Tuesday 31 May 2016

Cardboard - 7 Wonders: Duel Board Game Review

Antoine Bauza's original version of 7 Wonders is one of my favourite games. A clever card-drafting civilisation-building game, it's quick to explain, plays fast and the simultaneous gameplay means there's no downtime even with its maximum 7 players. The only trouble with it is that the two-player variant brings in a third 'dummy' player, which always rings alarm bells for me.

That's where 7 Wonders: Duel comes in. This time Bauza has teamed up with Bruno Cathala to create a new version of the game that's specifically tailored for two players.

7 Wonders: Duel box art

Each game takes place over three ages, with players taking turns to pick from a layout of cards arranged, some face up, some face down, in a different pattern for each era. You can choose to do one of three things with the card you pick:

Build it
The card can be added to a player's 'city'. It might allow a player to produce resources each turn or represent a building that helps fulfill the win conditions of the game. Building categories will be familiar to players of the original 7 Wonders although their uses and scoring are a little different in Duel.

7 Wonders: Duel - first age setup

Players can only take cards that are not covered by any other cards, so initially only those in the lowest row are available. As players remove cards, the cards in the next layers begin to be uncovered and flipped over.

7 Wonders: Duel review - uncovered cards

You can only build a building if you have the right resource cards or coins available to pay for it, as shown on the top left of the card (although some of the early cards are free to build).

If you're missing a resource you can replace it shiny cash, but it will cost you 2 coins per item plus (and this is the painful bit) an extra coin for every one of those resources that your opponent can produce. So if I need a clay to build my Garrison and you already have two clay production, it'll cost me 4 coins in total to buy what I need. This can get pricey! Which is where these handy yellow cards come in:

7 Wonders Duel: Yellow cards

These fix the price for a particular resource at 1 gold each, meaning you can produce as many clay as you like but I only have to pay 1 coin each for it if I have the Clay Reserve.

We got this rule so spectacularly wrong in our first game that it almost caused my husband to abandon the game forever in disappointment - I'd thought that the Reserve cards just reduced the base price of goods to 1 coin (from 2) and you still added on an extra gold for the other player's production. This tilted the balance too far to the advantage of whoever grabbed the most resource cards and left the other player no affordable cash-based alternative route. Oops... A quick re-read of the rules soon fixed everything!

Discard it for cash
If you're short of cash at any point you can discard a card from the layout to get more coins. This is also handy for moments when you can't afford to build a particular card but you really don't want your opponent to have it!

7 Wonders: Duel coins

Build a Wonder
You also have the option of using a card to construct a Wonder by turning it face down and placing it under one of four Wonder cards, selected by each player at the beginning of the game.

7 Wonders: Duel - wonder cards built

Wonder cards are beautifully illustrated larger cards which, when built, can give you a range of different bonuses, from extra resources to victory points to extra turns. The extra turn is especially handy when you get a chance to chain it together with more extra turns or use it to get first pick of newly-revealed cards that could otherwise have gone to your opponent.

When all the cards for the first age are gone, play moves on to the second age and a new set of cards:

7 Wonders: Duel review - second age cards

Similarly, when all the second age pyramid cards are taken it's time for the third and final age (in a slightly more complicated shape!)

7 Wonders: Duel review - third age cards

There are three routes to victory in 7 Wonders: Duel:

Civilian victory
There's the standard victory points path, where you get to the end of the game (when all the third age cards have been taken) and add up each players' victory points. These can be shown on the cards in your city, the Wonders you've built, progress tokens you've obtained, or marked next to your position on the military track. Coins are also worth a victory point for every three you have at the end of the game.

Then there's the scientific victory. Every green science card comes with one of seven different symbols on it. If you can gather a set of any six of these symbols, you win the game immediately!

7 Wonders: Duel review - science cards

Getting two matching science symbols allows you take one of these handy progress tokens, which are randomised for each game and give some really useful perks:

7 Wonders: Duel - progress tokens

There's also a military victory path. Every time you lay a red military card, you count up the number of shields shown on that card and then move the shiny red 'conflict pawn' that many spaces down the track towards your opponent. This becomes a sort of tug-of-war as you battle to keep the marker from getting too close to your end of the track.

7 Wonders: Duel - military conflict pawn

If you reach the last spot of the track at your opponent's end, it's another instant win. Forget about this at your peril - it's all too easy to concentrate on the cards and forget about what's happening on that military track. Since the military cards in later ages have more shields on them, things can start to turn against you pretty fast later on in the game!

As you can probably tell from the multiple routes to victory, this is a game with lots of choices to make! Not only are you deciding what cards will help you most, but you also have to take into account whether what you pick will help or hinder your opponent. You really want that School card because it will get you a pair of wheel symbols (and consequently a progress token)... but taking it would reveal two face-down cards that your opponent gets first pick from, which might be something you needed more... but if you don't take it your opponent might discard it for coins to stop you getting the pair... or worse take it to build his Wonder, which has an 'extra turn' symbol, which would give him first choice of the revealed cards... wait, does he have enough stone to do that? Argh!

You're constantly second-guessing each other and trying to manipulate the layout to get the cards you want. It's a lot of thinking in a little game and I love it.

It very cleverly makes you focus on what your opponent is up to in a way that the original game really wanted to do but never quite succeeded. This does mean there's a bit more conflict involved than in the original 7 Wonders; you're sitting right next to the person who just trashed the card you needed, so there's no chance for any sneaky sabotage. But then it does have 'duel' in the title, so if you wanted rainbows and fluffy hugs you may have picked up the wrong box!

It's a very strategic game, with limited interference from luck (where cards are face down) - you have to think on your feet to adapt your 'plan' to what cards you're able to get. For instance, if you lose out on resources maybe you'll need to focus on yellow cards to generate coins and allow you to build what you want later in the game.

Aside from being really fun, 7 Wonders: Duel is also lovely to look at. The components are all good quality, the card art is great and all the icons are sensible and clearly explained in the rules when not immediately obvious.

7 Wonders: Duel - wonder cards

The re-think on iconography is, I think, best demonstrated in the way they've updated the 'chain' construction method, where taking certain buildings early in the game allows you to construct particular linked buildings in the future for free. In the original 7 Wonders, this was simply written on the cards and was very easy to forget about and miss. In Duel, each linked pair has been assigned an icon which makes it a lot easier to spot what you can get for free - both for you and your opponent, who can put in their best effort to stop you getting what you want!

7 Wonders: Duel review - linked buildings

I can see the potential for replayability to get a bit limited over time as you get used to what's coming up in each age, but the changing order of the cards mean that strategies will always need to adapt, so I can't see this running out of steam any time soon for us.

7 Wonders: Duel is a really solid, fun game and I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who's looking for a two-player game - as long as they don't mind being a little mean to each other now and again! 

7 Wonders: Duel
Designer: Antoine Bauza and Bruno Cathala
Publisher: Repos Production
Players: 2
Age: 10+
Cost: RRP £19.99 [Take a look at Esdevium's store locator to find a local brick-and-mortar retailer in Europe]

Thanks to Esdevium for sending me a copy to take a look at. If you enjoyed this review perhaps you could take a look at my Facebook page and leave a like or come and say hello on my Instagram feed!