Over the last few days, I played a great game: 7 Grand Steps, Step 1: What Ancients Begat. I don’t know how I came to acquire it; I hadn’t heard anything about it, and I don’t remember purchasing it. It must have come into my Steam collection over some past sale or via some bundle that I’ve since forgotten about (Steam collections get embarrassingly full of games we never play or quickly give up on, don’t they?). I don’t even recall what exactly triggered me to give it a try, other than that its numeric title places it high in my alphabetically oriented category of games I haven’t played, but I am very glad that I did.
The game is structured around a spinning wheel. You navigate one character around the wheel at first, to be joined by a second when your character marries. Navigation is performed by applying a token to your chosen character, allowing the character to move to the next space with that token’s symbol. To make more tokens, you insert an ingot into the character’s slot, and they will attempt to work with a character behind them on the wheel to make more tokens. So you have the choice of advancing on the wheel by using tokens or retreating toward the bottom by creating tokens. You can make one decision per character per round. After each round, the wheel spins counterclockwise, pushing everything on it toward the bottom.
You can reach the far-right of the visible portion of the wheel and hold there. The bottom of the wheel holds “crocodiles,” an at first literal but increasingly figurative threat of death and ruin. Outside of your one to two characters on the board, there are other non-player characters who similarly navigate the wheel of life with you. Characters who are closest to the crocodiles, and who are not sharing a space with at least one other character, are too concerned with their imminent fates to produce more tokens; they are only willing to advance by the use of tokens (or to stay put).
In addition to tokens, the other major resource in the game consists of beads that earn you legend points. Beads appear on token spaces as the wheel turns. Landing on the token space earns you at least part of the bead there (depending on the size/value of the bead). Legend points are used to work toward a goal. The goal will be social advancement, discovery, or heroic journey. You can have one goal at a time that can reach across generations to accomplish. When a goal is attained, you can set a new goal. Social advancement increases your standing in society, giving you more opportunities for wealth generation over more time and literally raising you up higher on the wheel, where the outer rungs have more spaces and thus prolong the inevitable. Discovery changes out a particular type of token on the board with a new type that is representative of a new technology and gives you a generational boost with that token type. And heroic journeys are risky interactive stories where you attempt to choose a path to a heroic outcome with great rewards (this can often end in failure, including death or financial burden, and sometimes ends without anything negative or positive happening). You will also encounter little side stories throughout that can affect your family and assets in small or large ways.
Marriage gives you certain advantages. For one thing, you have another person to use to accumulate resources. For another, you are now able to produce heirs. You have a chance of producing children whenever your characters work together to produce tokens, your characters stop on the same token, or a loving character gives their spouse a boost. Marriages can be loving or loveless; each character has their own feelings about their spouse, and I saw marriages that were beautifully loving by both parties, or where only one spouse passionately loved the other, or where both spouses were in a loveless marriage out of convenience. A loving spouse, as I indicated, can give the other spouse a boost: when a loved spouse lands on a shared token, the loving spouse will boost them on to the next space with that same token image (or, if that’s the farthest along, to the far-right edge of the wheel). Sometimes there are no marriage options that your starting character loves. Sometimes, the options your character loves rejects your character. You can’t wait around, either–the few available spouses go very quickly, and when that’s done, you’ll risk a life of being single. Interestingly, the game offers you a text-based narrative choice for remaining single; if your character resists fate and hopes for a marriage from divorce later in life, the game will let you proceed childless, while some other options, like realizing that you are gay, result in you taking on another sibling’s life story, with the former player character potentially providing financial support. In this way, the game really does an impressive job of establishing historic societal pressures to marry and bear children, to focus on producing yet another generation.
Children can play to learn skills (which increase their likelihood of generating certain tokens as an adult). However, they learn very slowly at this pace. They learn much quicker and can master skills if provided tokens during each round. Thus, to best ensure a successful future generation, parents want to produce tokens for their kids, which can derail the fulfillment of legend points and may result in poverty (with few tokens available for action) and very little inheritance. Children can attempt to help out by making tokens if they are given ingots, but only children who have mastered skills have a decent chance of producing tokens, and their success rate is at best still lower than that of their parents, while the use of a child to produce a token takes away from their ability to further improve skills for that round.
Spouses can practice family planning of a sort: don’t choose to have kids whenever given the choice, and don’t make tokens together (which has a random chance of producing kids without any choice on your part). However, I often found it necessary to make tokens for two parents toward the back of the pack, resulting in sometimes enormous families (up to 7 kids). And if you keep to only one child, especially in earlier cycles of the wheel and while at lower classes, you risk losing the entire next generation to famine or some other unfortunate occurrence. Alternatively, having many children decreases your ability to adequately prepare them for life–and focusing on one child over others results in sibling rivalries that can have negative consequences throughout the next generation (while treating kids equally can result in loving sibling relationships that provide occasional benefits into the next generation).
Children are necessary to keep advancing. Eventually, every wheel will spin to a breaking point. Parents cannot pass. You must choose a child to perform rites of passage to move onto the next stage (a child’s performance on rites of passage results in a given title and associated attributes). Sometimes I’d have parents survive to the very end, to the point that a rite of passage must occur because the wheel has reached the limit; most of the time, I’d have parents focus on producing tokens later in life to better improve their kids and provide for an inheritance, resulting in them eventually falling to the crocodiles as the broken edge reached ever-lower.
There are three ages in the game: Copper, Bronze, and Iron. Between each age is a gap of generations, resulting in your distant descendants finding themselves in potentially quite different circumstances. Each age ends in a challenge of the age, and I believe that one’s performance in the text adventure challenge influences how their distant descendants do (there’s still a lot happening under the hood, and the game never burdens you with stat management). There are many generations of a family within each age, and generations should focus on accomplishing goals to delay the inevitable crisis of the age and to improve their chances of success.
Once you climb high enough in social rank, you have a ruling class game that you are able to play. In my single play-through of the game so far, I only discovered the ruling class mini-game in the final age, where my characters advanced through the senate, gaining popularity slowly but surely, until eventually my final character became emperor just in time for the crisis of the age.
This game is a simple wheel-based board game simulator on the surface. But it is so much more complex than that! Its ability to simulate complex issues of class and wealth and family and religion, and to capture the gradual turn of the wheel of life for an individual and a family and a society, is simply astounding. Between the mechanics and the text descriptions, so many beautiful dynamic stories were told over the course of my family history in the game. There was a lot of suffering for my family, and the game certainly showed the mundane nature of so many peoples’ lives, while making even the mundane interesting. And at the same time, focus over generations could result in a descendant rising to great heights!
I was invested to the end. My only disappointment is that this game was released in 2013 to a generally positive reception, and it looks like it was supposed to be the first in a seven-part story of games building on your save file, but the second game never materialized. I’d really like to see where the later games were to go, especially since it seems like they were to vary in style and mechanics.
Designer Keith Nemitz and his small team at Mousechief really hit the ball out of the park with this game. It’s easy to pick up and complex to master. It’s got a lot of really clever systems. It results in some great dynamic storytelling. And it has a lot of built-in replayability, as you could play through multiple times to see the divergent stories of different families (like I said in my review, I only made it to the ruling class in a single age).
7 Grand Steps: What Ancients Begat is available on Steam for twenty bucks; as of this writing, it’ll be on sale by 40% there for about another day. Or you can buy it directly from the Mousechief website. Pick it up and give it a try!