7 Wonders Duel was the most anticipated new game release of 2015, taking the theme and concept from one of the greatest and most popular Eurogames ever into a two-player game that could be finished in under 30 minutes. Duel is vastly streamlined compared to the initial game, so you’re losing some of the novelty and complexity that made 7 Wonders a huge hit between serious gamers and those just dabbling in the genre, but it succeeds in bringing the 7 Wonders experience to two-player games while adding a bigger interactive component.
The original 7 Wonders is my #2 game of all time, only behind the more accessible Carcassonne, and is the best of the class of more complex strategy games—those where randomness is low and the need for long-range planning is high—because it plays so quickly, usually 30 minutes to an hour depending on the number of players. 7 Wonders plays 3 to 7 smoothly, but for two players there’s a rules variant that involves the use of a “dummy” player of sorts, a trick that in my experience always alters any game experience for the worse. (Alhambra uses a similar variant for two players, and it’s just as disappointing.) That created a niche for a truly two-player version of 7 Wonders that brings the core concepts of building links and resource management to a game that involves more direct competition between just two players.
In Duel, there are three ways to win: military dominance, scientific dominance, or amassing the most victory points by game-end. The first two methods are quite difficult if the players are evenly matched, and we’ve never invoked either of them, always playing through to the end and adding up the points. Each player begins the game with four Wonder cards to build, while building cards are displayed on the table in nested structures that make only two to six available for purchase at any specific time—a big departure from the rotating hands that are the most notable aspect of the original game’s mechanics. Players acquire buildings that generate resources, money, victory points, or some combination of the three, while many buildings also have links to later buildings that allow the player who owns the first one in such a chain to acquire the second one for free. (That’s also found in the original game, and it’s just as key here as it is there… but here you get more of an opportunity to snipe a building that your opponent might get for free.)
The game has three phases, each of which brings its own deck of building cards, with the third phase also incorporating three guild cards (out of six total in the box, so the deck varies slightly each game) that award large bonuses for certain building types at the end of the game. The cards themselves should be familiar to anyone who’s played the original game; each has a cost in resources, a benefit such as a specific resource or two each turn or victory points at the end of the game, and possibly a symbol linking it to a building to be found in a later phase. You can rack up a lot of victory points by working the chains in the blue cards, or make future purchases much cheaper via certain yellow cards. As in the original game, you try to produce resources yourself through your buildings; one difference here is that you can buy what you can’t produce, with the cost rising if your opponent can produce it and you’re sort of buying it from him/her rather than from the bank. (I say “sort of” because resources aren’t depleted in 7 Wonders Duel; they come into existence as soon as someone tries to observe them.)
The other two victory conditions require getting far enough ahead of your opponent that we found it was largely impossible to reach either. Military dominance would mean acquiring enough red (military) cards to advance the token on the central military track from the middle spot nine spaces to the opponent’s city—that is, you’d have to acquire buildings with nine more of the military symbols than your opponent has acquired, which you might do if you’re playing someone who is drunk or unconscious. Scientific dominance is a little more feasible—there are six science symbols available on green building cards plus a seventh found on a progress token (you get progress tokens if you gain both green buildings showing a specific science symbol), and if either player gets cards/tokens showing six of those seven symbols, s/he wins the game outright. It’s less unlikely than a military victory, but still highly improbable.
The Wonders each player can build each offer differing benefits like you might get from three buildings at once—usually a combination of resources, points, and/or money, but sometimes with a special one-time bonus like the ability to take a second turn right away or to destroy something of your opponent’s. There’s also a rules quirk that limits Wonder construction to seven of eight, so there’s some urgency to building them because one of the two players won’t get to build his/her fourth Wonder, although that seems to confer an unfair advantage on one player given the large benefits conferred by most Wonder cards.
Our games of 7 Wonders Duel have all been fairly close, with both players finishing with 61-70 points each time out, staying close because we were each trying to prevent the other player from getting too far down any particular path. Games truly did take a half hour or less, even when we were learning the rules, because the game offers fewer decisions each turn than 7 Wonders itself does, making individual turns much quicker. That’s both a strength and a weakness; while 7 Wonders Duel gives you the direct interaction and competition that 7 Wonders doesn’t provide, it loses some of the former game’s need for strategy. Duel also lacks the variation from game to game that comes from using larger decks and having each player work on just one Wonder, which makes me wonder (pun intended) about its staying power. At a first glance, however, it’s among the best pure two-player games on the market—smart, brisk, and beautifully designed, as well as a potential gateway into the main 7 Wonders for folks who’ve never played it.
7 Wonders Duel was designed by Antoine Bauza and Bruno Cathala and published by Asmodee.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.