If pressed to describe Mousechief’s 7 Grand Steps, Step 1: What Ancients Begat, it would not be an easy task. I mean, look at this thing:
A lot of games you can sort of figure out by just staring at the screens, but 7 Grand Steps defies that. Steam categorizes it as a strategy game, and so does the developer, and it sort of is. You start with a single figure that you maneuver along a rotating ‘mechanical’ board, collecting beads that will count towards major actions (social development, research, heroic adventures). You get a spouse, who also collects beads in a similar way. You move along the track by spending scarce tokens to advance to slots along the track. So, you spend a pottery token to move to the next pottery slot and collect what, if anything, is there. You can also spend your turn making more tokens – you can’t move forward along the path to do this, and you sometimes retreat many slots. I’ve written about components in games. This is one component rich game.
The goal, if you can call it a goal, is to lead your family through the ages. You start with copper age technology and adventures and then slowly move your way through history. You will sometimes be called upon to make choices in a choose-your-own-adventure style story thing that can have great glory or ruinous consequences for your family. Through the centuries you will raise children – training them with tokens – to take your character’s place when they die.
That’s what the game is. But I am not sure what the game is necessarily about. It is a game with a large element of luck (what tokens will be created? what is the personality of your child? have you made any enemies by choosing the wrong spouse?) but also one that rewards careful counting and the occasional personal sacrifice.
It’s de rigeur for gamers to expect that their characters can and will succeed so long as the rules are clear and the dice are fair, few and far between. Yes, you can have setbacks for turns or hours in a game, but a well-built strategy experience should either make it clear that you are hosed or make it clear that there is a chance of a comeback. But throw in too many random elements or, at the very least, random elements that cannot be bridged against and players can feel cheated.
This is especially a risk in a game like 7 Grand Steps. Even if you can figure out why you are getting the sorts of adventure-text quizzes you are, and can then figure out why your choices leave you to be either a coward or a thief, then you are left with the problem that your own failures as a father in this generation (not entirely of your own making, since, remember, token generation and bead placement are random) will put your child in a terrible place once he comes of age. That is, assuming he hasn’t already learned bad lessons and cheats his way through his Rite of Passage first.
The cascade of random bad things, or simply cascading lack of chances to do amazing things, means that true greatness will be very hard to find for most people that play 7 Grand Steps. They will need to play it many, many times before they find out how to get their family through confrontations with priests, lions and jealous lovers. The pressure with each generation and each Age of Man to do more interesting things than make pots for the granary will lead some people to take risks without understanding or trying to understand how all of the weird systems of the game come together.
Take the nickname. Once your child passes the Rite of Passage and assumes his/her place as the main character of the story, you choose a nickname for them. Rob the Mighty. Bruce the Eloquent. Troy the Acceptable. Julian the Bald. This nickname, in effect, becomes who the person is. Choosing counter to this personality might seem like the great movie way to act (nerd stands up to bully, arachnophobe hunts giant spider) but it is discouraged by the rule set. Sometimes. Maybe. I do know that a cowardly potter has no business leading a mob against the king’s soldiers.
There is a tendency for many people that play games to assume that their character is them, and this is actually an important thing that games can do that few other media can. It’s also one reason I’m not a huge fan of most cinematic story-telling action games, but that’s another rant. This tendency can mean that players cast themselves in a Horatio Alger story where pluck, luck and clean living will lead to success. Gamers pull themselves up by their fictional bootstraps daily.
The real world, of course, doesn’t work like that, and social mobility was never easy. And it’s getting harder in even the most fluid of the great democracies. I am not suggesting that 7 Grand Steps is about the limits of social mobility, but it does say if you take the epic quest to become a hero, one of your neighbors may discover preservation or iron smelting in the mean time. And if you fail at the quest, you get nothing.
Aspire to greatness. But study mediocrity first.