Antoine Bauza’s Ghost Stories is one of my favourite board games, a co-operative, claustrophobic survival-horror of mounting odds, looming spectres and ever-encroaching doom. Last night, Jenny & I had the opportunity to play Bauza’s next game – the competitive civilisation-building 7 Wonders – with a bunch of friends, and definitely came away impressed. It’s another fine piece of design, distilling the city management elements of something like Civilisation into 30-40 minutes of passing cards round the table.
That brevity is one of the game’s great strengths. Many of the games we’ve played trend longer, and reach a point of exhaustion twenty minutes (often more like two hours) before someone actually wins. 7 Wonders keeps things fast and interesting by hard-wiring the length of a game to eighteen turns, six for each of the game’s three ages. To streamline further, all players act simultaneously each turn, selecting a card from their hand to play or discard for additional income, before passing the rest of the hand to the next player round the table. With each turn potentially taking less than a minute, even considering dealing at the start of each age and counting up scores at the end, once you’re familiar with the rules it’ll take no time at all to play.
Better still there are all sorts of different ways to score victory points, each of which reward you for focusing your city in a specific direction, while still making it possible to diversify and shift focus mid-game and end up with a decent score. Military might is rewarding, but leads to resource-burning escalation between you and your neighbours while your opponents across the table focus on public works and constructing their lucrative wonders. Guilds give you bonus points for the structures of your neighbours’ cities. Science is tricky to amass, but has the potential to multiply into huge scores. In the games we’ve played so far it’s never been apparent until totting up the points at the very end who was winning, avoiding the demoralisingly slow slide to defeat sometimes experienced in games like Catan, where you can be fully aware that you’re losing for a good hour or more before someone else finally wins.
That’s not to say that it’s a perfect game; like Ghost Stories, many of the mechanics of the game are enshrined in a multitude of symbols displayed on each card, which aren’t exactly self-explanatory. Clarification is provided in the instruction manual and on a single reference sheet, but sharing those resources between a potential seven players does slow things down unnecessarily. Also, while passing hands of cards round the table allows you to consider which cards to deny your opponents as well as which will benefit you, there isn’t a great deal of interaction between players. Your neighbours cities affect your score, but without the forced interaction of a bartering mechanic – you can buy resources from neighbouring cities for a fixed price, without the option of refusal – it can become a little insular at times, though it still never devolved into the silent table of a Ticket To Ride session.
But these are very minor criticisms. If the sign of a good board game is the desire to play it again, to explore the strategic possibilities and see what stories will emerge from a different hand of cards, then 7 Wonders more than hit the mark.