Being a fan of Cthulhu and infinite madness, I was really keen to crack open Ancient Terrible Things. And I’m glad I did! In this dice-based game, you play the role of an intrepid explorer sailing down a dank and murky jungle river, trying to defeat Ominous Encounters at Fateful Locations to earn Ancient Secrets (good) and avoiding Terrible Things (bad).
As soon as you open the large dark green box, you’re treated to the gritty art and graphic design of Rob van Zyl, who also designed the game with Simon McGregor. At first glance I thought the art was a little rough and unfinished, but then as I played I realised that it suits the universe perfectly. The board is nice and thick and the character pieces, being just wooden poker chips with the characters faces on, are chunky and satisfying. The components are all great quality and this game has safely sat in my collection for years without any major wear and tear on the pieces or cards. One gripe would be the use of a font for rulebook headings which is, or very strongly resembles, the Angry Birds font. This always pulls me out of the theme a little.
Other than my strong aversion to the font, the theme flows quite strongly throughout the game with the art being suitably grimy and Lovecraftian and the flavour text running through the game doing a great job of setting the scene. The six Fateful Locations are favourites of mine; Accursed Shrine, Ghastly Gorge, Sinister Chateau, Yawning Chasm, Rusted Gunsloop and Crumbling Ruin. All lovely places to take a date.
The Encounters are divided into 4 types, matching the resources you earn. A green Pitfall represents a jungle hazard. A blue Villain usually portrays a mortal foe, swayed by the darkness. Yellow Artefacts are mysterious objects that you can sell on to curse the buyer instead of yourself and earn a bit of that sweet sweet gold and the purple Horrors are the unnatural creatures lurking through the dark, waiting to devour your sanity.
The rulebook makes setup easy, with clear instructions on how to set up for various player counts. It has a great table presence but the art is quite dark (physically dark), so as tempted as you might be to dim the lights to match the mood it’s not recommended.
The rulebook is also easy to follow with illustrated examples and solid explanations.
Each player will get a character board, character pawn, a Scenario card which allows for easy and hard modes, one token of each resource (gold, green Focus, blue Feat and purple Courage) and any additional resource as indicated by their character board.
The game is played over several rounds, with each player taking one turn per round and each turn made up of 7 phases.
1. Riverboat Phase:
Start off by dealing cards from the Ominous Encounters deck into the numbered slots on each location. If there were no cards in the Ominous Encounters deck at the start of the phase, the game immediately ends, leading to Unspeakable Events which I’ll cover later on. Otherwise take resource tokens from the supply matching the Encounter type shown on the card and place the tokens on that Fateful Location.
2. Explore Phase:
Choose an active Location (one that has an active Encounter card) and move your pawn there, immediately taking the resource token there. You may also use the Location Action, which allows you a variety of options from taking an additional token, taking the Map to start the next round first or swapping resources for a different type.
3. Desperation Phase:
Every Ominous Encounter has a purple number on the top left, its Ancient Secrets. These are the victory points you’re collecting. On the Desperation Phase, if you’re not sure you’ll be able to beat it safely, you can pay an equal amount of purple Courage tokens to simply take the card. There’s no shame in avoiding battle this way, and when you reach some of the later stronger encounters you’ll be glad you’ve stocked up on those delicious purple tokens.
4. Encounter Phase:
If, like me, you believe that the luck of the dice rolling gods is forever on your side then chances are you skipped the Desperation Phase and snatched up your dice in eager anticipation. You’ll be rolling and spending a pool of dice to beat the Encounters. If you win you get the card and gain resources with any unspent dice. If you should fail, the Terrible Thing occurs in the next phase.
To start you’ll have 5 green dice. You can now play any Swag (see later Trading Post Phase) or Feat cards from your hand to add or switch dice from the other dice pools, Luck, Feat and Panic.
You will then roll your dice pool. You may choose to re-roll up to 2 times, tracking this on the re-roll track on your character board. If you choose this option, you can do a Focused or Unfocused Re-roll. An Unfocused Re-roll is simply picking up all dice and rolling again.
Focused on the other hand allows you to re-roll any number of dice by spending green Focus tokens.
Before or after each re-roll you may perform a Feat (playing a card from your hand then immediately discarding) or using Equipment (playing Swag cards bought from the Riverboat to influence play, then exhausting the card for that round). You can do these actions in any order and any number of times.
To win an Encounter, each card shows a dice combination needed to succeed. For instance, The Book Of Unspeakable Truth requires you to roll five dice showing a 4 or higher. This will net you 8 points. A Bad Egg on the other hand requires a run of three dice, with lowest value being a 3. So if you rolled a 4,5,6 you’d be successful.
Once the Encounter is defeated, any additional dice can be checked against the Scenario card to earn additional resources. You could choose NOT to defeat the Encounter and
instead spend all five dice on resources, taking a Terrible Thing token as well. Earlier in the game the Terrible Thing tokens can be safe to take, meaning you could use it to stock up for later in the game.
5. Terrible Thing Phase:
If you lost, you take the lowest available Terrible Thing token. As mentioned in the previous phase, depending on the draw, some of the lowest ones could be worth 0 making them safe to take. The 4 values are 0, -1, -2 and -3.
If you take the last token, the game ends immediately and goes to The Unspeakable Event section.
6. Trading Post Phase:
Move your character pawn to the Trading Post, your friendly shop in the middle of a jungle filled with monsters and cultists. They clearly don’t do much business based on foot traffic. At the Trading Post, you can move any existing card there to the Old Stock Pile, refreshing from the top of the Swag deck. Then you can buy as many Swag cards as you want, paying the gold value shown. You can also spend 2 Treasure tokens to refresh up to 3 cards, again replacing from Swag deck, but like my hero Scrooge McDuck I am often loath to spend my hard earned monster cash on something that may benefit others.
Then refresh the deck, remembering to ask for a purchase receipt to claim as a business expense and head over to the next phase.
7. Refresh Phase:
Nice and simple, draw Feat cards until you have a hand of three and turn all of your exhausted Swag cards face up. Then swim your character back over to the Riverboat to try and still your maddening mind to prepare for pressing deeper into the jungle.
The Unspeakable Event (otherwise known as What My Toddler Did)
If the last Terrible Thing token was taken or there are no more Encounters cards in the deck at the start of the Riverboat, the game ends.
Tally your Ancient Secrets, including Encounters you overcame, Swag cards that might earn you Secrets, Achievement cards and the Map. Then subtract any Terrible Thing tokens for a final sanity score. The winner will be the one with the highest points and receive the Battered Journal, in recognition of being the Lone Survivor, allowing you to return home to fame and fortune. Just kidding, you’re committed to an asylum and the Journal is burned in the furnace.
Overall, I’ve always loved this game - Ancient Terrible Things. I think I’m swayed by the fact that it was one of my first games, you never forget your firsts. The theme is Lovecraftian enough to satisfy me and just Lovecraftian enough not to put my wife off.
I love the tension of the dice roll when trying to overcome a jungle trap or supernatural beasty but again, it’s a common play style with the theme just pulling it over the line for me. I’ve heard it compared to Elder Signs but I’ve not played that so can’t give an opinion there.
If you like Cthulhu-like insanity inducing adventures and rolling dice and not having to read a lot, this one might just be the one for you.