I’ve always liked dice games. Loved them, in fact. So why can’t I muster any enthusiasm for Ancient Artifacts?
Ancient Artifacts is really two dice games, one overlaid atop the other. Two for one! That’s a deal at twice the price, as that guy on the commercial for the local discount mattress store would say. All the better that the whole thing should look so handsome. Its map is nice and thick, the dice are pleasantly clacky, and the pad of paper where you’ll record your discoveries and setbacks is a real fine pad of paper. Truly, a swell pad of paper.
The first dice game is about choosing where your plucky archaeologists will plunder next. There are three biomes to raid, and each can either be researched or explored. Not both researched and explored at once, mind you, at least not most of the time. You pull two colorful dice from a bag, give them a roll, find where the they fell under the table, roll them again, and finally assign one to the map. Sometimes spaces will be blocked off by previously placed dice; other time they won’t be. Exploration requires a number, research takes a color. If you match both a spot’s color and number, you earn a bonus in the upcoming second dice game. Easy.
From there, Ancient Artifacts switches into a comfortably familiar press-your-luck affair. Whether researching or exploring, the concept is similar. You roll and reroll and reroll and reroll and reroll your dice, hunting for particular symbols. You can spend some of your hard-fought grant money for more rerolls, or fall prey to scary skulls that end your search and may eventually lock you out of biomes entirely. If you earned a bonus previously, this process is notably easier.
It’s even possible to wager cash on somebody else’s turn to follow them, effectively earning their dice results for yourself — but beware, because you’ll also earn their scary skulls. Like most things in Ancient Artifacts, following is a solid idea in theory, hanging out in the background as an intern rather than hacking through the jungle yourself. Like that dude farting around in the seaplane at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. But also like most things in Ancient Artifacts, it doesn’t quite function as intended.
There are two major problems at the core of Ancient Artifacts.
The first comes down to following. On paper this seems like a great idea, effectively replicating another player’s turn. It costs one of your money-pips, which at the end of the game is worth a point. Okay, that’s no problem: you’re making a costly wager and hoping it pays off. But the game isn’t content to burden following with only one downside. Once everything has come to a close, whichever player has been followed most earns a whopping three points. That’s a ton. Enough to win the game on its own in some cases.
So rather than investing a point, you’re investing a point plus a potentially winning margin for the player whose roll you’ve followed. And if this sounds like an interesting extra layer to consider, it doesn’t often play that way. Instead, everyone is forced to constantly count each other’s follow marks, then refuse to follow even when the benefits might be significant. Rather than standing out as a way to remain invested on somebody else’s turn, it presents all the thrill of counting beans. It certainly doesn’t help that the winner is usually the person who got followed most often.
Also, “follow” has become a nonsense word to my ears. Follow follow follow.
Ahem. The other problem is the linearity of your progress across the map’s three biomes. I mentioned that you could choose between exploration and research, but that’s not often actually the case. Each biome follows its own track, and it’s rare that you’ll have many options of where to roll. Being stuck in your progression can mean that no amount of research will matter at all. And once there are some dice on the map, you may find that you can’t even utilize what you’ve pulled from the bag.
In short, don’t expect the multiple strategic approaches of superior Roll-and-Writes. Even Yahtzee’s early stages feel wide open compared to this.
Ancient Artifacts is certainly a looker, and understands that colorful dice and a few splashes of artwork can help sell even a mundane play experience. Sadly, between its under-functioning systems and an unfortunate sense of linearity, it doesn’t do anything about the mundane part.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. When you roll these dice, you can always choose where to write about them.)