Tuesday, April 3, 2012

7 Wonders

Recently I played the 7 Wonders boardgame and was really impressed by it.  It seemed fairly easy to teach to new people but had some deep strategy available.  I do like board games that don't have a ton of pregame explanation because so often somebody new is playing it; as long as a newcomer is able to play quickly I don't mind if they always lose, even if that newcomer is me.  It is also fantastic to my mind that everyone plays at once and you don't have the issue of people sitting around for 75% of the game waiting for their turn to arrive.  After doing a bit more thinking and analysis on 7 Wonders though I have come to the conclusion that it has a lot less depth than I thought and has a few unfortunate mechanics.  Thankfully my game meddling is in high gear and I have some ideas to fix the issues I see.

7W is played over 3 rounds.  Each round starts with each player drawing 7 cards and then drafting those cards simultaneously, much like in a Magic draft.  The first draft has you passing your cards left, then right, then left again.  You only take 6 cards from each pack though so you end up playing 18 cards in each game of 7W.  The cards can be roughly divided into two groups:  Resources (Brown, Silver, Yellow) and Points (Green, Blue, Red, Purple).  I think the Resource cards work out pretty well and there are lots of different choices to make with them based on how your game is going and what your neighbours are doing.  The problem comes with the Points cards, the Greens in particular.

Blue and Purple cards aren't that different functionally.  They appear mostly in the 3rd round of the draft and they are worth a lot of points.  They have varying costs, values and special abilities but it is fairly easy to cherrypick ones that work for you at any given time.  I think they work fine.  There is some interaction between them but mostly you don't have to worry about people hate drafting cards away from you too much since there are usually many good choices for you to make.

Red cards are military cards and get you points only if you have more of them than the people directly beside you.  This is an interesting mechanic in that you really want to beat your neighbours up but you don't want to build more military than necessary to win those conflicts.  If one of your neighbours has a huge or nonexistent military score you can still buy Red cards to compete with your other neighbour - overall this mechanic seems to work well.  There is no way to completely screw people over if they are trying to accumulate a lot of Red cards because hate drafting them hurts anybody else competing with the Red drafter too.

Green cards are science cards.  They come in three types, wheel, tablet and compass and there are 4 cards of each type in the deck.  Your score from all of them is found by squaring the number of each type you have and then scoring 7 for each set of 3 you have.  For example, if I had 3,2,2 of the types I would score 9 + 4 + 4 + 7 + 7 = 31.  The trouble with Green cards is that if you get 7 of them as above you end up scoring 4.5 points each and this is simply not enough - setting up to buy a lot of Science cards is difficult and usually sets you back compared to the other players so they need to pay off in a big way.  Generally the winning scores in games seem to be in the 65 range and if you are going Science you aren't likely to get a lot of points elsewhere so you pretty much need to get 10+ of the 12 possible Science cards to have a good chance at winning.  This is real trouble because if two players are going for Science then they are virtually guaranteed to both crash and burn.  If you go for Science solo though and everything goes perfectly you crush everyone - getting your full 12 Science cards generates 76 points which is more than enough to win the game comfortably.

Initially I had thought that this was a reasonable situation because I hadn't really run the numbers for multiple people playing Science.  I figured that things would probably work out if two people shared well, but it turns out that two people sharing Science makes them both lose.  The kicker though is that if one player is going full on Science and nobody else even attempts to compete they probably still lose!  The problem is that once you are set up in the first two rounds for Science you can very easily lose just on the placements of the cards in the last round.  If lots of Science cards are in one hand in the draft you lose.  If your opponents notice that you are having a perfect Science game and take your Science cards away (to build their wonders) you lose, and they will if they are paying any attention at all.

The problem here is the scaling of Science cards.  The first few are utter rubbish (a 2-1-0 split gives 5 points but a 2-2-2 split gives 26 points) and you have to build those first few before you see if the cards are going to be set up such that you can succeed at your build.  Not only do you have to commit fully before knowing if you have any chance you also are in the situation where your opponents are massively incentivized to punish you in the late game if by some chance you are looking good.  Your ninth card is worth 12 points, far more than anything else in the game, so people will definitely take it away from you.  I like the idea of Science but right now it just seems to be a sucker's game.  If you play Science with some new players some of them will draft the Science cards randomly and you will lose.  If you play with experts they will draft Science cards punitively (and only if you are already looking good) and wreck your day.  The double scaling where you need a lot of Science cards to get complete sets and then you need a lot of Science cards to get the squaring to big enough numbers means that Science is going to very occasionally blow some bad players out of the water and virtually every other time it is a ticket to last place.

If the Science scoring instead worked such that every Science card was worth 3 points but the sets were still worth 7 then I think things would be much better.  Gathering a set of 3 Science cards would be worth 16 points, which is quite good, but at least if you miss getting the set you still have a decent point count to work with.  The other big advantage is that in the late game your opponents have less reason to hammer you.  Many of your points are already banked and you might only be getting 3 points from a new Science card so you are likely to actually get some Science cards even if you are already in a good position.  Another possibility is making the Science cards in the first round with 2, second round 3, third round 4, again with the same 7 points for a set.  This also means that aiming for a single set is fine so two people can be in Science reasonably comfortably.  There is a big incentive to complete sets in both of these scenarios but at least Science strategies would be able to recover from bad distribution or opponents hate drafting.

One other option that would work is simply increasing the number of duplicates of various Science cards in the deck.  If there were more duplicate cards it would be possible for two players to be in Science without cannibalizing each other and it would be drastically harder to hate draft the Science player into oblivion.

Overall I enjoy 7W just as it is but I think the strategy is a bit weak because one big element is so clunky.  Hopefully I can get some people to try out the alternate scoring method and see how it plays out.

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