Ancient Terrible Things
- Designer: Simon McGregor
- Publisher: Pleasant Company Studios
- Ages: 14+
- Time: 60-90 mins
- Times Played: 3, with review copy provided by Pleasant Company Studios / GameSalute
Ancient Terrible Things was pitched to me as a “pulp horror” adventure game – the theme here has players acting as jungle adventurers exploring scary locations to collect Ancient Secrets (which, of course, provide terrifying Victory Points).
The board has six locations along the dark scary jungle river. Each of these spaces has a special action associated with it and each has a “ominous encounter” card on it. On the far right, there is an expedition track of spaces that has a Terrible Thing token on each space. The game continues until all of the Terrible Thing tokens have been collected by the players (13 in a 4p game) or the entire deck of Ominous Encounters has been depleted (36 cards in a 4p game).
Each player starts the game with any things printed on his player mat, one additional token of each color and gets 3 Feat Cards dealt to him from the Feat deck.
On a turn, there are 7 phases –
1) Riverboat Phase – if all the encounter spaces are empty of cards, you deal out new cards onto the six locations on the board. You also add a colored token to each space as depicted on the board. The different tokens are:
- Green – Focus tokens – allow you to re-roll individual Focus dice
- Blue – Feat tokens – you can increase a Feat die roll by 1
- Yellow – Treasure tokens – you can spend these at the Trading post
- Purple – Courage tokens – can be used to overcome encounters without rolling
2) Exploration phase – Move your pawn to a space with an encounter card still on it. You collect any tokens that are on the space. You may choose to take the special action associated with the space you moved on – the possibilities are:
- Collect a token
- Be start player for the next round
- Exchange tokens with an opponent
- Discard and redraw feat cards
- Perform a desperate act (see Phase #3)
All of these actions are listed on one side of the player aid, so it’s easy to know what your options are…
3) Desperation Phase
If you choose to, you can spend a number of purple courage tokens equal to the number in the upper left purple circle on the Encounter card. If you do so, you automatically win the challenge, you take the encounter card and place it in your scoring pile and skip the next phase. If you choose not to spend purple tokens, then you move into the Encounter Phase
4) Encounter Phase
Here is where you get to roll dice! You are trying to get certain combinations of numbers on those dice. Your primary goal is to overcome the encounter. In order to do this, you need to roll numbers/combinations that match the criteria listed on the bottom of the Encounter card. Additionally, depending on which scenario you are playing, you can earn tokens for certain combinations on the dice (whether or not you end up defeating the encounter card).
On each turn, you always get to roll the 5 green Focus dice. You may then play Swag or Feat cards which may allow you to add yellow Luck dice, red Panic dice and blue Feat dice to your dice pool. Once you have figured out which dice that you will roll, you roll them and hope for the best!
You may choose to re-roll your dice two times to get the combinations that you want. The catch is that when you re-roll, you must re-roll all of the dice (except for the Red Panic dice which can never be re-rolled). If you choose to spend your green Focus tokens, you can choose to re-roll a specific die for each Focus token spent At any point during this phase, you may also choose to play Feat cards or employ a Swag card which may alter the die rolls or otherwise aid you.
Once you have finished your rolling and die altering, you “spend” the dice in whichever way you see fit. You can either defeat the Encounter card or earn tokens per the chart on your Scenario card. You can only use a particular die in one combination per turn. When meeting combinations, the pictured combinations show the minimum number needed to complete the combination – so if you see a pair of “3”s, that means that (3,3), (4,4), (5,5), or (6,6) would satisfy that combination.
Once you have allocated your dice, you collect the appropriate tokens or encounter cards.
You should also check at this point if you can collect an Achievement card – these are given to the first player to collect three encounters of each type.
5) Terrible Thing phase
If you failed to overcome the encounter – whether you didn’t roll the right dice or you chose not to spend your dice to overcome the card – you discard the encounter card and take the lower available Terrible Thing token. These tokens are ordered in severity – the lowest cards are worth 0VP and as you move up the track, the penalties associated with them grow to a maximum of -3 VP. Note that if you take the final token on the track, the game ends immediately
6) Trading Post Phase
You move your pawn to the Trading post space. Next to this space, there are three Swag cards face up on the board. You buy any of them that you can afford – you spend your collected Yellow tokens to buy the cards – the cost is found in the upper right corner of the card. Each of these cards gives you some rule breaking ability. Once you have bought cards, slide them all to the left and then fill in the 3 slots from the right. If you did not buy any cards, the left most card is discarded and a new card is dealt on the right.
7) Refresh Phase
You draw new Feat cards to bring your hand back up to three. Any Swag cards that were used in the turn are returned to their face up side so they can be used again next turn.
End of game
The game ends when the Encounter Deck is empty or when the final Terrible Thing token is collected. At this point, players add up their points. Encounter cards are worth VPs equal to the number in the upper left corner. Some Swag cards give VPs as do each of the Achievement cards. The player who has the first player marker at the end of the game scores 1VP. Finally, players subtract VPs based on their collected Terrible Thing tokens. The player with the most VPs wins the game.
My thoughts on the game
While I’m normally not into “thematic” games, this is really a dice game with a “pulp horror” theme added in via the lush artwork and flavor text in the rules/cards. The overall effect is well done, and the game is quite nice to look at and play.
Unlike many thematic games, there really isn’t a story arc in the game. Each of the turns follows the exact same phases as all the others, and the decisions are mostly the same. Admittedly, due to the setup, the encounter cards get more difficult as you move through the three phases of cards. The VP rewards for the harder encounters increase as do the potential penalties (the Terrible Thing tokens increase in VP penalty as they are collected).
I have seen players win with a straightforward strategy of trying to defeat each Encounter as they come across them, and I have seen players win using more of a sandbagging strategy – where they purposefully ignore the Encounter cards while the penalties are -0VP or -1VP. Instead, they use their dice to collect as many tokens as possible and picking up as many Swag cards as possible. Then, when the stakes are higher, they have a much higher chance of defeating the most valuable Encounter cards. The game lasts 9 turns in a 4p game, 8 turns in a 3p game and 9 turns in a 2p game – so you have to figure out your plan given that you have a fairly limited number of things to do on your turn.
There is a bit of luck involved with the Swag cards as some seem to be better than others (though I don’t really have any data to back this – this is just my opinion from playing the game). However, in a game that uses dice, what is a bit more luck? To me, it is no big deal.
The turns move fast, and this is a good thing, because there really isn’t anything to do when it’s not your turn. You can only do limited planning between turns – as you really have to wait to see what is left on the board when your turn comes up to do anything. Anyways, you end up rolling the same dice each turn regardless of which space you choose, so the decision is still mostly the same.
Quibbles – really two things. First, I’m not sure why the game goes for 9 turns in 4p/2p but only 8 turns in 3p. I’m guessing that this is a typo in the rules as I can’t seem to find any mechanical reason why the game would need to have fewer turns in that arrangement. Second, there is another unfortunate typo in the rules on the full-page illustration of a sample turn. Using this as a reference in our first game confused us for a bit until we figured out that there was a typo.
Component quality in my copy is nice. The tokens are nicely die-cut and a hefty thick weight. The cards are cut nicely though perhaps a bit thin. After about 7 games, there are some nicks to the cards and they have a slight bend to them from shuffling. The board artwork is perhaps a little dark, but all of the things you need to read for gameplay are easy to find and easy enough to read.
Overall, this is a nice tactical game that I have enjoyed with my game group. In our most recent game, there was a bit of groupthink as we all tried to bulk up on tokens and swag cards in the early turns and then each made a move to get the more valuable cards, but at this point I don’t think that there is a dominant strategy. While the encounter cards never change (they are all used in a 4p game), the order in which they come out, as well as the combination of Swag and Feat cards that you might have at any given time, make each turn a new tactical problem to approach. It remains to be seen if this will become a keeper, but it is still making its way onto the table, and that’s a good prognostic sign at this point.
Thoughts from the Other Opinionated Gamers
Dan Blum (1 play): I wasn’t too impressed with this. It’s not awful, but I didn’t find it engaging at all, in large part because the all-or-nothing die rolling is boring, as the only decision is whether or not to re-roll, which is usually obvious. There are cards you can buy which allow a few more decisions, but I doubt they are balanced at all; I bought every dice-manipulation card I could get my hands on and still didn’t manage to defeat more than two encounters.
I can’t imagine wanting to play this more than To Court the King, to name just one better dice game.
Karen Miller (1 play): This game is okay for what it is, but it is not my kind of game. I even almost won the one time I played and have no burning desire to revisit it. I am usually a fan of games I do well in, for what that’s worth. If this type of game appeals to you, then I think you won’t find anything to not like here.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it!
- I like it. Dale Y
- Not for me… Dan Blum, Karen Miller