The doomed expedition was shrouded in whispered rumours, only a single explorer returned, carrying a battered journal of fanatic scribblings. Inside was filled with descriptions of a sinister chateau and a ghastly gorge, encounters with a deranged cult protecting an alien carcass and other ancient things that were too hard to describe. The Heiress was not finished reading the journal before she had already made the decision to consign it to the sanatorium furnace. No one else needed to know any more information about awakening these terrible things.
Ancient Terrible Things was released by Pleasant Company games and they describe it as a pulp horror dice game. You'll notice the box art outside and most of the content art inside all matches up, giving you the feeling of travelling down a dark jungle river in this pulp horror setting. Among the contents inside you’ll see the playing components almost set apart, being brighter and more colourful so they stand out so you can easily see what you're using. These include various coloured dice that you'll roll as you play the game, character tokens with stickers to apply their art to each face (making sure to note that the colour of the board doesn’t match the colour of the art background, I did my first stickers incorrect by accident) and also the encounter cards are different difficulty with each having a separate-coloured back to warn you how dangerous they are becoming. And don’t forget a punch board of tokens, with the dim terrible thing tokens being used for gameplay, while the brighter coloured tokens are the resources you hoard on the character mats during the game.
The rulebook comes with a full page spread for setting up, so everything is clear and easy what it does and where it goes. The game comes with a variety of different set up options, each player count will have a slightly different number of cards and tokens available to keep it balanced, and in these counts there will also be a number variation based on whether you're looking for a short or long game, finally choose from two different scenarios to play which gives an easy or hard game experience. When you're ready to go just start some dice rolling, all the rules are easily recapped from the player aid mats or on the cards themselves.
The gameplay for Ancient Terrible Things follows the same pattern every round. There will be a different encounter at each of the 6 map locations, you choose one to challenge, gain location effects from where you have travelled to, see if you can overcome the encounter through courage and determination, and if not then attempt to beat it through the use of dice rolling, Yahtzee style. Every encounter card will display a pattern or combination that you'll either need to match or beat in order to defeat the encounter. If that seems that you might struggle, and some of these can be slightly tricky, you also have some fate cards that can change the course of your exploring by giving you options to mitigate dice rolls or other beneficial effects, providing you can cover their costs, and even if you fail you can still exchange your dice for more resources, so a turn is never wasted. The different scenarios available determine what resources you can obtain by the combinations of dice you may trade in. Once you’re done attempting to overcome the encounter, either you succeed and return to the riverboat, taking back some Ancient Secrets with you (the scoring criteria for the endgame), or you’ll fail and watch the points disappear to the rumours pile while you are just left holding a Terrible Thing token, negative points for the end of the game. Finally, once back to the boat you’ll embark on a touch of shopping, spend any gold tokens picked up during your exploring in order to acquire yourself some awesome swag. Repeat this each round until the jungle has been emptied of encounters or too many terrible things have been awakened, then just have the biggest collection of ancient secrets to win and leave with the battered journal.
One thing that comes up in the game is a variable turn order - whoever owns the map starts each round. One of the locations lets you take the map, but otherwise it just remains in place. What this means is that a player can, through no fault of their own, always be positioned to be last in the round, or only have the worst options available to them. Whilst it isn’t exactly a game killer it can be detrimental to a player’s ability to choose the best way to acquire end game points, and couple this with the game involving dice rolling, means some times players could be very unlucky, especially if they cannot obtain any sort of mitigation. However, as mentioned before, dice not used for beating encounters can be exchanged for resources later on, meaning no matter how terrible your rolling is the turn will never be wasted, and this should help you build up for future turns. The game has come with a few expansions, such as The Lost Charter, which have introduced new ways to mitigate any bad rolls or terrible turn position, as well as making the start of the game less punishing for unlucky players. The game is also based off the Dice Quest system which features in future titles from the publisher such as Konja, meaning that the mechanics are a living system and there is a ‘version 1.5’ rulebook available online, this offers a few improvements to the gameplay that have been developed over the years and through multiple games.
Ancient Terrible Things is pretty fun to play and it has some nice options for varying up play when you come back to it, but it can seem a little bit repetitive at times, which, when coupled up with the issues of dice rolling luck and the turn order, can mean that on its own I wouldn’t consider the game a Must Play. It is 10 years old and just the base game this shows through. However, once you start mixing in the improvements, the game does start to improve and offer more reasons to come back to play it. The lower score than expected is just for the game as it is currently. There is also a reprint planned which would take Ancient Terrible Things up to the 2nd edition standards, which addresses many of the issues mentioned already, and for lucky owners of the base game an upgrade pack will be made available so they won’t have to buy a completely new copy of the game.