As of the time of writing this I’ve cracked the top 100 on Board Game Arena’s 7 Wonders rankings. I don’t know why I felt the need to grind out that accomplishment before writing this, but we live in uncertain times and I’m not about to question my impulses too deeply.
Nonetheless I’ve played a lot of 7 Wonders, I think it’s a brilliant game, and I’m going to share some of the things I think about when I play. 7 Wonders manages to be both a tactical and a strategic game, where bold strategies are rewarded if successful, but tactical flexibility is required to navigate curveballs. I’m only going to be analyzing the base game, though I personally prefer to play with both the Cities and Leaders expansions if able. I’m also going to be thinking of a 3-5 player game, as that’s the count I regularly play over at Board Game Arena. But if you usually play at higher counts, just adjust your thinking a hair by valuing science a bit more and military a bit less. Also recognize that you’ll see particular cards a bit less consistently as they may never get to you at all.
There are three primary ways to score points in the base game of 7 Wonders: science, blue culture cards, and military. Science can win you the game outright, but most successful strategies involve some combination of those three paths with situational flexibility that’ll allow you to pick up spare points from other key cards. But first you need to…
1. Recognize the strengths of your wonder
I’ll release a guide to the wonders later, but you can win with any wonder if you utilize it effectively. There are three key pieces of information on each wonder: the starting resource, the wonder abilities, and the costs of those abilities. The abilities typically increase in value (and cost) so gaining the resources to pay for that final ability should be a high priority. In fact, clever players can find ways to lock others out of certain wonder slots, as they typically require multiples of the same resource.
It’s not necessarily that the wonder powers are all super powerful, but that they’re often going to be more powerful than the options you have in front of you at a few points in the game. If that isn’t the case, you’re probably either mis-evaluating the cards or getting very lucky and on your way to a win. Nine out of ten games I probably fill up my wonder.
Also remember that if your wonder tends towards a particular strategy, your neighbors also know that you could be strong in that strategy. Does that make them fight you on it, or give you a pass? See if you can identify their attitudes and play accordingly.
2. Recognize what your neighbors are going to need
All of the considerations I just talked about apply to your neighbors, and you have the ability to mess with their plans, especially the player to your left, who you pass to twice. Every once in a while you’ll have the opportunity to block someone from being able to access their final wonder ability, which could be enough to pull them out of the game if they don’t notice. You’re also the final chance to block them from overwhelming with science if they’re attempting that route. In that case, just build your wonder with some key science cards and you should be able to stifle them.
Also take note of which resources they’re going to need. If you can monopolize those, they’ll be forced to either pay you for the privilege or give up on some of their most valuable assets. I love pairing that with one of the age A yellow cards that offers cheaper trading for an easy road to financial flexibility. Too many people play 7 Wonders like it’s a non-interactive game, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. What you do affects your neighbors and vice versa.
3. Play for the end game
7 Wonders, like many games, plays in stages. The beginning of the game is about building up for the end of the game. 7 Wonders even puts the game itself into discrete ages to highlight the concept. That said, it’s also a short game so you need to be thinking about how you’re going to score points from the very beginning.
Let’s run some numbers. Board Game Arena tells me that the average winner scores 58.36 points, so let’s round up and say that you should shoot for 60 points for a win. That averages out to just under 3 points per card. But, from my own experience I’d say that most of the time you’re going to be entering age 3 with around 15 to 20 points. So, while 3 points for a card might be good for the first two ages, you want to average around 6 points per card in the third age to hit your goal of 60 points. You may notice this generally aligns with the value of culture cards, because Bauza knows how to design a game.
So how to do you ensure that you can get those 6 points/card in age 3? You can’t guarantee it, but you can make sure that you’re both open to and flexible enough to score a variety of ways. The key is to be as efficient as possible with your non-scoring card choices so you can pursue a variety of options while taking as few resource cards as possible. Though, if you find that your neighbors are being stingy with resources as well, you can pivot into taking more than usual to siphon money and capitalize on the often-ignored yellow cards in age 3 that give you points and money based on how many resource cards you have. Let’s pursue some other, more consistent strategies, however.
4. Science: go small or commit
The beginner’s complaint about 7 Wonders is that science is overpowered. This tends to happen right after they ignore it and someone drops 70 points on them from gobbling up all of the science cards. Science does have the greatest upside in the game, but against aware opponents it shouldn’t ever be clearly overpowered.
I ran some numbers to confirm what I suspected about science strategy and I was actually surprised by how little it matters how you approach it, with a couple exceptions. The single most efficient play is to collect all of one symbol. If you can get five you’ll average five per card, which is quite good given you’re collecting those all throughout the game. However, that’s a more easily blocked approach.
I had always assumed that the best play was to nab equal sets, but that’s only best if you go all-in only because other strategies quickly run out of cards. If you’re non-committal, gathering three of a kind or a set of three is only one point apart. If you get two straight sets you’re at 26 points (4.3/card), but if you get one set and then extend out on one type you’ll have 25 points on your sixth card.
The only pattern that doesn’t work is pushing forward with two of the three symbols. You always want to be completing sets or stacking one type, in some combination.
That said, the downside to science is in the opportunity cost, which is often in military. Science and military do have some cards that lead into each other, but getting those requires a bit of luck. The real problem is that in the early game you simply don’t have enough turns to pursue science fully, compete militarily, and get resources so you can actually buy cards in the future. Military and science also focus on different resource types, with science wanting the grey resources and military the brown.
Committing to science means you’re going to have to start collecting from the start. Gathering science opportunistically during the first two ages can deprive others of points and net you an easy set where you would otherwise be getting sub-optimal resources that gain you no direct points.
I find strategies in the middle don’t tend to do as well. Consider this: you enter the third age with four science cards. If you go for straight sets your next two cards will give you three and 10 points, for 6.5/card. This is a fine number. However, the cards you’re passing up to gain these are potentially useful to everyone (particularly culture and guild cards), so you’re giving everyone else easier points by taking the cards they don’t want anyways. You could hope science wheels around to some of the last picks, but that’s taking a chance and I find that people impulsively bury science cards in their wonders.
All of this is marginal, but 7 Wonders is won on the margin, and my experience indicates that a mid-level commitment to science usually doesn’t work.
5. Military is stronger than you think
This is particularly applicable to smaller count games, where your military affects a larger portion (or all) of your competition. But I find that many players severely underestimate how important military can be. The downside is that you can only ever get 18 points from it, so it can’t be your only strategy, but consider this: every time you win a battle against someone, you’re not only gaining some amount of points and they’re losing one point, but they’re also losing the points they could have gained from winning the battle.
Even without considering the costs to your neighbors you can typically get an 18 point military run with 4-5 cards. At four cards that’s 4.5 per card. At five it’s 3.6 per card. Even in that scenario we’re comfortably above the ~3/card average we need for a winning score. But, you’re only gaining 18 points on non-neighbors. Against your neighbors you’re getting net 21 points.
Of course if someone wants to conduct an arms race, consider abandoning that dead end as soon as possible, and try to beat your other neighbor with as few cards as possible. As always, maximizing the number of points you get per card is key.
6. Pay attention to the culture upgrade paths
There isn’t a whole lot to talk about with culture, because they’re simply straight victory points. Deciding when to take them is often a matter of what else is available in that hand. However, there are a couple of upgrade paths you should be aware of. In the first age the baths is the most valuable culture card at three points, but it’s also the only one that costs any resources. However, if you have that stone resource available it’s a good grab because it allows you to snag the aqueduct card for free in the second age–the most valuable culture card available at that time. The aqueduct typically costs three of the same resource, so there’s a good chance it wheels around to you too.
My next favorite upgrade is the temple to the pantheon, which is a bit more risky but can pay off quite well. The temple is a second age 3 pointer, but it upgrades into the 7 point pantheon–the second best culture card in the game. The pantheon is typically quite expensive so if you can get this 10 point combo you’re sitting pretty without needing to spend any money to get it.
7. Money is fungible points
Every 3 coins is a point at the end of the game. Do NOT forget this when you’re evaluating the value of cards. All else equal 3 coins is more valuable than a point because those coins open up opportunities in the future. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen someone gain a 5 point culture card and pass up a 4 point 4 coin card. Do not make this calculation error.
8. Starve and feed your neighbors
The beginning of age 2 is the most critical point in the game for money. If you enter the second age with no coins you can’t grab a critical 2-resource card and you may be out of viable options entirely. Recognizing when you can use this to your advantage can provide some subtle benefits. Make sure you understand which of your neighbors is doing the best and see if you can starve them of coins–pay your other neighbor for trade instead.
Conversely, if you have someone who didn’t do well in the first age, and you notice they don’t seem to be doing well, try to get the resources they need and trade with them to pump up their reserves which they’ll send right back to you. This requires an understanding of the relative strengths of people based on a quick scan of their tableau, but after reading this guide and some practice you should be able to see it well without needing to annoy everyone else by slowing down the game with a meticulous count.
9. Watch for stacked hands
If you’re in a three person game and you see all three military cards in your opening hand, you know two things: First, everyone is probably going to get one of those cards, maintaining relative military strengths. Second, you can pass on buying one of them now because you know it’s impossible for all three to be purchased before that hand wheels back to you.
Similarly, if someone is going all in on science and those cards stack up in one hand, their strategy has just hit a significant snag as those cards will disperse among the players. If that person is you? Pivot. Do a quick calculation of what’s going to be tactically advantageous knowing that you’re not going to be getting 50-65 science points this game.
10. Sometimes guilds just won’t be in your favor
There’s a healthy amount of luck in 7 Wonders, but the most significant bit is which guilds appear in any given game. Guilds can be the most powerful cards in the game, scoring you 10 points or more, or they can be expensive duds. You can’t predict which guilds will show up, and sometimes a winning strategy will be countered by the luck of the draw. Don’t sweat it. Shuffle up a new game and keep honing in your skills.
That’s all I’ve got for now, but stick around tomorrow for my thoughts on each of the wonders. I think they’re remarkably well balanced but I do have some personal preferences which I’ll explain. Have any questions? Want to share some strategy thoughts of your own? Let us know in the comments below.