People often talk about “breaking” games. Most of the time, I think what they mean is that they have arrived at a process by which they can win against their particular playgroup (or groups). My board gaming is challenged by the fact that my family will play games with me as a way of spending time together, but none of them are particularly into games. This tends to suit my preference for playing new games regularly (which frustrates them, I’m afraid) because I don’t gain expertise in the games and thereby surpass them in an un-fun way.

But some games see a lot of play, and some of those I don’t seem able to lose. 7 Wonders is one of these. No matter what I do, I seem to do well compared to my family in this game. Last night I played a game of it with my brother, Todd, and Jenifer. I thought I would try monopolizing the gray resources early in the game and thereby get an income from the other two as they tried to stop me from getting a crushing monopoly on science (green) cards. Well, they didn’t try to stop me, so I ended up with an insane collection of science (three full sets of three, plus a couple more).

In our brief debrief, I asked why they didn’t stop me from getting all those easily chained cards. The answer was a little surprising to me. That level of competition is less interesting to them than to thinking positively about their own civilizations. It is more fun for them to more or less ignore my winning tableau and focus on making a satisfying tableau of their own. I feel like this is a case of a mismatch between theme and mechanics. The theme is about building up a civilization, but the game is all about drafting the best pick of limited resources while keeping a shrewd eye on what the other players are doing. It’s not a huge mismatch, but the ways in which a civilization are built are not modeled in the game one for one. Both of my opponents value constructive play over competitive play and destructive play. But in the thematic approach of the game’s designers, civilization isn’t about inward-facing constructive urges so much as it is about competition. So when I say a mismatch of theme and mechanics, it’s really a mismatch between player expectations for this particular group and the experience that is produced by the mechanics in play.

Like any well-conceived game, 7 Wonders models a certain experience of play to reinforce a position on its theme. I don’t know if the designers thought about it like this, but in order to play well, you have to play in a certain way (competitive play with attention paid to restricting limited resources from others). Following through on that way necessarily paints a picture of the rise of ancient civilizations where competition is highlighted.

Compare with the focus of Race for the Galaxy (also about civilization building, albeit far future) and you will see a huge difference in the play experience. RftG is all about the efficient use of internal resources, and finding the best way forward given random opportunities. Both games involve making the right choices from a limited set of tempting options, but in RftG competition is sidelined to a timer mechanism–you have to watch the others to adjust the pace of your development and to try to use their needs (read: action card selection) to your advantage. Playing RftG tells you that you never know what the universe is going to hand you, and that the most important thing is to be aware and make the best use of this things it does.

For a third look a the broad category of civilization games, take a peek at Smallworld (or its predecessor, Vinci). Smallworld has a completely different take on civilizations: each has its moments of glory and then a slow burn to decline, and the most successful players can time things right. One of the things that I most like about Smallworld is that protracted, direct competition is almost always detrimental to the aggressor. So choosing to go to war means reducing your short-term potential for scoring. Yet the game is rife with conflict.  It reinforces a view that conflict is unavoidable, but that you should choose your battles with great care.

The more I think about games, the more I come back to core experiences. What does the game push you to do? It is all well to think about games in terms of mechanics. But the presence of a particular mechanic or procedure tells you very little about the core experience of the game. And a good experience is like a good literary theme, it makes a stand about something, leaving you to ponder it. Just as with literature (and other arts as well) some themes are not to the liking of some people. Consumer beware.