There’s Gotta Be A Better Way – 7 Wonders Review

Box cover

Colossus nothin’

You know those infomercials you see on basic cable at 2 in the morning? I’m not sure what it is about the wee hours of the night, but suddenly you realize that you’ve always wanted a machine that can dehydrate all your food. To drive the need home, they will have footage of someone doing things THE OLD WAY. These old-fashioned people are suffering for not realizing that there’s a better way to dry food than what they’ve always known. Yeah! That’s right! How did we survive before the Jerky-Matic 5000 anyway? After you wake up in a puddle of your own drool on the couch, and you take that first cup of coffee, you realize something: at no point in your life have you ever needed to dehydrate food. In fact, until you heard of the Jerky-Matic, you never once considered that the need existed. The company first had to establish that this was a vacuum in your life, and then they had to sell you something that filled that void.

That’s pretty much what 7 Wonders does. It fills a need that it had to create. It’s a card-drafting game that can be played with up the seven players, and it reliably clocks in at around 30 minutes. Every positive thing I read and hear about this game boils down to this simple fact: there aren’t many 30-minute games that can hold seven people easily. And that’s true. But the fact is, that’s not a niche that I need to fill.

In three rounds, players are each dealt a hand of cards. You take one card from the hand you are dealt and pass the rest one way or the other. You then play the card you have, and select another card. The cards that you play form a tableau over the course of the game, apparently about a civilization. You gather resources, make advancements in science, create a military to hassle your neighbors, all the normal civ game trappings. If 7 Wonders has any strength, it’s that it’s a ridiculously simple concept. It functions a little like a sealed draft in a CCG, a  mechanic that was already utilized (to much better effect) in Fairy Tale.

The frustrating thing is that there are elements of a good game there. The drafting mechanic at least makes it feel like you are doing something like building a civilization. It’s abstracted to a huge level, but I’m fine with that. If I can handle abstraction in Dominion, I can handle it here. And heaven knows that it’s nice to have a thoughtful game that plays quickly. The problems arise because 7 Wonders is complicated in all the wrong places. The decisions and thought involved in the game is almost nothing, but then it turns to needless obfuscation when explaining the most basic aspect of the game, the scoring.

I’m not going to venture to say that 7 Wonders has no meaningful decisions, though that is my inclination. But I will say that the decisions FEEL small, which is in a way a much bigger crime. The stakes never feel high, and that’s a crippling blow in a civ-building game. It’s entirely without drama or tension, and the decisions are, on their own, not interesting enough to prop up the rest of the game. It’s very common to be passed a hand of cards with which you can do nothing. Oh sure, you can burn one for some money. But that’s basically being forced to bunt, not a strategic choice. And it’s certainly not a decision that you were forced to make because of your own poor choices in previous rounds. It’s something you just deal with because factors beyond your control forced them on you. Why anyone could complain about randomness in games and be okay with this is beyond me. For my part, I LOVE randomness in games, but 7 Wonders has been drained of anything resembling excitement. It’s just making another tiny decision in a game of tiny decisions.

And when you get to the end, you suddenly are thrown into one of the more arcane scoring systems I have ever had to wrangle with. There are about 2 or 3 separate scoring systems at work, but the guilty party is that of the science buildings. These need to be added and multiplied and squared and SOCATOA’d and everything. It’s not like it can’t  be figured out, but it was clearly designed for balance instead of usefulness. I’m sure it’s very well-designed in the sense that it makes those types of buildings a good strategic choice, but it sacrifices a huge chunk of usability. It’s this scoring system that effectively puts the game out of the “casual” sphere, which was about the only sphere it was good for in the first place.

But maybe I’m wrong about the strategy. It’s a losing battle to discuss how empty a game can feel strategically, because there’s always someone who has studied the game and knows it better than you. I don’t know many of these people, since the game has effectively died out in our own group. But usually when people defend 7 Wonders, they say something like this: “At least it plays a lot of people quickly.”

That is technically true. But it’s even more true that 7 Wonders sucks for big groups.

First off, it has to be said that seven players is a stupid number of people to have to play one game. There are numerous options for six people, and even more for less than that.You’re usually just better off splitting into two groups if you have seven people. But wait, you may say! We don’t want anyone to feel left out! Well, you’re in luck. There’s already an entire genre of games that deals with large groups who don’t have a lot of time. They’re called “party games,” and they are designed to be played quickly and taught easily. 7 Wonders fails largely because, while it allows a lot of people to play, it has no idea why it actually wants that many people around the table.

Why do people not want to split up their big group in the first place? Because we want to have fun. There’s a special dynamic that comes with large groups. When you get a ton of people around the table, it’s like conversation begins to open up. People are more likely to cut up, to laugh, to just enjoy the social aspect of gaming. Of course the big trade-off is that it can be very tough to wrangle that many people to listen to a game explanation. Party games work well because they are very simple, and great for promoting the special social interaction that comes from large groups. But you will never see that around a game of 7 Wonders. It insists on only ever embracing secondary interaction, and the goofy scoring guarantees that the game will be a headache to explain. You only ever have ANYTHING to do with your immediate neighbors, in game terms. The other players are basically a way to remove cards from the deck. It’s a big group game for people who don’t want to have to talk to others.

Nothing about 7 Wonders serves any reasonable game function. Instead of a fun social experience, it offers a way to sit around a table of seven people and never have to speak to them. I can live with that in a game with fewer people, or a game that just felt more satisfying. But this? This is like gas station coffee. It’ll keep you awake, but you’re probably better off falling asleep at the wheel.

You can buy 7 Wonders and other, better games at Noble Knight Games.

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6 thoughts on “There’s Gotta Be A Better Way – 7 Wonders Review

  1. It’s not meant as a party game, it’s a gamers game that can be played several rounds a nite. It fills the void a gamer feels to play something more involved and thematic than a party game in a short time. It is esoteric to explain, but only to non gamers or casual gamers. I highly respect your reviews and I think you’re one of the best bloggers in gaming. But if you think 7W has no strategies or meaningful decisions, I’d like to sit you down for a game with my wife and try to say you lost everytime because you had no good choices or that she got lucky EVERY time. Yeah, bad choices can bite you in the ass and a bad hand make it super hard to catch up, but that is true for many games. I can confidently say that every time I lose it’s my fault and the other players’ smart moves. Sadly, our game groups tend to color our opinions and this one simply doesn’t fit you guys it seems. This is by far the most played and requested game in my group. It’s simply a joy to play over and over in a night and try different strategies. Lastly, the drafting is highly strategic, not just in choosing your cards right and hedging your bets carefully, but also in predicting your opponents and denying them cards at the right time. Having said that, the Science strategy IS strong, but scoring it is no where near as complicated as you made it sound. Square the like symbols, or 7 points per set of different ones. That is NOT hard to get. So yeah, 7W is not a party game, despite the short playtime and high number of players (aspects that do NOT make it a party game) it is in no doubt a gamer game due to the iconography mostly. Can I say it’s a gamer’s party game? It fills that horrible void a groups feels to play a short game that is so light and shallow you want to run away.Well written negative opinion though congrats!

  2. I think you and the previous commenter are both right. This is a game that is not good for seven (or six), but which actually works pretty well with three or four. I do believe there’s depth there too, but it takes some winkling out, and it’s not worth chasing it in a casual crowd, nor in a group that is too large. Moreover, I think your opinion will quickly become the received wisdom because what depth there is, is not easy to see. (Compare Go, say, where it’s obvious that there’s deep stuff going on.)

  3. If explaining the scientific structure scoring and not seeing the value or tension in which cards you pass or play are your major sticking points, I would humbly suggest that you give it a few more plays.

    We came to 7 Wonders on the tail of buying and learning Arkham Horror, Tannhauser and Chaos in the Old World. After all that brain damage, we found the uptake on 7 Wonders incredibly refreshing. And incredibly easy to draw all our friends into; everybody has responded to it. When inducting new players, we tell them not to worry about scoring the first couple of games and just drill them on the pass/play mechanic and building costs. After we walk them through the final tally two or three times, the lights come on and they can start to form a strategy. New players get enough of a kick out of learning to build and trade that it provides enough entertainment payoff while they start to absorb better strategy with repetition. Like Carcassonne, competitive and casual players can have a good time playing side by side. I think this is part of the game’s beauty.

    As for your central criticism that the actions themselves feel small and not that important, that has not been our experience. When you’re holding a hand and trying to consider your play along the four axes of “What can I build/What can’t I build/What scores me the most points short term vs. long term/What does my neighbor want,” and you’re the last player to pass while everyone stares at you, and you have three great-looking cards in that hand and you know that you’re probably not seeing them ever again, the tension is there. I still distinctly remember a game from last weekend where passing on a structure that produced two units of ore during the second age cost me the winning edge. I knew I was taking the gamble when I passed it and opted for a military build instead, and I lost.

    We haven’t played a lot of card drafting/civ-building game, so I profess my inexperience in that regard. But with how much this game is enjoyed by everyone in our circle who has experienced it, I still consider it an unqualified winner. I’d love to see you give 7W a few more plays and do a follow-up some time!

  4. For the record, my initial impressions were very positive. It was only after about 15 games that I realized I didn’t ever want to play again.
    There’s a fundamental difference between an important decision and an interesting one. The decisions in 7 Wonders are indeed important. There’s strategy there (though I feel less than is advertised), that’s not in question. The question is, are those decisions compelling at the same time? I don’t find the choice to get into the arms race of military interesting at all. Because it’s not a choice of risk. You may never see those cards again, after all. Should I got for a science building or not? I soured on the game entirely because it occurred to me that I just didn’t care.

    A lot of my frustration is that there IS something there to like. The game it reminds me of the most is Ra, which is possibly my favorite auction game ever. The set-collection and scoring reminds me especially of Ra. The difference is, Ra has a keen way to interact with the other players, in addition to a strong push-your-luck element. 7 Wonders feels like an attempt to create a version of Ra that didn’t have to mess with the other players.

    I’m betraying my own preferences here of course, but that’s the point of a review. If I don’t find the strategic choices in 7 Wonders interesting and you do, all I can say is that we probably just like different types of games. I value theme, setting, and excitement much more than strategy and “meaningful decisions,” whatever that means. I would rather play five games of Magical Athlete over one more game of 7 Wonders, if that tells you much.

  5. San:

    Well-expressed, thanks for the reply. Yeah, If you’ve played it 15 times and want to play it less each time, it’s probably time to shelve it. To your point, it’s a matter of preference.

    Looking forward to your next review…

  6. Pingback: Cult of the Overrated | The Rumpus Room

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