Monday, March 11, 2013

7 Wonders Review


7 Wonders was released in 2010 by Asmodee Games, and was designed by Antoine Bauza.  It is a game I've frequently been rather hot or cold about.  I'll go through periods where I desperately want to play it more.  Then I'll get bored of it rather quickly again.  A part of me wonders if this is because the game doesn't have enough meat on it's bones for me, or because I haven't delved deeply enough into it?

Rule Summary


7 Wonders is a drafting game.  It is divided into 3 ages, which are in turn divided into 6 turns.  At the beginning of the game, players are each assigned a city of the ancient world, with a prominent picture of that city's wonder.  Then, players are dealt a hand of 7 cards.  They select one, and pass the rest to their neighbor. They do this 6 times until the age is over.  You then compare your military to your neighbors, earn or lose points, and proceed to the next age.

Many of the cards have requirements.  They require you to have certain resources, or purchase them from your neighbor.  Some just flat out require you to pay for them.  Some allow you to build them for free if you built the card that comes before them in a technology chain.  For example the School allows you to build the Academy for free.

Lastly, cards can be discarded for 3 coins, or used as a stage of your wonder which are worth points or special powers.

Timelapse of play

How accessible is the game to new players? 


The basic symbols.

If the new players do not mind the symbols, this game is a hit!  For the most part the symbols are obvious, with a few tricky exceptions.  Common and obvious symbols are the resources a card will grant you.  Or that the card is worth victory points or military.  The science symbols are also rather self explanatory.  But then things get weird.  Some cards effect how you interact with your neighbors, and have arrows to say so.  Ok, so far so good.  Other cards give you money and victory points for each card you or your neighbors have in play.  Except you get the money now, and the victory points later.

These symbols all have arrows to show that they effect your neighbor.

This discrepancy has caused numerous issues.  I've had numerous players assume they get the money at the end of the game.  Now if you think about it, that makes no sense.  Sure money is worth 1 point per 3 coins you have at the end of the game, but why award money at the end of the game if it's just going to turn into points?  Why not just provide points on the card?  But then again, I'm doing a critique here, and this is a problem brand new players encounter.

You may have to guess what these do.

This now or later problem pops up again and again with the symbols.  Especially the more unique wonder symbols.  The wonder ability that lets you look through the discard pile and build one for free is frequently confusing.  Players are never sure if they do it now, or at the end of the age.  Time and again I've had players assume they get to do it at the end of the age, when they have the access to the most cards.  Sadly it's an immediate ability.

What could have been done better?


I really feel the symbols could have used some extra attention paid towards signifying when the symbol kicks in.  Is it immediate, permanent, or at the end of the age?  This may not be a huge issue in the base game, but  given how complex the expansions' symbology gets, I feel it could have been a prudent addition.  It also would have opened up the game design to many more special powers.  However, it would have had the downside of complicating what is otherwise a fantastic gateway game.

How does the new player old player match up go?  


In general, players are rewarded for focusing on specific areas of the game.  Commerce (yellow cards), Military (red cards), Civic (blue cards) or Science (green cards).  Cards of the same color tend to build off of one another, often allowing you to construct the next building in the tech tree for free.  And for the most part, if players ignore each other and do their own thing, scores end up fairly competitive.  It's a pleasant experience.

The exception to this is Science.  Science scoring is complicated, but in general, each card of science played exponentially increases the point total of the science cards.  But don't panic!  There is a very simple counter to this.  If you catch someone going heavily into science, you just discard every science card that passes in front of you.  It is almost always better to do this, than what is immediately best for you.

But we are talking about new players against old players.  Since this is a gateway game, I've routinely seen an experienced player absolutely and hopeless crush new players using science after having taught the game to them.  New players are so wrapped up in making sure they are playing correctly that they don't notice what the experienced player is doing.  Also, since the scoring for science is so complex, new players are both discouraged from attempting a science strategy, and they under estimate how powerful it is in the hands of the other players.

The fix is simple.  Before the game, be a sportsman about it and announce that players need to pay attention to those around them.  Especially science, since it's scoring is exponential where as every other category is roughly linear.  Odds are someone will still go science, but hopefully at least one other player picks up on it and foils them.

What could have been done better?


7 Wonders is touted as a gateway game.  But I view the science scoring to be distinctly anti-casual gamer.

The scoring of science in 7 Wonders reminds me a lot of how cards are scored in Stone Age.  However Stone Age has never presented the same issue.  I think because in Stone Age, the exponential factor of scoring is just weaker.  There are 36 cards, with 16 of them being divided into duplicate sets of 8.  If you choose to collect cards from a set, their point value goes up exponentially.  1 card from the set is only worth 1 point.  2 cards are worth 4 points, 3 cards are worth 9 points, and so forth.  The other 20 cards are just worth points in relation to your developments in the game.

In 7 wonders, science is worth points both horizontally, and vertically.  In a 3 player game, there are 4 copies of each of the 3 science symbols.  A set is worth 7 points.  On top of this, duplicate symbols go up in points the same as Stone Age, squaring the number of symbols.  I supposed the good news is that its easier to see someone pursuing this strategy in 7 Wonders where cards are open as opposed to Stone Age where cards are hidden once they are bought.

But still, a part of me feels like science could have been weakened somewhat.  Perhaps forcing players to choose between having a science symbol be part of a set of different symbols, or part of a series of the same symbol.  Then again, this could result in some protracted analysis paralysis at the end of the game as players try to figure out the optimal split between sets and series.  Another answer could be to drop one of those scoring criteria from the game.  Have the science symbols worth points only for sets, or series, and the other is out of the game entirely.  Or perhaps just tweak it, so that sets are worth less points, and the series don't go up exponentially.

Still, the more you fiddle with it, the more it seems not worth the effort.  It's only a problem when players don't know better, and it's a strategy that is easily countered.  I think a stern warning about this strategy, and paying attention to your neighbors in general, at the beginning of the game may be enough.  Science isn't the only thing that can cause the game to suffer when players aren't paying attention to their neighbors, but it is certainly the biggest issue.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?


The feelings of this game change radically depending on the number of players.  In general, as the number of players go up, you feel more and more disconnected, and your decisions feel more and more arbitrary.

2 players is by far the tightest gameplay experience.  You will constantly be in each others heads, watching each others boards like a hawk.  The presence of the free city is also huge.  In alternating control of it, players will constantly be using it as a proxy to attempt to hinder the other player.  The 2 player expert variant is by far my favorite way to play 7 Wonders.

But as you add more players, the feelings of being disconnected from the game continue to increase.  The hands of cards you see mean less and less to you, both in terms of their utility to you, and how much you consider their utility to the other people at the table.  By the time you get up to a 6 player game, it's mostly just chaos which you are only peripherally involved in.

At all numbers of players, you will feel like you are keeping up with the Joneses.  You will also always feel like you need just a few more drafting rounds.  You will always pine for just one more card.  One more chance to build up your wonder.  One more turn to built up some money to pay your neighbor for their stone.  Perhaps it is this quality of the game which causes you to want to play again as soon as you've finished.

What could have been done to make the game more enjoyable?


One thing missing from this game though, is an objective challenge.  While you are chiefly dealing with your neighbors, the people across the table from you can feel a great deal less relevant   There isn't a very strong connected feeling between the players who aren't neighbors.  I think a central challenge would help bridge the gap across the table.

Perhaps something like the random objectives from Race for the Galaxy.  Random goals that are selected for each game, that rewards the players with extra points for being the first to achieve something, or having the most of something.

Core Worlds has a pool of cards that players take turns drafting.  The most important cards are the titular core worlds that come out at the very end of the game.  Perhaps 7 Wonders could benefit from a similar mechanic.  A limited pot of extremely good cards which come out in the third age that sit face up in the middle of the table, for anyone to build on their turn instead of a normal action.  Everyone at the table would be forced to compete for these cards.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?  


The best way to play this game is to have a list of hopes.  Don't seriously strategize with any intent to concretely plan ahead.  Not even a single turn.  Just hope you see more of the right color cards.  Know that if you don't there are other things you can do.  If you don't see anything that looks good, get rid of something that someone else needs.  Live this game entirely in the moment.  By all means hope to see things that work well for you.  But don't count on them.

The powerful guilds

This is especially true with respect to the powerful guild cards that come out in the third age.  There is a surplus of these cards in the game, more than you'll ever need for one game.  And you randomly select a number of them to include.  So unlike the other cards in the game, you never know if a guild you are looking for is present.  In addition, the guilds chiefly reward you for things your neighbors have done.  Odd isn't it?  So if you were the one who built an insurmountable military empire, and both your neighbors ignored military, that guild which offers 1 point per each of your neighbors military cards isn't too great.  However when you pass it to the guy you've been beating up the whole game, it could easily be worth 8 to 10 points if he's sandwiched between two warlords.

The game's random distribution of cards can also sink your play.  If the cards clump up, with lots of cards pertinent to a single strategy being dealt in a single hand, that strategy becomes much more difficult to pursue.  This may hose you.  On the flip side, if the cards are spread out nice and evenly, the player to your right can easily hose you.  I've played numerous games where in the third age, the player to my right systematically deprived me of any card that was even remotely useful to me.  And there was nothing I could do.

In general, as you add players, you become more and more susceptible to the variance of card distribution and other players arbitrary choices.  It becomes more and more difficult to evaluate the true value of the cards you see in your hand.  A prospect which was already difficult enough given the influence clumping and arbitrary discarding wields in just a 3 player game.

In fact I used to think this game hard no strategy at all until I read this article on Board Game Geek.  The author delves deeply into the card distributions.  He compiles statistics on how many resources, and of what type, are available at the various player counts.  He figures out how many resources are needed how often.  For example, stone and clay are often required in amounts of 3 or 4, where as ore and wood are usually only required in amounts of 1 or 2.  He has cracked the bones of this game and sucked out the marrow.

What he's found, as it seems to me, is that the only strategy in this game is ruthless card counting.  That to get better at this game, you need to own it, and you need to lay all the cards out in front of you.  You need to study them.  Because things that at first seem equal are anything but.

I'm not sure I appreciate this level of strategy.  To me it's as if a game like Ingenious had a hidden level of strategy where there were actually fewer red tiles in the game than any other.  This would make the red score especially vulnerable to blocking, and especially valuable when you can get it.  But this inequality is not announced in the rules, the component manifest, or anywhere else.  Only people who had laid out all 120 tiles and counted up how many times each color appears would know this.  Or people who read the strategy section on Board Game Geek.  I do not feel those strategies are capable of arising out of a game organically and naturally through play.  But that could just be me.

Even in the tactical space, I find 7 Wonders to be remarkably bland.  Your turn consist of picking a single card, with absolutely no foreknowledge in most cases of what your next hand of cards will contain.  There is very little room to be clever, and about your only real decision is "Do I do what is best for me this turn, or do I screw my opponent?"  I have never seen a turn with an "Ah ha!" moment.  Nobody has ever gotten excited at doing something especially clever or interesting.

What could have been done better?


Since this is a game with two expansion already, this is beating a dead horse some.  But the game needs better long term rewards, and more control.  Now the very nature of the game is a bit chaotic.  There is nothing you can possibly do in this game, that other players won't have had a chance to mess up.  That's drafting.  The first expansion went some way towards fixing this, with it's leaders that you draft at the beginning of the game, and keep throughout all 3 ages.  But lets explore other options.

One idea is the ability to bank a card.  Perhaps, once per age, you could bank a card you can't build at the moment instead of playing it.  So you bank it, and if you have managed to satisfy its requirements at the end of the age, it gets built.  Otherwise, you effectively lost a turn.  Perhaps it even has to be revealed to the other players so they have a chance to block it.  But then again, that might be a bit much.

In addition to these more solitary mechanics, the mechanics I mentioned before which help bridge the gap across the table in games with a high player count would also greatly aid the long term strategy decisions.

As far as the tactical space goes, the game that stands in stark contract to 7 Wonders is Innovation.  Like 7 Wonders, the game state in Innovation is incredibly chaotic.  You can't count on ever seeing any particular card in the future.  And yet the tactical space is incredibly rich.  Allowing the player two actions, and the variety and creativity in the dogma actions allows enormous creativity.  Additionally, the conditions for victory pull you in multiple directions.  Do you go for the scoring achievements or special achievements?  But it is a very different game from 7 Wonders.

I feel like giving the player 2 actions in Innovation as opposed to 1 is single handedly responsible for the tactical depth of that game.  I think 7 Wonders could have enormously benefited from a similar mechanic, albeit more limited.  The only way I think to transplant that from Innovation to 7 Wonders, and still remain true to the strengths that 7 Wonders plays to, is the option or ability to draft 2 cards in a single round per age.  Perhaps after that a fresh card is drawn into that hand to bring it back up to the same number of cards as everyone else.

What is the quality of the dilemmas that a player will face?


As you may have gathered, I am not impressed by the quality of individual turns of 7 Wonders.  The outcome of your actions feels entirely arbitrary to me.  Even at the high levels of "strategy" that the article I linked to espouses, you are still essentially gambling.  This card in my hand has a 15% greater chance of rewarding or enabling more victory points in the future, so I'm choosing it.  However the card distribution, other players arbitrary actions, and which guild cards are even in the game or not effect your valuation of that card, and you have no way of ascertaining any of that future information.

In essence you are being asked to judge the value of the cards you pick, on not just limited information, but lacking almost any critical information at all.  If you go through the comments of that strategy article, one player comments that using that strategy they have a 60% win ratio against other players in 3 or 4 player games.  I can think of few games that would offer a highly experienced, top level player, using state of the art strategies a mere 60% win ratio against less experienced opponents.

What could have improved the quality of the dilemmas?


I think 7 Wonders need some sort of additional mechanic to pull players in two different directions.  Players are after the relentless pursuit of victory points and nothing else.  They don't have to worry about sustaining anything they put down.  There are no setbacks.  There is little risk in any particular play, except your opponents scoring relatively higher than you.

I went over a lot of alternate mechanics in my section on improving the strategy and tactics, as well as improving the feel of the game.  But I'm not sure any of that offer the players truly interesting dilemmas.  Most of them merely offered the players more control, stability, or interaction with the game and each other.

What I find lacking in this game has no easy fix.  The only answer I can find, after thinking on this for a few weeks, is perhaps some sort of different scoring mechanism at the end.  Instead of going for a high score, players may earn 3, 2 or 1 points for having been the first, second, or third in a category.  I feel like this would cause a lot more competition between players across the table, as well as pull players in different directions.  Do they want to shore up their advantage on civic buildings, or try to encroach on the military buildings?  It's an idea at least.

But still, I have to ask myself, for all this game is lacking, at what point is it that it's best to just retire a game and look elsewhere?  Games like Innovation have more room for tactical expression.  Games like Core Worlds and Citadels have more informed drafting, with actual consequences.  Race for the Galaxy has a more meaningful tableau building system, where you feel like your cards actually do something as opposed to sitting there, gambled upon, either earning your points or not due to factors largely out of your control.

I don't want to say the dilemmas you face in 7 Wonders are objectively bad.  It's a distinct possibility I simply lack the correct mindset to approach this game.  I may just not think the way I need to in order to appreciate what this game has to offer.

Physical component design and limitations?  


This game needs reference sheets for each player.  It needs them.  It needs them so badly.  One of the strengths of this game is how smooth it plays.  It's a very pleasant game.  It's not particularly exciting or thought provoking.  It's just pleasant.  And the worst thing that can happen to a game that's merely pleasant is for it to go slowly.  So each time we need to pass around the single reference sheet so someone can figure out their cards, it kills the game.  It kills it dead in its tracks.  Plus nobody wants to ask what their cards do. Because that is supposed to be hidden information.  So they have to consult the manual themselves.

We needed more of these!

Aside from that, I'm rather ok with the components in this game.  I like my wooden bits, and the game is completely wood free, but I'm not sure where wooden bits would have fit in.  They tend to work best as resources you gather and spend, or as meeples, and this game has neither.  I'm satisfied with the hefty cardboard coins, military victory tokens, and wonders.  The wonders especially could have just been printed on paper, but I'm glad they went the extra mile on production quality.  The artwork is detailed and colorful.  I think a lot of the joy of the game just comes from the raw aesthetic value of it, accumulating in front of you.

Long term prospects?


Like I said at the beginning, I have mixed feelings about 7 Wonders.  I get hot and cold about it.  It's a fun gateway game, but I feel like there were a lot of missed opportunities that could have made this game truly great.  The expansions help, especially the first one, Leaders, but I generally am against buying games that only really have legs once you invest even more money in expansions.

As it stands, I get the urge to play it about 2 or 3 times a year.  I'll want to play it over and over again about 5 or 6 times, because I want to learn more about the game and get better at it.  Then I lose interest for 3 or 4 months when my efforts to delve deeper into the mechanics are stymied.  I'm not sure if I just suck at this game, or if the game just doesn't offer enough.  I just get the consistent feeling that this is the nugget a truly good game could have spawned from.  I enjoy the basic building and drafting mechanics.  But the decisions in the game feel bland and uninteresting most of the time, and the consequences of your actions appear mostly arbitrary.  Depending on your tastes, this game could be a hit in your group.  But as for myself, I'll always have this nagging feeling that something is missing. It's a ride you go on, as opposed to a game you interact with in a meaningful way.

3 comments:

  1. I'd like to clarify that the ability which lets you look through the discard pile, if played as the last card of the age, does allow you to look through that age's end of age discards, since discards happen before cards are revealed.

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    Replies
    1. He meant players play the card or build the wonder in the middle of the age, but expect the effect to be delayed until the end. I have also seen new players do this.

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  2. Yes it does. Everything is done simultaneously, including discarding and pulling a card from the discard.

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