[REVIEW] Ancient Terrible Things + The Lost Charter Expansion

[First published on Tabletop Tribe]

I first discovered Ancient Terrible Things (ATT) when I saw the artwork and immediately fell in love with it. It’s not to everyone’s taste, especially to those more used to the more refined art of the Fantasy Flight Games of this world. But I found the rough, comic book styling perfect for the pulp horror theme in this exploration of a jungle’s heart of darkness.

Ancient Terrible Elder Signs

Terrible Ancient Things vs. Ancient Ter… well you get the picture.

Whilst there are plenty of cards to be played featuring this funky art style, ATT is at its heart a dice-roller and the most immediate comparison likely to be made is to Elder Sign.

Imagine a competitive version of Elder Sign, without the custom dice, that’s less Lovecraft and a more… Scooby Doo, and you’re fairly close to the vibe here.

Although the dice in ATT aren’t custom, they share similarities with Elder Sign: there are five basic green dice (to Elder Sign’s six) that can be augmented with card play by yellow and red dice (plus blue in ATT) to help mitigate all that luck. There’s also a different reroll dice mechanic at work (see Gameplay below).

The similarities are apparent but the two games play quite differently.

ATT only supports up to four players (five with the expansion) as opposed to Elder Sign’s eight (although I challenge anyone to play eight player and not die of boredom between their turns), and is played on a board, although The Lost Charter expansion allows you to dispense with the board and use cards to represent locations.

In Elder Sign location are handled by cards that constantly change as they are investigated and overcome. In ATT there are six fixed locations that are simply repopulated with new horrors as required.

Components

As well as the gem-style dice (five green Basic, two yellow Luck, two red Panic and two blue Feat), there’s a game board, four player boards, tokens and several decks of cards.

The board is a nice fold-out paper-backed board as opposed to a cheaper jigsaw one, and whilst the cards aren’t fabric quality they’re not cheap-feeling, although they do feature black backgrounds/edges, so it remains to be seen how well they’ll stand up to shuffling and play before looking a little tired.

Black cards means quickly worn edges, but it almost adds to the rough’n’ready appeal of the theme.

The tokens are a good thickness and size, unlike the slightly fiddly ones seen in many games (like Elder Sign). The player markers are wooden discs with stickers. I’m usually not a fan of stickers but these don’t require too much accuracy to place as they don’t go all the way to the edge. There are only eight of them anyway and seeing as there’s two of each you can get away with just applying one and keeping the other as a spare.

Worth doing for quick set-up as well as organisation.

The box insert is pretty rubbish, so if you want to avoid baggies then invest in a sectioned plastic box, which isn’t a bad idea anyway as it allows you to start playing quicker — just pop the lid and you’re ready to go. It also pads out the insert enough to store the cards securely without them washing around the interior.

Set-up

Thanks to the board, which has printed locations for all card decks, set-up is fairly straightforward. You just allocate the various decks to their positions, pop the various tokens into piles/cups, players choose a character and player board along with any starting tokens as advised by the rulebook/player boards and place all the corresponding character tokens on the River Boat space.

Players move from the Trading Post back on board the River Boat at the start of each round.

A rule book chart dictates how many cards to use to create the Ominous Encounter deck with (hereafter referred to simply as Encounters!), based on the number of players and the length of game you want to play. These Encounter cards are separated into three difficulties, and the deck is constructed progressively from Easy (green) through Intermediate (orange) to Hard (red).

You don’t need any explanation to see these are three difficulties.

The first six (easy) Encounter cards are dealt onto the six board locations, adding any tokens indicated on the card. Lastly you randomly select the requisite number of Terrible Thing tokens (again the amount depends on the number of players and the length of game) and place them face up, in ascending order (depending on the number of tentacles — zero, one, two or three) on the Expedition Track on the board.

Each player is dealt three Feat cards. These cards will allow you to activate certain special events and abilities, provided that you have the Feat tokens to pay for them.

Gameplay

(Download Ancient Terrible Things PDF rule book v2.0 here)

Each round the players take turns starting with the player who chose the Boat Captain character (he gets the Map first, which controls starting player and and turn order — don’t worry, it can be stolen!) and moving clockwise around the table, to travel to one of the six locations to attempt its Encounter.

Encounters come in four varieties: Pitfall, Villain, Artifact and Horror, which also correspond to the four player tokens available.

Encounter types, from left: Horror, Villain, Artefact and Pitfall.

Each Encounter requires the player to throw dice in order to achieve a required result. This might be a matched pair right up to a run of five dice. Success means you win the card and bank the victory points on it. Failure means the card is discarded to the Rumours pile and the player must take a Terrible Thing token, which deducts points come scoring.

Often you’re required to roll a number or higher — so this roll is a success with two 5s and a 6.

If a player completes a number of the same kind of Encounter (usually three), they can claim an achievement card, worth four extra points, although this card can change hands if another player exceeds their haul of that particular Encounter type.

With each attempt players are allowed two re-rolls in standard Yahtzee fashion, however they must roll all the dice again, unless they use Focus tokens to re-roll just the amount of dice they spend tokens for.

Encounters aren’t the only thing worth rolling for — there are tokens to be had!

The great thing is that even if you fail to get your required dice to complete an encounter, you can still use your result to buy various tokens, whether Focus tokens for selective re-rolls, Treasure to buy valuable Swag cards at the Trading Post, Courage to complete Encounters without even rolling your dice for them, and Feat used to buy the abilities of the Feat cards played from your hand.

Tokens can buy you swag, allow you rerolls, use Feat cards or even succeed in Encounters without having to roll!

Once you’ve either completed an Encounter and/or won some tokens, you move your character token to the Trading Post where you have the opportunity to buy as many Swag cards that you can afford. These items might grant you extra dice to roll, ways to score more points or gain the upper hand in some other dastardly way.

Lots of lovely swag!

You then if necessary draw Feat cards back up to your hand size of three, and play passes to the player to your left. The game ends when either the Encounter deck is empty, or the last Terrible Thing token is taken.

Terrible Things

Failure at an Ominous Encounter brings consequences, which get more severe as the game progresses. This takes the shape of Terrible Thing tokens, selected at random at the start of the game.

The tokens feature a number of tentacles from one to three, plus some that have just the side of such an appendage, and these count as zero. Once selected the tokens are arranged in ascending order on the Terrible Thing track at the right of the board.

Terrible Things become more severe as the game goes one — more tentacles means more terrible!

When a player fails to get the required result for an Encounter they discard it to the Rumours pile and take a Terrible Thing token, which counts as negative points for each tentacle featured. Because of the ascending value, players might get away with failing a few Encounters early in the game with relative impunity, although they must still take the zero value tokens, which might have implications later (good or bad).

When the last Terrible Thing token is claimed the game immediately ends (so you don’t complete the round), thus it can be a tactical ploy to deliberately fail an Encounter and end the game if you believe you’re out in front on points.

The Lost Charter

(Download The Lost Charter PDF rule book v1.0 here)

At the time of writing there is a single, expansion for ATT called The Lost Charter that adds a fifth player, solo play, another type of dice, rules for character Obsessions plus more Ominous Encounter, Swag, Achievement and Feat cards.

There are also three new types of Encounters — Revelations, Warnings and Events — which can change up the game play a little and allow you to utilise those new purple Revelation dice.

All the new components are modular, so you can choose to include any or all/none of them.

Last but certainly not least, The Lost Charter provides you with a travel-friendly version of the game, which is rather thematically apt for a game about a river boat journey.

This portability is achieved by the provision of some additional cards that serve in place of the board’s locations, along with the smaller format expansion box that *just* fits everything inside (you’ll have to ditch any plastic token box or take it separately!), and also doubles as a dice tray.

Board vs no board + dice tray

In fact the only thing you can’t fit in from the core box (apart from the board) is the original rule book, so you’ll either have to fold it in half or just store the freely available PDF on your mobile device.

The Low-Down

If your group are fans of Elder Sign but wish it was competitive and played a little faster, as well as having a more generic pulp horror theme, then Ancient Terrible Things should be a no-brainer.

But even if you just enjoy your dice-rolling in general then this provides a great excuse for it, with some satisfying mechanics to help mitigate all the luck.

The art will be divisive. Personally I love it, and there’s no denying that it’s easy to read the text and see required dice on the Encounter cards from across the table, especially compared to Elder Sign.

Play time seems pretty well balanced at all player counts, and also customisable depending on how long you’ve got to spare. I’ve never found a game dragging — in fact often you’ll wish you had just one more turn to execute the dastardly plan you’ve been cultivating.

You might run into trouble with the implementation of the Map, which gives the owner first player privilege. Because of the way it can change hands you might find yourself waiting perhaps seven player turns in a four player game to take your turn, but one the other hand the Map then becomes a item to be fought over… you can almost imagine the characters fighting over it on board the river boat!

My main criticism comes in the form of the Terrible Things tokens. I think the mechanism is fine in principle, but overall the penalty for failing an encounter doesn’t feel particularly harsh, particularly if you’re used to Elder Sign. There’s no personal character penalty in the form of a loss of health or sanity. It’s more like a penalty applied to your expedition. The result is a lowering of the tension that really drives suspense/horror games.

That said, the tension manages to hang in there due to the competitive nature of the game. You’re not solely working against monsters — it’s the other players you really have to worry about!

Overall it’s a great spin on the usual Yahtzee fare, with a novel reroll mechanic at work. The art is great, the play time not too long, and although there are a few opportunities for Take That, nothing is particularly harsh or spiteful. Recommended — it should get way more love and recognition from the community than it does.

Pros:

  • Fantastically thematic artwork.
  • Good components.
  • Easy, well laid-out rules.
  • Scales well to available players/time.
  • Solo play (with the expansion).
  • Travel version (with the expansion).

Cons:

  • Lots of randomness (duh!).
  • Not as suspenseful/tense as something like Elder Sign due to less risk.
  • Turn order mechanic can create slightly boring downtime if you’re unlucky.
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