In a world plagued by terrifying monsters. One hero must rise to provide safe haven to the victimized tribes throughout the land. You are that hero. Raise up an army to combat the Titans that have long menaced the nations of this world. Build a city and provide a place for the people to escape from the wrath of their cruel oppressors. Create an Empire where people can live freely and drive the Titans from the land once and for all.
I’ll provide a quick disclaimer up front that I helped to playtest the Ancient World and this preview is based off of my test copy. I’m sure that my opinion and enthusiasm will be somewhat biased as a result but hopefully with justified merit. There will likely be some changes made between this preview and the release of the game. All art is taken from previews that Ryan has provided and do not necessarily represent the final state of the game. For those interested, there is a Kickstarter campaign being run for The Ancient World right now which has successfully funded and moved on to unlocking several stretch goals.
How It Plays
The Ancient World is a card-driven worker placement game in which players are competing to build the most flourishing capital city. Throughout the game you’ll be attracting neighboring tribes to your city by constructing empires and attacking the titans that are terrorizing them. These tribes are represented by different colored banners, 5 in all, and are found on the Empire and Titan cards. Since the tribes want to stick together you’ll be rewarded for collecting banners of the same color.
In order to attract the most tribes you’ll have to split your time between managing your city and maintaining an army strong enough to overcome the powerful titans. The game is played over six rounds and you’ll have a number of citizens (3 to start with) that can be assigned to various tasks to help support both your city and armies. What makes these citizens different from the workers in other game is that they each have a unique skill level (ranging from 1 to 5) and can only use an action that hasn’t already been visited by a citizen of equal or greater skill. There are a couple of essential actions that ignore this requirement or impose a restriction encouraging the placement of citizens with matching skill levels. Players take turns sending their citizens to available spots on the board and immediately executing their associated action.
I’ll go through the various available actions but want to start by looking at your city. You’ll begin the game with a Capital which provides you with some income, enough food for one of your citizens, limited capacity for future expansion, and two army slots. You’ll also have two Empire cards, the modest Boat and Wheat Fields, which each provide a food for your remaining two citizens. In order to grow your city you can send a citizen to the Build spot, one of the actions with more relaxed placement rules to prevent it from getting blocked. When taking the Build action you can choose one Empire card from the display, pay its cost, and put it into your play area. These cards are put onto a display at the start of every round, begginning with those from the “Empire A” deck and switching to the more powerful “Empire B” deck at the start of round 4. Once in play an Empire card provides an ongoing effect as long as it remains undamaged. These effects vary from income to boosting the effect of another action to providing an exclusive action to the owner. Each Empire card also has a banner (or two in Empire B) which represent the tribes that are attracted to your city with the construction of that empire. There are even some very expensive cards that grant additional points based on various conditions and are highly sought after.
To pay for the construction of these Empire cards you’ll use two different currencies: coins and knowledge (represented by scrolls). You’ll start the game with some coins along with a modest income that you’ll earn at the end of every turn. In order to get more coins you’ll have to send citizens to the “Labor” (provides 2 coins) or “Rebuild” (1 coin) spots. Knowledge is harder to come by and is initially only available by going to the “Learn” spot to pay 3 coins for 1 knowledge. Some Empire cards will provide cheaper access to or even an income of knowledge.
In addition to paying the cost to construct an Empire card you’ll also need to have enough space to build it, this is represented by your Capacity. You’ll start the game with 4 capacity and each Empire card will take up one capacity. This includes the two Empire cards that you started with leaving you only 2 capacity left to build with. There are two main ways to gain additional capacity. First, you can send a citizen to the “Expand” spot which allows you to spend 3 coins or a knowledge to gain the top District from its deck. Each District provides 3 capacity and a special ability which often helps you in your effort to build more Empire cards. The second source of capacity are the Titans themselves, we’ll come back to them in a minute.
Rounding out your effort to develop your city are two special spaces that aren’t initially available but show up in later rounds. The first is the “Explore” action which allows you to either draw 5 cards from the top of the current Empire deck and keep one or take one card from the display. The card gained from exploring is then stored in your personal reserve, allowing you to construct it at a later point. The second action is “Grow” which lets you pay 3 coins to gain an additional citizen. These new citizens have higher skill values then the ones that you start the game with (4 and 5 versus your starting 1, 2, and 3). Gaining more citizens will let you take more actions each round if you have enough food for all of them. At the beginning of each round you can only use one of your available citizens for each food icon that you have showing, unfed citizens are set aside and may not be used during that round (but it is possible to use them in later rounds if you gain the necessary food).
That’s all you need to know about building your city so let’s change our focus to what everyone really wants to hear about, the Titans. There are three decks of Titans that loom off in the distance terrorizing the neighboring tribes. Defeating these Titans will earn you the favor (and banners) of the tribes that they were threatening. Each deck shows a number of stars indicating the level of the Titans (from 1-star through 3-stars) and has the top card revealed at all times. The higher level Titans are harder to defeat and do more damage but also provide more banners (as well as capacity) once slain. During your turn, instead of taking an action with one of your citizens you may instead decide to attack a Titan with one or more of your armies. Each army is made up of military cards that indicate how much damage that army can do while attacking, simply add up the number of Sword and Arrow icons showing. If the attacking army or armies can match or exceed the Titan’s defense then there is a battle and the Titan is defeated. Some of the tougher Titans are immune to Arrows, they must be fought using only Swords and can be extremely challenging to defeat. During the battle the Titans fight back and can do significant damage to you and your city. This is represented by a damage die that is rolled a number of times equal to the level of the Titan. As a result you can have your city damaged, lose coins, or get lucky and avoid any significant damage. In the case that damage is done to your city you must pick one of your Empire cards and flip it over, nullifying all its special abilities until it is repaired. Fortunately the “Rebuild” action lets you repair two of your Empire cards, flipping them back to their active side. Once the battle is complete the victorious player takes the Titan card and adds it to their city, gaining any special abilities and capacity that it provides. The next Titan in the deck is then revealed and available to be attacked.
Attacking isn’t cheap, your armies don’t work for free and have increasing upkeep. Each time you attack with an army you must place a number of coins on them equal to one more than however many were on them previously (1 the first time, then 2, then 4, etc). Fortunately you are able to clear this upkeep by recruiting new military cards and retiring the increasingly expensive ones. The “Recruit” action lets you choose from the military cards on display (just like the Empire cards) and pay their cost to add them to one of your armies. Each army can have only one active card so when a new one is recruited to an army the current active one is retired by flipping it over revealing a Legacy ability on its back side. The Legacy abilities generally have less icons then on their active side but can include special abilities as well. Your armies can additionally gain support from a number of different sources. Some of Empire and District cards have Sword and Arrow icons on them which are automatically added to any army when it attacks. There is also a “Draft” spot that provides one Sword to your armies for the remainder of the round for each citizen placed their.
At the end of the sixth round players will score points for all the banners that they’ve accumulated from Empire cards and Titans present in their city. The points that banners are worth increases with the number of banners from the same tribe (color) rewarding players for collecting sets rather than just having the most banners from random tribes. You’ll also gain points from any Empire cards that provide end of game bonuses and lose points if you have any unfed citizens at the conclusion of the sixth round. The player with the most points wins and becomes the new king of the (ancient) world.
Worth Fighting For or Leave This World To The Titans?
Even though I didn’t have a final version of the game I can say without a doubt that the artwork in The Ancient World is absolutely stunning. My test copy looked on par with a published game and I didn’t even have the beautiful board to look at. Ryan has done a fantastic job of creating a rich and exciting world for you to explore that comes alive with all the vibrant places, people, and monsters. I’d recommend this game for the art alone simply because I already know that it’s a great game. But let’s move on to the gameplay so that you can get my opinion on how the game plays not just how it looks.
Despite my lengthy rules explanation The Ancient World is actually quite a simple worker placement game. You are building up an economic engine and an army in order to gain as many banners as possible from empire cards and titans. But the tension remains high throughout the game because you have a very limited number of actions and both sources of banners (empire cards and titans) have their own restrictions (capacity and damage) that you have to work around.
The game takes place over 6 rounds in which you will have 3-5 actions to take from your citizens and 1-2 actions by attacking with your armies. The ability to grow doesn’t even show up until the third rounding meaning you won’t have access to your fourth citizen until round 4 in most games. Of these actions only 2 actually provide a source of points: building empire cards and attacking. This really reinforces how you’ll be earning points and everything else you do is simply supporting one of those two actions. There are a number of things that you can focus on during the game and determining how to assign your citizens represents the main tension.
Since The Ancient World is a card driven game with 6 different decks (Empires, Troops, Districts, and 3 different Titans) what’s available will be one of the biggest determining factor for choosing what to focus on. It also provides a tremendous source of variation from game to game. The viability of any given focus will rely partially on what comes out. Some games will have a surplus of key resources such as Food and Swords while others will be scarce. There is also synergy that exists between various cards and actions in the game. Certain cards will work well together or make actions more attractive. Reacting to the availability of resources and synergy between cards is a key factor to winning. One of my favorite aspects of the game is the inclusion of unique cards in the Empire and District decks that could be used as a central point in your strategy. Maybe you’re able to get an additional worker or extra army early or gain the ability to build over empire cards for a discount. There are many cards that provide unique opportunities to play the game with divergent or untraditional focuses. My favorite games were ones where I picked up a key card in the first couple of rounds and drastically changed my approach to base my whole strategy around it.
When you set about to gather banners you’ll find that there are limitations in place to make it difficult to pursue both building and attacking. Building is restricted by capacity which is an ever present barrier that you’ll run into for most of the game. If you end your turn with zero capacity left then your opponents will get first pick of the new buildings while you scrabble to make room. Buying a district to bolster your capacity costs money and actions which could be used to instead build up your army or grow your workforce. If you decide to gain capacity from killing Titans then you’ll have to start picking fights with higher level ones sooner since most of the 1-star Titans don’t provide any capacity at all. This means you could be missing out on easy kills and taking more damage in the process from your tougher fights. Even the higher level titans only provide a single capacity so you’ll have to fight one titan for each empire that you want to build. I’ve seen players pursue a building heavy strategy but they have to work hard to overcome the limitations of capacity.
Attacking Titans to gain banners has it’s own set backs. You’ll be taking damage with most fights that you partake in and will have to either deal with damaged empires or waste actions repairing them. It can be tempting to fight a Titan when you have no citizens left to send to Rebuild for repairs but you’ll have to weigh the cost of what will happen when you have to decide which Empire to do without on your next turn. The initial Empire cards that provide food are a significant factor in the early game when having them remain damaged will mean that you’ll lose a worker for that turn. Even when you have other Empire cards in play you won’t always want to damage them either. If you’re working to set up an engine the last thing you want to do is suddenly have one of your pieces stop working. In addition to damage you’ll also be facing the rising upkeep of your armies and the tough Sword-requiring that will often need you to Draft a citizen in order to take down.
Because of these limitations it is often best to pursue a hybrid strategy where you are getting points from building and attacking while not butting up too strongly against the restrictions of focusing too much on just one. It’s certainly possible to focus primarily on one but the circumstances have to be just right and you’ll still have to make an effort to stop your opponents from having unrestricted access to the action you don’t pursue. You’ll more likely be deciding how much you want to emphasize building and attacking, spending your efforts on both depending on what cards come up. Titans are a more lucrative source of banners but building, especially the bonus point empires in the B deck, can be just as important. I really like the balance between these two strategies and although attacking is the superior source of banners you can still stand a decent chance of winning without being overly aggressive.
Another aspect that I enjoyed in The Action World is the balance within gaining additional workers. Since the game is so short it’s possible to spend as much effort in gaining the workers as you’ll get out of using them. In this regard I’ve found that you could end up doing just as well by remaining at three workers for the whole game given the right mix of cards. There is still a clear benefit to growing, you’ll get more actions in the later parts of the game when they really matter. In addition to that you’ll also get access to the higher skill workers which can be used to block out the other players or allow you to be flexible in not being able to get blocked out yourself. Preventing other players from using key actions (Learn, Expand, Grow, Explore) by blocking them at the right time is incredibly important but can be more challenging then other worker placement games where any worker will do the trick. You have to pay close attention to which workers have been used in order to take full advantage of your blocking potential.
I found The Ancient World to play well with a variety of player counts but was especially impressed with the 2-player game. The game went at a very quick pace and blocking was just as important as you react to each worker that your opponent plays. Since there are two main ways to get your banners specializing becomes a delicate balancing act as you shouldn’t let your opponent have uncontested access to any key resources (military cards, knowledge, citizens). It may often be in your best interest to take a lesser action to deny your opponent access to something lucrative to their strategy. There are generally several good options available to you as a result and you won’t often feel like there is an obvious choice that you are being forced into. The game is perhaps most tactical and dynamic in the 2-player form but still plays well and more brutally with more players.
The Ancient world is an excellent and accessible worker placement game that could be used as an entry point into the genre or as a quick and refreshing refinement for veterans. The card driven nature of the game leads to a challenging tactical experience with rewarding synergy and provides lots of variation between games. With the ability to play a 2-player game in under an hour and the beautiful artwork, The Ancient World has a lot to offer. I’d recommend it to anyone that enjoys worker placement, card driven, and tactical 2-player games.
Head on over to the Kickstarter for The Ancient World which is running through April 3 to get your own copy.