The closest thing we’ve got to the endless sequels and spinoffs in the cinematic world here in board gaming are 2-player/dice/card versions of games we already know and love. In my experience they’re rarely worth the effort and only serve to cash in on goodwill from the original game. Consider the Castles of Burgundy dice game, which was fine, but wholly unnecessary. 7 Wonders Duel is an exception. Antonie Bauza could have phoned this one in given how popular the original 7 Wonders is. Instead, he enlisted the help of Bruno Cathala and together they transformed the ideas of the original into a superb game that truly understands what makes 2 player games in particular so compelling.
In terms of player count, there is no bigger difference in gaming than the difference between 2 players and 3+. 2 player games are unique in that they tend to emphasize tempo and zero-sum exchanges.
Tempo is a concept I draw from chess, where a move that serves to develop a piece is simply a good move, while a move that develops a piece while putting your opponent in check gains tempo: you’ve managed to make a positive contribution to your board position while also forcing your opponent to respond with (most likely) a defensive move. Part of what makes Netrunner so brilliant is how it carefully manages tempo. Scoring tends to cost a lot in resources, making it tough to execute without losing too much tempo; any chance to gain tempo by both advancing your scoring chances and gaining resources is treasured greatly.
Zero-sum exchanges are inherent in 2 player games. Every point you deny your opponent is just as good as gaining a point yourself. In a multiplayer game this is not true: when you gain a point you gain it relative to everyone; when you deny someone else a point you only gain relative to them, but 3rd parties receive the same benefit.
7 Wonders Duel recognizes these two factors of 2-player games and leverages them into every bit of its design. The tug of war dynamic presents itself in the science cards, where if you collect all 6 symbols available you immediately win the game; in the resources, where the cost of trade depends on how much your opponent can produce of that resource; in the yellow cards, where the more you accumulate the more money you gain by discarding cards; and in the military, which is a literal tug of war where you win if you pull the token to the end of your side of the track.
The need to simultaneously balance all of these different strands makes Duel crunchier than its older sibling, where, especially at higher player counts, you are free to explore different strategies and paths. The ramifications of your decisions are much more directly felt in Duel, especially with resources, as costs can quickly skyrocket if you’re not careful. The economic game in 7 Wonders is about riding a thin margin between resource generation and victory points. That margin is much more variable, with wilder swings in Duel.
Science in particular is a fierce battle. On top of the insta-win condition, you can get a token with a special power if you collect two of the same science symbol. These tokens range from mundane to extremely powerful depending on the situation at the moment. Even when science isn’t relevant, it is.
The aesthetic of 7 Wonders Duel mirrors the gameplay changes, as much more information is on the table in front of you to analyze. Instead of a traditional draft, the cards are arranged into pyramid-like shapes, overlapping each other, so you only have a few available to draft at any one point in time. Additionally, about half of the cards are face-down at the start, providing that sprinkle of uncertainty that keeps the game from being solvable.
This uncertainty is sharper and more severe than with a traditional draft where cards you see get sent away on vacation for a while only to reappear after you’ve probably forgotten about them. The push/pull hangs on such an edge that controlling access to opportunity becomes the real game. Thus the single most important ability in 7 Wonders Duel is one that wasn’t present in the original game: the ability to take two consecutive turns. It’s only available on wonder cards, four of which are drafted by the players at the start of the game. I’ve been playing quite a bit on Board Game Arena and the meta is exceptionally clear: wonders with this ability are drafted first.
Mechanizing tempo with such blunt force is a bold design choice indeed, and it threatens to tear 7 Wonders Duel apart. In games where the wonder draft gifts my opponent three of these opportunities and myself only one, I consider myself to be at a significant disadvantage. You cannot take the poison pill and reveal new cards for your opponent too many times in a game, and having tempo opportunities not only increases how many cards you get to utilize but it lets you act first on revealed cards more reliably.
I’ve found that 7 Wonders Duel, being a crunchier experience, suffers a bit for straddling the line between euro and abstract. It contains too much pure randomness to capture the best sort of brain-burn intensity you see in the best abstracts, but it’s not nearly as relaxing as its gentler predecessor. Still, it’s a smart design that unabashedly flaunts its 2-player-ness. This is no cash-in; it’s a serious heavyweight in the 2-player euro space.