Few games promise you a narrative that spans multiple centuries and multiple generations. Even fewer can actually pull it off. 7 Grand Steps: What the Ancients Begat not only delivers on a sprawling player-driven story, but also makes the process look astonishingly simple. Played like a board game yet far more complex than most physical board games, 7 Grand Steps is at once very elementary and very complicated. It has its frustrations, but it also triggers the same “one more turn” craving you get from the best board and strategy games.
While at first glance 7 Grand Steps has the look of a simple board game (albeit with cool penny-arcade-style mechanical pieces), it’s really something that wouldn’t be feasible on a physical tabletop. In fact, it’s a unique mix of board game, family simulation, and choose-your-own-adventure story with a dash of Sid Meier’s Civilization added for good measure. The many layers combine to create an experience that is complex enough to get lost in, yet approachable to beginners just getting their feet wet.
The majority of the game is played by moving character pawns around a wheel using a variety of tokens marked with different symbols, each with a different skill associated with it (beginning with things like irrigation and masonry, but later advancing to the likes of mathematics and harbors). The wheel on which your pawn rests rotates each turn, and if you don’t take care to spend tokens and move forward, you will be caught and eaten by crocodiles as the wheel rolls off the screen. Getting more tokens requires moving backward (or at least staying in place), so you need to balance token production with forward progress. That part is simple enough; move forward or die. But 7 Grand Steps is about more than any one pawn: it’s about lineage.
You are almost always controlling two pawns: a family member and his or her spouse. When they occupy the same space, they have a chance to produce a child. When raising children, you have the option of spending your tokens (the same ones used for movement) to educate them and better prepare them for adulthood. This is essential, because your current pawns grow old and die before you know it, at which point one of their children must take over. How well you prepared them as children determines how likely they are to survive their own life challenges. If you gave a child plenty of alphabet tokens, for example, he or she is more likely to produce alphabet tokens as an adult, which in turn helps both movement and the next generation of children.
This goes on from generation to generation, with the young adults following in the footsteps of their ancestors as they move through the ages. All the while you are collecting legend points. You collect most of these by landing on spaces that contain them, but you occasionally acquire them through other means as well, including random story incidents that pop up as you play. Collect enough of them, and your family benefits from whatever sort of legend you chose to work toward: discovery, heroics, or social advancement. Discovery legends upgrade one of the symbols on the game board (for example, masonry becomes arches) and give your family advantages in the impending “challenge of the age,” which occurs when moving from one age to the next. Heroic legends are more narrative-driven and similarly provide advantages to your family (though their effects are unclear on the surface).
Social advancement is one of the more interesting paths to take because, eventually, it changes a lot about the game. Every time you climb a rung on the social ladder, you move to a larger track on the game’s board. When you reach the outermost track, the noble class, you are given new gameplay tasks via a “ruling game,” which fundamentally changes what you do each turn, depending on the age in which you currently live. The Bronze Age’s ruling game, for example, is something of a text-based military simulation in which you allocate resources in order to attack, defend against, or trade with neighboring civilizations in an effort to appease your king. These ruling games are the most involved bits of gameplay in 7 Grand Steps, but it can take hours just to reach the point where playing them is an option (if you even experience them at all).
Even though all of this is explained as you begin your first game and as each layer of gameplay is introduced, it can be a little confusing until you play several turns and get a feel for how the game flows. Before long, you find yourself plagued by a compulsion to keep playing just a few more turns, to advance a little further to see how your choices pan out. Next thing you know, minutes have turned to hours, and you wonder how you spent so much time staring at such a relatively static screen.