Design Analysis: 7 Wonders

Those of who know me know I’m a huge fan of the game Magic: the Gathering. Many, many game enthusiasts are huge fans of this game. And what’s not to like? (Other than the price…) Magic has been around for nearly 20 years, and for good reason. The game has more layers than I could describe in a single post, including countless tactical decisions in every game, deck building, collecting, and a whole artificial economy to explore.

There are like a million Magic cards. Odds are, your game is already in there, and done better.

But this review isn’t about Magic, so why am I gushing about it? Well, Magic has been so influential on games that it has done almost everything. It’s a little like the “The Simpsons already did it” episode of South Park. If you’re making a card game, there’s a good chance that for each card in your game, there’s already a Magic card that does basically the same thing. It’s a formidable and sometimes demoralizing reality for game designers.

Some game designers have turned it into an advantage, though. While Magic basically has everything, having everything can be a weakness. New players have to learn a huge rule set and become familiar with hundreds of different cards before they can start to really enjoy the game. Sometimes, the more streamlined game is the better game.

Take Dominion, for example. This modern classic takes deck building, one of the most fun aspects of Magic, and makes a whole game focused around it. A game of Dominion involves building your deck card by card, using your deck each turn as you build it. You get to enjoy seeing your little machine come alive, just like you do when you create a deck in Magic, but you don’t have to worry about navigating the artificial economy to collect your cards, or deal with the details of actually playing through a series of cut throat games after making your deck. Dominion finds a way to isolate some of the fun of Magic. In doing so, it is easily accessible and much more focused.

 You Can’t Avoid the Draft

This is what 7 Wonders looks like in its box.

Antoine Bauza’s 7 Wonders also adopts one small component of Magic and creates a streamlined, focused game around it. I suppose I can’t say with certainty that Magic was the inspiration, but… it’s pretty likely.

The aspect of Magic that 7 Wonders revolves around is drafting, something I didn’t even mention before! Drafting is a way of playing Magic in a compressed way. Rather than collecting cards and building decks in advance, players open new packs of cards right there on the spot and build decks using those cards. However, there is a twist: players don’t just use all of the cards in the packs they open. Instead, all players will open a pack, choose one card from it to keep, and then pass the rest of the cards to their neighbors. Players do this repeatedly until all the cards from the pack are gone, and then they’ll open up another pack and do it all over. In total, each player will open up three packs of cards while drafting.

After taking cards one by one from packs, players go on to build decks with the cards they chose. Then they play a bunch of games against the other players. It may seem like a lot of set up to eventually just play a handful of games, but in reality, the game starts when you open your first pack: choosing cards is as much a part of the game as attacking your opponent to whittle down his or her life.

7 Wonders takes the whole drafting concept (open a pack, choose a card, and pass it to the next person) and turns it into a complete game in itself. After you choose all your cards, you don’t make decks and play additional games. After you choose cards, the game is over, and whoever did best wins.

You might think that turning one aspect of another game into a game of its own would be easy, but that’s far from true. When you draft in Magic, you choose cards based on which cards you’ll eventually want to put in your deck and play with. Chopping off those last two steps means that cards will have to be valuable in a totally different way, which requires a complete game system to be built from scratch.

That system involves different types of cards. At the lowest level, brown and grey resource cards give players something they can use every turn to play more powerful cards. Blue cards simply give you victory points, but also chain together, allowing you to ignore resource requirements if you choose to focus on them. Green scientific cards give you a small number of points, unless you collect enough of them, in which case they start to rapidly snowball. Yellow cards help your economy by giving you coins or giving you better deals in trading. Red cards boost your military, which can give you victory points while hurting your neighbors. And then there are purple cards, which give you lots of victory points based on what you and your neighbors have done throughout the game. On top of that, each player gets a wonder he or she can build up which can offer victory points and special abilities. For desperate players who find themselves without enough resources, cards can be sold at any time for a few measly coins.

Especially the first few times you play 7 Wonders, you’ll be focused on the fun of building up your own civilization. The joy of building is one of the most basic pleasures people get from many games, and 7 Wonders does not disappoint in this area.

Multiplayer Solitaire?

The joy of building never goes away, but 7 Wonders also has elegant mechanisms for player interaction. Before getting into the details, I want to mention that the game scales better than any other game I’ve ever played. The game is for 2 to 7 players, and playing with 7 is almost as quick as playing with 2. That’s because all players make all decisions simultaneously.

Additionally, players generally only interact with their two neighbors, so you can almost ignore what half of the players are doing in a large game. That said, you’ll quickly learn that you should be paying attention to what your neighbors are doing, because that can make a big difference between victory and defeat.

You interact with your neighbors directly in two ways: trading and military. If you don’t happen to have a resource, but your neighbor does, you can throw a few coins to him or her and it’s yours for the turn. It’s very important to have access to most, if not all, of the resources, so keeping an eye on what your neighbors have means you can pass up on resources you might otherwise have to take for yourself. Additionally, if you happen to develop a monopoly on a resource, you’ll have a lot of coins coming in from your neighbors desperate for access to your bountiful resources.

Build up a military if you want, but don’t think you can waste anyone’s time by choosing who you attack. Image from Board Game Geek.

Building up a military can also be a route to victory. Periodically through the game, players check their military strength against their neighbors’. If you beat a neighbor, you get a hefty victory point bonus. If you lose to a neighbor, you actually lose a victory point! Keeping an eye on your neighbors to see their military strength is important so you know when it’s necessary to build up your forces and when it’s pointless or unnecessary.

Another benefit for this neighbor only interaction is that you never attack another player directly, something that makes games much more friendly for casual players. No one can get too upset when you have no choice about who you attack.

It doesn’t take long to learn about the interaction between neighbors, but the drafting system of 7 Wonders actually has a lot of subtle forms of interaction. If you notice someone is going for green science cards, you might start casually removing those cards from the game by using them to build your wonder. If you get a hand with two cards you want, you might try to predict what other players will take from the hand as it goes around the table and to determine which card is more likely to make it back to you. These sorts of interactions make 7 Wonders a boundlessly deep game, ensuring lots of replayability and evolving strategies.

One thing to keep in mind about 7 Wonders is that, though there is lots of interaction, it’s very indirect. You’re usually focused on what you’re building or glancing at other players’ collections of cards; you won’t be looking at their faces often, and won’t have time for much trash talking or negotiating (unless it’s to nag the one person holding everyone else up). This game is not for players who like highly social games. That said, it’s totally fine for more casual players and for people of different skill levels to enjoy together.

An Aside on Graphics

Those of you who have kept up with the blog know that the graphic design of 7 Wonders was very influential on the graphic design of the business cards of my own game Corporate America. I just wanted to again point out how clever the design is. Thinking about how players hold cards in their hands and how important stacking cards on the table is, almost all relevant information on cards is in the top 20%.

Additionally, the game makes use of a simple symbol system to concisely communicate what cards do. While the symbols can sometimes be a bit confusing, especially for people who don’t spend a lot of time playing games, overall I think they’re one of the best use of symbols of any game I’ve played.

The cards stack so well! …unless you need to see the names. Image from Board Game Geek.

Among all this praise, I did want to mention a couple of problems with the graphic design of 7 Wonders. I don’t think these are major problems–more minor disappointments since the graphic design is so great otherwise. They both have to do with important information being placed in the bottom 80% of the card, which the design trains you to ignore.

The first is in chaining cards. For some cards in the game, you can bypass the resource cost if you have another card already. Resource costs are in the top left corner, and a card you can chain has the name of the required card right next to the resource cost. The problem is that the name of the required card is in the bottom left of it, which will often be hidden. These cards also show what they chain into, but again it’s on the bottom of the card (see the bottom left card in the image). If the chain system had a symbol with a color or number that could be put in the top right corner of the cards, it would have been so much simpler.

The other problem is that players are not allowed to have more than one of the same card in their civilizations. But again, the only way to notice is if you have the names of the cards showing. It’s especially a problem for science cards, and I’ve seen multiple games where players inadvertently build more than one of the same card only to discover at the end of the game that they cheated, basically spoiling the whole game. It’s a real disappointment, and could have been avoided if names found their way onto the top of cards.

All Good Things Must Come to an End

A game of 7 Wonders is no exception. Unfortunately, the game ends with its least attractive part: the giant math problem that is scoring. Admittedly, 7 Wonders is pretty tame compared to many eurogames, but the slogging point tallying process, usually requiring paper and pencil, is a stark contrast to the smooth and quick gameplay. It will probably leave a bit of a sour taste in the mouths of more casual players.

All in all, 7 Wonders is a great game. It’s fast to play, pretty quick to pick up, and a lot of fun. It features building, which is always a good time, and interaction that leads to deeper strategy as you and your friends get more familiar with it. It scales very well, making it perfect for just you and a friend or a whole party (of up to seven people).

From a design perspective, 7 Wonders offers many valuable lessons. It’s a wonderful example of borrowing from another game  to create a whole new experience. It handles seven players as well as two, which is a truly impressive feat. It offers strategy and subtle interaction, but still lets you just worry about building your own thing if you want. Perhaps most importantly, Antoine Bauza identified an interesting and fun mechanic and built a great game around it with disciplined focus.

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