The Ancienter World
It’s been a long time since I played the first edition of Ryan Laukat’s The Ancient World. Long enough that the second edition was totally new, like something I’d played in a dream, a game against the gods dissipated into fog upon awakening.
Or maybe it’s just that this second edition is such a vast improvement over the original that it feels entirely new, despite importing wholesale the bones and framework of its former self.
Let’s start with the familiar. It’s the year nine million BCE or thereabouts, and humanity has long been scattered by roving titans. Any attempt to centralize their agriculture or urban centers are immediately trampled. But, lo and behold, humans have sprouted a few inches lately. They have hair on their faces, and in other spots too. Their muscles are starting to bulk up, and they no longer strain to lift heavy loads. In other words, a civilization-wide onset of puberty has landed. And like a schoolchild finally turning around and bopping their tormenter in the nose, humanity isn’t taking this crap lying down anymore.
At least that’s the story. In the original game, that was the cue for a whole lot of worker-placing and building-buying, plus the occasional trek to poke a titan’s ankles until they toppled into the sand. It was a perfectly good game, and appealed to the 2014 iteration of me. Workers blocked each other with regularity, killing a titan often also wrecked your buildings, and even the smallest of missteps might leave your city-state floundering right until scores were tallied.
This isn’t a review of that original game, but some context might help emphasize what’s so great about this second edition. Because despite the original’s cleverer moments and undeniable prettiness, it was busted in two ways that weren’t immediately apparent.
In a phrase, The Ancient World was too difficult in one sense and too easy in another. Here’s a rhetorical question to mull over: if you’re building a city-state to war against hundred-meter titans with fire, steam, and/or spikes erupting from their hides, which of the following tasks should be the hardest? (A) Fighting titans straight out of nightmare, (B) Keeping your city-state operational, (C) Telling your workers to make new babies.
If you answered C, you’re in good company, because the 2014 version of Ryan Laukat was a very pleasant person to interact with. If, on the other hand, you’re a reasonable human being who suspects that killing a monster taller than any structure built prior to the 13th century would present some definite logistical and engineering conundrums, while acknowledging that those monsters would have a propensity for stomping over any civilization that sticks a needle under their toenails, then you’ve probably answered A or B.
In The Ancient World’s original state, titans were only threatening when you bothered to march out and attack them. Telling your workers to work, however, was like pulling an unwilling participant’s teeth. They could only be sent to a spot if their skill number was higher than anyone else’s at that spot. Which presented plenty of tough decisions that weren’t entirely unpleasant to grapple with, but, at the same time, resulted in a game where monsters were best left unslayed, and where work schedules were all-important all the time.
The second edition flips this on its head, and it’s all the better for it. Workers are as important as ever. You start with only three, and baby-making extras into existence is an appropriately tricky decision, requiring resources and workers right now and a long-term supply of food for the rest of the game in order to keep it chugging along. But the second edition’s workers are also versatile. Their skill numbers still matter, with higher-numbered workers monopolizing their location and discouraging lower-skilled labor from swinging by. But it’s discouragement rather than a total block, because anyone can visit a spot filled with a skilled worker by paying a coin. That’s a high price in some situations, especially when money gets tight. But it isn’t an insurmountable price. Think of it like a toll or usage fee. It sucks, but you’ll pay when necessary.
This one change is enough to defang The Ancient World’s worst tendencies without totally removing its bite. Deploying a high-skilled worker to a densely trafficked region can slow your rivals, or sometimes even disrupt their plans in a big way. Build and Recruit are essential early on, and the money spent sidestepping a skilled worker could be instead spent on the same structures and armies those spots provide. Later, after titans have stomped through your city a few times, blocking Rebuild might seriously hamper recovering players with repeated fees. Placement decisions still matter, in other words, but they aren’t the only thing that matters.
Speaking of armies and titans, another minor tweak inserts the fangs where they belonged all along.
First, armies. The business of killing monsters is naturally a risky one, and it takes a solid contingent of troops to rush a titan’s ankles. Fortunately, all it takes from your end is some money, a small price to pay for a hollowed-out titan. Over time, however, armies get wise. At the end of each round, the cash you paid them slides down onto their card; in the future, it costs one coin more than you’ve paid — cumulatively — before they’ll launch another attack. One coin the first time, two the second, four for a third attack. If this were a grade-school story problem, I’d ask you to solve for the cost of a fourth.
There are a couple of twists here. The first is that some titans or buildings will alter this number, increasing or decreasing an army’s cost, and it’s possible to use these to mitigate your soaring operating costs. The second is that skyrocketing mercenary prices might not matter, since you can recruit new armies of eager youngsters over the top of old expensive ones. This will also “retire” the older army, placing it face-down underneath your fresher, more oblivious troops. This represents some of the previous troop’s experience or equipment, aiding the new dummies as they gladly place themselves underfoot of this year’s towering monstrosity.
Further, these considerations are more important than ever because of the tweak I mentioned earlier. Every round opens with a few items of bookkeeping: the round track is advanced, buildings and armies are refreshed — the usual. Oh, and a titan is dealt to every player, and will directly assault your city if it hasn’t been slaughtered or bribed by round’s end.
This is completely transformative. Rather than letting you sit back and determine when and where you’ll engage, you’re always compelled to make at least one attack. The death of any titan forces its killer to roll dice to determine the collateral. Sometimes buildings are wrecked, other times resources are squandered. But at least you earn that titan’s bonuses and scoring banners in the process. Neglect an invading titan, however, and you’ll lose those buildings and resources without any hope of reward. Crud, the monster will even stick around to bother you again next round.
This squeezes The Ancient World until there’s hardly any room to breathe. Often you’ll be forced to pick between new infrastructure or protecting what you already have. In the former case, those shiny new buildings won’t be worth much if they’re crumpled like an aluminum can. In the latter, you might find yourself lagging behind on both income and scoring banners. This is harder than it might first seem, alternately rewarding and punishing both risk-taking and sure moves. The key to success often lies in evaluating when to build and when to battle, swinging pendulum-like between growth and security.
Ambrosia is your chance at mitigation. These are little bowls of orange ice cream that trickle onto the board, occupying spaces that weren’t frequented over the past round, or awarded by certain buildings. What you can do with them is the important part. Spending two of them can feed a starving citizen, gain a much-needed coin, or repair a damaged building. A whopping four can revitalize a spent worker, letting them move to another space to work a second time. Ambrosia can even be used to bribe a titan into leaving your city alone — although you should be aware that this protection fee increases with each use.
Without ambrosia, it’s easy to imagine The Ancient World providing too stiff a challenge. There are rarely enough workers or resources to do everything you want, like juggling a chainsaw, a grenade, and a vial of Greek fire all at once, but only being sure-fingered enough to safely catch two. Properly distributing your ambrosia lets you make up the difference, whether by feeding that starving worker, putting an essential card back into working order, or avoiding your friendly local titan for a while. This doesn’t completely remove the challenge, of course. But it’s enough to allow that extra hair of wiggle room necessary to squirm through the crack and emerge into the daylight.
The Ancient World’s second edition-ifying doesn’t erase all of the original’s complaints. It’s still a fairly traditional light worker placement thing, the banners make an effort but don’t always produce an entirely transparent scoring system, and damage from monsters is randomly rolled and could either wreck your city or leave you unscathed.
Apart from that last one, none of these work to the game’s detriment. The Ancient World provides many of the things I look for in a game of this weight: decisions that are tough but still provide escape routes, a story that grows naturally from systems and components rather than from miniature paragraphs of flavor text, and some light blocking that doesn’t seriously impede anybody’s enjoyment. As a second edition, The Ancient World is an improvement in nearly every way, refocusing its tale from one of painstaking labor placement to the defense and relief of a besieged city. It took two tries to arrive here. And although it won’t appeal to those who didn’t fire with the first attempt, in this instance the destination proves worth the effort.
A complimentary copy was provided. Also, Ryan Laukat and I live in the same city and sometimes run into each other. At a convention, I did some development work on an upcoming game of his, which I won’t be reviewing, but which really should have a better combat system when it releases.