Ancient Terrible Things: A four-sided game review

Ancient Terrible ThingsAncient Terrible Things is a Yahtzee-style dice game with a Lovecraft/Cthulhu theme that adds elements of hand management and special powers to take it to a slightly higher level.

But if you’re a relatively new player, don’t be put off. While there’s lots of cards in the box there are never too many choices; this is definitely a tactical rather than strategic game.

Games tend to last about an hour with little change between player count, which is two to four players.

As for the horror theme, it’s very cartoony there’s nothing to worry about in terms of age range. Your first thought should be, do I like ‘push your luck’ dice games? If so, read on.

The game retails for just under £40, which is definitely at the expensive end for this kind of dice game. However the components are very high quality, from the box to the board through to the dice, so at least in those terms you get your money’s worth.

In a turn of Ancient Terrible Things each player will try to defeat a creature by rolling the required combination on five dice (a pair of 5 or higher, a run of three etc). Successes give you the creature card, which will earn you end-game victory points.

Each turn you also get resources and an action. Resources variously let you use cards, buy equipment, defeat creatures or alter your dice rolls – with cards, actions and equipment doing more of the same, or giving end-game points or multipliers.

Teaching

Ancient Terrible Things boardWhile Ancient Terrible Things is very much a Yahtzee game, this has both advantages and disadvantages.

While on one side it’s easy to see if people may like the game and gives people a grounding in what to expect, it also does things differently enough to make grasping the differences tricky for some.

The main thing you need to explain is how rerolls work. Unlike standard Yahtzee style games, if you want to reroll you can’t just put dice aside that you choose. Instead you have to spend a focus token on every dice you don’t want to reroll – otherwise you have to reroll everything. This can take some getting used to, but does work well.

In addition there are several other types (colours) of dice which work differently: red dice are one-shot (can’t be rerolled), yellow ‘luck’ dice work like a standard Yahtzee dice (can always be rerolled for free) etc. However these only appear through equipment or feat cards, so rarely have to be explained right off the bat and don’t add too much confusion.

Beyond this, the game does a great job of explaining itself on the cards. There’s a stack of equipment (to buy) and feat cards (you always have three of these in hand at the start of a turn) but even on the first play most players won’t need to ask how these work.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: While the theme of Ancient Terrible Things could be anything, the style and art do help generate an atmosphere – even if they’re nothing like immersive; the comic style font and dark green pallet will draw in anyone with a bit of a love of all things Lovecraftian. There are interesting decisions to be made most rounds, but it does always comes back to the luck of the dice. This will hopefully balance out each round, but no amount of cards can save persistent terrible luck.
  • The thinker: While largely tactical, there are some strategic elements. Creatures come in four colours and being the first to three of one type gives you a bonus card for end game scoring – but thus can be taken from you if someone overtakes you on a colour (as with the road bonus in Catan). You can also get negative points for failing to defeat a creature – but sometimes it’s worth taking this on the chin if it stops someone else getting a creature of a colour you don’t want them to have.
  • The trasher: I love a bit of dice rolling and a horror theme, while Ancient Terrible Things gives you plenty of ways to mess with people – but none of them should be nasty enough to scare off the cry babies. Big risks can give big rewards while failure is never that punishing, encouraging you to go for the big roll. And having four types of token really lets you go down one route (equipment say, or reroll tokens) or spread yourself thin, giving several routes to victory. I like it.
  • The dabbler: While horror will never be my first choice of theme for a game, this one is done cartoony enough not to put me off. The clear dice are gorgeous and there’s a nice humour running through the game, although everything is a bit dank and dark – which can be tricky in bad light. But most importantly it retains the fun factor of a good dice game while being as tactical/strategic as something like King of Tokyo without being quite so in-your-face.

Key observations

Ancient Terrible Things player boardThe “it’s OK” brigade essentially say, “This is just a Yahtzee game with a bit added on”.

In truth I can’t argue with that and if you don’t feel you need this style of game in your life it’s time to walk away.

But if you really like Cthulhu, or do like a good light dice chucker, it’s worth checking out – just prepare yourself for an expensive price tag for this style of game.

Harsher critics call it boring, saying the decisions you make don’t matter. While boring is obviously a personal opinion, the comments on choices do baffle me – I can only presume they are based on a very short playtime.

Will the player who rolls best win the game? Possibly. Will someone who rolls terribly the whole game lose? Yup. But it’s a dice game! And I’ve seen good equipment combos and spoiler play win people games, which is good enough for me.

Finally, there are inevitable comparisons to Elder Sign. Inevitable, but in my mind misguided. Personally, I see zero validity in comparing a competitive game with a co-op game – who is going to agonise over only allowing themselves one Cthulhu dice game in their collection, even if the play styles are miles apart? Of course if you like co-ops more, go for elder Sign – but there’s really no other basis on which to compare the two.

Conclusion

Ancient Terrible Things board close upI traded King of Tokyo away quite quickly as while I didn’t hate it and would play it again (in fact I loved the style and components) it simply didn’t quite have enough game to make me want to take it down from the shelf. For me, Ancient Terrible Things does.

It may be a little of style over substance getting the better of me, which is rare – but I do love the look of this game, despite it being a little too dark (pallet wise) in places. For me the playful style comfortably makes up for this and I love looking at this on the table.

It has those stand-up dice chucking moments, it has those “no!” moments on amazing or terrible dice rolls, and while bad rolling can leave you out of things on occasion most games tend to be satisfyingly close – with the winner emerging in the final count, rather than a few rounds earlier.

My one reservation is the price point. While on one hand the components are worth the entrance fee, the likes of Elder Sign and King of Tokyo both retail for closer to £25 rather than close to £40. I’m really happy with my purchase as the game is a great fit for me, but I’d be happier recommending it if they could get the price down.

Can’t Stop: A four-sided game review

Can't StopCan’t Stop is a classic push-your-luck dice game that retails for just over £20. It takes two-to-four players and scales well, playing out in about half an hour.

It’s a very simple yet clever abstract game that’s light on components, so works really well as a filler game.

Originally released in 1980 by Parker (the current English language edition is from Gryphon Games), it was designed by much loved game designer Sid Sackson (Acquire, Sleuth, I’m The Boss and many more), who sadly passed in 2002.

All you need to play is four dice, a simple board and 11 pieces in four player colours (in fact the game started life in the 70s as a pen-and-paper game). It would be simple to make your own version and I’ve seen some lovely wooden versions.

The components in the Gryphon version (the one I own) are solid. The board/pieces have a traffic sign/traffic cones ‘theme’ and although a little garish its perfectly serviceable; I just like the game enough that I’d love a fancier version!

Teaching

Can't Stop rulesThe game is incredibly simple to teach. The rules are on a single two-sided piece of paper and the simplest thing to do is to just go first and play out your turn, rather than bothering explaining anything.

As I’ll prove now, it’s harder to explain than show… A player takes the four six-sided dice and rolls them, making two pairs of the results; so if you rolled 3,4,4,4 you would have to make a 7 and an 8.

The board has a track for each possible number (from 2 to 12). There are three neutral cones – in the example you would take two of them and place one on the first space of both the 7 and 8 tracks. You now roll again (if you want to) and again make two pairs of the results.

If (following our example) you rolled another 7 and/or 8, you could advance the neutral cones you’ve already placed. Otherwise, you can use your final neutral cone to advance another number. So, if you now rolled 3,3,4,4 you could take an 8 and 6; or two 7s.

Can't Stop cones longWhile you’ve got neutral cones unplaced, you’re not in much danger (at least early on). But once all three of your neutral cones are on the board, you have a tough choice. If you can’t make one of your three numbers with your roll, you lose all your progress.

So, to follow our example, say you’ve gone for 6, 7 and 8. If you then roll 5,5,5,6 you can only make 11 and 12 – the neutral cones are removed from the board and your turn ends with nowt.

You can of course decide to ‘stick’ before your next roll. If you do, replace the neutral cones with those of your colour and it’s the next player’s turn. The next time it comes to you, the exact same process happens – but this time the neutral cones move from the positions you’ve achieved before. If you push your luck and fail now, you only lose the progress from this turn.

You are all racing up each number to claim it. The easier the number to roll, the more of it you’ll need – so while you’ll need twelve 7s to claim them, you’ll only need two 12s. When you claim a number, everyone else’s progress on it is discarded. The first player to claim three numbers wins.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: On the surface Can’t Stop may look simple and repetitive, but as the game goes on the dynamics shift. As fortunes ebb and flow you may be forced into crazier luck-pushing – but when it pays off it’s a blast. And as a game draws to an end and numbers are closed down, even that first roll can end in tears. For such a simple device, the game has a genuine story arc that’s always different.
  • The thinker: While I would be quick to jump on a poor game, it would not be fair to do that here. The game is a luck fest, but good judgement will make a difference; dice means odds and while every game will be touched by luck a good player will still win more than a bad one. That is enough to make a filler worthwhile and as a break between heavier games I’m always happy to play.
  • The trasher: There’s something brutally combative about Can’t Stop that has enduring appeal. Fortune doesn’t always favour the brave but at the same time this game rarely rewards over-cautious opponents; meaning there’s nothing more fun than chasing the timid up their chosen numbers and watching them fret all the way to the top. And one day, maybe, I can win in the first turn – I’ll always give it a try!
  • The dabbler: Great! The game can be taught in no seconds flat and, better still, everyone remembers the rules even if they only played once five years ago. You can socialise between turns too, as it’s easy to quickly work out the board position on your turn. But it’s just as much fun to ooh and aah, deride and cajole, as your friends try to make that tricky role-or-not decision.

Key observations

Can't Stop in playCan’t Stop is criticised by some for being a bit slow; especially in a four-player game, there can be quite a wait between turns.

But this comes down to your group. If you chat amongst yourselves, or like a lot of table banter, this really isn’t going to be an issue – quite the opposite in fact.

Beyond this, criticism tends to simply come down to personal preference. This is a simple push-your-luck dice game and if that concept really doesn’t float your boat, while this is a classic, it isn’t a miracle worker.

Conclusion

Sid Sackson was years ahead of his time and for me, alongside Acquire, this is his greatest gift to gamers. While more straightforward than his classic game of stocks and shares, this is every bit as enjoyable and in terms of push-your-luck dice games it simply hasn’t been bettered since.

Can't Stop cones

When he died (in his 80s) he left behind a personal collection of over 18,000 games. He was a true gamer and his love for the hobby shines through in his best designs: simple to learn, decisions to make, fun to play.

I wouldn’t say this about many games, but I think Can’t Stop deserves to be in pretty much every collection. It ticks so many boxes – it’s a good filler that’s easy to teach; its quick, with fast set up/put away time; it’s clever yet simple, while encouraging table banter and is suitable for all ages. What’s not to like?

I rate it 8 out of 10 and simply don’t have a bad word to say about it. If you’re new to the hobby, this one should definitely be on your shopping list; but don’t expect it to be more than it is – a fantastic game of gambling and luck that’s a great way to kill half an hour.