Breaking My Backlog #5 – 7 Grand Steps: What Ancients Begat

by Christopher David Lawton

Breaking My Backlog is a semi-regular features on in which I attempt to complete my entire backlog before buying any new games. You can read more about the quest and see my backlog here.

At this point, I have started and stopped 7 Grand Steps at least four times, and I’m still not sure I understand it. I’ve read interviews with the primary designer, and I think I get what he was going for. But, I’m still not sure I understand it. I think, in order to understand this game, you have to be ready to appreciate both the history of humanity on a grand scale and token-based penny arcade games. I’m not sure what the Venn diagram of that audience looks like, but I’m not sure I fit into either circle.

7 Grand Steps is probably the most ambitious game I’ve ever played. It seeks to tell the history of ancient humanity following a single family as each descendant works to lift themselves from poverty to the ruling class. The gameplay itself resembles a bit of a board game, with player pieces that move around depending on the decisions the player makes. The game board itself is a stone wheel that rotates each turn. The wheel had four rungs on it, each of which symbolizes a different class, and all four classes rotate toward one end of the play area which features crocodiles that symbolize the primary cause of death for these classes. As the player, you must keep your pieces moving away from the crocodiles as you attempt to improve your station in life. This is all done by inserting coins in different slots on the board. The coins represent wealth and knowledge in different disciplines, such as agriculture or architecture, and they serve two purposes: first, by inserting a coin into the slot for your two characters, you move them around the board, which becomes symbolic for moving through life. As they move across the board, they collect orbs that are used to achieve great advancement for your family, including heroic deeds, technological discovery, and class advancement. Now, since any major historical record takes place over the course of generations, while your characters are moving through life, you must also manage their children, which brings us to the second function of the coins. By inserting the coins in your children’s slots, you are gifting them resources to prepare them for when they will have control of the family progression.

In addition to these resources, your choices as the player affect your family as well. Occasionally, after some event, a little dialogue box will pop up giving you a scenario, along with a few choices in how to respond to this scenario. Your response leads to consequences that affect your current character and his or her descendants. For example, during one of my games, I had lifted my family out of poverty and reached the third rung on the gamewheel (merchant). However, in choosing to move my family to higher ground during a flood which killed multiple members of the lower classes, I inadvertently caused a slave revolt which completely upturned the class system in the game’s world, leading to my family’s descent back into slavery. The game didn’t stop there, though. Once that particular generation died, their children (born into slavery) were given the chance to start lifting themselves back up and rebuilding the family name. As the player, your ultimate goal is to lift your family from the lowest class (slave) to the highest (noble). How you choose to do that is up to you.

Are you confused yet? If so, I’m not surprised. During my second playthrough, I tried to explain the game to my wife, and I didn’t get very far. I ultimately told her that you just kind of had to play it to understand it. When I explained the system to my brother-in-law, I did a bit better. He came up with the term “generational resource management,” which is about the best description I could ask for.

A game like this, however, presents an interesting conundrum for a games writer: How do you write about a game that is clearly not for you. I can weigh the game on its technical merit. It’s a well-made game. The rules are consistent, and the stories that the game tells — built based on decisions you make throughout the game — are interesting, and they are varied enough to ensure that no two playthroughs are ever going to be the same. And, that’s pretty cool. But, anything I can write about this game stops there, because when it comes right down to it, I played this game for almost 10 hours, and I don’t believe I ever had fun. I have a hard time writing that, though, because I’m sure this game is immensely fun for a specific type of gamer, a kind that isn’t me.

Writer Gail Simone told a story on her Twitter one time about meeting a fan at a comic convention. The fan brought a comic for her to sign, which she did, but in making small talk, she mentioned that she was ultimately disappointed in the book itself, and she didn’t think it was all that good. She then said when she looked up, the fan looked devastated, because she was trashing on a comic book he really loved. She said something in that story that’s stuck with me since: every comic book is someone’s favorite comic book. I think there’s something to this sentiment that is good for video game writers to keep in mind as we write about games. We may not understand it, but every game is someone’s favorite game. That said, we have to be careful as well, lest we fall into that all too common trope: “Video game X may be good, but I just don’t think it’s made for me.”

Sometimes, games are just bad, and it is the job of the critic to point this out. The key is, of course, to find the line somewhere in the middle: criticize the game for its failings without making fans of the game feel bad for liking it. Except for fans of Xenogears, of course. It’s a bad game, and you should feel bad for liking it.

When I consider 7 Grand Steps: What Ancients Begat solely on its merits, it’s certainly not a bad game. It can get repetitive after a while since it borrows so heavily from board games, and board games are built on repetition and game loops. Unlike most board games, however, a single game of 7 Grand Steps may take you longer than your average first-person shooter. Despite the repetitiveness, though, the game accomplishes what it sets out to do. And regardless of whether or not I enjoyed the game, it does that very, very well. I probably won’t play it again, but that doesn’t mean that no one should. I think the audience for this game is likely larger than even I realize, and who am I to argue with a crowd that size?

Except for Xenogears. Seriously, fuck that game.

Backlog Update:

It’s been a while since I’ve updated my backlog and, unfortunately, in that time, I’ve been gifted many games, which has set my numbers back considerably. When I set out to complete this monumental task, I actually questioned whether or not I would update my backlog with new games I obtained throughout the process. Ultimately, I decided that not including these games felt disingenuous, and I’m nothing if not genuine.

Total Backlog: 208 241

(All images taken by me.)