My mom’s side emigrated from southern Italy about fifteen years before the second World War, trading their hardscrabble lives of subsistence farming for a grocery store in central California. I’m pretty sure my dad’s fled Western Europe in a similar fashion. Going back farther reveals ties to Germany, Poland, Israel and eventually ancient Rome, which is apparently where my nose comes from. I’m sure we were a really sexy bunch of Ouranopithecus prior to that, but the genetics are a little harder to track before the 250,000-year mark.
Point is, somehow, both sides of my family were able to make it from tuber-munching gorilla men to 21st century schizoid ones, rather than being eaten by crocodiles during the epistemological gulf now known as “The Dawn of Man.” Some might call that luck. Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble developer Mousechief Co. calls it an opportunity, one best reflected with a coin-based interactive board game. It’s called 7 Grand Steps – What Ancients Begat, and it’s a big ol’ party boat of highbrow fun.
The game began with me in the role of theoretical sky-being, serving as the emotional and economic conscience of a Stone Age family that lives on top of a giant rotating wheel. “This wheel is the spirit of the age,” the in-game text told me, handing over a small, hairy man skilled in the art of dirt farming. “Now take this guy and make something out of him.”
The board itself is pretty easy to navigate. There’s a wheel divided by colored layers, representative of the poor, artisan, noble and ruling classes of whatever age you’re in. You begin on the lowest rung with a fixed amount of gold tokens, which allow you to advance forward towards a matching symbol on the wheel. Sacrificing one of your characters’ turns allows you to produce more of said tokens, though you have to be careful about timing this once the wheel moves backwards toward the comically named crocodiles of entropy. Survive one full rotation and your offspring take over, using the skills you’ve taught them to carry on your legacy another generation.
“Being locked into a loveless or one sided marriage might net you immediate benefits, but in the long term, you’ll suffer without the boosting provided by ‘the impetus of love.’”
Of course, the goal is not simply to get to the end of the wheel. Every rotation reveals colored beads, which the player must collect to gain advantages over their peers for the coming of the next age. Collecting a set amount can lead to new inventions, heroic deeds or advancement to a higher caste, which bestow bonuses like extra tokens and little story segments about the history of your family.
Sound confusing? It can be. The entire first generation is a giant tutorial, teaching you the advantages of getting married as quickly as possible, raising children and hopping from bead to bead like a laser-guided myth missile. I tried to follow as best I could, but my main man, Khet, seemed more intent on pooping out a numberless horde of children, not to mention wasting turns on the large token production slabs because nobody was far back enough on the board to save him from crocodiles.
Despite this, I did eventually got the hang of navigating the time wheel, and somehow collected the fifty bouncing beads necessary to piece together my first invention: the arch. Though it did not save Khet’s family from being buried in an unmarked hole, his son Seket managed to start a successful pottery spinning business that moved him into the artisan caste. One generation later, his idiot sons Erket and Emil nearly bankrupted the business with their constant infighting, passing the torch down to the fittingly named Amala the Petty and her beleaguered husband Fasil. Somehow, they became local heroes during a reform of the city’s government, bestowing great fortune to the family until Fasil was eaten by, you know, crocodiles.
That’s the real fun of 7 Grand Steps. Sure, the board game is great in an “it’s Friday and I have no friends” kind of way, but crafting the narrative of a family tree draws you into the game in a way that moving pieces around a wheel never could on its own. Together there’s this amazing tandem of calculating each move by its immediate benefits and directing the story that coincides with it, allowing you to not only see, but shape the game around the kind of family you want to create. That’s on top of all the little extras the game throws in to reflect your various choices, all coalescing at the end of each generation in your heir’s story.
Have too many kids? If you don’t treat them all equally, they’ll fight up through adulthood, sabotaging each other and making the game a lot more difficult. Just a few? If they get along, they’ll help instead, appearing as allied pieces that boost your family members extra spaces. Being locked into a loveless or one-sided marriage might net you immediate benefits, but in the long term, you’ll suffer without the boosting provided by “the impetus of love.” Waiting too long or being too high up on the political food chain also decreases your chances of marrying for love, a nice little aside for those who think the LA dating game is a huge pain in the ass. Likewise, story decisions can create rival or enemy pieces on the board, many of whom will block you from passing their piece so they can take all the beads. Bastards.
“From the inventions to the child rearing to the rivalries and allies you make along the way, every step of 7 Grand Steps is a unique joy to play through.”
Once you’re really on track, the game begins prompting various daily challenges your family members must deal with. On my more renowned characters, this meant taking in a traveling seer, learning to write from him and achieving even greater fame. My douchebaggier clan members enjoyed a revolving door of beggars and priests to yell obscenities at for no reason. Eventually, you’ll start to see crazy inventions like waterwheels and layered steel pop up among the tales of heroic deeds and daily squabbles with the merchant class, like when one of Khet’s great-great-granddaughters accidentally invented the alphabet.
You can also choose not to move through the caste system if you prefer a life of simple pleasures and/or flies. Doing so shortens the game a bit and makes it harder to increase your renown (beads award fewer points; the wheel has less spaces), but it’s a little easier than jumping all the way into the ruling caste, which changes the game into a pseudo-text-based governance simulator with the end goal of achieving ultimate power. This is actually one of the weaker points of the game, though it’s still fun to slowly build up your power until you’re crowned Queen of the Nile (which I was).
The ruler system is weak because it seems so inconsequential. As long as you aren’t a tyrannical shitbag, you’ll win without any trouble at all, and the ability to allow varying amounts of corruption to give you extra tokens (crucial at that point because they don’t come as easily) makes it even easier to gain more influence over the different branches of government. If you’re good enough at not pissing everyone off, you’ll even gain all powers of the region without having to earn them through beads, which really just boils down to being sensible with a few numbers and sliders. The game also has issues keeping track of each family from the four different tracks, hitting a patch of crippling slowdown after every hour or so of extended ruler play.
Still, it’s so clever that you can’t help but love it. From the inventions to the child rearing to the rivalries and allies you make along the way, every step of 7 Grand Steps is a unique joy to play through. The combination of board game and societal simulator blend so well together that you’ll barely notice the more technical aspects of the board, focusing on how to get to the next major page in your family’s history without killing off another husband. You might even find yourself investing so heavily in the story that you’ll swell with pride when a distant Iron Age relative aspires to be a famous explorer. I’ve gotta hand it to them; Mousechief has really outdone themselves with this one.
Oh, and fuck crocodiles.