Little Dragons Time

I’m currently playing Little Dragons Café on the Switch. It’s a cute, peaceful game–a great game for a relaxing weeknight hour or for whiling away a lazy weekend afternoon. The premise is straight out of a children’s fairy tale: the mother of twin children falls into a mysterious coma, and a strange old wizard arrives to watch over them, providing the kids a dragon’s egg. He says they must raise the dragon, while tending to their mother’s café, as doing so will restore her to health. Over the course of the game, the children draw a crowd of eccentric staff members, gruff regulars, and bizarre outcasts who stay briefly in the upstairs inn.

43266578_10156900117076518_886044984296341504_o.jpg

The game feels like a mashup of Studio Ghibli films, the Pokémon RPGs, Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, and Stardew Valley. That last reference is of course actually to the Harvest Moon games, as Harvest Moon designer Yasuhiro Wada was director of the Little Dragons Café team, and Stardew Valley was influenced by Harvest Moon as well. But I never played any of the Harvest Moon games. It’s interesting to realize, as an adult, that I could have have enjoyed that series. Maybe the slow pace of a farm-life simulator would have bored me as a kid, or seemed obviously trivial, but the genre’s become as much a form of escapism for me now as sci-fi shooters or fantasy RPGs ever were.

43304724_10156900115961518_7654566469564366848_o.jpg

The game looks lovely, like a hand-drawn storybook. That extends from the brush-stroke aesthetics on the character models to the clumpy trees and the whimsical designs of the animals. That whimsical design element extends to the characters and even the resources (for instance, you harvest chocolate and cream sauces directly from certain shrubs in the woods).

42959053_10156900120176518_3837145905622941696_o.jpg

The Switch tells me that I first played this title 8 days ago; it hasn’t yet estimated the hours, and if I were to ballpark it, I’d say I’m a dozen or so hours in. There’s still a lot of things to do in the game, and I appear to still be quite early in the story. My dragon’s hatched its egg and grown from baby to child; it can still search small holes, but it can also mow down shrubs with its tail, bash through small debris piles, tackle aggressive animals, and push boulders. My ability to explore the island is still somewhat limited by a text reminder that I should not stray so far from home, but the dragon’s abilities have allowed a lot more vertical creep into the interior. It’s clear that further growth will result in even better exploration options.

43504042_10156900128766518_150724477024468992_o.jpg

Exploration remains appealing, even over a small island range. It’s also vital; one must return to old spots to continue to collect more ingredients, and there’s also the possibility of finding fragments of a recipe washed up on a beach or hidden behind a debris pile in the woods. The game is almost completely nonviolent. So far, there are three exceptions to this (besides the harmless and exaggerated interactions of some of the staff members): there is a type of goofy, bulbous bird on tiny wings that barely keep it aloft that, when you “tackle” (i.e., touch-tag) it, disappears in a poof and leaves behind meat; there is a type of aggressive, pudgy wolf-like creature that will steal one of the meals in your inventory if it “tackles” you; and the aggressive creature can be poofed into meat in turn if you get it to run into a rock, or if you command your dragon to hunt (and “tackle”) it. But there’s no actual violence committed, the concepts of fighting and biting and killing instead becoming abstracted to the point of near-non-existence. Even worrying about those aggressive Zucchidons is never more than a low-level stress; at worst, you lose a meal.

43388382_10156900115976518_179672157167550464_o.jpg

The story has actually been the most engaging element for me so far. The characters are goofy and flawed, and the plot (after the initial life-saving-dragon bit that sets everything into motion) is largely focused on those characters over epic fantasy tropes. They just happen to be people who inhabit a fantasy world. Besides the twins, the café swiftly becomes staffed by a lazy dreamer who left his town with music career ambitions, a talented waitress who is regularly overcome by anger, and a fabulous orc who intends to become a famous chef. The story is broken into chapters that reflect the dragon’s growth and the rotating cast of characters who stay at the inn. By that metric, I’m probably three chapters in, having made it through the prologue of the dragon’s early years, then the stay of an anxious boy who claimed to be a warrior, and most recently the stay of a bigoted witch who found herself suddenly without magic powers. Each chapter has a mini character arc for the visitor, as the staff members are given room to grow themselves–along with the dragon, who is often referred to as a sort of glue between the disparate personalities and an influence for good. The fantasy world as of yet does not have a very cohesive vision, as it largely seems to draw from scattered fantasy cliches to fill its lore, usually to humorous effect (the game is often funny, typically in rather subtle, ironic ways–if you play it, make sure you watch how the names given to different visitors change in dialogue blocks).

43433899_10156900117991518_2074898387164987392_o.jpg

This game would probably be perfect for the 8-to-12-year-old range. A fairly literate and imaginative child with a fondness for fantasy could get a lot out of the game. It’s also an easy, forgiving game that would require effort to fail. The most challenging sections are the rhythm-based cooking mini-games, which are largely optional, and even those would require you to deliberately ignore multiple queues to do too badly, I would think. There’s a story section in your menu so you can see where you’re at and to give you rather clear hints about what to do to progress it further (especially helpful when the trigger is time-and-location-based). Each day, you get a summary of the café’s performance, and during the rush hours the game will give you a notification if the business requires closer attention (ingredients running low or staff slacking off). There’s a lot to micro-manage if you want, but very few user interfaces or menus or statistics to have to interact with. And if you’d rather just wander the countryside all day, you can do that too. It’s engaging, but not exactly challenging.

43322962_10156900120151518_8697880352942718976_o.jpg

Let me make it clear: I’m having a lot of fun with the game, and as it drops more and more of its training wheels and lets me do more, there’s more than just the story to keep me occupied. It’s still really early on, but I’m enjoying my time so far, and the game seems content to let me progress at my own pace. It’s casual fun for fantasy and sim fans of any age.

Review: Hyrule Warriors

Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition for the Nintendo Switch is stupid fun. You can play a single level in twenty minutes, or spend hours going through the campaign or adventure or challenge modes, hunting for unlockable items, artwork, and characters. The gameplay is simple: button-mash strong and fast attacks for devastating combos against waves of disposable, idiot mooks. Take advantage of items and (mostly) heavily telegraphed weaknesses to fight overpowered, gigantic bosses. There’s a lot of repetition, but it’s a mindless bit of power fantasy with a steady drip of XP, power-ups, and mounting bloodless enemy casualties. I wouldn’t call it grinding; you just play for as long as you want, doing the same things over and over, feeling something close to genuine flow, until you don’t want to anymore.

I played one of the Dynasty Warriors games on occasion at a friend’s house as a kid. I remember it fondly. Hyrule Warriors is clearly tied to that formula: soap operatic story and wide cast of characters, simple hack-and-slash gameplay against hordes of enemies, medieval battles. I guess the graphics are better; maybe my nostalgia is overly favorable, but I wouldn’t say they’re better by much. It would be an unremarkable sequel if not for the Legend of Zelda deep cuts pulled for this game: the treasure chests (and items found in those chests), the boss battles, the deep roster of characters from across the franchise, the rupees as currency, the heavy-metalized versions of classic tunes, the sound effects…

42822158_10156883354601518_1016810829900677120_o.jpg

It’s in many ways just another Dynasty Warriors game, but it’s something really different for a Zelda game, and it’s fun.

42898067_10156883356381518_3889135737416712192_o.jpg

So far, I’ve completed the story (including the villain, Linkle, and Wind Waker arcs), and I’ve dabbled with the adventure mode. There’s still a whole hell of a lot of content that I haven’t even touched. There’s a lot to go back to, if and when I want to go back.

42868372_10156883345931518_540107449030410240_o.jpg

Somewhat absurdly, my biggest criticism with the game is its story. Like, the gameplay is so light and fluffy and repetitive and, well, dumb. But that’s all fun and great to me! It’s that over-complicated, barely coherent story that bums me out. It starts off interesting enough: a sorceress, corrupted by the dark force she guards, turns an interest in the Hero of Legend into an unhealthy obsession, so she unlocks gates across space and time to access other shards of the dark spirit so that she can obtain enough power to control the Triforce and make the Hero hers. Sprawling battles for the fate of Hyrule ensue. Meanwhile, the Link of the core timeline has yet to come into his heroic identity, still a trainee nobody in the Hyrulean army. And simultaneously, the young woman Linkle hears of the threat against the kingdom and sets off (completely lost) to try to save the day, believing that she is in fact the Hero of Legend. Seriously, the addition of Linkle is such a delight. She was about as much fun to play as Link, and her bonus story arc provided a lot of levity. She might not be the Hero of Legend, but she’s his equal, and she’s awesome on her own.

42828323_10156883348741518_4096405176879939584_o.jpg

But the plot keeps expanding and expanding. The sorceress’s motivations change, her identity shifts, and by the end it’s not clear why she does anything at all. At the end of the main story, she apparently dies, fading away, having exhausted her strength, the dark side of a once-whole person now disappearing into nothingness. But then the expansions twist this–she only disappeared, and her light side kept looking for her, and apparently she’s not evil or even fully dark (there can be a dark version of this dark side), and by the end, she teams up with the heroes in a cinematic that feels a little like something out of Power Rangers or Captain Planet. Hell, the melodramatic story about friendship and love and loyalty, with the cast of diverse (mostly young) characters teaming up to face off against a Rita Repulsa look-alike, all accompanied by metal guitar riffs, is incredibly Power Rangers. But it keeps going on and on, meandering and without a clear direction, seemingly existing only to excuse more and more battles. Sadly, I was so close to enjoying the story at many points. There’s something salvageable in there, but there was clearly little time or attention given to this sprawling narrative. Let me just say this: I didn’t notice any writers listed in the game credits. Whoever was involved in writing the narrative must have had to link together a series of disparate level designs; it’s hard to explain how an otherwise linear story could have ended up so muddled.

42959642_10156883354661518_7036837927724253184_o.jpg

I had not played any of the previous versions of Hyrule Warriors. I’m not sure that this Definitive Edition would be worth it to those who have already experienced the game in another form. But it’s a big, dumb, fun experience that you should try, if you haven’t yet.

42849278_10156883358616518_2986300201246916608_o.jpg

The Legends of Zelda: A Case for Broadening the Lore

Having played Breath of the Wild and now Hyrule Warriors in the past year (review on Warriors should be up later this week), I’ve been thinking about how Nintendo has been making serious efforts to reinvent The Legend of Zelda.

Breath of the Wild is a beautiful evolution in the storied franchise, providing a true open world with lots of exploration and experimentation. For what it’s worth, it’s the first main Zelda game that I ever really got into, despite trying to play many previous titles.

On the flip side, Hyrule Warriors is on its face a weird divergence from other Zelda games: a hack-and-slash medieval war game with sprawling, button-mashing battles on closed maps. But it works. (Nintendo seems to be licensing its titles out more and more for bizarre crossover projects we wouldn’t otherwise expect to see; besides this combination of Zelda and Dynasty Warriors from Koei Tecmo, there was Pokemon Conquest, the combination of Pokemon and strategy RPG Nobunaga’s Ambition that was also from Koei Tecmo, and there will soon be Starlink: Battle for Atlas, an open-world, starfighter-simulator, toys-to-life game published by Ubisoft with an apparently robust implementation of the Star Fox team for the upcoming Switch version).

Both BOTW and Warriors emphasize lore over story. BOTW offers a minimalist story, and Warriors offers an overly convoluted yet half-baked story. Both thrive instead on setting and mythos. Both tie into the larger narratives of reincarnation and heroic destiny. Both offer a rich cast of characters old and new–in fact, Warriors thrives on a heavy collection of characters in its roster, with many more to unlock.

Zelda game is increasingly defined by its characters and lore over a very particular type of action-RPG, puzzle-solving experience. Neither BOTW or Warriors exactly represents that traditional model of game, but both feel very much like Zelda games because of their use of easily recognizable visuals, characters, mythology, themes, music, and sounds. At this point, Zelda feels bigger than the story of Link and Zelda. It’s a whole sprawling, multidimensional universe.

We’ve seen that explored a little bit in the lovely Legend of Zelda coffee table books from Dark Horse (the Goddess Collection trilogy of Hyrule HistoriaArt & Artifacts, and the Encyclopedia). I’d like to see more of it.

One thing in particular that would be great is a Legend of Zelda tabletop RPG. Let’s step back from Link, Zelda, and Ganon for a moment. Obviously there’s that massive cycle of reincarnation resulting in grand conflicts between the forces of good and evil every so many generations, but in between there’s still day-to-day conflict. There are various kingdoms and political alliances that shift from game setting to setting, and there are a variety of potential races to pull from–for example, Hylians, Gerudo, Gorons, Zora, Sheikah, Rito, Koroks, Fairies, and so on. Different “eras” in the timeline offer radically different geologies, cultures, and environments. You have the bleak and post-apocalyptic setting of the original game, the swashbuckling and island-hopping setting of Wind Waker, the industrialist world of Spirit Tracks, or the more standard medieval-influenced themes found in most of the games. And there is a vast array of monsters that range from riffs on classic D&D opponents to truly bizarre creatures.

Frankly, even without its own separate rule system (and surely over-priced sourcebooks), I imagine that it would be easy enough to develop a homebrew Zelda setting using any one of dozens of different existing games. It seems like D&DPathfinderBlue Rose, and 7th Sea could all make for happy homes to different legends of Zelda. (Hell, D&D and Pathfinder in particular sport such robust bestiaries that it’d be easy to slap on a slightly different aesthetic and lore to many of the races to have ready-made counterparts for the Zeldaverse, with little to no required creation or alteration of monster stats.)

Even if you felt that the franchise should stay solely focused on the Triforce and its incarnated heroes and villains, I say there’s still a rich vein to mine outside of the video games, in the form of television, film, and literature. There have been manga adaptations of many of the games, and there was of course the ridiculous television series from 1989, but it’s a rich property that could be developed further. Heck, even if you stuck with pure adaptations, it’s not hard to transplant the episodic, arc-based, melodramatic game plots into television format. With the popularity of Game of Thrones, and the ongoing appeal of animated fantasy series like Avatar: The Last AirbenderAdventure Time, and The Dragon Prince, it’s somewhat surprising that there have been no serious attempts to convert the games to a contemporary television show.

Perhaps the concern is that any show creators would be adapting a series with an essentially silent hero. It would be wrong to go in the direction of an over-talkative protagonist like in the existing Zelda series, but that seems more a case of over-correction and a weird product of the late eighties. Link doesn’t need to be purely silent. BOTW, at least, does have plenty of dialogue from Link–even if it’s only text-based. But given that I’ve been most intrigued by Link’s allies over Link himself, I wouldn’t mind a companion-based show where Link speaks very little or not at all. Furthermore, I think General Amaya in The Dragon Prince shows that a deaf hero can work after all.

All of the above comes from my place as a Zelda “fan.” I’m not really one at all. To the extent that I am, I’ve come to the franchise very late. I’d tried to play Zelda games before, but there seems to have been something very formative about playing the SNES or N64 games as children for so many Zelda fans that I just missed out on. I found titles like Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword to be tedious, overly linear, and sort of boring. I’m not tied into the fandom at all. But I’m suddenly finding a wealth of interest in the franchise, and while I’ve happened to luck into two very nonstandard Zelda games that I’ve enjoyed quite a bit, it’s really been learning more about the setting and lore that has given me a place to root myself. It should hardly be a surprise, then, that I’d be happy to see opportunities for the lore to grow–with or without another main title game.

All the Games

After a couple fits and starts, I finished Broken Age. This could warrant a full review, but everything I would want to say can be summarized as follows: excellent characterization, lovely plot that finishes a bit too abruptly, lots of cute little jokes, absolutely beautiful, BUT the gameplay is often frustrating in the worst traditions of adventure games. Two of those points bear emphasizing. One: the art is absolutely gorgeous! A series of screenshots are below, to hopefully support that claim. Two: the gameplay can be so infuriating!

So much of the time is wandering around the map, collecting random items from the environment, from dialogue choices, and from puzzles, then figuring out where the items might ultimately come into play. There’s a lot of backtracking and trading of random crap for other random crap. Sometimes it seems logical, or even obvious; sometimes, the use of an item for a given situation can seem clever. But most of the time, it just seemed arbitrary. The world and the characters were so quirky, lovely, and charming; the plot had some fun twists and pivots and re-connections; but the impact of those elements was lessened as I trudged back and forth in the most point-and-clickiest way possible. You ever find yourself faced with a frustratingly opaque game challenge requiring a specific solution, while you want to scream another, more apparent option? That’s so much of this game for me. Especially when there are so many characters to talk with, it was frustrating to see that being able to propose obvious solutions or to ask obvious questions was just stripped out. In short, the game felt…artificially difficult (or at least its second half did). In the last act, I frequently consulted a guide, increasingly impatient with the bizarro limitations put into place. If you played a lot of classic point-and-click adventure games, though, you might have a more positive experience.

20180704201209_1.jpg

20180704201500_1.jpg

20180705123509_1.jpg

20180902224243_1.jpg

Besides Broken Age, I also played a couple of weird little indie projects that released to a lot of acclaim but basically passed me by until now.

Octodad: Dadliest Catch is zany and fun, with a surprisingly heartfelt and endearing story under the wacky Saturday-morning-cartoon premise. It’s a fairly short but worthwhile experience.

20180902135158_1.jpg

20180902151743_1.jpg

Then there’s The Stanley Parable. This was fun, but I lost interest fairly quickly without exploring most of the branching paths and endings. I spent most of my short time with it forcing endings through disobedience. The narration was charming, but I thought the game a bit too clever for its own good (and really, exploring “choice” in a video game and in life has been done more subtly elsewhere, hasn’t it?).

20180902155903_1.jpg

20180902161325_1.jpg

I also jumped back into Hotline Miami a little bit recently. This game’s just perfect at setting a mood. The jarring, twitchy controls. The bizarre cuts between levels. The splashy blood. The bright colors. The pounding music. The game honestly makes me feel a little ill and a little disassociated after a while, like I’m getting into the head of a psychopath–or as close as I’d want to be, anyway. Gamification of the violence drives home that disturbing feeling, too. It’s a surreal experience, and the gameplay and music provide a powerfully addictive combination. I’ve played the story once or twice, and I’ve also played individual levels on occasion. But I don’t think it’s a game that I could ever 100%–I’d have to spend too much time getting really good at really disturbing shit.

20180913234732_1.jpg

Moving out of indie games, I’ve returned to Jurassic World: Evolution, as well. A recent update included a new challenge mode. So far, I’ve fiddled around with the easy mode, taking my time, having fun, then realizing in a panic that while I would probably eventually get to 5 stars, I was definitely not going to meet the par time. This could prove to be a quite challenging mode, especially working all the way up to Jurassic difficulty while meeting the par times, and it may or may not be enough to keep me in the game for a while (if only to try to return my status to 100% completion).

20180914203244_1.jpg

20180914210525_1.jpg

20180914220605_1.jpg

Finally, I’ve been playing ever more of Star Wars: Battlefront II. The 2005 edition, of course. It’s just so fun and easy to hop into even if I don’t have a lot of time to play.

20180829235553_120180830235416_1

20180831220133_120180831224117_1

20180901130638_1

And that’s all for games. The final post, on television, will follow tomorrow.

A Jurassic World of Future Games

Jurassic World: Evolution is not a perfect game, but it’s fun. You could say that about many games in the history of the franchise. Many more, however, are just plain bad (or just plain  weird).

There are still game styles and narratives I’d like to see explored by video games set in this franchise, and I figured I’d throw those ideas out here.

20180621222121_1
Jurassic World: Evolution

The smallest idea I have wouldn’t be for a new game. I’d just like to see Evolution added to. It would be nice to have more dinosaurs, to have feathered theropod skins, and to have some sort of DLC expansion that finally completed the plot of corporate intrigue that the game introduces but fails to develop anywhere. I’d also love the ability to design your own island maps, so you could keep randomly generating new challenges and new parks to build on. I lost interest in the sandbox mode fairly quickly…

Who knows? Maybe some of these elements are already in development! And now that Fallen Kingdom is out, there’s no reason that Evolution can’t go on to tell its own separate and complete story.

20180715214353_1.jpg
Jurassic Park: The Game

The next idea isn’t a new game type, but a development on what came before. Telltale’s Jurassic Park: The Game came out to mixed reviews (I personally liked the story but was baffled by the changes to Gerry Harding’s character and found the focus on quick-time events infuriating and anti-cinematic), but I do think the idea of a Jurassic Park adventure game is solid. I would like to see adventure games that adapted the novels. The novels were a little meatier, with a few big mysteries to explore (in the first book alone, there were the dinosaurs on the mainland, the breeding populations and nest sites, and the cause of the Stegosaurus illnesses). They also had a series of scenes that I could easily see played out  as a variety of adventure game sets or mini-games. The books were driven by mysteries and punctuated by moments of terror. A game that was more cerebral (and that largely avoided quick-time events) could be a fun way to explore the plots, characters, and themes of the original source material. Plus, by inserting players into the roles of various characters, immersion would help carry some of the novels’ weaker characterizations.

trespasser.png

I’d also like to see a survival game set on Isla Sorna. Here too is a concept that is not truly unique to the Jurassic Park setting: the poorly received Trespasser did it in 1998, then there was the canceled Jurassic Park: Survival, and that seemed to have survived a while onward in the similarly canceled Jurassic World: Survivor. However, I’d like to see a game that offered minimal weaponry (the three I discussed above all relied on firearms pretty heavily) and that was more focused on exploring the world. Perhaps, rather than being focused on escape, the game could be about being a Sarah Harding-type researcher, there to study the dinosaurs. Unlocking codices describing dinosaur biology and behavior, perhaps recovering scattered Site B documents from old computers and file cabinets, and simply photographing the animals could all be soft objectives. In short, I’d like a game where the dinosaurs were animals and not just monsters to fear. And please, no more dinosaur survival crafting games!

Finally, I do have a more conventional, narrative-driven shooter in mind. In the wake of Fallen Kingdom, we now have dinosaurs spread across the western United States. These animals could breed, and it’s suggested that corporate and governmental interests might clone more dinosaurs across the globe. Putting yourself in the role of perhaps a small Southwestern sheriff as you attempt to defend a small town against dangerous new animals–or a member of a commando team sent to disrupt cloning facilities set up in a rogue nation–could offer some fun run-and-gun gaming. (Okay, that latter idea is basically Dino Crisis…)

None of these are truly wild departures from what’s come before. None are suggesting radical new game styles or narratives. But I hope they offer some interesting possibilities. I’d love to hear what you might want to see in a future Jurassic Park game!

For bonus points, though, allow me to suggest a sprawling open-world RPG where you are a lone wanderer, perhaps an ambassador or mechanic, making your way across the world of the Xenozoic Saga. Or, in short, make more Cadillacs and Dinosaurs!

xenozoic.jpg
Cadillacs and Dinosaurs

Review – 7 Grand Steps: What Ancients Begat

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.

20180702235729_1.jpg

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.

20180704002723_1.jpg

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.

20180703205403_1.jpg

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.

20180704142141_1.jpg

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.

20180704142608_1.jpg

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!