I owe a lot to 7 Wonders. While, today, I can unequivocally declare myself as a complete board game nut, that wasn’t always the case. There was a time, a simpler time, where all I did on a tabletop was play games of Risk and Catan. I had a social security number, I paid my taxes, and I helped my landlady carry out her garbage. I had a normal life, devoid of a compulsion to buy board games day and night on a whim, scouring the deepest corners of Amazon for sales and deals, devoid of nights sitting at a table for hours and hours, pretending to be some kind of master tactician. 7 Wonders changed all of that. After playing this game for the first time, I realized that there was more to my life than what I was currently experiencing. Okay, maybe my life didn’t change that much, but the point of all this is that 7 Wonders turned me into a board gamer. It was a game that showed me that there’s more out there than Catan and Monopoly. I’m not going to say this is the greatest game in the world, but the point is that 7 Wonders is, in a word, fun, and given that it’s the game that kicked off my hobby, I felt it was appropriate to review it first.
How do you play the game? Is it a fun experience? How much interaction is there between the players? Is there very much luck involved? Will it take forever to to learn and teach?
7 Wonders is a game about building the greatest civilization in the ancient world, based around the seven wonders of the ancient world. Each player will play cards that represent “buildings” that give them various benefits and a myriad of ways to score points, which are calculated in the end of the game. The person with the most points at the end wins the game.
The central mechanic of 7 Wonders’ gameplay is the drafting mechanic. Each player will start out with a hand of seven cards. They will choose one to play, and then pass their deck to the next player. They will then pick up the deck that was just passed to them, and play from there. Once the cards run out, the phase will end (referred to thematically as “ages”), and the process will repeat two more times, until the three ages have passed and the points are calculated.
The cards are divided into seven different colors, all of which serve different purposes. Brown and grey cards represent resources, which are used to pay for the other cards. Red, blue, and green cards represent military, culture, and science respectively, each of which have their own scoring mechanism at the end of the game. These three suites are the main vehicles through which points are earned. Yellow cards facilitate commerce (players can pay their neighbors coins to have access to their resources), and purple cards, exclusive to the last age, represent “guilds.” These cards generate points in many different ways and are randomly dealt into each game.
Additionally, each player has a miniature board that represents their ancient wonder. Instead of playing a card, a player can opt to bury it to construct one of their “wonder stages” instead. Constructing these will yield special benefits to the player, exclusive to whatever civilization they’re playing.
At the end of the game, victory points are calculated. Military VPs score conditionally based on what neighbors played, cultural VPs are printed right on their cards, and science VPs score exponentially. In addition, some yellow and purple cards will accumulate points in their own specific ways. Whoever has amassed the most points has built the mightiest civilization and wins the game.
I suppose, then, the thing that I like about 7 Wonders is that it’s not a stressful game to play. The game hits a perfect balance between painstaking strategy and relaxed fun. Due to the quick nature of the game, rounds never last long, and if the players know what they’re doing, games shouldn’t last more than twenty to thirty minutes. Due to the short nature of the game, it’s also less frustrating to lose or to play a bad hand, because it’s not a hard game to just play over again. I’ve found that, in typical sessions of playing 7 Wonders, pretty much everyone is down to play a few games in a row.
In a word, 7 Wonders is satisfying. As far as the fun factor goes it’s not like going to Disneyland, but it’s just satisfying to play those cards and see what kind of end result you end up with. There’s not a ton of player interaction, but there is enough to keep people engaged, and there is a nice gratifying feeling in the end when you’re able to look at your play area in the end of the game and see how everything added up. Conversely, if you lost, it can be equally satisfying to play the next game and see changing your strategy will determine your outcome. Because the game can be played so quickly, there’s no waiting for a week until your next play session to refine your skills. 7 Wonders evokes that feeling of “let’s play again!” and any game that can do that is a winner in my book.
On that note, however, I have a bone to pick with 7 Wonders. The iconography of this game is at once a blessing and a curse. Every single card and wonder and, well, everything in the game is represented by an icon, and not words. This is a trend I’ve been seeing in a lot of games as of late, and I’m still a little torn on it. On one hand, once all of the icons are memorized, it makes it easy to glance at any card and take its meaning. On the other hand, it makes it an absolute pain in the you-know-what to explain it to newcomers, and ensures that you’ll be passing around a massive icon legend around during your first few rounds. Hilariously, it took my group less time to learn and start playing Imperial Assault than it did to learn 7 Wonders. I’m known to be pretty good at explaining and teaching games, and it’s always taken a tremendously longer time to teach the game than to play it. This has nothing to do with gameplay, and everything to do with the icons. Depending on who you’re playing with, you may need to explain over and over until they’re explained.
Sometimes I think iconography is a good thing once it’s all learned, but I then think of my games of Dominion and wonder how much better they would have been if every card had big flashy icons to explain every single nuance, rather than their good old-fashioned text. This might also become a problem when expansions are introduced, where more complicated or varied rules are introduced, thus requiring more and more icons to memorize. It’s really not a big problem, but it absolutely will extend the amount of time it takes to both learn and teach the game.
I’ve found that a typical teaching session will last anywhere between ten to thirty minutes, depending on how adept your group is at memorizing symbols.
How much strategy is involved? Is there a sense of variety and balance? Does the game play well no matter how many players there are? How long does it take to play?
I think what I like about 7 Wonders is that everything you do has an opportunity cost, so the game demands a strategy. For every card you play, you’ll see a bunch of cards in your hand that you now don’t get to play, unless they’re still there when the deck comes around to you (which may not even happen in a game with a lot of players). This adds that wonderful sense of pressure that makes it fun to decide how you want to play, and also satisfying when you manage to play a hand where all of your points add up cohesively in the end of the game in glorious harmony due to your persistent strategy.
7 Wonders has seven different avenues through which to score points. One thing I’ve noticed is that people rarely win from stockpiling a certain suite. Hoarding on science (green) will, for example, win the game by a landslide, but clever players will catch on to that real quick and usually won’t let it happen. Military points (red) cap out at a certain level, so collecting a ton of those won’t do you much good. If your entire hand is blue, you’ll get an outrageous amount of points but usually it’s just not enough unless you somehow manage to practically monopolize them. Those three suites are the main point-earners, so it goes without saying that other colors won’t singlehandedly win. As a result, 7 Wonders demands that you give attention to all of the suites. Most wins I’ve seen have a good focus on one particular suite, while giving a smaller, healthy dose of attention to the others. Ultimately, each game will be different and you most likely won’t be able to play the same strategy from one game to the next.
The only other luck component is associated with the purple “guild” cards. Purple cards are the only ones that are randomized for each game. With the other six suites, 100% of those cards are dealt every time, but only a few of the purple cards make it in, resulting in different purple variety every game. Purple cards, in a nutshell, provide point bonuses for other cards played. For example, one purple card might grant you one point for every single blue card that both of your neighbors have played, or for every brown card that you’ve played. These cards, more often than not, are huge point earners and can swing the game. This, unfortunately, is the one area where the luck of the draw can significantly influence the game. If, for example, your two neighbors have been stockpiling blue the whole game, and then you just happen to get that purple blue-bonus card in your starting hand, then you immediately have an advantage that the other players never even had the opportunity of obtaining. I’ve found that in most games, the purple card distribution isn’t a huge issue, and that, on the contrary, it helps to keep things interesting. It can’t be denied though that sometimes, the purple cards very obviously favor a certain person in the group. Fortunately, this can be mitigated by the players’ abilities to bury cards that might favor their opponents, but if lucky cards are dealt to the right people in starting hands, there’s not much that can be done.
There is luck in this game, but I have rarely ever found it to be a significant problem. The game almost always favors the best strategy, and even if a player is able to nab a lucky card, clever opponents will more than likely be able to excel on their own nonetheless.
The game feels a little different, however, with a smaller player count. Because of the drafting mechanic, the same deck will be passed through each player’s hands a few times, whereas with a six or seven player game, you may only see each hand once. This changes the strategy a little bit, as you’ll be able to anticipate which cards are coming. I’ve found that it can be more difficult to form a cohesive strategy with a higher player count, as you can’t reasonably predict which hands are coming your way. Is this a bad thing? No, it just makes the game a little different, albeit still enjoyable.
The two player game, among fans, is a bit divisive. It’s not uncommon for contemporary games to use a “dummy player” in a two player game, and 7 Wonders follows this trend. Essentially, each player plays a card for a dummy player when it’s their turn. This adds a strategy that you won’t find with higher player counts, as you’re much more capable of affecting which cards your opponent will have access to.
I found the two player variant to be enjoyable, though I didn’t end up feeling strongly about it one way or another. I’ve talked to many people who very much enjoy the two player game, and to others who think it’s a drag. It’s hard for me to make a catch-all statement about its overall quality, as it will ultimately most likely just come down to personal taste. Personally, I’d rather play a game more optimized for two players than to play one with a dummy mechanic, but to each their own.
Look and Feel
Is the game aesthetically pleasing? Are the components made out of quality material, or do they feel cheap? Is the rulebook well-designed and easy to read? How well is theme integrated into the game?
Let’s get something out of the way: 7 Wonders is gorgeous, both inside and out. The colorful, eye-catching cover art, the nice clean logo, and the ridiculous amount of awards emblazoned all over the box are, I’m sure, no small part of 7 Wonders’ success. It is unfortunate when a brilliant, but ugly game suffers because of its unfriendly aesthetics, but 7 Wonders is no such game. Between the box and component art, iconography, and overall visual design, this game is a looker. As someone who loves ancient history, I very much enjoyed looking at all of the beautiful art on the wonder cards, eloquently depicting these ancient wonders in their hay-days.
Upon opening the box, you’ll be greeted by a pleasant insert, molded specifically for the game, its components housed comfortably within. You’ll have a few cardboard chit sheets to punch out, a modest eleven page rulebook, a reference sheet, scorekeeping book, and of course, the cards, organized into three decks. The component quality is top notch here. The cards aren’t thin and flimsy, and the player boards/chits are printed and cut with stiff, high quality cardboard material. Sometimes, when cardboard components get worn down through playing or storage, the printed layer on top may begin to rip or peel off. I’ve owned this game for several months and everything is still in ship shape. Overall, I can’t find anything to complain about here.
Overall, the rules do a decent job at explaining the game, though I might have preferred that they would rearrange some of the rules to make the core concept more understandable from the get-go. For example, the rules start with “game elements” that explain various concepts that would not make sense yet to a new player. This is not a grievous mistake, as many games contain a sort of pre-rules “glossary” to explain basic concepts. This section is followed by set-up, which is then weirdly followed by a page that explains how to “build” (in other words, play) your cards. This is then followed by the “how to play” section, which explains everything rather clearly. For a new gamer like me that didn’t even know what a card drafting game was when I played it, I think that reading the very basic concept of the game before reading glossary pages may have helped me to pick it up faster. These objections, of course, are negligible, and ultimately the rulebook does its job well without any major frustrations.
That’s not to say, however, that the theme isn’t well implemented. The artwork and aesthetics, of course, are downright beautiful, and all of the cards in the game fit well within the motif of ancient history. Furthermore, it’s fun for a historyphile to see the parallels between the wonder bonuses and the actual civilizations they’re representing. The militaristic Rhodes, for example, is granted army bonuses. The mighty Giza grants more points and an optional choice to build four wonders instead of one, implying their unparalleled labor force. Some of these connections make sense, and others not so much. Regardless, it’s nice to see that, even though the theme could be easily interchangeable, that the designers did their best to pay homage to it within the gameplay. Although expansions are not being covered here, they also do an excellent job of pushing the theme even further.
Is it a game you can play over and over? Are there expansions available for the game, and if so, are they necessary? Does the amount of the content in the box justify the price?
There are some games where the gameplay and the theme are woven together like some sophisticated tapestry, working in perfect harmony together; you can feel that the game was designed around the theme. 7 Wonders is not one of those games. While the theme doesn’t feel tacked on, it certainly feels replaceable. You’re not really playing this game to feel like the leader of a civilization, you’re playing it because it’s a fun card game. The theme could honestly change into anything and I’m sure it would feel all the same. I’m not going to say whether or the theme or the gameplay came first (because I don’t know), but like I said, the theme could be anything and the game would hardly feel different.
One thing that keeps the game fresh is the wonder boards. Each board has an “A” side and a “B’ side. The A sides are all similar (yet still slightly different for each civilization), but the B sides vary radically in difference, and typically yield more unique benefits. It’s not huge, but it’s a nice touch that helps keep things interesting after lots of playthroughs.
As mentioned already, I’m not covering the expansions here, but I will note that, with them, the game jumps from “pretty replayable” to “near infinitely replayable.” Which brings us to…
A word of caution – Some might think that too much expansion detracts from the core appeal of the game, which is that it’s quick and easy but still deep. I’ve sometimes found that too many expansions combined together increase setup time and make turns a lot longer. Depending on the group, this might not be an issue if they determine the extra depth to be worth it. I personally, for example would recommend playing Leaders and Cities together, but not combined with Babel, and the other way around. This, of course, is totally up to you and your group.
- Leaders: Adds “leaders,” which allows players to much more easily plan a long-term strategy, new wonder boards
- Cities: Adds a new suite of black cards, all of which with unique effects, that are shuffled randomly into each game to add variety. More wonder boards and leaders.
- Babel: Adds mechanics that increase player interaction, such as “laws” that affect all players and co-operative buildings that yield global effects
- Wonder Pack: Adds four new wonder boards
These things aside, 7 Wonders is a fantastic game because, after all is said and done, it hits that sweet spot. It’s simple, but it’s complex. It’s short, but it’s not too short. It’s makes you feel pressure, but it doesn’t make you feel stress. To be honest, 7 Wonders isn’t necessarily even the best at what it does. There are point salad games that are deeper and tighter. There are card games that have way more variety. There are games that utilize the “ancient history” theme more effectively. But, the point salad games take forever to play. The card games might be overwhelming. The themed games might be too convoluted. They’re all great games, but sometimes they’re just a little too heavy and will take a little too much time. 7 Wonders shines because it’s able to stand right in the middle. It’s the perfect blend of strategy and brevity. It’s not light, and it’s not heavy. It’s, well, medium. We need more medium games. After all, if we didn’t, then the guy typing this would probably be playing Risk right now. And heaven knows we don’t need that.
Check it out
YOU WILL LIKE THIS GAME IF…
- You enjoy card drafting
- You like ancient history
- You like games that can be played in less than an hour
- You have a lot of people that want to play at the same time
- You like games where you focus on your own board/area
- You like choosing between multiple strategic paths
- You want a game with good expansionary potential
- You want a game that’s less than $50
YOU WON’T LIKE THIS GAME IF…
- You want a lot of direct player interaction
- You don’t like learning a lot of iconography
- If you don’t like “point salad” games
- You want a strong 2 player game
- You like to keep track of points/who’s winning throughout the game
- You’d rather play a board game over a card game
About the Author
Zach is an avid tabletop gamer, and he created Board Game Resource out of his love for the hobby, and his desire to see more people come into it. When he's not writing for or managing BGR, Zach might be hanging out with cats, hiking a mountain, spending time with his lovely wife, or writing about video game stuff for Insert Gamer. Zach has also enjoys creating digital character art. You can check out his (long neglected) gallery here, or follow him on Instagram at @artworkbyzach!