The wonders of the ancient world have long held a strong grip on the gaming imagination, from the lightweight card drafting of 7 Wonders to the intense strategy board game spreadsheet that is Through the Ages. Trying to crack the more accessible end of the spectrum while still leaving a game about ancient civilization building feeling like a game about ancient civilization building is a tough ask, however. Many games have tried and failed. The latest contender is World Wonders, and it has a surprising secret weappn: super cute wooden meeples representing a range of ancient edifices.
What’s in the Box
World Wonders might not look much from the outside, what with its gray box — but in play, it’s a visual wonder in and of itself. Its key flair is the inclusion of those 21 tiny wooden figures that depict different ancient moments. These are, at once, both cute and astonishing, from the board-dominating heights of the giant, green Machu Picchu monument to the three modest but characterful Moai of Easter Island.
These monuments get put on each player’s board, alongside smaller 3D wooden towers and all sorts of flat cardboard tiles representing city districts and roads. There are a lot of these in the game, and they need to be sorted by type and size before you play. The art on player boards and tiles is bright and functional, but organizing all the components either at game start or end can be quite a pain.
Players also get another board with tracks representing their progress, one for each color, which matches a stylized wooden piece. These sit on a main board which holds some of the tile stacks and are used to track player orders. At game end, this flips over into a handy score track to tally up the points. There are also some reference cards, some additional boards to hold extra pieces for higher player counts, and tiny wooden markers for the resource tracks, which are neat but very easy to lose.
Finally, there are three decks of cards in the box. The first is used to determine which wonders are currently available to build. The others won’t see use in every game, as one controls an automaton for solo play, while the other has advanced game objectives for more experienced players. All three decks are drab and functional.
Rules and How It Plays
Every player gets their own gridded city mat — featuring either a lake or a river, and dotted with natural resource squares — and a set of tracks to record their population and other resources. They also get a free 4-square road tile to start off their city. Anything else they want to build, they have to pay for from the seven gold they get each round. There are generally 10 such rounds, although it can occasionally end earlier.
Most of your gold will be spent on building a road network through your city, and the building tiles that will go alongside those roads. There are several piles of buildings, with each stack having the same tile shape and cost but coming in different colors, representing different kinds of districts. One of each shape is available each round, flipped randomly off the shuffled stack so you never know what district types will be available, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. A new one will be revealed at the start of the next round. Road tiles and towers, from which you can start new road networks, are similarly limited.
Buildings also add resources to your tracks, depending on the size and type of district that you purchased. There are three of these plus a fourth, population, with only advances at specific intervals marked on the other tracks. Their only in-game function is to score you points. Population is worthless until you get toward the end of the track, when it’ll net you a few bonuses. For the other three, you score only your lowest track, making it important not to let one lag behind.
Your final choice for spending money is on wonders. Unlike the other stock, there are always three of these available, and they don’t have a fixed price. You simply spend all your remaining gold to obtain it. They come in various shapes and sizes and have multiple placement rules, which are listed on the card. The Parthenon, for example, takes up six squares and those squares must be adjacent to a road, a natural resource and a library district tile. Most wonders are worth a victory point, but a few also push you up a resource track.
While that might seem a lot to take in, that is, pretty much, the entire game. This isn’t a difficult game to teach, so it’s good for family play, and everyone should have got the hang of it halfway through their first game. Its genius is that those simple rules interact to make the business of planning your city far trickier than it first appears.
For starters, there’s a huge pressure from competing priorities in World Wonders. Roads and the smaller, cheaper district tiles are incredibly hot properties and if you don’t nab one on your first action each round, you may find it’s gone for good. But while these things are both cheap and essential, neither may help you expand your city the way you want. In particular, they may not dovetail with the placement rules for the wonders currently on display, so any districts that do will similarly be hot property. With a paltry seven gold and a pack of players descending like hyenas on anything they can eke points out of, learning how to prioritize properly is a key skill.
It also lends the game a degree of intensity that something that sounds so sedate should not possibly generate. The clever costing of wonders, which spend you out and so end your turn, feed into this. Obviously, you want to spend as little as possible on whatever wonders you pick up. But if you leave it too long, or take too many actions putting the pieces into place to meet a wonder’s placement rules, someone else may have snapped it up. A new one is revealed right away, but whether you’ll have the right districts and space to place it already is anyone’s guess.
However, purchase order is not the only thing you have to consider. A big part of strategy in World Wonders is balancing the need for tiles you buy to advance you on the right tracks and to slot neatly into your city. You can’t afford to let one track lag behind, but you also want to race ahead to gain population points for a bonus. And tiles you box in on all sides with landscape features, roads or other tiles, can earn decisive bonus points. So there’s a critical aspect of spatial strategy which makes it far more engaging than the phrase “resource tracks” might suggest.
Despite all the nearly interlocking mechanics, a sense of repetition does begin to set in toward the end of the game. But it remains an engaging strategic challenge, nevertheless. It’s easy to lose sight of one or more of the strategic ideas you’re trying to juggle and fall behind. This is especially true when you’re using the end game goal cards, which throw even more points into the mix, and competing priorities along with them. Another strategy factor is the availability of loans, which net you an additional two gold to spend on a turn at the cost of repaying three later, or some victory points if you fail to do so.