Ancient Terrible Things is a push-your-luck dice rolling game designed by Simon McGregor and published by Pleasant Company Games. 2-4 players will take on the role of intrepid explorers as they delve into the mist-wreathed secrets of a dark jungle river. Along the way they will encounter terrifying foes, unearth precious artifacts, and desperately gather lost knowledge, because only one of you is making it back to tell the tale…
(Important note – our copy of Ancient Terrible Things is 1st edition. The 2nd edition was Kickstarted in March and has some graphical differences, but the core game remains unchanged)
On each turn in Ancient Terrible Things, you will guide your intrepid explorer to one of the six Fateful Locations where you will gather treasure and face an Ominous Encounter. If the dice favor you, you will uncover Ancient Secrets which will hopefully be enough to spare you from the Unspeakable Event…
Each of the game’s six Fateful Locations has a particular power, available as soon as you arrive there (regardless of whether you succeed or fail at the Location’s Encounter). Also, each Encounter spawns treasure at its Location, and you will be able to pick that up, too, before you challenge whatever Ominous Encounter you find there.
After picking which Fateful Location you will travel to, you must survive an Ominous Encounter. This is where the game’s dice rolling, push-your-luck core is revealed. Each Ominous Encounter card calls for a specific combination of dice (sets, runs, etc.). You will roll your pile of dice in an attempt to meet the required combinations so as to overcome the Ominous Encounter and gather whatever spoils it may promise. Normally you’ll just be rolling a pile of green dice, but various pieces of Swag can be purchased to add additional dice, all of which have slightly different re-rolling mechanics.
Most p-y-l games give you a certain number of rerolls, since, naturally, you are trying to roll for specific things. Ancient Terrible Things gives you two rerolls per turn (without the use of any special items, etc.), but here’s the deviousness – if you use one of these rerolls (called Unfocused Rerolls), you have to roll all your dice! That’s downright evil if you’re one die away from the set you need!
You get around this by spending Focus Tokens, one of the four resources you will gather as you adventure along the jungle river. For each Focus Token spent, you may reroll a single die, and you can do this as many times as you have tokens to spend. It’s a clever little twist on the basic push-your-luck formula that we liked a lot.
The other tokens are Feat, which let you activate your Feat cards to do awesome stuff, Treasure, which act as a currency for your end-of-turn buying phase, and Courage, which will let you outright but your way past Ominous Encounters.
Andrew: I especially think that the Courage tokens are a neat idea – the fact that you could horde them during early encounters to crush larger, more challenging late-game encounters. It’s a way of mitigating the luck-driven gameplay in an interesting way.
But sometimes, all the Swag and Focus in the world isn’t going to get you through an Ominous Encounter. Sometimes the dice just leave you in the lurch, or maybe you don’t want to blow all your resources on trying to overcome an Encounter. Should that happen, you will draw the least-most of the Terrible Things from the Expedition Track. These tokens are worth negative points at the end of the game and as soon as the last one is drawn, the game ends in the Unspeakable Event. The game will also end when the Ominous Encounter deck runs out.
But failing an Ominous Encounter is not all doom and gloom. The good news is that any sets of dice you do have can probably be traded in for extra tokens. That means that early failures make future successes more likely, and that’s a good thing.
Andrew: Yeah, for sure. First of all, though it is definitely typical for push-your-luck games, there is no real element of player interaction. There are ways to grab tokens from other players, but outside of that, there is no way to influence other players, positively or negatively. As I say, that’s pretty typical of the genre, but it’s definitely worth noting.
Jess: True. Also, there are times when it feels too random, and that’s saying a lot about a push-your-luck game. Even with all the tokens and Feat cards, sometimes the dice just screw you, and if that happens to the same player a few times, there is no real catch-up mechanism that can save them.
Andrew: Yeah, for sure. Aside from that, I feel like there are lots of cool Swag cards that help you form scoring strategies (like one that gives bonus points for all your leftover Treasure tokens, for instance), but since gaining resources is somewhat random and the available Swag is completely random, it’s not always possible to get the treasure you need or the strategy you want. It can be really frustrating at times.
Jess: It’s true that failing an Ominous Encounter gives you the chance to grab tokens, and that’s awesome, but it also brings the game closer to finishing (because of the Encounter Track), so it’s not like failing an Encounter really gives you a chance to regroup – those Terrible Things are on their way and only one of us is going to survive the sanity-shattering Unspeakable Event…
Ancient Terrible Things is a well-made, well-designed dice-chucker. It has a lot of chaotic elements, but there is enough player agency that it never feels truly unfair. Though the randomness will deter some, we think it makes for a light, fun romp through the nightmare-infested waters of a forgotten jungle river…or something.