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Review: Ancient Terrible Things (2nd edition)

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Tentacles of horror

Cthulhu seems to be everywhere these days. For an unknowable being whose mere existence causes soul-rending damage to mortal minds, he sure gets around a bit. Your average games shop contains enough of old octopus-face to send an entire continent mad. We’ve got role-playing games, card games, afternoon-sapping epics of games and even a Reiner Knizia abstract tile-laying game with a Cthonic twist. No wonder the world is such a gibbering wreck right now.

It wasn’t always this way. Back in the day, all we had were the pulp scribblings of everyone’s favourite social misfit, Howard Philips Lovecraft. HP’s horrors belonged in the imagination, not on t-shirts. They were indefinable because they were too much to bear. They were unspeakable, unknowable, beyond comprehension. All we get are hints, whispers, ill-countenanced strangers and strange disappearances from shadowy streets in crumbling seaports. It’s not for nothing that ‘nameless’, ‘unmentionable’ and ‘unutterable’ are some of Lovecraft’s favourite words.

Ancient Terrible Things takes this concept and slithers into the abyss with it. Players are adventurers exploring a dark jungle river. Each turn, they travel to a Fateful Location, face an Ominous Encounter and attempt to unlock its Ancient Secrets. If they fail, they unleash a Terrible Thing. The game continues along these lines until it ends with an Unspeakable Event (which is another way of saying ‘the cards run out’). And, rather wonderfully, the winner is ceremonially presented with a battered journal containing unknowable horrors, just before it is hurriedly tossed into the sanatorium fire where it belongs.

So bravo to the designers of Ancient Terrible Things. I copied most of the last paragraph straight from the box because it nails the Lovecraft spirit perfectly. This isn’t a licensed product – at no point is the Cthulhu mythos mentioned, and most of the genre-staples such as sanity and health points are missing. Instead, you get some adventuring equipment and a bunch of numbered dice to help you save the universe. This is only fitting, because there’s nothing that Eldritch horrors fear more than a bunch of 6-sided plastic cubes. They can’t cope with Euclidian geometry, you see.

 

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Tokens of affection

Ancient Terrible Things describes itself as a pulp horror dice game for 2-4 players, but that’s only part of the story. Monsters are afraid of tokens, too. And tokens play such a central role in the game that it’s worth spending some time explaining them.

Ancient Terrible Things comes with four different kinds of tokens, and they act as modifiers which make it a little easier to defeat those Ominous Encounters. First up, we have Focus tokens. Normally, the game allows you to re-roll your basic pool of five dice up to twice, but the catch is that they have to be re-rolled as a set. Focus tokens subvert this rule, and allow you to re-roll individual dice instead.

Then there are Feat tokens. These are linked to the Feat abilities – three special cards held by each player – and allow the use of powerful, one-time changes to the rules. Typically they’ll allow you to add new, beefier dice to your roll, or to reduce the requirements for success.

Next up are Courage tokens. Get enough of these and you can perform a Desperate Act, which means that you get to win the Encounter without rolling any dice at all. This is a powerful option, but it’s not to be used lightly. In fact, it’s often worth saving your Desperate Act until you’re well and truly, well, desperate. And rounding up the token pool is good, old-fashioned cash. This can be spent on on expedition equipment, which gives your rolls a minor buff once per turn.

Got that? Good, because clever use of these tokens is the key to success in Ancient Terrible Things. The game starts by placing Ominous Encounter cards on the six open location slots of the board. At the start, these Encounters are fairly easy to overcome. So, we have the Haunted Ancestor, which only requires a single roll of 6 from the five dice in your initial pool, or the slightly-harder Pit of Spikes, which needs three dice showing 5 or higher. However, by the end of the game, the success conditions become near-impossible to roll without some sort of assistance. If you haven’t amassed a ton of tokens by this point then your rolls will go unmodified and you can expect to lose the game. And you’ll unleash some Ancient Terrible Things on the world, and that’s probably not good.

 

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Dice of doom

Once you’ve grasped the basics of the tokens, gameplay is a breeze. Each turn, you’ll choose an Ominous Encounter to face. Depending on the Encounter’s position on the board, you’ll get an instant bonus which may add to your token pool, allow you to draw Feat cards, or alter the turn order in your favour. Then, if you have enough Courage, there’s the option of performing a Desperate Act and adding the Encounter’s point value straight to your scoring pool.

Then the rolling starts in earnest. By the time you’ve played Feat cards, rolled, modified, re-rolled, played extra Feat cards and re-rolled again, it’s likely that the dice will be showing a set of values that are at least moderately favourable to your cause. You have several options on how to resolve the results; defeating the Ominous Encounter is an obvious choice, but any (or all) of the dice can also be used to generate more of those all-important tokens. It can sometimes be worth failing the easier encounters while the penalties are small and building up tokens instead – or, alternatively, you could mop up the early challenges and enjoy watching your friends fail at the hard stuff. Either way, there’s some enjoyable – if fairly light – strategy here.

And then it’s all over except for the mopping up. If the encounter is won, the accompanying card goes into to your score stack. If you fail a monster is released into the world, and that means negative points. And then it’s time to pass the job of World Saviour to the player to your left.

 

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Squamous judgement of the Elder Gods

It might be the influence of cosmic powers beyond earthly comprehension, but Ancient Terrible Things made quite an impact on my gaming group. We’re a fairly critical bunch, but this is a game that oozed its way into our ‘play again’ list. Sure, the setting is hardly original, and the dice-rolling mechanics are fairly similar to plenty of other games, but Ancient Terrible Things has an undeniable charm that kept us coming back for more.

Part of this is down to the options available when you set up the game. Pleasingly, there’s a choice of game lengths and difficulties; if you build the Encounter deck for a short 2-person game, you’re looking at a quick 20-minute filler. At the other end of the scale a long, 4-person game can easily take a couple of hours. It’s your choice, but it’s a great piece of design which makes Ancient Terrible Things a game which is flexible enough to fill whatever time you have available.

That’s not to say that Ancient Terrible Things doesn’t have a few issues though. My main gripe is that the art is more than a little gloomy. The overwhelming colour palette is dark-green on black, invoking a miasmic torpor which hardly hints of the dice-rolling jinks yet to come. It also makes it hard to read some of the text. Nevertheless, the illustrations themselves are all pulp-fiction comic-book fun, so it’s hardly a major criticism, and the (relatively) bright tokens and colourful dice add a splash of much-needed cheer to the table.

There’s also a potential issue with player interaction. There’s really not enough opportunity to nobble your friends. This means that you’re essentially playing each turn on your own, making the best of the situation as it stands on the board at the time. It’s possible to force a player to choose a harder Encounter than they’d like, and we had one game where clever alteration of the turn order changed everything at the last minute, but such occasions are rare. Luckily, the game moves at quite a pace, so there’s never too much waiting around before it’s your turn to have fun with the dice again.

More positively, the rules are clear, the game is easy to explain and, while it’s a beer-and-pretzels game at heart, there’s just enough decision-making to make it feel worthwhile.  Production quality is also good. The tokens are solid and well-cut, the dice are reasonably heavy, and the cards are made from decent stock.

There’s a chance that you’re sitting there making comparisons to Fantasy Fight’s minor classic Elder Sign. Don’t do that. They’re both dice games set in a universe of unspeakable horror, but that’s where the similarities end. Elder Sign is a more involved, fairly serious game with all of Fantasy Flight’s art resources behind it. In comparison, this game is deliberately lightweight – but it’s also likeable and fun. Cthulhu may be everywhere these days, but there’s still room for more Ancient Terrible Things in your game collection.

7 tentacles out of 10

Links:

Ancient Terrible Things (2nd Edition) at GamesQuest

Ancient Terrible Things: Lost Charter expansion at GamesQuest

Ancient Terrible Things Kickstarter

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