play – I want to own this game, and will seek out opportunities to play.
5: Need to Play – If I’m not playing this game, I’m probably thinking about playing it.
6: Will Die if I Don’t Play – A perfect game. I may never give out this score.
Hello and welcome to the shameless plug section!
If you enjoyed this article, and want to help me achieve my dream of becoming a real life game reviewer, please
- Share this article with the folks you think might enjoy it! This is the best way you can support me at the moment.
- Follow me on twitter @Chicken_Fryd, where I’m always down to talk board games.
- Or just hit me up in the comments! Feedback is always appreciated.