The derelict shrine looked accursed alright. The cadaverous temple stood just like how the old timer told you before he died, as if he had handed you a photograph of the mossy, sagging stones. You didn’t want to believe the rambling geezer’s warnings about some ominous sealed portal to the unknown, hiding ancient secrets. But there was something behind his hollowed, haunted eyes that bespoke of unspeakable wisdom. The air was heavy with a humid stench, but cold. Everything was deathly calm. Still, you felt something was stirring inside. You could sense it. Confidently you grope at the bundle of dynamite packed away in your satchel. You’re no fool. Crazy for coming here? Sure. But no fool.
How To Play
In this high-stakes pulp action-adventure you are an explorer seeking, facing and overcoming Ancient Terrible Things. Players take on an Intrepid character, all varying slightly in starting swag, to venture down a Dark jungle river, passing through Ominous encounters at Fateful locations to confirm the Ancient secrets (points) of the Fantastical scribblings from the Lone survivor of a previously Doomed expedition. If you fail, you will unleash Terrible things (negative points). And may go Unspeakably mad…
Even I can’t come up with this many colorful adjectives on my own!
Like any risk-taking adventurer worth his fedora, you’ll traipse off into this mysterious rainforest with nothing but dice and mettle. Well, that’s not entirely true. You’ll acquire some gear to even the odds. Player turns follow a strict structure through several phases, yet most are quickly resolved. Like moving your pawn to a new location along the river where you’ll collect a resource token and may opt to resolve its unique action.
Locations are also seeded with Ominous Encounters. If a location’s encounter has already been confronted, you cannot go there until another shows up. Encounters are represented by cards which designate their type, point value and a dice combination to roll in order to overcome it. These obstacles become increasingly more challenging as the game advances…as do the stakes for failing to neutralize them!
Encounters require varying rolls to defeat and their printed combo stipulates the minimum result required. So if it shows a pair of 4’s, then you need a pair of 4’s, 5’s or 6’s to succeed. If it shows a 3-4-5, then that means you must roll a straight of three beginning with any number other than 1 or 2.
Your ammunition in these challenges is dice. Five green Basic dice, to be exact. Or usually. You get up to three rolls. But the twist in this design is that when you choose to re-roll you must chuck all of your dice again. Unless you have a Focus token, which does allow you to re-roll an individual die. Indeed, there other ways to boost your chances. Feat tokens allow you to play Feat cards which can modify and manipulate rolls. They also allow you to increase the value of blue Feat dice, which you can add to rolls with Feat and Swag cards – purchased with Treasure tokens. Swag can also modify your results in other ways. In addition to the Feat dice, cards can give Red panic dice, which add to your dice pool, but can’t be re-rolled or altered. And you can look for yellow Luck dice, which can be re-rolled individually for free. If an encounter looks too ominous to overcome, you can perform a Desperate Act to pay a number of Courage tokens equal to its point value and automatically prevail.
When done rolling, you allocate the results to defeat the encounter and/or acquire tokens of the above resources according to a scenario card in play. If you’re successful against the location’s encounter, you collect the card and will score the points indicated at the end of the game. If you fail – willingly or unwillingly – you must take the next available terrible things token. Early on, this isn’t too terrible, but they get worse. And if all of them are gone before you can pass through every encounter, the expedition ends immediately. Either way, the adventurer who has uncovered the most ancient secrets wins. And while the others are never heard from again, the price of being lone survivor is still high – off to the sanatorium!
Beaten To A Pulp?
Little known board games fact #88: you can do pulp horror without Cthulhu. Sure, H.P. Lovecraft dominated the scene back in the day. And I get that he has this cool cult following now. But there was a wealth of material his contemporaries pumped out in the same 1930s pulp magazines like Weird Tales, Oriental Stories and Spicey Adventures. I’ve never been as engrossed in the urban horror, nor followed the Ancient Ones much. I’m fine with bizarre terror, but prefer it mixed with an action-adventure plot. It retains the mysterious tension while toning down the unsettling occultist elements, even if still present. Ancient Terrible Things mixes a lot of the story elements from pulp’s Golden Years with a heavy tilt towards explorative yarns dating all the way back to King Solomon’s Mines on to Robert E. Howard’s The Fire of Asshurbanipal and on through the second Indiana Jones installment. At least you don’t have to risk life, limb and sanity. Just victory points!
While gameplay and its structed turn phases keep things moving deftly apace, there is still enough going on with a fair amount of fiddly parts that I wouldn’t recommend the design as a gateway game. I’m not sure the pulp setting is as appealing to the majority of non-gamers, anyway – or even gamers, for that matter. Yet it moves surprisingly clean despite the amount of bits sprawled about the table. The superbly designed player boards are largely responsible for facilitating the game’s progress. They keep your items organized, track re-rolls and outline all seven phases for quick and easy reference. Outstanding player aids like the ones in Ancient Terrible Things always bump up a title’s score, in my book!
A vibrant role-playing quality also keeps play intuitively fluid. There are no stats and traits and leveling up, per se. However, feat cards, swag and resource tokens absolutely substitute for skills, abilities, gear and loot. Using a “Master Stroke” to pull an automatic 6, or a Talisman to enhance your dice pool, mimics similar boosts in RPGs. They improve your character for the tests ahead. Indeed, rolling against encounters feels very much like testing skills. And the entire narrative advances inexorably. While the physical space remains constricted, obstacles increase in lethality – representing goons, monsters and indomitable bosses.
I wouldn’t go as far to call it a developed story arc, but the design succeeds in marrying a risky adventurism theme with the pulp horror setting. With a mix of baleful adjectives and over the top titles – accompanied by darkly ambient illustrations – each location, encounter and item eloquently exudes the yarn’s genre. It’s equal parts sincerity, cheesy and homage with an appropriate collection of occult mystery and plain old action-adventure. You might confront the multi-tentacled Thing From Below at the Rusted Gunsloop. Or trip up on the more mundane Forgotten Ordinance, but at the unearthly Accursed Shrine. Fans looking for pulp horror other than Cthulhu will find Ancient Terrible Things a rather good thing.
Yet setting aside, the game is really about risk and opportunity. The early encounters pale in comparison to later ones and the penalties from the first terrible things tokens are usually low, maybe even harmless. Your first trips downriver then present an interesting choice. Do you deliberately fail your encounters? You may not take much of a hit, and you can use your roll to collect resource tokens, instead. The double-sided scenario card lists dice combinations comparable to those required to defeat encounters. If you’d rather use your results to nab one or more of those benefits, you can flat ignore the location’s obstacle, though it counts as a failure. If you can overcome the challenge and still have extra results to also spend on the scenario card, then even better!
In later trips, that scenario card serves as a decent consolation prize if you fail to chuck the necessary results against an encounter. Yes, the points would be juicier, because those challenges are worth way more ancient secrets. But it’s better than coming away empty-handed. The location abilities and seed resource also help to allay total failures. The six spots all have fixed actions you can resolve, like taking a token, stealing the first-player map (worth a point), swapping cards or tokens or even confronting an encounter at another location with a desperate act. So location-based decisions aren’t necessarily just for the encounter present there. However, creatures and obstacles also provide a resource token equivalent to its type that you receive when confronting them.
The biggest risk lies in the total re-roll. Unlike most dice games, you completely wash your results with each toss. It doesn’t work quite as well as I think was probably intended. At first, it seems like a really interesting decision. Do I risk losing what I already have for something better? But if your initial roll isn’t adequate enough, you fail if you don’t try again, anyway. So it’s not really a decision, unless you have enough to spend on the scenario card and are content with stopping. Since you can’t decide what to keep and what to try and improve, the decision to re-roll isn’t really much of a choice in many cases.
Thankfully there are multiple ways to manipulate your rolls, instead. The focus tokens allow you to try again with individual dice, more akin to standard designs in the category. You have the courage tokens to outright defeat an encounter by expending enough and forgoing any rolls – or instead using it totally on the scenario card goodies. Feat cards and swag can provide interesting ways to change the results of one or more dice, so that you’re not totally reliant on chance. Although those cards are drawn or come out randomly, so nabbing the good ones is often a matter of right place, right time.
The more interesting efforts at boosting your chances are with the extra dice. These require feats and swag, too, but toss in a more adventurous atmosphere. The red panic die can increase your dice pool, but it’s a one-shot effort and may not help at all! The blue feat die is nice if you have tokens to spend along with its result so you can simply increase the value without re-rolling, as needed. And the yellow luck die can be re-rolled by itself and without using any focus tokens. The extra dice are a nice design element that lets players feel more proactive in managing their luck than simply cashing in a token to modify a roll. And their translucent colors look really great, too!
All of these boil down to creating your own luck, to a great extent. Although not totally, of course. With dice, you can never completely protect yourself against the whims of chance. You’re still likely to get beat here and there. And as the feat and swag cards come out randomly, you could experience better fortune at times than others. But preparing for dire contingencies in gearing up with the game’s various currencies captures the pulp setting’s spirit. Characters in those gritty stories were hard-boiled eggs with tenacious personalities, but also made sure they had skillsets, knowledge, equipment and companions to beat the odds.
If you do prove extremely good – or lucky – you can vary the game’s length or increase the difficulty just a little with the reverse side of the scenario card. It just makes the extra rewards a little harder to meet. The ability to customize session lengths with different sized encounter decks helps to scale the game well for any complement. The competition is tight with any number. There’s little direct interaction. A few feat cards allow foul play, as does one location action, but other than that it’s just vying for the choicest spots and encounters. It can feel cutthroat since there are only six spaces, but a pulp action game could always stand for more shenanigans.
It may look horrendously busy, but Ancient Terrible Things moves surprisingly smooth and conveys an appropriately eerie mood, while rightly injecting outlandish story elements. At the same time it’s not at all overly macabre. Which is good, as admittedly the pulp setting isn’t universally popular. Plus it does still have a bit much going on to venture into gateway territory. As a dice game, it is a rewarding design with a twist on the category. It plays briskly and offers a variety of ways to make your own luck, while still retaining the theme of risk, reward and abject despair. Ancient Terrible Things will definitely please pulp fans looking for horror without Cthulhu. And for gamers merely interested in delving into the genre, it would be far from crazy to take on this slick action-packed adventure.