Learning from 7 Wonders
7 Wonders is an outstanding game. The game plays with up to 7 players in as short of a playing time as 30 minutes! It scales fantastically down to 3 and even has a 2 player variant. The Board Game Geek community seems to agree.
- #13 Board Game
- #14 Strategy Game
- #1 Family Game
This last one makes me think for a moment. Family Game means something different to me than 7 Wonders, but still, holy smokes. 7 Wonders has a great deal to teach us as designers, but the lessons may not always be ones to emulate. Or at least, they may force us to consider some things in our own designs.
A few disclaimers! I love 7 Wonders. It's one of the first games I bought and I've played it 12 times (which is pretty good considering how scattered I can be!). I think it's brilliant and worth every accolade and sales. This article was prompted because I taught the game to 9 new players this weekend in two different social settings. I observed where the game can cause confusion or fall short, at least initially, and I saw an opportunity to write about it further. In addition, the game is so popular and so widely understood that it is the perfect target for such an article. If I did this for <insert unknown game> nobody would care OR get my references. Here, we can have a discussion.
No Clear Path from the Outset: At the beginning of the game, I tell people that having the most points will win them the game. I explain the first few cards and give them a hint of what's coming (but not too much as their minds are already full). We then start.
Everyone always asks "well, what do I want?" I tell them resources are a good start. They don't exist in Round 3 and they'll need to build things with them. "Well, what resources do I want?" I show them their Wonder requirements as a good start. I tell them to look at their neighbors as they can trade with them. I tell them diversity or focus are both options.
Then they see Military, and Blue Cards, and Yellow cards that help them but they aren't sure how, and science? Oh god the science!
It became clear to me that there isn't a clearly good thing to do from the beginning. There aren't correct decisions. Well, not a few correct decisions, but multiple potentially correct decisions. The game is an optimization game and one with several paths to victory. Plus, your path may change mid-game to something else based on the decisions of your opponents or the cards available. This is what makes the game outstanding and sticky. This is why people play it over and over again. But, this makes the game very difficult to play the first few times.
Recent favorite Coloretto has a very clear goal. Get several cards in only 3 colors. Monopoly is simple. Get money. Money is earned by property and hotels. Risk tells players to conquer territory. Magic: The Gathering, Memoir '44, and Summoner Wars tell you to defeat your opponent.
The lesson? Find a way to give your players a clear path towards victory. Design your content in the early rounds to give them a comfortable foundation before you open the path too widely. Create primary ways of scoring and secondary ways of scoring. The primary ways can be more obvious and clear, the secondary ways more subtle and known to the advanced players. Give players a goal to accomplish.
After explaining your game to new players, leave them with the sense that they generally know how to win. I felt like with 7 Wonders I told my friends they needed to fly, but didn't give them wings. Next Week, on Lifetime Home Video.
Too Many Different Methods of Scoring: This is a bit of a continuation of the point directly above this one. There are several ways to score points in 7 Wonders and all of them are unique. These are:
- Blue cards give victory points printed onto the card.
- Building stages of your wonders gives you points.
- At the end, you get 1 point for every 3 gold.
- Purple and Yellow cards give you points based on the state of your civilization and/or your neighbors'.
- Green cards, science, give you 7 points for every set of 3 symbols. In addition, you square the number of a single symbol you have. A two-fer!
- You can earn or lose points at the end of every round based on the military score of your civilization or your neighbors.
So, yes. That's 6 ways I've identified just now and I may have missed one or two or listed one incorrectly. What that means is that in addition to learning how to play the game, players must learn all the ways in which they can score. Not only are the ways numerous, but almost all of them are different and, aside from the blue cards, require more than simple addition.
This problem is complicated further by the fact that points are earned in different ways at different times. Military is at the end of a round. Most yellow cards that score don't emerge until the final round and all purple cards don't emerge until the final round. My friends would ask "why do I get this card?" I'd say it might give them points. "How?" Well, a card might give you points for it.
The lesson? Be careful with how many methods of scoring you introduce into your game. Think carefully before varying the ways in which these methods are scored. And finally, try your best to streamline the times of scoring. All at the end, all during, or something more consistent. It will greatly help your players. Finally, be careful about introducing cards that only emerge late in the game that will come seemingly out of left field for first-time players.
3 Different Uses for Cards not Always Clear: This one surprised me, but nonetheless, it was a common point of confusion. In 7 Wonders you draft 1 card every round for one of three uses:
- Discard for 3 Gold
- Play it/build it for its purpose
- Tuck it under your board to complete a single stage of your wonder.
The first two weren't that difficult, but the third one confused the hell out of people. I had one friend simply not build his wonder because he couldn't quite grasp the point. He's not stupid, it just didn't make sense to him so he gave up. And sadly (for me), he still won.
Another friend struggling with the concept at one point said he just didn't draft a card. "You have to," we said. I then repeated the rule and his eyes glazed over a bit. This same friend did an identical thing playing my new prototype Molly's Last Hope. In MLH, you play a card every turn for one of 3 purposes:
- Play it for its action
- Discard to move a squad
- Discard to move a fleet
I've even had people be confused by the Plant versus Fertilize mechanic with Crop cards in Farmageddon.
The Lesson? Players around the world are used to play a card for its action. You have a card, it does a thing, I play it to do the thing. Players are also used to discarding a card as an alternate. If you don't want to use it, discard it for a less optimal path (usually). But the idea of discarding it for another action, something other than a trade? Be careful.
This won't be immediately evident to players. In fact, it might be downright confusing. The takeaway is to use these alternate actions sparingly or to make them as cohesive and similar as possible. Perhaps bake them into a card's action choices or even use another component. For example, what if 7 Wonders had these two for its discard choices:
- Discard to take 3 Gold
- Discard to place a Build token on one stage of your wonder.
Would that second one be less confusing? I'm not sure, but that's my alternate suggestion.
Multi-Use, Multi-Timed Actions are Easily Overlooked: There are many cards in the later rounds that have an immediate action (i.e. acquire X gold per X things) and an end of game action (i.e. acquire X points per X things). These were constantly missed by folks, regardless of reminders, because the notion that multiple things would occur at different points in time just completely went over some heads. I had some people play the same type of card multiple times and at the end they'd say "Wait...do I get gold for these? Crap! I didn't get any gold!"
The lesson? Be careful with actions that fire at multiple times. Be careful about using a very similar UI for the different actions. After all, other than knowing the rule, there's nothing on the card that indicates "gold now, points later." Casual gamers have a difficult time thinking about everything to which they've just been introduced. A game that forces them to consider the NOW and the LATER, especially when that LATER is uncertain, is difficult.
These are just a few of the things that popped up while playing 7 Wonders. Interestingly enough, everyone loved it after the first play and wanted to play again. Clearly the game is great! What examples did I miss? What lessons from other popular games should we consider?