Civilization games have always been popular but they tend to be long and complex and thus hard to get to the table. 7 Wonders’ claim to fame is that it’s a card-based civilization game that you can teach and play to completion in well under an hour. Such is the appeal of this concept that since its release in 2010 it’s been showered with an endless parade of awards and sold so strongly that it’s had an overhaul reprint and a slew of expansions that have kept it relevant and popular to this day. It’s well on its way to becoming a classic board game.
What’s in the Box
Like a lot of high-concept card games, 7 Wonders comes in a big box that’s largely empty. The top layer of contents consists of two token punchboards, a rulebook and a pile of reference sheets. Beneath that there’s a storage tray that holds player boards, each printed with a different wonder of the world, a pad of scoring sheets, and some decks of cards.
Most of the space on the boards and cards is devoted to artwork, a pleasing blend of realism with a little bit of artistic licence.
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If you’re wondering why a publisher would put such relatively meagre content into such a large box, the answer is marketing. Having a big box front makes your game stand out on the shelf, allowing it to compete with full-sized board games. And in terms of design and play testing, card games take just as much time and effort as board games of similar complexity so there’s an argument they ought to be treated on equal terms.
Rules and How it Plays
7 Wonders didn’t become popular purely because it condensed civilization games into a small space: on release, it was also very novel as one of the first games to make card drafting the core of proceedings. There are three ages to each game and at the start of each age, players get a handful of cards. They choose one to add to their civilization and then pass the rest to a neighbor, while they receive cards from their other neighbor. Then they choose a card from that selection, pass them on and so on until there’s only one card left.
The cards available vary by age but they all represent the trappings of a growing civilization. Age one cards provide things like raw materials and crafted goods alongside basic military and entertainment buildings, the latter of which score you victory points. By age two, most of the cards require that your civilization has some raw materials or goods available. 7 Wonders doesn’t track production: if you already have a card that produces something, it’s presumed available to help pay for other cards. Some structures can also be built for free if you have a prerequisite structure in the chain.
What if you don’t have the raw materials needed for a card? Well, if your neighbors produce it, you can give them coins to essentially “borrow” it for a turn. Getting coins is simply a matter of discarding a card on your turn instead of adding it to your civilization. This is one of the two small ways you can interact with other players in 7 Wonders, but it can be surprisingly effective. It’s painful to have to give up your cash to a competitor who’s doing well and in rare but vicious occasions you can starve your neighbour of a much-needed resource by simply choosing never to add it to your tableau.
The other, much simpler, interaction is through the military. At the end of every age, you compare how many military icons you have on your civilization’s cards with each neighbor. For each that has more than you, you lose a victory point. For each where you’re the victor, you gain points depending on the age, getting more as the game goes on. This is pretty toothless in terms of interaction but it can certainly swing games, especially the big age three bonuses.
In addition to the cards, each civilization starts with a wonder. Rather than playing cards or discarding them for coins, the third and final use is to use them to construct a stage of your wonder which, like card play, costs resources and offers rewards. Wonders, however, tend to have much higher requirements and much more impactful effects than cards. Most of them give you victory points or additional resources but some have more complex effects like building cards from the discard pile. The second edition has better-balanced wonders than the original, but they’re still not perfect.
Picking the right time to devote a card to your wonder isn’t straightforward: you need to trade off whether you’d rather play the card, whether you can afford it and what the possible ramifications are for future picks. And that, essentially, is the same smorgasbord of strategies you’ll be pondering on every card you play, deliciously varied with the shuffle on each game. It’s slick and strangely satisfying, especially the anticipation of waiting to see what might come around again, or fall into your lap in future ages. But it’s not especially demanding and that dichotomy is key to the success of 7 Wonders.
It’s also not particularly reliable or thematic. A lot comes down to luck of the draw or the luck of what other people choose to pass back to you, and there’s no sense that you’re building something coherent step by step. You can play the game with up to seven players and it barely takes any longer because the card drafting is simultaneous. But it works best at smaller player counts because otherwise any sense of being able to predict what might come around again is lost in the scrum. With its plethora of adding, checking and chaining buildings it’s also a lot less accessible than its bare-bones rules might make it seem.
Due to the chaining rules that let you get certain cards for free, the expansions for 7 Wonders don’t actually mess very much with the card pool. Instead, each adds more wonders alongside a new board or mechanic that extends the game. While this approach adds interest and depth to the base game, it also reduces the accessibility that’s such an important part of its charm. So they’re very much an acquired taste and generally best reserved for seasoned fans.
Armadas is perhaps the best of them, although it’s also the most involved. It allows players to build ships which they can use to move and explore on a separate board in the hope of finding bonus resources. It also adds a second kind of military conflict where players total and compare their naval strength alongside the normal military from the core game.
Leaders and Cities are the two you’d most expect to see as expansions to a civilization-style game. The former offers a brief draft of leader cards before each age draft, which can give you more long-term strategic options to work with, in a primarily tactical game. The latter does add new cards to the main draft which have fun effects like avoiding the military race for one age or even making a neighbor lose coins. However, both also increase the amount of entropy in the game by adding more cards into the drafting mechanic that might or might not be an option for you just when you need them.
Edifice bills itself as a new expansion for the second edition but that’s not entirely true: it’s more of a distillation of the best bits of the Babel expansion for the previous edition. Alongside two new wonders it gives each age a “project,” a sort of vanity project that all the players can contribute to. You can do this only when you build a wonder stage and also have the necessary resources required by the project on top of those needed for your wonder. This gains you a pawn from the project and there are always fewer pawns than players.
If all the pawns are taken, the project is finished and all those who contributed get the printed reward. If it isn’t, then anyone who failed to contribute instead gets a victory point penalty. Of all the expansions, Edificies is the one that changes the feel of the game the most, giving it a much more concrete sense of interaction. There’s a clear race, with an attendant sense of urgency, within each age and it adds to the tactical timing of your decisions, too. It does so without excessive additional rules or randomness. So it’s a neat addition to the lineup, but it might be almost too transformative for newer players.