7 Wonders is one of my favorite games of all time. I still remember the hype surrounding it in 2010 and seeing it at a local board game store earlier than I had expected. I had to have it right then and there! Fortunately, it was worth the purchase. It’s an elegant, near-perfect game design with a lot of depth and a quick play time.
7 Wonders: Duel is possibly even better than its predecessor; they’re just different enough to make such comparisons unhelpful. Regardless, Duel distills many of the same elements of 7 Wonders down to an incredibly tense, exciting two-player experience. And because both games are such tight and brilliant designs, I am wary of their expansions. In fact, I dislike two of the three expansions released for 7 Wonders so far (Leaders or Babel). So, I was both excited and cautious when I opened 7 Wonders Duel: Pantheon. Would this ruin the game’s beautiful design, or somehow manage to make it even better?
Let’s begin with why I disliked 7 Wonders: Leaders, because Pantheon has a similar feel to it. Leaders allowed players to hire, well, leaders, for a certain number of coins before each age, and they had incredibly powerful effects. However, you drafted the leaders before the game began. So, you might draft three awesome science leaders, but you have to telegraph what you’re doing before round one even begins, and other players then lock you out of science. It ruined the flexibility of the draft, in my opinion. One of the many joys of 7 Wonders is adapting your strategy in both obvious and subtle ways in reaction to your opponents.
Pantheon is a similar concept for 7 Wonders: Duel. While players are drafting gods instead of leaders, it’s the same concept: you pay some coins and get an incredibly powerful effect. Yet there are several changes to how this mechanism works in Duel. The “drafting” of the god cards happens mid-game instead of beforehand. Allow me to explain.
Five Mythology tokens are placed on face-down cards during Age One. When you cause such a card to be revealed, you get to choose one of the top two cards from the corresponding god deck (the five decks each have three cards) and place it in the Pantheon (face-down). There are actually six spots in the pantheon; the Gate (which allows you to sift through five god cards and play one) is placed in the remaining space. When Age One ends, the five chosen gods are revealed.
In Age Two and Three, as an action, a god can be summoned for a certain number of coins. Spaces closer to you are cheaper for you than for your opponent, an important consideration when placing the god cards. Age Two also has three discount tokens that can be gained in the same manner as the Mythology tokens. Finally, in Age Three, the guilds are replaced with temples, which “chain” from the Mythology tokens gained in Age One. There are also two new Progress tokens and two new Wonders.
This is so similar, and yet so different. The placement of the gods in the Pantheon has a delicious psychological aspect. What do I think my opponent just placed? Why did he place it on my side of the Pantheon ? Is it an unhelpful card, or is he just hoping the Gate will end up closer to him?
Placing the tokens on face-down cards is also brilliant. Previously, I often tried to “stick” my opponent into taking a mediocre card that would force new cards to be revealed, giving me a possible advantage. Now, there’s an added advantage to taking the risk of revealing cards myself. The last subtle point to make is that calling upon a god is the only action which does not remove a card from the tableau. It’s an enticing option during those moments of “chicken” where both players would really like to have the next cards in the tableau.
All of these intricacies come together to make this a brilliant expansion. It seems to me that Bauza and Cathala took every possible complaint that I had with Leaders and fixed it, while improving it on ways I hadn’t even considered. The fifteen god cards definitely have some effects that are basic and familiar, but several others that are fresh and subtle in their usefulness. For example, Zeus destroys a card in the central tableau. Who cares? I didn’t, until he denied me my otherwise-unbeatable science victory. I’m still learning the full implications of this expansion, and having a lot of fun doing it. There is a ton of new content here, after all, and they interact with the previous content in new, strange, and exciting ways.
Yet that brings me to my few and minor complaints. The first is that this expansion was not “love at first sight.” I had figured out 7 Wonders: Duel, not to the extent where I would win every game, but to the extent where I understood its implicit “rhythm.” I had good valuations of most moves and cards, and it was familiar but still a joy to play. Pantheon ruined all of that! At first, adding the expansion felt random and chaotic, though still fun. After my third game with it, I had a much better understanding of its intricacies. I began to get that feeling again, like when I first played Duel. I felt like I understood the game again, but was back to feeling like there was still so much more strategy to explore. And that feeling is awesome, but it took a couple of games.
There is another, more minor way that Pantheon disrupts the rhythm of Duel, and that’s downtime. 7 Wonders was built on simultaneous play, and while Duel does not have that, its downtime is virtually non-existent. With Pantheon in the mix, especially for those first few games, players need to stop and think about which god card to choose and where to put it. For the Gate in particular, whatever your opponent does with it will likely have you rethinking your turn. It’s not a long wait, typically, and the game is not extended by more than five minutes, but it is a noticeable change in the game’s pace.
And lastly, I have some superficial complaints. I have no idea why the god cards are French Tarot-sized. As an obsessive sleever, I would have much preferred a more standard card size. Literally one other game uses that size, so buying sleeves was a bit of a pain. This is exacerbated by the other weird size from 7 Wonders that is still used for the Wonders in Duel. Furthermore, the expansion costs $24.99, which is fine, but seems odd when the entire base game is $29.99.
Now that the nitpicks are over, let’s get back to the point: this is an amazing expansion. I loved the concept of 7 Wonders: Leaders—of having awesome, game-breaking effects unique to my tableau. Pantheon took that concept and not only removed my complaints, but also integrated the system so tightly into the flow of the original game that I’ll never want to play without it again. Duel wasn’t really getting old for me yet, but I’m still so much more excited to play it now than I was, which is exactly what an expansion should do. Don’t let my gripes hold you back. This is one of the best board game expansions out there, and it’s one of the best games around.
+ Increased variability
+ New, awesome powers
+ Minimal increase in complexity
+ Great art and components
+ Subtle, interesting changes in game strategie
- Needs a few plays to get the hang of it
- Price is very close to base game
- Annoying card sizes
- A tiny bit of extra downtime
For those who feel like 7 Wonders: Duel has become solved or stale, Pantheon injects it with powerful effects, subtle changes to strategy, and a huge amount of variability. For die-hard fans willing to put the time into learning those nuances, Christmas just came early.