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Review: 7 Wonders: Duel

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7 Wonders Duel box

Whew! I’m glad those other civilizations left. It’s not that I don’t like Babylon. It’s just that sometimes, when everyone gets together, we can’t even talk. Or strategize. Or plan for war. You know? It’s just a little too crowded.

But this? This is much better. Close. Intimate. Just the two of us, battling for supremacy in the warm Mediterranean sun.

Two hands, rocking the cradle of civilization. As it was meant to be.

How It Works

7 Wonders: Duel is a drafting/tableau building game for two players. Players collect cards to advance their civilizations. The player who achieves military or scientific superiority or who scores the most victory points is the winner.

To begin, players set the board in the center of the table and place five random progress tokens on it. The military marker starts in the center of the board. Players draft four wonder cards each, and the Age I pyramid of cards is laid out according to the diagram, with some cards face-up and some cards face-down. Each player receives seven coins.

The game set up. Small cards keep the table space manageable.
The game set up. Small cards keep the table space manageable.

On each turn, a player must take a free card from the display and play it in one of three ways: in front of them for the card’s benefit, face-down to complete a wonder (for the wonder card’s benefit), or into the discard pile for coins. Each card has a cost in resources and coins, and players must generate the necessary resources themselves or purchase them from the bank (the cost goes up with each resource of that type that the opponent controls).

Players may end the game early by achieving military or scientific supremacy. For each military symbol a player collects, he or she advances the marker one space toward the opponent. If the marker reaches the capital, that player loses. Players can achieve scientific supremacy by collecting six different science symbols. If a player ever collects two of the same science symbol, that player chooses one of the five progress tokens in the game, which grant special abilities to that player (such as granting additional military strength, having the other player pay you for resources, etc.).

Money is a more important consideration in Duel than in 7 Wonders. All resources are always available, but your opponent's holdings affect the price.
Money is a more important consideration in Duel than in 7 Wonders. All resources are always available, but your opponent’s holdings affect the price.

Once all the cards are drafted from the Age I pyramid, players lay out the Age II pyramid, and then the Age III pyramid. If there is no scientific or military victory, the game ends when the last card is drafted from the Age III pyramid. Players calculate their victory points, and the player with the most points is the winner.

Cool Duel, or Fool Duel?

My first encounter with 7 Wonders (the multiplayer game) was through the two-player variant. This was not a good first impression. My wife and I don’t typically like artificial third players, and this was no exception. I kept 7 Wonders in my collection because it is an excellent multiplayer game–in fact, it is one of my favorites. But I never returned to the two-player variant. So when I saw that the designer of 7 Wonders had designed (with Bruno Cathala) a new 7 Wonders game for two players only, I was excited at the prospect. And now I can say that 7 Wonders: Duel is a slam dunk.

The Age I pyramid. So many choices.
The Age I pyramid. So many choices.

7 Wonders: Duel retains the flavor of 7 Wonders while adapting it to the idiosyncrasies of two-player play. Players still draft cards–although in this game, it is from a common display rather than a passed hands of cards. Players still have to manage resources, play cards, and build wonders, but in this case there is a sense of immediacy that whatever cards you do not take are directly benefiting your opponent. If you forgo the 5-point civilian building, you can rest assured that it will end up in your opponent’s holdings.

Of course, this is inherent in drafting games: if you don’t take this, someone else will. In 7 Wonders, though, you can’t be sure whether your immediate neighbor will take it or whether it will end up somewhere further downstream. In Duel, your enemy has a face, and each decision directly impacts their situation. Because of this, Duel feels more confrontational, tenser, and higher stakes than the multiplayer game.

The threat of military victory keeps the game interesting.
The threat of military victory keeps the game interesting.

One way Duel is tenser than 7 Wonders is the possibility of scientific and military victories. While in my plays I’ve not yet seen one of these victories come to pass, the threat of them has decided more than one game. The reason is that if one player pushes this avenue of attack, there comes a point where the opposing player will have to make suboptimal plays to head the attack off. There have been many games where I’ve narrowly avoided the military or scientific victory only to be defeated by points because I was forced to draft a card I didn’t want to at the eleventh hour. I would imagine that military/scientific victories are rare–they’re fairly easy to spot–but I’m not disappointed they’re in the game, if only because they present new and interesting threats for the players to mitigate.

Science cards in Duel. You can see here the simplified tech-tree system (using icons instead of words) as well.
Science cards in Duel. You can see here the simplified tech-tree system (using icons instead of words) as well.

Duel is also tenser in its use of money. Money in Duel is simultaneously a more plentiful and a more scarce resource than in 7 Wonders. The reason is that, while there are only five different non-money resources to manage, each resource your opponent owns increases the cost for you. A fine strategy in this game is to organize a monopoly on a resource. Doing so restricts your opponent’s access in two ways: both by removing those cards from their tableau and by increasing the cost for them to purchase that resource. (Of course, by doing this, you’re not choosing something else, so you might be giving them a different advantage in return.) To mitigate the potential for monopolies, money is a little easier to come by, since each discarded card grants two coins +1 for each yellow card the player has. It’s not uncommon for a discarded card to pull in seven or more coins by game’s end.

Progress tokens reward players for taking science cards with unique advantages.
Progress tokens reward players for taking science cards with unique advantages.

Drafting from a central tableau, where most cards are face up, seems like it would eliminate tension, but Duel finds several ways to keep this interesting. The first is by including several face-down cards in each of the three age setups. Face-down cards are a big deal, especially as you come to know the game. While three cards are randomly removed from every age, players can have a good sense of what’s available if they know the cards. This makes every drafting decision more complex: do I draft the card I want, or do I hold off, because when I remove it, it might reveal a face-down card that I want even more? There’s a lot of clever maneuvering in trying to get your opponent to uncover the cards  you want (or in trying to avoid letting your opponent maneuver you!).

The wonders in Duel. Only eight appear in each game, and only seven of those eight can be built. These affect the flavor of each game.
The wonders in Duel. Only eight appear in each game, and only seven of those eight can be built. These affect the flavor of each game.

Duel keeps the central draft interesting through its wonder system as well. A new symbol appears in Duel, and it allows players to chain together turns and actions. Usually you can predict the central pyramid: if I take one card, my opponent will be forced to take that card, leaving me to be able to claim this one, and so on. But with the threat of a player taking multiple turns in a row, there is much more uncertainty. Will your opponent swoop in and claim the card you want? Because taking multiple turns is a huge boon, players have to plan wisely for the opportune moment.

And they have to draft these wonders in the first place. I find the initial wonder draft fascinating. Each player claims four wonders to build during the game. Generally, the better wonder abilities, in addition to costing more in resources, also lack the “take another turn” symbol. So players have to balance the strength of their wonders with the flexibility that being able to take multiple turns offers. And since only seven wonders total can be built during a game, this keeps players on their toes, making it worthwhile to build wonders early. I find the wonder play in Duel to be tense and exciting.

Guild cards in Duel. These target whichever city is stronger in a particular area and award points based on that.
Guild cards in Duel. These target whichever city is stronger in a particular area and award points based on that.

Guilds in Duel function differently than in 7 Wonders. Each guild card targets one avenue of points (as in 7 Wonders), but rather than being situationally good depending on what players around you have done, guild cards always have the same point value: they target the better city for whatever criterion they’re measuring (whether civilian buildings, science buildings, etc.). This makes guild cards hard to pass up. As such, guild cards have a slightly different color back than the other age III cards (perhaps a nod to the early print runs of 7 Wonders?), making them easy to spot in the central pyramid. You don’t want to lose track of them.

The guild card backs look different, allowing players to easily spot them in the pyramid.
The guild card backs look different, allowing players to easily spot them in the pyramid.

Science cards in Duel seem much less powerful than in 7 Wonders, and from a points standpoint, they are. Sure, a player can win a back-door victory by collecting six different science symbols, but as I already mentioned, this is easy to spot and unlikely to happen often. But what science cards do offer is a means to claim powerful abilities otherwise unavailable to players. The progress tokens are an excellent addition to the game, rewarding players for collecting science symbols deeply as well as broadly. There’s the token that grants additional military for every military card played, or straight-up points, or a unique science symbol, or a discount on certain cards. There’s even one that lets you collect any money your opponent spends to buy resources (virtually guaranteeing a discard-free future). These tokens are exciting, and since only five appear in any given game, and it’s rare for all of them to be claimed, each game is a little bit different.

A science victory...?
A science victory…?

Duel is a very tight, well-designed game, so negatives are hard to come by. In fact, the only thing negative I can say about it is that it won’t match everyone’s taste. I described Duel to my wife as a “mean” Jaipur, and after playing, she agreed with that assessment. There’s the back-and-forth drafting of Jaipur, but Duel feels more pointed because of its direct confrontational nature. (Of course, Jaipur can be cutthroat too, but it needn’t be; Duel has no choice but to involve in-your-face interaction.) I was unsure how my wife would like this one–it is a little more confrontational than the games we typically play, and because it is wound so tight, it is very tense. But the drafting and the 7 Wonders vibe won her over, and she has been the ruthless warlord, pressing my peaceful empire into a corner many times. It also helps that with only two players at the table, it’s hard to be upset when targeted meanness happens.

The insert for this game is superb...except that it doesn't fit sleeved cards very well.
The insert for this game is superb…except that it doesn’t fit sleeved cards very well.

The components in 7 Wonders: Duel are great. The small cards work well in the two-player format, and, surprisingly, the game contains entirely new art, rather than recycling what’s in 7 Wonders. (I wouldn’t have faulted Repos if they had done this; that they didn’t proves their investment in the game.) The iconography in Duel is clean and even clearer than in 7 Wonders. The scorepad is helpful, and the board and tokens are very good quality (although the board does not lie completely flat). The rules and setup sheet are well conceived, and the insert is top notch. My only gripe here is that my insert is a little snug for sleeved cards–rather than lying flat, they are at a slight incline in the box, even with the cheap, penny sleeves. This is fine for now, but with inevitable expansions, I’m not sure the components will fit in the insert.

The rulebook is thick, but easy to digest. The rules summary sheet is a boon. If you know how to play 7 Wonders, picking up Duel is a breeze.
The rulebook is thick, but easy to digest. The rules summary sheet is a boon. If you know how to play 7 Wonders, picking up Duel is a breeze.

7 Wonders: Duel is a game that succeeds in every way in adapting a great multiplayer game to the two-player format. It succeeds in maintaining the best parts of the original while introducing novelties that make it ideal for its situation. For my part, if someone asked, “Would you rather play Duel or 7 Wonders?” I would probably choose 7 Wonders, if not just because I like playing with a group better than playing a two-player-only game. But if I’ve only got two players, Duel is an ideal go-to suggestion–a fun, fast, strategic game that is compelling and beautiful. If you find yourself needing a two-player game, do yourself a favor and get 7 Wonders: Duel.

  • Rating 9
  • User Ratings (1 Votes) 9
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Summary

Pros:

  • Flawlessly adapts multiplayer 7 Wonders to two-player format
  • Great art and components
  • Tense gameplay with grueling decisions
  • The order cards come out drastically changes the flow, making each game unique

Cons:

  • Confrontational nature won't be everyone's cup of tea
  • Insert barely fits sleeved cards, making expansion difficult
9.0 Excellent

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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