“This expedition was doomed from the beginning… We went out by riverboat, and the captain of the vessel seemed less than pleased to have us aboard. None of us knew what we were getting into. There are…things out here that should have never been tampered with – things that haunt your nightmares. Ever since I dared look where I wasn’t wanted, I’ve heard screams, voices telling me to dig deeper, whispers of truth and madness. I’m listening to them. There’s a temple beneath the waves. The all-seeing is calling out to me. I shall descend into the unknown, and there I will become immortal.” – Passage taken from the journal of Ewan Glover, surviving investigator.
Ancient Terrible things is a game set in the maddening universe of Lovecraftian fiction. Four souls take a trip upon a riverboat to distant lands where secrets lie hidden in the dark. They try their best to uncover these secrets all while attempting to maintain their sanity and survive. Some things shouldn’t be brought to light, however, and such terrible things reach out with grasping tentacles to silence those that poked their noses where they don’t belong. Only one will survive to tell the story of the events that took place on the expedition, but will anyone believe them?
Out of the Box:
Once you crack open the box of Ancient Terrible Things you’ll find:
- 5 Focus Dice (green)
- 2 Luck Dice (yellow)
- 2 Panic Dice (red)
- 2 Feat Dice (blue)
- 32 Courage tokens
- 26 Treasure tokens
- 28 Feat tokens
- 30 Focus tokens
- 6 Modifier tokens
- 16 Terrible Thing tokens
- 1 Map token
- 1 Battered Journal token
- 36 Ominous Encounter cards
- 37 Feat cards
- 26 Swag cards
- 4 Scenario cards
- 4 Achievement cards
- 1 Map card
- 4 Quick Reference/Character mats
- 1 Gameboard
- 1 Rulebook
- 4 Character pawns w/stickers
Tips for Going Insane
In Ancient Terrible Things players fill the shoes of one out of four characters setting out on an expedition to uncover secrets hidden away in a dark jungle river. The goal is to uncover more Ancient Secrets than the other players by the end of the game, triggered when the players set off the Unspeakable Event. Over the course of the game you’ll be rolling dice to match those shown on Ominous Encounter cards. Doing so successfully will earn you a certain number of Ancient Secrets. Beware, however, as failing to overcome an Ominous Encounter will result in releasing a Terrible Thing, which will hurt your score in the end.
There may be a lot of components with Ancient Terrible Things, but setting up the game isn’t as difficult as you’d think. First, take the gameboard and place it in the middle of your play area, whether it be on the table in your riverboat quarters, on the ground in a dark jungle, or just on a kitchen table or game table. Next you’ll build the Ominous Encounters deck by sorting the cards into piles of red, orange, and green cards. Shuffle each pile and and count out the number of cards listed in the rulebook depending on the number of players. Pile the stacks on top of each other, starting with red and ending with green. Then deal Ominous Encounter cards face-up onto the numbered slots of each Fateful Location on the board, starting with Location 1 and ending with Location 6.
Shuffle all the Swag cards and place them on their designated spot on the board. These cards are special items that you can purchase from the Trading Post when you visit there on your turn. Think of items like a revolver, a special artifact, or just something else that can make your trip in the jungle a little less creepy. Take four cards from the Swag deck and place them face-up in the spaces shown next to the deck. Follow this up by shuffling the Feat cards – cards that allow you to spend Feat tokens to unleash a special ability – and place them in their spot on the board, discarding the top card into a discard pile.
The Achievement cards are placed at the bottom of the board where all players can see. The five Focus dice are placed in the middle of the board, with the extra dice (Panic, Luck, and Feat) in reach of all players. Place the Feat, Treasure, Courage, and Focus tokens in their own respective piles near the gameboard in reach of everyone.
Now it’s time to add the nasty bits to the game. Take all the Terrible Thing tokens and shuffle them around, ensuring they’re all face-down. Draw a number of tokens relating to the number of players, which can be found in the rulebook. Flip the drawn tokens face-up and place them on the Expedition Track on the board, starting with the lowest number of tentacles first at the bottom and moving in ascending order to the top of the track.
Each player will choose a character and take their respective pawn, character mat, and three tokens of each type. Make sure to choose a Scenario (each of the four cards has a front and back for an easy or hard game) and take a Scenario card, placing it face-up on the side you’ve chosen. The player pawns are placed on the Captain’s Riverboat Location and the game is ready to begin!
A game of Ancient Terrible Things is played out in rounds, where each player takes a turn. During the player turn the gameplay advances through different phases. Essentially what you’ll do is travel from the Captain’s Riverboat to a Fateful Location and try to uncover Ancient Secrets there. Then you’ll head to the Trading Post, and finally back to the Riverboat and wait for the other players to finish. Let’s break down a turn into its phases to see how it gets played out.
During the turn there are seven phases:
- Riverboat phase
- Explore phase
- Desperation phase
- Encounter phase
- Terrible Thing phase
- Trading phase
- Refresh phase
Only start this phase if there are no Encounters on the board. Deal cards from the Ominous Encounters deck and place them face-up on the numbered Location slots in ascending order of numbered Locations. Take resource tokens matching those shown on the Encounter cards and place them at their respective Location. If there are no more cards in the Encounter deck during this phase, the game immediately ends and the Unspeakable Event takes place.
In this phase you’ll move your pawn to an active Location (one that currently has an Encounter card) and attempt to uncover Ancient Secrets. Once you’re at the Location take any resource tokens on the Location and add them to your stash. You may then take the special Location Action shown on the Location. This usually involves taking extra resource tokens, drawing Feat cards, taking the Map token, or a few other tasks.
During this phase you may spend Courage tokens equal to the number shown on the current Encounter card to immediately overcome it and add it to your score pile. This is a way to avoid having to roll dice to get the card. There is one Location that allows you to spend tokens to succeed at any other Encounter on the board, essentially giving you the opportunity to overcome two Encounters in one turn.
This phase is the meat and potatoes of Ancient Terrible Things. During the Encounter phase you will roll dice to match those shown on the Encounter card. Dice combinations are specific, and usually follow one (or more) of the following examples:
- High Numbers – a single die showing a specific number or higher
- Pairs of Dice – dice showing the same number, specific or higher
- Blocks of 3 or More Dice – 3 or more dice showing the same number, specific or higher
- Runs of 3 or More Dice – dice showing numbers in sequence, specific or higher
When you roll dice for an Encounter, you do so in steps. First you take all five Focus dice to form a dice pool. Then you may play any Swag or Feat cards that add Luck, Panic, or Feat dice to the pool. Then you roll your final dice pool. After your initial roll you may re-roll all of the dice up to two times for free. Panic dice can never be re-rolled, and Focus tokens can be spent to re-roll individual Focus dice.
Before or after each roll you can perform a Feat (play a Feat card) or use equipment (turn an equipment card face-down and use its ability).
Once you’ve finished rolling dice you compare your result to the dice needed to overcome the Encounter. If you succeed you take the Encounter card and place it in your score pile. If you fail, however, you must take the bottom-most Terrible Thing token from the Expedition Track and place it on your character mat. During this time you may also spend dice to fulfill Scenario abilities listed on your chosen Scenario card.
Terrible Thing Phase
If you failed to overcome your Encounter then you’ll get a Terrible Thing token as mentioned above. Discard the Encounter card to the Rumors section of the board and take the bottom-most Terrible Thing token from the Expedition Track. If this is the last token on the track, the game ends immediately and the Unspeakable Event occurs.
Trading Post Phase
In this phase you’ll move your pawn to the Trading Post, where you can spend Treasure tokens to purchase fine Swag cards to add to your arsenal. You may buy any of the face-up cards shown in the row on the Trading Post area. You don’t have to make a purchase, and sometimes you just can’t afford anything. If, however, a card is purchased, shift all remaining cards to the left and deal a new Swag card to the right-most space on the track. If all spaces are still full (if you didn’t buy anything), return the left-most card to the bottom of the deck, shift the remaining cards, and deal a new one to the track.
In this final phase of the turn you’ll draw Feat cards from the Feat deck until you have three cards in your hand and turn all Exhausted (face-down) Swag cards in your area face-up.
Once each player has taken a turn a round is over. If the Encounter deck is empty at the end of the round the Unspeakable Event occurs. To begin a new round, simply place all the character pawns back on the Riverboat Location and continue playing through the turns.
The game meets a terrifying end once the Unspeakable Event is triggered. Once this happens, players total up the number of Ancient Secrets they’ve uncovered (by totaling the numbers listed on all of the Encounter cards in your score pile). Then each player subtracts the penalty value of each Terrible Thing token they’ve acquired (ranging from zero to three) from their final score. The player with the highest score is the lone survivor of the expedition and winner of the game! The winning player briefly receives the Battered Journal token as a show of victory before they’re committed to an asylum and the Journal is tossed in the furnace.
Is Surviving Really Worth It?
Ancient Terrible Things really surprised me with how insanely fun it was. (See what I did there?) I’m not a big fan of dice games, but this one has an interesting Yahtzee-like mechanic built into it that makes it very interesting. I remember playing Yahtzee with the family from as far back as I can remember, and when you wrap that up in a Lovecraftian package it just screams awesomeness.
The game offers replayability in the sense that it’s random each game. What I mean by this is, each game when you play the Ominous Encounter cards are added to the game randomly. Sure, if you play the game four or five times you’ll eventually see them all, but every game just won’t be the same. The Encounters switch up the gameplay and range from easy to just plain ridiculous (or so it feels sometimes), and it always makes for a fun time.
With the use of Feat and Swag cards you can turn the tables on the other players, sometimes stealing resources from them, avoiding getting Terrible Thing tokens from certain types of Encounters (as each Encounter has a specific type) or just straight up rolling more dice when you have Encounters. Ultimately it comes down to the dice roll, but there’s still some opportunity there for you to switch things up in a pinch.
Honestly, the only thing I can say I don’t like about Ancient Terrible Things is its dependency on luck. During one playthrough I practically steamrolled by using Focus tokens to roll specific dice, and I ended up getting exactly what I needed each time. If you are rolling poorly (here’s to you, Roland) then the game will simply not be fun for you. Sometimes not even Feat cards or Swag equipment can help you. Before you know it you’ll be knee-deep in Terrible Thing tokens and you’ll sink before you can even try to swim.
Still, Ancient Terrible Things has remained fun with each play I’ve gotten in. Fans of Lovecraftian fiction will certainly love this game, and I’d say it’s a great gateway to get new players into heavier games than those like Yahtzee, which this game draws from. I’ll warn you though, too much thinking about and playing this game will stick into your brain like nothing you’ve ever encountered before. If you don’t believe me, just listen to what Yog-Sothoth has to say!
Wait, you mean you can’t hear him?
Thanks to Game Salute for providing a review copy of Ancient Terrible Things for review!
- great use of theme
- gameplay mechanics expand on those that work
- artwork is unique and stylish
- offers plenty of replayability and can even throw in some “screw your neighbor” gameplay
- great components
- relies heavily on luck, which can turn away some gamers
- doesn’t offer a lot of strategic play