What We Think
From indie developers Mousechief, creators of early Steam indie breakout hit “Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble!“, 7 Grand Steps – an Independent Games Festival finalist for 2013 – is one strange beast, indeed. The tale in its totality can span up to 7000 virtual years, and countless generations of one family. It plays like a board game, (and is inspired by the games and wind-up toys of the Musée Mécanique in San Francisco) but rather than roll dice or exchange cards, you drag virtual tokens to different slots and select the occasional option from a menu of story choices.
Despite the simple mechanics, the game features a staggering amount of depth. Strategy (and the odd dose of good luck) will determine if your lineage fades into obscurity, or becomes instrumental in shaping an emerging culture. This less-than-apparent complexity is endearing and greatly compelling.
Wheel! Of! Fortune!
The gameplay is board game style, the action of which takes place within what appears to be an early 20th century coin-operated amusement machine. Along the top of the playfield, there are areas for a main character, a spouse, and seven slots that can be occupied with offspring. Each of these areas has a slot in which tokens can be placed.
The majority of the game area is occupied by a giant segmented wheel, sporting various tiles. After each turn ends, the wheel rotates slowly to the left. Characters or neighbors unfortunate enough to occupy the tiles nearest the bottom of the screen at the end of a round are eaten by crocodiles (signifying not only death, but also the ravages of ultimate failure).
Each new game begins with Khet and his wife Selk, who must strike a balance between amassing a fortune and raising a strong family: to accomplish this, tokens must be made and spent. The initial three tokens are Brewing, Irrigation and Masonry, and represent the skills the ancient society were capable of performing. Corresponding icons appear within the innermost circle of the wheel as well. To move a character, feed the appropriate token to the character you wish to move, and he or she will travel to the nearest matching tile.
First Step’s First Family
Khet and Selk start with a meager amount of tokens, and an inexhaustible supply of ingots. Once per turn (barring restricting conditions), an ingot can be inserted in a character’s slot in an attempt to create more tokens. The chosen character will travel backwards along the wheel until he meets up with either his spouse or a neighbor. The type and number of tokens created is determined by that character’s abilities.
Creating tokens with a neighbor means the yield will be divided. Though making tokens with your spouse assures that all tokens are kept, the loving couple will also take the opportunity to engage in “marital acts”, and this might result in offspring. This child will occupy one of the slots at the top of the play field. While creating offspring is necessary to continue your lineage, their birth will change the overall strategy greatly.
The Kids Aren’t Alright
Children do not move on the wheel itself, but they can be fed tokens, which will increase their skill levels. Having multiple offspring creates even more considerations: Children taught equally will develop strong ties, while pumping a lion’s share of skill tokens into a wunderkind and spurning younger siblings is likely to breed resentment, which can come back to haunt you.
Healthy sibling bonds can result in an ally character filling a spot on the wheel as one of your neighbors; finishing a move on the tile an ally occupies will cause the character to advance to the next tile of that type. Should relations sour in childhood, an enemy character may await. Enemies can deplete your stores of tokens, block work opportunities and prevent you from entering the tiles they occupy.
I Bead You Good Fortune
Whilst keeping good family graces in mind, the clan must also work to elevate their own status in society. At the outset of the game, the player must select which of three goals he wishes to attain first. Will the family discover ways to improve the lives of others, climb the social ladder, or perform deeds of heroism?
As the wheel turns, beads will appear randomly on certain tiles. To collect them, simply move your character onto a tile where one exists. The initial pickup will reward the player with the full Legend Point value, stack the bead on the progress bar, and then break the bead in half. Scooping up the second half of the token will net half as many points.
Once the full amount of LP is collected, a new perk is bestowed upon the family. In addition, any completed achievements act as a level of added protection when the current age ends.
I Am Legend
As complicated as this all may sound, these are the basics. There will likely be a learning curve while players are mastering the ins and outs of striking a sound balance of the games various aspects. Story elements appear periodically, reflecting on the personality of the current family head.
Some heroic instances will require player input. How these occurrences are navigated will determine a Legend Point reward, what titles are bestowed upon the family lineage, and how descendants are likely to behave.
We Are Family
You may complete a generation, convinced you’ve made all the right choices, only to find that your progenitor gets completely shot down when proposing marriage. An historic event may call one of your married family heads to war, snuffing then out early in a round, and making raising your family of four notably more challenging. A rival family may discover an improvement on the item for which you have the most tokens, rendering your pile useless. The game boasts an amazingly vast array of possible developments and plot twists. Even the most skilled of players are going to get thrown a curve ball from time to time.
This depth of variance also gets you rooting for your family, and unfortunate turns start to feel like personal blows. For example, your eldest daughter, though highly educated in artisan class elements, is spurned by all suitors due to her lack of connection to the old ways. She must now go through her journey alone, knowing that her branch of the family tree may end with her. There are few moments more wrenching than watching a new generation get off to a flagging start, especially after following on the heels of a highly successful round of play.
Big Wheels Keep On Turning
7GS is a complex and nuanced game. The bare minimum of sound effects are employed, and the gentle ambient soundtrack will swell in and out just long enough to complete actions. The sound of the coins dropping into the slots is charming and stokes the imagination in wishing that such a machine could actually exist in hardware form.
The most obvious sore spot, if one is to be found is with the quality of the graphics – they are terrific, but unnecessarily low-res, as if made two generations ago. Additionally, there are no settings beyond fullscreen or windowed mode. It would be terrific to see an HD graphical version of this game with some shadow detail, specular highlights, crisper sprites…
Though the inner mechanics are impressive on their own, the experience is vaulted well beyond any cold sum via the richness of character lore begging to be unlocked. Using a seemingly simple early 20th century coin-operated machine as its analog, 7 Grand Steps manages to capture something touching, delicate and intellectually stimulating.
Be warned: successfully crossing all eras will require commitment. Truly, reaching the conclusion of even one age can take a great deal of time, so settle in with your “family” and enjoy a gripping trek through history.
We have not seen anything quite like it in a long time.