New post for Insiders on interesting guys in this year’s Futures Game.
The Spiel des Jahres award, the most prestigious (and commercially important) prize in the boardgame industry, has now been split into two separate awards; one retains the old award’s name, but focuses on simpler, more mainstream games, while the other, the Kennerspiel des Jahres (roughly the “Connoisseur’s Game of the Year”), goes to more complex strategy games. The inaugural Kennerspiel des Jahres award was handed out yesterday, and the winner, 7 Wonders, is more than worthy of the honor.
7 Wonders hits the sweet spot of German-style boardgaming: The structure is complex, but game play is simple, with a three-player game taking about 25 minutes after our first abortive run through it. (The rules could be written more clearly. A lot more clearly.) That combination means that gameplay is pretty rich, with many different strategies and no clear path to victory. And one quirky mechanic manages to go a long way to balance out the randomness that is inherent in almost any game that revolves around a deck (in this case, three decks) of cards.
In 7 Wonders, each player has a home city representing one of the seven cities to house one of the Wonders of the Ancient World. During the three stages of the game, called Ages, the players build buildings that allow production or trading of resources, add military power, or just give the player victory points. These buildings come on cards, some of which may be played for free while others require expenditure of money or resources (although some of those become free if you’ve played another card in an earlier Age). Each Age has six turns, so a player can build up to six buildings; resource-producing buildings produce on every turn, and there’s no accumulation or depletion of resources. The ultimate goal is to finish the game with the most victory points, but with seven different ways to earn points there are many, many ways to win the game.
The one great mechanic of the game is the distribution of the cards. At the start of each Age, each player receives seven cards, and gets to play one of them, usually to construct the building on the card’s face. After that, the player passes the remaining six cards to a neighboring player, so the decision of what card to play depends on what suits the player now, what his/her neighbor might need, and, depending on the number of players, what cards might still be there when the hand comes back around. During each Age, six cards from each hand are played or discarded, and the last remaining card is removed from the game. So in each round of a game, you can be assured of seeing the majority of the cards at least once; in a 3-player game, you’ll see 18 of 21 cards, and with 4 players it’s 22 of 28. (The game is for 3 to 7 players, with rules for a 2-player variant included.)
There’s also a strong trading component in the game, as it’s very hard to produce all the resources you’ll need yourself. You can buy any resource you need from a neighboring player who produces it for 2 coins, which can be reduced to 1 by certain commercial buildings; those purchases can’t be refused, but don’t affect the selling player’s production, either. Therefore, you could choose not to produce a certain good, or to produce less of it, because you know your neighbors will have some available for you even if the price is steep.
In our handful of 3-player test games, we found gameplay to be far more straightforward than the rules, which are written more like a reference work than like a straight explanation of how to play a game from start to end. The mechanic that allows you to build one card free because you built another related card earlier is very powerful, while the mechanic that gives you points for building the three levels of your Wonder using any card from your hand (without considering what’s on its face) is the least powerful aspect, as none of our winners ever completed his/her Wonder. One facet that I thought was insufficiently explained in the rules was that you can only build production buildings for the seven resources in Ages I and II; by Age III, you’re just going for points. We didn’t find huge differences between the Wonders except for the Colossus of Rhodes, which has a military power that was worth 18 points if its holder made a few relatively simple moves to maintain that advantage, and in a game where winning scores were in the 45-55 range that’s a significant bump.
I can imagine that with six or seven players this game would get messy, and the luck factor in what cards you get to see starts to increase once you get past five players. For three players, however, gameplay is smooth with a hint of randomness but nowhere near enough to make the game frustrating, as great decision-making won’t be undone by rotten luck. I can see why it won the Kennerspiel and is ranked #12 overall on BoardGameGeek’s global game rankings, but if you do buy it, be prepared for a little confusion the first time you read the rules. The game isn’t as complicated as they make it sound.