Review: 7 Wonders28 Nov 2017 1
Review: 7 Wonders
Released 13 Nov 2017
For years now, 7 Wonders has been supposedly on the verge of release, only to be delayed at the last moment, time and again. Past the point of hope or disappointment, its slew of postponements became a running gag, spawning jibes and mock-countdowns. And these spin-offs were for good reason, for it is one of the few boardgames hitting a sweet spot of accessibility and depth while simultaneously accomodating a full table of seven players. It boasts a fairly short playtime, to boot. Altogether the popularity and merits of the tabletop game transformed its prospective digital version into the stuff of misty legend. Everyone was stuck in the chorus line, in that old dance, strophe and antistrophe, waiting for things to finally move forward.
Now that it's finally here, the rhythm has changed, with the dance closer to climax and anticlimax. While the game is as good as it ever was, a faithful, clean-cut adaptation of a long-overdue classic seems a bit shabby, even a little behind the times.
The players begin by receiving one of the civilizations responsible for the eponymous seven wonders of the ancient world, some of which are more fabled (Hanging Gardens of Babylon) than strictly historical (Mausoleum at Halikarnassos). These wonders have been split into stages which will require specific resources and several turns of investment to build to completion. The Great Pyramids of Giza weren't built in a day, after all. Along with their respective wonders, the civilizations also possess distinct resources. These minor differences in the wonder costs, effects and the starting resources combine to produce a well-balanced yet assymetrical roster of civilizations.
7 Wonders is a thoughtful and varied exploration of its central drafting mechanic, whereby players simultaneously pick one card , playing it in front of them to add to their ancient civilization's tableau of structures, and passing the remaining cards to their neighbor. The game is split into three phases it dubs 'ages', which each age beginning with a hand of seven cards dealt to each civilization and ending when the players have chosen and used six of them. Yes, there are numerous kinks in this scheme, from military showdowns at the end of each age, building chains, to a simplified economy of resources, coinage and trade. All of these score, at different times and with different conditionals attached. Civic buildings are the blue chips, always worth their printed value; red military buildings encourage arm races with diminishing benefits, while green science buildings are worth progressively more as they are collected. These little pieces are just ornate enough to add a flourish to the pass-and-play core of 7 Wonders, keeping its conflicts fresh over multiple plays.
The differing card types, along with the drafting system, form interesting equilibria. Rhodes might hector and bully its neighbors with military might and win with this monomaniacal focus on aggression, or it might see the generalist Alexandria simply churn out a ton of guilds and civic buildings to outscore when the final age is done. This push and pull between players almost becomes something like an ecosystem, what with the closed set of cards in each age being parceled and sorted until there's nothing left for grabs. The game is driven by conflict but not downright antagonism or animus, so those seeking total destruction or domination of their foes will be disappointed. Even something as mild as so-called hate drafting is only slightly incentivized when choosing which cards to bury and remove from circulation entirely. So while your neighbors are not necessarily your enemies outright, their plans and choices are impossible to succesfully ignore, thanks to the nature of trade and military, along with the precious scarcity of science cards and the all-important guilds in the third age. The choices are simple individually but ambiguous and interesting when considered in series. Unfortunately, the digital version reflects the game's core simplicity while obscuring the subtle beauty of its interlocking pieces.
At times, the app feels too breezy by half. On one hand, by digitizing and compressing all of its relevant information, 7 Wonders runs sleekly and impressively, making online games painlessly quick and practically feasible in many situations. Its tutorial tells new players every bit of relevant information exactly once, and its visual cues are unobtrusive yet helpful, especially for crunching the costs of the current turn's cards, or showing the former turn's selections. This is an app at its best, making informed choices easier and presenting the whole cohesive picture at your fingertips. More subtle connections and information, however, such as the composition of each age's deck, the procedure behind the starting randomisation of the guilds, and the build chain sequences are all omitted from the app's shorthand and keep new players unnecesarily in the dark. Even something like a turn log is missing. In short, the game's presentation favors informing punchy, impulsive tactical decisions over even the most modest plans. Adding insult to injury, the AI is a mixed bag, performing admirably in the test-tube conditions of offline play but falling flat when filling in during online Quick Matches.
7 Wonders has successfully grafted most of its cardboard soul onto a digital interface, and this opportunity to play with people anywhere, anytime is in of itself a great gift. Yet the game was already quick and lucid to begin with, so in its efforts to further clarify it risks coming across as more shallow than it truly is. It under-informs newer players of some vital tidbits and thereby cheats them of some of the bits of gameplay. The whole game is picking eighteen things, so the real satisfaction comes from a measured consideration of the relative merits of these given choices.
It sounds preachy and fogey-ish to say, but yes: considering science symbols and their possible scoring configurations might take some napkin math or at the very least a moment of reflection. Yet without those intermediary steps, players will appraise those green cards for the worse and finish the game feeling as if the endeavor were pointless. 7 Wonders is great, but do yourself a favor and try the tabletop version first if you can. Take your time, it's here to stay.