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Ancient Games: 7 Wonders (2010)

The Backdrop

Within Diodorus Siculus’ account of the legendary queen Semiramis can be found an interesting note concerning her supposed beautification of Babylon:

Semiramis quarried out a stone from the mountains of Armenia which was one hundred and thirty feet long and twenty-five feet wide and thick; and this she hauled by means of many multitudes of yokes of mules and oxen to the river and there loaded it on a raft, on which she brought it down the stream to Babylon; she then set it up beside the most famous street, an astonishing sight to all who passed by. And this stone is called by some an obelisk​ from its shape, and they number it among the seven wonders of the world. (Diod. Sic. 2.11.4-5).

This description of the mythicised queen’s civic adornment contains the first surviving mention of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It is worth noting here that the concepts of these structures explicitly as ‘wonders’ (thaumata) was a later development, but the basic sentiment is comparable in the early references to certain structures as notable ‘sights’ (theamata). This label makes sense in the context of the blossoming Hellenistic era, in which military conquest had resulted in writers and others becoming aware of multiple sites of note across the eastern Mediterranean and beyond. While Diodorus did not offer further detail in his original mention, the later epigrammist Antipater offered a more familiar outline of the structures to his readership:

I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheius, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus ; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on anything so grand.’ (Antipater, Greek Anthology 9.58).

The seven wonders of the ancient world are thus considered the following: the Great Pyramid of Giza (the only of the ancient wonders which still survives); the Hanging Gardens of Babylon; the Statue of Zeus at Oympia; the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus; the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus; the Colossus of Rhodes and the Pharos (Lighthouse) of Alexandria. Many Classics buffs will be familiar with all these names but, if you fancy an accessible and child-friendly introduction to any of them (with really nice illustrations), publishers DK have a rather neat little site here.

It is with one of these ancient constructs that you begin in 7 Wonders. This is a wildly popular title, commonly regarded as one of the most influential games of the last decade, and is a competitor for the most awarded game in history. Indeed, it has achieved 30 international awards, including the prestigious Spiel des Jahres 2011. It has sold approaching two million copies worldwide and enjoyed a Second Edition printing in 2020 (more on that later). It is a delightfully swift little game which has been a stalwart of my gaming collection for years.

The Game

Players: 3-7 (8 with expansions) Duration: 30-60mins

Ages: 10+ Publisher: Repos Production

7 Wonders is a closed card-drafting game set in the ancient world, designed by Antoine Bauza. Players begin by drawing one of the Seven Wonders at random in the form of a game-board. Each grants a unique combination of resources and rewards to be unlocked. Over the course of three rounds (known as ‘Ages’) players draw cards from hands which are passed either clockwise or anti-clockwise around the table, trying to make their Wonder the most successful in trade, building, science and warfare. Each of these elements offer the potential for victory points which are totalled at the end of the third Age to determine the winner.

(Fig. 1: Example of the Babylon Wonder Board)

How do you make your Wonder the finest in the known world, then?

Each Age starts with a central deck of cards (adjusted to the player count) which is then divided among the players. Each player selects one card that they wish to use and passes the remainder to their neighbour, going clockwise in Ages I and III, and counter-clockwise in Age II. This process goes on until each player only has one card left, with the final card being send to a common discard pile. Each card is played immediately after being drafted, so players are constantly aware of how their neighbours and opponents are building their own tableaux, and are thus challenged to be thinking constantly about how each move will impact their plans.

Before going any further, it is worthwhile covering the basic anatomy of a 7 Wonders card since, while the core mechanic is quite simplistic, the iconography can seem a bit overwhelming. Cards basically tell you two or three things: what they bring to your tableau, what they cost and, in certain cases, what they can upgrade to. Cards will improve players’ tableaux by delivering either raw/manufactured materials needed to purchase other cards down the line, or will add to the Wonder’s commercial, civic, military or scientific scores.

There are seven types of cards which a player might select on any given turn (yes, everything is done in sevens before the expansion kits are added!):

1) Brown Cards: Raw materials (the basic commodities you need to build bigger structures)

2) Grey Cards: Manufactured goods (necessary to build more complex structures)

3) Yellow Cards: Commercial goods (these provide money, points or trade discounts)

4) Blue Cards: Civic Structures (these all provide set amounts of pure victory points)

5) Green Cards: Scientific centres (cards contain one of three images which build into sets)

6) Red Cards: Military structures (builds a cumulative score in warfare vs. neighbours)

7) Purple Cards: Guilds (provide points dependent on players and/or neighbours’ tableaux)

(Fig. 2: Examples of cards with cost in top left, ability in top centre, and upgrade potential in bottom right)

What if I don’t have enough money/resources to deploy the card I want?

Sometimes this happens. Sometimes players will end up with a hand where they just cannot add anything to their tableau. In this event they have two options. The first is to put a card into the discard pile, in return for three coins (which might help you afford something else later). The second option is to look to your neighbours…

Regardless of how many people are playing 7 Wonders, you will only ever really deal with your closest neighbours. In fact, with very few exceptions (mostly found in expansions) there is little players can do to engage with opponents beyond those directly on either side. Players interact with their neighbours in two distinct ways: trading and warfare. In the case of the former, players can purchase resources from neighbours at a cost of 2 coins per resource needed. This obviously helps with building more complex structures later on in the game. In the latter interaction, at the end of each Age there is a warring season. Here, players compare their military score against each neighbour individually. If the player loses in this ‘battle’, they receive a -1 point token. This stays the same in every Age. Victory in these contests, however, garners players +1pt in Age I, +3pts in Age II and +5pts in Age III. Military cards might not offer players much in terms of interesting abilities, but the military aspect of this game becomes increasingly important to remain competitive in.

But what about the Wonders themselves? How do they work?

Wonder Boards usually have three distinct stages which, as noted above, offer points and abilities during the game (see fig.1). Players activate these essentially by sacrificing a card. As in every other round, the player draws a card from their hand but, instead of playing it face up for its value, the player may opt to place it face down under the appropriate Wonder Stage (they must be completed in sequence) to unlock the points and abilities. Instead of meeting the value required to play the specific card, players instead look at the requirements for the Wonder Stage being completed to decide if they need to trade etc. Wonders present a couple possibilities for players: they house points and abilities available only to that player, and they also offer the chance to bury cards that might give one’s neighbour a significant boost. Timing is important in Wonder play, as is ensuring you have enough resources to build each stage (the Age III deck contains no resource cards so, if you don’t have sufficient materials between yourself and your neighbours by then, you will be unable to complete your Wonder).

The Review

7 Wonders is one of my all-time favourite games. While it might feel quite light compared to some of the boardgames which really enthral me nowadays, it was a gateway into the hobby for me and still finds its way to our table when we have sufficient players (I find it plays best at 4 or 5-player). Indeed, my first thought is that I’d heartily recommend it to people who are dipping their toes into the boardgaming world. It is quick and sociable, and has enough of an ancient theme to enthuse the classicist in your life without being overbearing.

On initial inspection, the game might appear difficult to get into, with an array of icons on to memorise and no supporting text on the cards themselves. The reality is, however, that once you have a sense of what the dozen or so icons mean, playing the game is (at its simplest) a matter of symbol-matching. There is also a reference sheet on the back of the rules manual, should you forget mid-way through a game. This means that it remains accessible even for younger audiences; there is always something that you can do in any given turn. In addition, once you have a hang of the icons, the game can be remarkably quick. A three-player game can be wound up in around 20mins if competitors play for speed.

As you get more experienced with the game, different strategies will start to become apparent. Whether it is trying to out-muscle your neighbours in the military game, gathering resources that you know your opponents will need, using cards for your Wonder that would give your neighbours an upper hand over you etc., there are many little ways to control the shape of the game and turn it to your advantage. This being said, I think it would be wrong to imagine 7 Wonders as a game which you can go into with a pre-meditated strategy, since everything is so randomised: from the dealing out of cards in each Age through to the initial selection of a Wonder Board. This is certainly not a flaw in the game, since it ensures a high level of replay-ability, but it can also lead to the sensation that there are some games in which there are no real avenues to victory. Many players, myself included, really enjoy the pressure to be reactive and adapt your growing tableau to the different card hands as they cycle around, but I know of other experienced gamers who sometimes feel as if they have little impact on the flow and outcome of the game at times. I’m not sure I’ve found things quite so stark, but it is something to bear in mind if you prefer heavier or Euro style games where long-term planning is the order of the day!

Another real attraction to 7 Wonders is the number of expansions on offer. Both the first and second editions of the game have a variety to choose from, the most well-known being Leaders and Cities. Leaders adds an additional phase to the game, where players recruit famous figures from antiquity to attach to their Wonder Board. This expansion is neat in that it offers players the chance to strategize a little from the beginning, in a way that is arguably missing from the base game. Cities offers another colour set of cards (Black cards) which concern shadowy and nefarious structures or enterprises. This expansion offers players the chance to attack their neighbours directly (usually their monetary supply) and introduces a punishing debt mechanic which means players risk losing precious points if they cannot afford to pay the deductions triggered by black card abilities. Each of these expansions can be played alongside the base game individually or together, meaning the game can be lengthened and scaled to taste. I personally play with both as standard.

This wouldn’t be an Ancient Games review without a comment on its ancient theme. With the game being relatively light in structural terms, there is only so deep or immersive that the visual theme can be. In aesthetic terms, the game is stunning: there is a selection of really attractive graphic art to the cards and Wonder Boards which is appealing on its own terms. The majority of the cards are suitably classical feeling but are generic, meaning that they don’t feel out of place in any tableau you are building.

The Leaders expansion is arguably the most characterful addition to the game, but is also possibly its most idiosyncratic. With the Leaders deck containing historical and mythicised figures from across antiquity, it is possible to end up with a Wonder hosting a completely random assortment of leaders (for example: I once played as the Great Pyramid of Giza, ‘led’ by Hammurabi, Archimedes and Diocletian…) This absolute surrender of the theme to the random chance of the game system might horrify some classicists but, for me, it’s quite fun to think of my assembled figures trying to get along!

All in all, I really do recommend this game for the aspiring gamer and/or classicist in your life. I own nearly every piece of kit from the first edition, and I’ve even been tempted to buy a set of the second edition boxes, just for completeness (don’t do it: the editions are marginally different, but not enough to warrant buying both sets!) So, what are you waiting for? Gather your money and resources and start building!

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