Giant Fire Breathing Robot
Like Leaders and Cities before it, Babel expands the world of 7 Wonders. But unlike its predecessors, there are no new cards that must be passed and drafted. Instead, Babel adds two new modules that can be played together or separately: the Tower of Babel and the Great Works. But do these improve the game, or add too much to a simple system that can barely sustain them?
The Basics. In the Tower of Babel module, there are 24 law tiles. Each player is randomly dealt three laws at the beginning of the game. They keep one and pass the other two. Then keep one of those and pass the final one. This becomes their hand of three laws for the game.
During the game, a new action is available. Players can always play a card, tuck it for a stage of wonder, or discard it for three coins. But now they can also discard it to play a law. The laws go to a central board and, as long as they’re visible, impact all players. Some make resources more available or reward players for building certain card colors. Others penalize the players or tax them for building certain types.
Once played, laws apply to everyone at the table, including one who played the law. Only four laws can be active at a time, though. The fifth law covers the first one rendering it inactive. At game end, players get points depending on how many laws they played.
The Great Works include five huge cards per age. In each age, the works for that age are shuffled and one is revealed randomly. Each Great Work has a color corresponding to a building type. When a player plays a building of that color, they can also pay a separate cost as indicated on the Great Work in order to participate in building it. To complete the Great Work, the players must collectively participate in its building a number of times equal to one less than the number of players.
At the end of an age, if the Great Work is built, then all of the players who participated in building it get an indicated reward. There is no penalty for those who did not participate. However, if the Great Work is not completed, then all who did not participate get an indicated penalty. In that case, there is no reward for those who did participate.
The Feel. The two modules of Babel make it a difficult expansion to discuss cohesively. And that’s especially true because Great Works is a fantastic auto-include and Tower of Babel will be used more sparingly. Let’s start with the Tower.
The Tower is a neat idea and the implementation can have a dramatic impact on the game. When the Tower is in play, I often feel rushed to complete things I need quickly – before the negative laws come out and stymie me. This may vary from group to group, but in my plays, the players tend to play helpful cards out first. Then, when they’ve completed what they needed, they’ll start playing the negative laws to hinder other players. As a result, you need to get where you’re going as fast as possible. And while you can accomplish more in the first age, the third gets more difficult.
Because the laws impact everyone, you’d think the spite would be lower. But it certainly doesn’t feel that way. If I’ve already built my wonder, then I can play the card that adds a penalty for building wonders. It won’t affect me, but it will hurt everyone else. So it isn’t the abilities themselves that have a “take that” feel, it’s the timing of players using them.
And some of the abilities are just so much nastier than others. A few of the negative abilities add a surcharge of a coin when buying resources, or a small tax when playing cards. Annoying, but not a tragedy. Others can completely blow someone out of the water. There is a law that makes all yellow cards ineffective. Were you relying on those for resources? Not any more, now you have nothing. Worse yet, there is a law that makes all double icon brown cards ineffective. Spent your first few turns grabbing those so that others would buy from you and you’d have what you needed to build in Age III? Nope! Now you have nothing and get to hobble through the third age.
The effect is to make these good cards – cards you sometimes have to pay more to get out – much more risky to take. Plus, those big whammies just aren’t that fun. Having to overcome some hurdles and make small choices is neat. But having your whole strategy taken from you is another thing entirely.
But that isn’t to say that the Tower of Babble is bad, unfun, or broken. In fact, once you know about these laws and the way they change the valuation of the cards, that sort of gets baked into the play. I’ve enjoyed games with the Tower, but it requires a particular sentiment among the group. And I’d never play it with new players. The surprises are just too big and could turn a new player off the game entirely.
The Great Works, on the other hand, is a phenomenal addition to the game. One of the complaints about 7 Wonders is that each person can sort of do their own thing. One guy might try for a lot of science, another grabbing blue buildings, and a third building up an army and guilds. It happens. But it happens a lot less frequently with the Great Works.
If a blue Great Works card comes out, suddenly everyone has incentive to build a blue card. And that can often put a lot of pressure on your hand – especially early in the round. When you have seven cards to choose from, maybe you have a few good options. But if you don’t build that blue card now, the other players might build them. And if they build them, they won’t be passed to you. Passing those cards for something better (or more aligned to your strategy) presents a bigger risk. And that means more meaningful choice in card selection.
Plus, players have to weigh the costs and benefits. If the Great Work is likely to finish anyway, maybe you forgo contributing to it in order to get better cards on the table. Sure, you’d lose the bonus, but you’ll avoid the penalty anyway. Of course, that can backfire if the remaining players don’t finish it. Other times, you participate hoping for a nice bonus, but the other players decide it makes more sense to incur the penalty and you end up with nothing.
The increased pressure on your choices is quite welcome in 7 Wonders. As Leaders provided some long term strategy guidance, Great Works provides tactical implications that must be considered. There is now something that everyone wants to build. In some games, players completely forgo military and accept the -6 points knowing that they’ll more than make up for it later. But now, foregoing a red Great Work might also incur a more substantial penalty.
This spreads out the cards a little more, and you have less perfectly executed strategies. Plus, players must also be able to pay the Great Works cost in addition to playing the card. So players have to carefully manage cash on hand and decide whether it’s really worth it to buy that resource.
Components: 3.5 of 5. The bits in Babel are pretty good. The laws board is a little on the thin side and seems to warp rather easily. But the laws are on solid stock and the Great Works are thick enough to be shuffled and randomized. While I’m not so sure a massive amount of little tokens is wholly welcome, it does the job of keeping track of benefits and penalties well enough.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4 of 5. The modules differ a bit in this respect, but both are fairly solid. The nice thing about drafting the laws at the beginning of the game is that you get control over three of them. Further, you get to see six of the available laws and therefore are not wholly in the dark about what might be coming. Meanwhile, the Great Works definitely adds a layer of tactical consideration to the game. The tension between participating now or waiting until later (when the cards may be gone) is wonderful.
Mechanics: 4 of 5. The Great Works module is fantastic in this regard and probably would be a 4.5 or 5 on its own. The rules are simple enough and yet it changes the game in a material and positive way. On the other hand the Tower of Babel is less welcome. It adds more randomness that doesn’t quite jive with the rest of the game. It also adds a much more spiteful feel than any of the prior expansions and can have an outsized impact on play.
Replayability: 4 of 5. Again, Great Works is superb here. Unless I’m teaching the game and stripping it to the base game, I think it will be included with every future play. It provides a common goal to all the players and gives the game added direction. Tower of Babel, on the other hand, is probably good for an occasional mixup, but is likely to be left in the box more often than not.
Spite: 3.5 of 5. There are no targeted spite cards. At least, in theory there aren’t. But the laws of Tower of Babel can do some wicked things and they easily have a disparate impact. Typically, they aren’t played until their most damning effects are muted on the one playing it. While everyone else can suffer the harsh consequences.
Overall: 4 of 5. Babel is really two expansions in one that can be played together or separately. The Great Works is an awesome addition to the game. The common goal and the new tactical tension are wholly welcome. The Tower of Babel, on the other hand, is OK and fairly middling and uninspired. It’s too bad the two are sold together, because if they came separately, I would heartily recommend picking one up over the other.
(Originally posted, with pictures, at the Giant Fire Breathing Robot. Check out and subscribe to my Geeklist of reviews, updated weekly)
Santa Monica / Westwood
Go outside and play (games)!
Me 10 years ago. Should I update?
Thank you for the wonderfully detailed review.
My take-away points from your review are;
Tower of Babel module: Good, sometimes.
Great Works module: Great for everyone after their 1st game.