In this slimmed down version of Bauza’s 2010 hit 7 Wonders, two opposing players take it in turns purchasing cards across three great ages of civilisation. From humble beginnings focused on simple resource gathering, players are soon training armies, constructing wonders and unlocking technologies, attempting to reach one of three victory conditions.
It’s not fear or horror you’ll feel when the noisy neighbours from across the way invade your city, destroying it and taking the military victory. It’s embarrassment. Because while your opponent was picking up the bright red military cards from the table in front of you, you decided instead to stick with your strategy of going for the science cards. The pursuit of knowledge might be a philanthropical idea, but in this game such a stubborn and relentless thirst for it will probably mean you’ve been ignoring that massive battalion heading your way.
That’s because 7 Wonders Duel is a chewy, bitter slice of two-player board gaming that invites you into making long-term strategies before reminding you that life just isn’t that simple. There’s an amazing amount going on each turn here, despite a set of mechanics which can be learned in about 15 minutes, or two paragraphs.
Players take turns purchasing cards from the table. Cards are arranged in a pyramid, with lower cards blocking off access to higher ones until they are taken. Every alternate row is also face down, and three cards in each age are returned to the game box, so you never know exactly how an age is going to pan out. Cards are either resources (clay, stone, wood, papyrus and glass) or various buildings for straight victory points, science, military, production or economy. Cards are either free, paid for by resources you already have, or paid for by resources and an unidentified ancient form of currency. Instead of purchasing cards, players can also ‘burn’ or discard cards for money based on how many yellow economy buildings they have. Or if they have the resources, burn a card to build one of their four wonders of the world, each of which has their own reward.
Science buildings can unlock technologies (most of which offer game-changing powers), military units push forward a military token closer to your opponents city (or just further away from yours), and guilds are special third-age buildings which give you points based on all of the buildings purchased throughout the game. The winner is either the first to advance the military token all the way to their opponents city or the first to purchase six science cards of different types – if neither happens then the winner is the player with the highest total of victory points.
7 Wonders Duel is easy to learn, but really comes alive after a couple of completed games, once you’ve got the basics down and have started to attempt some rudimentary forward-thinking. Here’s an example of a potential train of thought that might go through your mind right at the start of a game, once you know what wonders you’ll be able to build and the first age of cards is on the table to purchase:
“So, three of my four wonders give me extra resources, so if I was to build them quickly and pick up the other resource cards on the table, I could get a monopoly. Result! That would mean I can cripple my opponents economy, as they would have to spend loads of money each time they need a resource they don’t have access to. Oh hang about – I see that the Architecture progress token is available. If I can get that, it means my wonders require two less resources. That means I can make my wonders really quickly. So to get the Architecture progress token I need two green science cards with the same symbol. Can’t see a pair of symbols face up on the board at the moment, so perhaps if I can pick up the early ones when they’re available maybe I’ll get lucky…”
Meanwhile your opponent may well be doing exactly the same, plotting an intricate series of actions: purchase this card, burn this one for money, build that, unlock this, nudge my army forward a little, then maybe I’ll get lucky…
That’s not to say this game comes down to luck, oh no. It’s that planning so far ahead is both a laudable and laughable accomplishment. 7 Wonders Duel has a tactical layer to it that means you’re forever jostling with your opponent to pick up the cards you want, or denying the cards they want, or picking up cards you don’t really want but leaves the cards that your opponent wants blocked. You’ll end up grinding your teeth or biting your nails or self-flagellating in some sort of way, because Duel is just so damn good at teasing you with potential genius.
What 7 Wonders Duel also does brilliantly is constantly keeping you engaged with the other player. Even when it’s not your turn – maybe especially when it’s not your turn – your eyes are locked onto your opponent, their growing tableau of cards, and what they’re about to do next. You’ll find yourself checking how much they’ve got of each resource, seeing how close they are to building their next wonder, biting your tongue when you notice you’ve left them free to grab that damn papyrus you needed to make the Great Lighthouse. It’s a game that doesn’t let you phase out for a second, and it’s great for that.
So, is there anything bad about 7 Wonders Duel? Perhaps the more you play it, the more you’ll end up spotting the small – but infrequent – elements of luck that can decide the odd game, here or there. There’s also a sense that the theme – as beautiful as it is in the components of the game – doesn’t exactly mesh with the mechanics. Not being able to build a library because your opponent just built one, or having to pay the bank for resources you don’t have and not your opponent whose been hoarding them, are just a couple of ways you might feel yourself taken out of this world you are creating of rival cities duelling for prosperity.
Having said that, the mechanic does create a sense of two close communities battling over finite resources, and while this is heavily abstracted it is extremely fun to have to keep adapting to what your opponent is doing. Some may be frustrated you can’t plan for the long haul – I certainly was in my first few games – but once you realise that this is a game that favours tactics over strategy, you’ll find that sweet, sweet spot where Duel just gets under your skin and begs for one more turn.
Overall, 7 WondersDuel is a more than worthy two-player game to add to your collection and will probably be your go-to option for head-to-head confrontation for some time.