Friday, January 17, 2014

7 Wonders, By Antoine Bauza

Can you name all seven? 
There are some games that just always get to the table, because they're that good, and they fill some niche in my game collection perfectly. 7 Wonders is both of those things: an incredibly well-designed game that's easy to teach, fun to play, and perfect for any group of 3-7 people. If you've got a table, grab this game and play it - you can thank me later. 

I'm unabashedly continuing my obsession with all things Antoine Bauza (see previous reviews of Hanabi and Takenoko). I think you'll enjoy this game of empire building and "monumental" achievement as much as I have; frankly, 7 Wonders demands to played. If you're not convinced, read on! 

I mentioned that 7 Wonders fills a specific niche in my game library, and I'm going to address that first. I am not aware of another game that can play seven players in under an hour that has significant depth and replayability, and is reasonably simple to learn and teach. I've played 7 Wonders hundreds of times, taught it dozens of times, and I continue to enjoy it. 

At the beginning of each of three rounds - called "ages" - players receive a hand of seven cards (I assume the exact number isn't coincidence) and select a single one to play for the turn (or discard, or use to build a wonder stage - I'll explain in a moment). The rest of the each player's hand is passed to his or her neighbor, and players then select another card from the hand that was just received. This is called "drafting", and it's the way in which players select the cards that build and expand their empires. 

The lumber yard produces wood. Sadly, there are no sheep to trade for.

Players draft cards and play them simultaneously, which means there's basically zero downtime in this game. Whether there are three players or seven, all players are performing the same actions at the same time, so adding players doesn't increase game length noticeably. This makes 7 Wonders a perfect game for a large group of reasonably inexperienced players, as the decisions that have to be made are mostly simple (choosing a card out of, at most, a hand of seven), and experienced players often have the time to offer counsel to those who are learning. 

Oddly enough, the Houston Astrodome didn't make the cut.
Each player begins the game with a randomly-assigned wonder board, which represents an ancient wonder of the world. The board serves as the center of the player's world, with separate stages of the wonder to be built over time, a starting resource, and a specific benefit tied thematically to the wonder's history. 

The cards allow players to follow different paths to victory, and provide the resources needed for future building. Some cards represent resources (wood, clay, glass, etc), and others allow players to gather military power or focus on scientific discovery. Many cards provide players with bonuses to trade, science, or resource availability, and others are simply worth victory points at the end of the game. I've played many, many games of 7 Wonders, and I've never been able to identify an "optimal" path to victory - it's really just about doing what other players aren't doing, and building a balanced, well-supplied empire. 

As the game progresses through the three ages players move from building a resource base to making decisions about the direction of the empire, and ultimately into a contest to gather high-value cards in the final round of play. It's an exciting game, one with just enough planning to make you feel like you've accomplished something when you win, but not so much preponderance to require special attention to detail. In general, players can follow a simple strategy and focus on a few things and score well, and I think that's an important factor for new players. It's not easy to win, but it's easy to play well enough to enjoy yourself at first, and learn enough to compete in your second game. 

Not as complicated as it looks, I promise
If you take nothing else away from my review, take this: I don't think I've ever played just one game of 7 Wonders in an evening. Especially when we're teaching new players, there's always the "learning" game, during which we help the newbies learn the ropes, and then the "serious" one where everybody's on the same page. I've had nights where I've played a 2-player game 10-15 times (warning: the 2 player game requires a dummy player that alters the rules just a bit) and nights where I've played 4-5 seven-player games because we couldn't get enough of it. 

If you're a fan of light resource-management games that are easy to teach, easy to learn, and work equally well in large and small groups, I think 7 Wonders is for you. If you're local and you want to give it a try, let me know in the comments and I'll make sure to get a game in with you!

JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas.

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