Turn-based strategy games might not be the most popular genre today, but with XCOM: Enemy Unknown, there’s certainly enough interest in the gaming community. So will Mousechief’s 7 Grand Steps, Step 1: What Ancients Begat continue the success with its Civilization-inspired concept and more storytelling?
7 Grand Steps, Step 1: What Ancients Begat (PC)
(USA 2013, developer/publisher: Mousechief, platform: PC)
Lead a family to success and fame through the ages and see how it changes its own history and dynasty.
Token taken not for granted
The general gameplay idea is rather simple: Move one or more of the family members around the board of a turning wheel and collect as many beads as possible without getting eaten by crocodiles or suffering other random fates which can result in death. But of course as with many other strategy titles, there are quite a lot of things to consider. Characters can only be moved around with the insertion of a specific token into a slot machine. The image on the token corresponds to the one on the board, i.e. one moves to the nearest piece if there aren’t too many other characters in the way. Some are empty, some have specially colored beads which serve as experience points for certain abilities. Depending on the decision which route to take (technology, social hierarchy, war), a specific number of these have to be accumulated in order to progress.
With each turn of the wheel, the lifelines of family members also come to a natural end. The only way to continue after they’re forced to be eaten by the crocodiles (which seem to reflect death, because otherwise this wouldn’t make much sense) is to have children. So the man or woman one chooses to control has to get into a relationship with the member of the other sex. Proposing marriage can be successful or not, depending on the social status (usually connected to the number of tokens in possession), if the other person already feels love to the character or by sheer luck. As there are only a limited amount of partners at the beginning, it usually turns into a race to get them before the others do.
Race around the clock of life
The race for beads to reach specific goals and the race against the life-consuming turns of the wheel make for a rather tense experience. Although it’s all turn-based, each action has to be considered with care. Planning the next move is essential to succeed, especially when other people strive for the same aim: getting as many beads as possible and avoiding death or loneliness. If no possible candidates for marriage and child-bearing are available anymore, there’s still a chance later in the character’s life to be given a partner. This is usually done with the correct choices in a short text which lays bare his/her fate. So one can decide to live alone, or that per chance someone will be there or that one is forced into marriage.
Bearing a child can happen quite fast when both parents meet on the same picture on the board, although there’s also a bit of chance involved. Of course having a child means much responsibility. Not only do the parents need to stay alive long enough, they also have to provide for its education. This is again done by inserting specific tokens into slots under the child’s image. The more one gives of the same token, the more experience the child will have and then be able to start the next line of the family with better chances of succeeding. Having more than one child also results in more strategic planning, because the siblings have to be treated the same, otherwise they start complaining and won’t get on at all with each other. So the bigger the family grows, the more tokens have to be created, making progress even more difficult.
Disaster struck with random encounters
There are also many other variables to take into account which can affect the life of the protagonists. Certain events occur independently of the player’s actions. Some of their outcomes can be influenced with multiple choices while others are direct results of the character’s personal traits and his look at the world. This can be quite frustrating, especially if it means losing many tokens and in rare instances even a character’s life. It’s true that this breaks the monotony of the game and just as in Sim City adds to more variety, but it nevertheless can completely destroy one’s current game.
Management and coming of age
To spice things up a bit and add to the strategy, a management system is implemented as well. This is only available after a character achieves a certain status, e.g. he can decide how to distribute food, who works in the police force, how much bribes one accepts, etc.. Unfortunately this becomes more of a chore and a bore after a while, as the management window pops up after every turn. It’s certainly a nice way to earn some extra tokens when the right strategy is used resulting in less famine, crime and so on. But in order to understand it, one has to read through some tutorial text, because it’s not really explained in the main game. Some decisions also affect the outcome of the Challenge of the Ages.
The Challenge of the Ages is also a major concern in the game. It should be what the player is aiming for: overcoming difficulties, succeeding in life, making the right choices and survive. Unfortunately this all boils down to some multiple-choices QA in which wrong answers typically result in failure. As is stated in the tutorial, the more heroic deeds or technological advancements one made before should influence the outcome. But this is simply not true, because the answers aren’t so clear and their connections to the main game even less. It also raises the question why one should bother spending countless hours of playtime and then being punished with a rather random choice system.
A story spanning the ages
One of the USPs of the game is its storytelling, but it doesn’t come without its flaws. The idea to have indidividual characters present their own life stories with unique personal traits, events and interactions is certainly interesting, but it’s not as engaging as it sounds. The biggest problem is that one simply doesn’t spend enough time to learn about them. With so many family members to take care of, it’s difficult to actually feel any sort of attachment to the individual ones. So it’s more about a chain of people and events to form a whole. Unfortunately this whole can be reduced to the advancement in civilization without commitment to each of the participants.
It doesn’t help much either that some of the text repeats itself. Maybe that’s true for the term “history repeating itself”, but for a game which tries to make the player care for its protagonists and story, there are simply not enough memorable scenes. The quality of the text itself has a nice literary touch, but it’s nothing to get excited about. Nor do the characters themselves stand out as particularly interesting. Maybe it would have been better to give the player more time to get to know them.
The events themselves might be interesting for history buffs and sociologists, but as they usually only scratch the surface of politics, society etc., the descriptions don’t read as informative as they should. What’s also a bit disappointing is how story progression is presented. No cutscenes might be due to the low budget, but there’s still no excuse to give a bit more feedback to the player. Reading wastes of text is simply not a very good way for an immersive experience, especially since there’s not much of a story outside the life lines. Other RTS might be seen to have often stereotypical characters or a thin plot of warring factions, but at least they offer a reason to see the next mission or level. 7 Grand Steps doesn’t deliver with its rudimentary presentation.
Presented in a simple picture and with minimalist sounds
Graphics are nice to look at with the well-drawn and often artistically-pleasing-to-the-eyes pictures and backgrounds while ambient sound effects and music are relaxing to listen to at the beginning, but these all get boring pretty quick. This isn’t necessarily because of the static board game with only a few of character animations (although this certainly creates a rather monotonous atmosphere despite its original idea), but because there’s again not enough variety, making each turn of the wheel and generation look like the last. The music is calming at first, but after a while it simply disappears into the background and in some cases stops completely.
Animated cutscenes or at least some sort of rewarding graphical presentation in some cases would have been better than reading through all the text. Even with a low budget which can’t compete with mainstream strategy titles, there should at least have been a bit more to keep the player interested in achieving the next goal, rather than creating a feeling that there’s no real graphical change and progress in the ages one moves through.
A rough diamond in history making
Just looking at strategy titles like the Age of Empires series or Civilization shows how education can be incorporated into a much more fun gameplay experience. Despite its addictive levelling-up system and technological trees, Mousechief’s 7 Grand Steps, Step 1: What Ancients Begat is a rather slow and often tedious experiment which tries to combine hardcore strategy elements with casual gaming and sophisticated storytelling. Where the one succeeds in its accessible main idea and the partly working technical trees and management system, the other disappoints with its less than memorable characters and plot.
The way one has to think about certain decisions and the overall meaning of a short life, birth control and family bonds is certainly a recommendable idea to find in a game, but when so many factors one can’t influence or if one doesn’t see through the inner workings of the system, this leads to a frustrating and annoying gameplay.
What remains is a history lesson in gaming which has to be learned again to be truly satisfying and above all fun with a presentation much in need of improvement. Hopefully, the developer will take the criticism to heart and create Step 2 with fewer gameplay faults and more engaging storytelling.
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