Long ago, the world bore witness to a special group of architectural and cultural icons so grand, so large a monument to human endeavor, that to describe them as anything less than wondrous would be a discredit. For only 21 years, seven of these monuments stood around the world simultaneously. That golden age quickly ended, as nature and the folly of man destroyed these structures one by one until the only the pyramids – the oldest and largest of the group – remained, standing the test of time for over 4,500 years.
7 Wonders pays homage to these monuments, and to the people that created them, by having players step into the shoes of ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Babylonian leaders as they attempt to build the greatest city in the world. To win, you must carefully balance the military, scientific, cultural, economic, and manufacturing aspects of your city to maximize your advantages and minimize your deficiencies. 7 Wonders is all about making difficult choices and learning to adapt to situations that are largely dictated by your opponents; flexibility and watching your neighbors both play a large role in a player’s success.
During setup, you choose a city at random and receive a large cardboard mat representing that city, its associated wonder, and starting resources. Each city plays differently as a result of the differences in resources and wonders, but the game is balanced well and there’s no real advantage in playing one city over another. For added variety, each city mat is two-sided, with each side offering different building requirements and rewards for completing your wonder.
7 Wonders is played across three “ages,” representing the advancement of your civilization. As the game progresses, the structures you build become more expensive but offer bigger results. For each age, a different deck of cards is used, which is shuffled and dealt out so that everyone starts an age with seven cards. Each turn, everyone plays a card from their hand simultaneously, then (and this is the key mechanic of 7 Wonders) passes their remaining hand around the table.
Before going on, I want to talk about the hand-passing mechanic a bit. This is the aspect of 7 Wonders that sets it apart from most other tabletop games I’ve played. The concept is so simple – you play a card, pass your hand, and repeat until the end. But that’s the brilliance; every time you pass your hand, you know EXACTLY what someone else can do on their next turn, and another player knows EXACTLY what you can do on your turn. Good players can remember what cards are in each hand and strategize based on that information. And because of this mechanic, every time you take a turn, you must choose between playing the card that’s best for you and playing something else just to keep it out of your opponent’s hands.
There are three things you can do with each card you play: build the card, use it to complete part of your wonder, or discard it for coins. If you build the card, you must meet the card’s resource or coin requirements. There are seven different resources in the game, such as wood, stone, and glass. Cities naturally produce different resources, and there are cards in the first two ages that provide additional resources. But if a player is missing one or more required resources for a card, they can trade with their neighbors to acquire access to them for that turn (each player is considered to “neighbor” the player on their left and right). By paying your neighbor, you can use one of that player’s resources to play a card, which means your neighbor profits from your dependency.
If you use the card to complete part of your wonder, you play it face-down under the corresponding spot on your city mat, which makes this an excellent means of keeping valuable cards out of your opponents’ hands. The card you use to build your wonder doesn’t matter since you pay whatever cost the city mat says. As you build each stage of your wonder, you may earn victory points, or a bonus related to your particular wonder. For instance, Alexandria’s Lighthouse gives you access to additional raw materials, while the Temple of Artemis gives you extra coins. While I love the way that building a wonder makes each city play differently and allows for strategic card use, I really dislike two aspects of the premise. First, the game is called 7 Wonders, yet there’s no requirement for you to complete, or even start, building your wonder to win. The game works just fine without that being dictated by the rules, but it sticks in my craw that you can win without working on the namesake of the game at all. Also, there are three ages in the game, and most wonders are built in three stages; the biggest problem I have with introducing my friends to this game is that they assume that wonder stages and game ages correspond, which isn’t the case. I do like the freedom to build stages whenever I want, but there really ought to be some sort of clarification of that in the game’s quick rules sheet.
Your third option is to discard the card for coins. Usually this is less of a choice than it is a lack of options, since the money is rarely better than the result of using the card to build something. It does, however, allow the same “screw your neighbor” play that building a wonder does, and depending on your wonder, you can even use it to your advantage. The Mausoleum’s special ability allows you to immediately build a discarded card from any age for free; so a clever player could discard a powerful card they can’t afford to build, and later build up the Mausoleum to play that card automatically.
The game’s cards are color-coded based on what they do. For instance, brown cards provide raw materials, red cards give military strength, and yellow cards give you economic or trading advantages. Aside from making the card’s purpose visually apparent, it allows players to quickly gauge their opponents’ strategies by seeing what color cards they’ve played. There’s also an entire category of cards known as “guilds” that score victory points based on the colors of cards on the table; the philosopher’s guild, for example, gives you a victory point for each scientific (green) card your neighbors have played. Guilds can really change the balance of power in the late game – if your neighbor is trying to maximize points in one category, you can play the corresponding guild to profit from their work.
Each age lasts 6 turns, which means you only get to use 18 cards to maximize your score; every choice you make is therefore an important one, which keeps the game engaging from start to finish. After each age ends, players resolve military conflicts with their neighbors. Military cards have shield symbols on them; if you have more shields than your neighbor, you score victory points, but if you have fewer shields, you lose a victory point (ties are ignored). Military strategies tend to play out in one of two ways – either a pair of players are continuously vying for military supremacy (which can lead to pyrrhic victories), or one focuses on military strength while the other accepts the defeat and focuses on other types of cards instead. Ultimately, a military-heavy strategy isn’t the best way to score points, but if you can get away with spending few turns to get those victory points, it’s a viable strategy.
After three ages, the game’s somewhat-complicated scoring system comes into play. In keeping with the recurring theme of 7 throughout the game, there are seven different categories for scoring: military, money, wonders, civilian, commerce, guilds, and the most confusing of all, science.
Science scoring is just a weird thing, man. Every science card contains one of three different symbols. Each set of three unique symbols scores seven points (there’s that seven again). You also score points for collecting multiples of the same symbol – one is worth one point, two is worth four, three is worth nine, so that X of a kind gives you X-squared points. To further complicate matters, there’s a wild-card science symbol, which caused me to download a scoring app specifically to plug my symbols in and spit out the maximum score. For what it’s worth, focusing on science can be an easy way to win, since collecting two of each symbol yields 26 points from only six turns of effort.
Why do I like this game so much? First of all, I love games that can handle different group sizes. The game plays very well whether you have three or seven players, though the two-player variant is a little lacking. In addition, in many high-player tabletop games you can expect a long experience as each player adds more turns and therefore more time to play. The simultaneous nature of 7 Wonders, along with its quick setup, means that no matter how many players you have, it plays pretty quickly. With 18 total turns, you can expect to spend about 30-40 minutes per game.
7 Wonders isn’t flawless, though. Scoring is a complex and confusing process and the wonder system is counter-intuitive to newer players. In fact, one of my friends felt that the wonders were somewhat boring and unnecessary, and that the hand-passing system was awkward to understand and at times infuriating. The game box doesn’t provide a basic way to store all the various tokens without mixing different types and values. The game also exclusively uses symbols to explain card effects, many of which unsuccessfully try to distill complex ideas into basic images. The game comes with a quick reference sheet explaining every symbol, but for new players, the cards can seem to contain nothing but gibberish.
There’s also a bit of a learning curve to overcome in 7 Wonders. New players have to process a lot of non-textual information and scoring is incredibly hard to understand until you’ve played a couple games. Most rookie players don’t see the advantages of science development, or understand the need to play resource cards early and get backed into a corner in the late game. This sort of experience can easily be off-putting unless you’re taught by an experienced, patient player who can easily explain all the little nuances.
My 6-year-old son has played several times, and has a fair grasp of how to play well at this point. He regularly needs to refer to the reference sheet to decipher card symbols, and I don’t know that he’ll really understand science strategy for quite a while, but he does know what cities he likes to play, how to completely build his wonder, and he beams with pride when he’s the high scorer in a certain category.
I don’t believe this game is right for everyone, but if you’d enjoy a game where luck is almost a non-factor and divergent, adapting strategy is king, I recommend you ignore the small hurdle of learning 7 Wonders, because once you get how the game works, it’s a fantastic way to spend a half hour with some friends. People of all ages and skill levels can enjoy 7 Wonders for its interactivity and simple rules, and the replay factor is high with 7 different cities and so many different paths to victory. Its price point is a bit high for what’s included in the game (MSRP $49.99, 7 cardboard mats, 150 cards, 100 cardboard tokens, 1 score pad), with two expansions available for about $30 each, but if you’re a board game enthusiast, 7 Wonders is definitely one of the better ones out there.