I shouldn’t be writing this game review. I don’t play board games all that often, certainly not super complex ones involving rich narratives. I generally hate reading in-game text no matter how well-written it claims to be (which it never is). I’m genuinely annoyed when a game can, more or less, play itself without me, relegating me to just a guy who clicks and waits. 7 Grand Steps, the latest effort from the small team at Mouschief is all of these things, and I don’t know if I like it or not. I do know, however, that I haven’t stopped playing.
Trying to explain this game to someone presents a challenge similar to deciding if I like it. 7 Grand Steps exists in the nexus where the Game of Life, Wheel of Fortune, The Sims, Civilization, and ancient world literature intersect. The narrative of the game spans across several thousand years, each age offering its set of trials and tribulations. At the heart of this epic timeline stands one dynasty from humble origins that, despite the odds maintains a strong lineage. They are a proud family, a driven family, an ambitious and clever family. They are…the Turdfergusons.
The line of Turdfergson began like all others (according to the blurb on the game’s site): “By the Great River, when cities first grew, two field workers fell in love, and they started a family…” From such paltry beginnings grows a family that outlasts war, plague, famine, and disasters of biblical proportion, and through it all they survived. The wheel of time (literally) turns under their feet as they move toward an uncertain future.
A simple-to-use but difficult-to-describe mechanic facilitates this epic narrative. With all moves taking place on the arching game board, your goal is to move your two characters’ pawns by inserting coins into their respective slots. Dropping a “Mathematics” coin in moves your character to a “mathematics” tile on the board. Soon the board becomes filled with other pawns that will either help or hinder you; enemies will block your path and allies will help you earn more coins. Playing an ingot also allows you to make more coins, but your character will move backwards, towards the “dead” end of the wheel.
Moving both characters to the same place allows you the opportunity to have them conceive a child, and giving a child a coin makes him/her study whichever subject appears on the coin (math, writing, caravans, potters, etc). Of course, you must manage your limited coins by deciding whether or not you want to educate your children while leaving you enough coins to move across the board. Neglecting your pawns in play makes them move ever closer to the hungry crocodiles at the base of the board.
As you manipulate your pawns, you collect beads which unlock “Legends.” These can be legends of invention, social status, or heroism, and they appear in the form of choose-your-own-adventure text games. In these moments, the family Turdferguson learned harsh lessons about rash decisions, and they learned to strive toward lofty goals (like being the king’s military adviser) by taking advantage of rare opportunities. I, on the other hand, learned that choosing which next block of text to read in their ongoing saga led to more random than calculated outcomes. Such is life in the ancient world, I suppose. As you complete these dynastic legends, you move closer to the “Challenge of the Age” which ends each age in an epic story of trial and tribulation which your family must survive–the Turdfergusons, my friends, were survivors.
If the mechanics sound confusing and difficult yet very bare-bones, it’s because they are. It was not until I had been randomly throwing coins into slots like a Vegas grandma that the game eventually revealed its strategic elements…unlike a Vegas grandma. I had to decide between going for more beads on the board or educating the future Turdfergusons. Then, when I educated one child who would be the future leader of the family, resentment boiled among her siblings. She took over, but her brothers and sisters stole coins from her, impeded her work, and pretty soon the most promising member of the family fell into destitution. Luckily, her only son would go on to become a successful potter–until the flood came, of course.
7 Grand Steps seems all at once too ambitious narratively and too random mechanically to provide me with any real satisfaction on either side of the spectrum. There were times when I played a round perfectly only to have the king demote me when I made a decision to attack a neighboring nation due to false information. Such moments provide an element of realism, but I never really learned how I could have played the moment better. Likewise, the game asks that I care about these characters, making decisions on whether they should marry for love or for money, whether they should embrace challenges or cower from them. Maybe I’m a bit cold, but it’s hard to care too much about characters who amount to little more that vague forms on board who undergo overwrought challenges.
Still, I cannot say that I don’t find the game absorbing. It has that “just one more turn” magic about it that I haven’t really felt since XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and soon I realized that I had the game running in the background whenever I was working on something else. I am also hesitant to say that the game is “fun,” but it is quite interesting. An attempt (and I do mean attempt) at blending biblical language and epic storytelling in a digital board game is worth playing, if only as a demo. I won’t promise all players will find something to love, but maybe some will find families with stories worth telling–families like the Turdfergusons.