7 Wonders: Duel was my birthday present this year. When it was first released, the reviews were generally positive. I had a rough idea how the game worked, but did not proactively seek it out to play. I would happily give it a try if I the opportunity arose. I don't often play 2-player-only games nowadays. My wife doesn't play boardgames much now, and when I go for boardgaming sessions, we usually play 3- to 5- player games. However as the award nominations and award wins started coming in for 7 Wonders: Duel, I became very curious and decided to buy a copy.
Game setup is done like this photo above. The photo was taken when this particular game was at the start of Age 2. A game consists of three Ages. Each Age has its own deck of cards. At the start of every Age, the cards are laid out in a specific pattern (see left side of photo). There is a mix of face-up and face-down cards, and most cards are partially covered by other cards. Cards which are not covered by others are available to be claimed by the players. When a card is claimed, others may become available. When a face-down card is freed up this way, it is turned face-up.
The small game board on the right serves two purposes. The green science tokens are placed here. During the game, whenever you manage to collect a pair of identical science symbols, you get to claim one of these science tokens. This means discovering a new technology. It gives you some benefit. The other purpose of the board is to track the relative military strengths of the players. Whenever you increase your military strength, you push the military marker towards your opponent's side of the board. If you manage to push the marker all the way to the end, you immediately win a military victory.
On the right side, each player has four large cards. These are wonders of the world they can build. Each of them requires certain resources to build, and when built, they give some benefits.
A closer look at some of the wonders of the world - required resources on the left, benefits on the right.
The premise of the game is you are building your own civilisation while competing with your opponent. A turn is very simple. You take a card from the card structure in the middle of the table. Each card is a building. You can choose to construct the card you take, adding it to the play area before you, as long as your nation produces the required resources, or you can afford to buy what you're short of. If you are unable to or choose not to construct the building, you have two other options. You can discard the card to make money. How much you make depends on how many commercial buildings you have in your civilisation. You can also discard the card to complete a wonder of the world. A wonder usually requires more resources to construct than regular buildings, but it also gives more benefits. One big difference with 7 Wonders is wonders only take one turn to complete, not three. However you get to build up to four wonders, not just one.
There are three possible ways for the game to end. The normal end condition is getting to the end of Age 3. You determine victory by scoring points, from your buildings, wonders, military strength and also for money left in hand. The two other game end conditions are both sudden death conditions. I've covered the military victory above. The other instant win condition is the science victory. If you collect 6 different science symbols, you win immediately. This is interesting because it is in conflict with scientific discovery. To make scientific discoveries you want to collect pairs of matching symbols; but for the science victory you are going for different symbols. This pulls you in opposite directions.
Cards from Age 3 are arranged this way. Each Age has a different layout. Face-up cards allow players to plan ahead, while face-down cards maintain some suspense and randomness. At the start of every game, some cards are removed from all three Age decks, so every game will be slightly different. You won't know which cards are missing initially because of the face-down cards.
It is best to arrange your buildings this way. Brown and grey buildings produce resources. Yellow buildings are commercial buildings. Some produce resources. Some provide benefits like buying certain resources at a fixed low price, as opposed to the price being determined by the production level of your opponent. Blue buildings are prestige buildings which give victory points. One building type which I don't have yet is the green ones, the science buildings. Some buildings allow you to build another for free. This is the same type of chaining as in 7 Wonders.
7 Wonders: Duel plays very briskly. Every turn is simple, and before you realise it the game is coming to an end. Yet you still have the satisfaction of building up your civilisation one step at a time. You try to collect buildings that complement and combine well with one another. This is very much a tableau game like Race for the Galaxy. There are many broad stroke strategies you can pursue, and you can pursue multiple strategies concurrently, with different levels of emphasis, and adjusting your emphasis depending on how the game situation changes. You can work on victory points. You can go military. You can threaten a science victory. You can go for scientific discoveries, which is a different thing from the science victory. You can be an industrious resource producer. You can be a great trader. There is no lack of goals to work towards. However you need to remember to pay attention to what your opponent is doing. This being a two-player-only game means it's a zero sum game.
Sometimes you do need to slow down and think a few turns ahead, especially when there is a card which you want badly. You want to work out a specific sequence of claiming cards to ensure that card is freed up on your turn. Some wonders give you an extra turn, and this can be crucial for securing a card you desperately want. The card drafting mechanism in 7 Wonders has been replaced with this card selection mechanism, and I must say it works well. It is simple and effective.
I have played two games against my wife Michelle. In both game she went for the science victory, while I focused on VP buildings. In the first game she misunderstood the resource and cost requirements for constructing buildings. She thought she couldn't afford to build, when she actually could. Needless to say, her tempo was severely impacted, and I cruised to a comfortable win by VP. In our second game, her science victory proved unstoppable. In hindsight, I should have competed with her from much earlier on. By the time I realised the danger, it was already too late. In that game one of the technologies available was a 7th science symbol. Even if I managed to stop her from collecting the 6th science symbol from buildings, I would not be able to stop her from collecting a pair of matching science symbols and then take the 7th special science symbol to win. I realised that seeing this 7th science symbol in play is already a warning sign - watch out for the science victory! It's also a cue to seriously consider going for a science victory yourself.
Michelle found the game quite enjoyable.
Among the three face-down cards in the second row, the colour of the card in the middle is slightly different. This is not a misprint. That card is a guild card, a special type of card which gives victory points depending on a specific criteria. In earlier versions of 7 Wonders, there was a problem with some Age 3 card backs, which are purple in colour. In the printing industry, purple is a difficult colour to get right.
My one word review of 7 Wonders: Duel is: pleasant. It's not particularly amazing or groundbreaking, but playing it is soothing, like having a warm drink on a chilly day. It plays smoothly. You are taking baby steps to build something big. You don't have too much to think about on your turn, since there aren't all that many immediate choices. However you still keep in mind the general directions you are heading towards. That said, it is a head-to-head game. Your loss is my win. I am not surprised to read many comments that this game is more confrontational than its predecessor. It is not destructive though. You don't go about burning your opponent's buildings. I think only one or two wonders allow such a thing. Military actions allow you to rob your opponent, but you get to do this at most twice in the whole game. So generally this is still a game of building up, not of tearing down.
One player compiled some statistics, and found that about 50% of games are won by victory points, 25% by science, and 25% by military. That surprises me a little. I had expected both the instant victories to be rarer. I thought these two victory conditions would be mainly tools to distract and to force your opponent's hand, something like the temple connection victory condition in Attika. I am pleased that they are more than that.