Review: 7 Wonders Duel

BGG Rank #7 – 3/10/2017

It’s hard to follow up a hit with an even better sequel. Just ask any author, director, or Jar Jar Binks. There’s a fundamental conflict involved in the creative process. One one hand, you must pay respect to the beloved aspects of the original that left your audience wanting more. At the same time, you’ve got to break free of the mold you’ve created, avoiding a regurgitation of the same song and dance.

I’ve recently had the pleasure of borrowing a game that faced that exact challenge and succeeded with flying colors. With 7 Wonders Duel, designers Antoine Bauza and Bruno Cathala have performed a complete renovation of the 2010 classic 7 Wonders, tearing it down to the studs and rebuilding a brilliant two-player game. The theme will feel familiar to any 7 Wonders fans, yet it would be inaccurate to call it an expansion or a remake. Duel is an entirely different game from its predecessor — and many would argue that it’s a better game as well.

How to Play

If you’re familiar with the original 7 Wonders, you’ll recognize many similar elements in Duel. The game is still divided into three Ages, in which players take turns picking cards to carefully curate the highest-scoring assortment of structures and wonders. There are still the same seven types of cards, which players spend the required resources or gold to add to their tableau. Instead of adding the card face-up as a structure, players still have the option to discard it for gold or use it to build a wonder (paying the cost of the wonder, not the structure).

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That’s pretty much where the similarities end. Let’s take a look at the biggest differences:

Card DraftingInstead of the “pick one and pass” mechanic for drafting cards, Duel takes a clever approach that may have been inspired by Mahjong. In each Age, 20 cards are laid out in a pyramid format on the table, with some cards face up and others face down. Players take turns selecting a card that is not covered by any other cards. In this way, there is an added strategic component of considering which cards you may make available to your opponent by uncovering them.

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The Hanging Gardens wonder grants 6 gold, 3 VP, and an extra turn.

Wonders: Rather than each player getting a random wonder with 2-4 segments to build, Duel allows players to each draft four wonders at the start of the game. These wonders each have a single build slot, with each wonder offering a unique set of perks. One perk of particular interest that is offered by many of the wonders is the immediate bonus turn. This is a crucial benefit if wielded properly, because it allows you to uncover a card, build the wonder, and then immediately take the next card before your opponent has a chance at it.

It’s also worth noting that once seven wonders have been built, the eighth must be discarded. It’s one of many examples of how Duel encourages considering your opponent’s position, not simply focusing on your own board as is the case in some Euros.

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Each science structure features a specific Advancement at the top of the card.

ScienceScoring for science cards in Duel is far different from the original. The number of scientific advancements has been increased from three to seven (they like that number), with two cards for each advancement (except Law- I’ll get to that one). If you get two of a kind, you immediately get to draw a Knowledge token. These tokens offer a variety of benefits, such as reducing building costs or granting additional gold or victory points.

One of the Knowledge tokens is actually the Law advancement, which is not found on any of the cards. Why is this one helpful? Well, if a player ever acquires six of the seven advancements, they immediately win. This can make for some incredibly tense endings, when your opponent has racked up five advancements and you must do everything in your power to block them from getting a sixth!

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The military track, with Knowledge tokens at the top

MilitaryAs with science, the mechanics behind military cards have been significantly altered in Duel. Instead of scoring victory points at the end of each Age based on comparing your total military to your neighbor, the military scoring in Duel feels much more like a tug of war. With each military structure built, a player moves the Conflict token towards their opponent’s capital. As you pass certain checkpoints along the way you can cause your opponent to lose gold, causing momentum to build. If you ultimately reach your opponent’s capital, it’s an immediate victory. Otherwise, you’ll score a nominal sum of victory points at the end if you ended up ahead in the tug of war.

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My commerce-heavy strategy resulted in a big win in this particular game.

CommerceThe basic idea of commerce in Duel is the same as in the original– structures can provide you with resources that can be used each turn, and if a structure or wonder requires resources you don’t have, you can pay for them. If you need more money, then instead of building a card you can discard it for gold. While those features remain, the pricing rules have been altered significantly. First, when buying an extra resource, you pay the bank rather than your opponent. The cost you pay increases based on how many of that resource your opponents owns. Similarly,  when discarding for gold from the bank, you get a bonus for each commerce structure you already own.

Through these changes, the designers have taken what was a great 3-7 player game and made it into an even better 2 player game. Particularly, I think that every card type is now well balanced as a potential primary strategy, whereas that was not the case in the original game (see: Military). It’s easy to learn, quick to play, and has loads of replayability. It’s no surprise to me that this game has shot all the way up to #7 on the BGG Top 100 list.

Conclusion

Based on the above review, you’d probably guess that I’d be rushing to purchase a copy for myself, right? Well actually… no. Here’s the thing: two-player games fill a particular niche in my collection. If I’m gonna buy a two-player game, it has to be one that I’m gonna enjoy playing with my wife. And while I’ve thoroughly enjoyed playing Duel, my wife KC absolutely has not

Her critique of Duel is that when you get behind early, there can be little hope of clawing your way back. I’d venture to guess that’s not always the case, especially with the science and military tracks offering the chance for a surprise victory. However, in the small sample size of games we’ve played, it’s true that it’s generally been possible to predict who will win by the end of the first Age. Perhaps we just haven’t quite played it enough– but with so many good games out there, I don’t think Duel will get another chance.

Personally, I don’t mind playing out a game that I know I’m going to lose — especially in the case of a game like Duel where it’s a pretty quick game with so many different strategies to try out. However, that’s not the case for everyone. So while I’d still recommend Duel and would gladly play it again if given the opportunity, I’d also caution you to consider your own tastes and that of your partner / roommate / friend / etc.


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And here’s the handy Amazon link for those interested: 7 Wonders Duel

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