Review – Ancient Knowledge
|Pierre Ples, Adrien Rives, Emilien Rotival
|IELLO (Flat River Group)
|Card Game, Strategy Game
|30-120 minutes (30 min/player)
My favorite genre of games is “card combos.” I cut my teeth on Magic: the Gathering, and now I spend most of my game time playing Dominion, Star Realms, Res Arcana, Living Forest, Innovation, and Race for the Galaxy. So when I heard about Ancient Knowledge, I was immediately interested. Does it live up to its inspirations? Let’s take a look!
Let’s just say it up front: Ancient Knowledge is a good game.
The design is tight, and clever. While plenty of other card-driven games involve some kind of sliding mechanism, it feels different here. While the pictures all look a little similar to me, the theme is there if you look for it and put in the effort. I always hope for a minimum level of graphical pizzazz, but even Innovation captivates my attention despite its ugliness. I don’t play these games for the theme or the look, though. I play them for the card combo goodness!
The designer has mentioned Race for the Galaxy as a primary inspiration, and it makes sense. There are some similar design choices, like (occasionally) discarding cards to pay for other cards. But, actually, one of the smartest design choices in Ancient Knowledge is that you just… play cards. There are VP tokens, but no resource economy. As someone who doesn’t find much joy in the common Eurogame gimmick of resource conversion, I love this. However, cards in hand are still a crucial resource – even if you don’t have to pay for the card, you can pay to move your cards to a different spot on your timeline – and I think this is where the gameplay opens up. Much like Tom Lehmann’s Res Arcana (and, of course, Race), until you truly understand the options open to you, you will not fully appreciate the game in front of you. People who dismiss this game after a few plays and say there’s no depth are quite foolish.
I could tell early on that I was missing something with the strategy, but fortunately Ancient Knowledge has pre-released on BoardGameArena. I’ve played about a dozen games of it between the physical and digital versions, including a couple of games against the designer, who thoroughly crushed me. I’m so thankful for this experience, because it was enlightening – it showed me there was more to the game, but it also offered me a brief glimpse of how to crack into the rest of what Ancient Knowledge has to offer. I also saw that the interaction is far more present than players suspect, primarily because the game is truly a race to the finish line. Between two good players, that fourteenth Monument ends up in someone’s Past much faster than it does between beginners. I still don’t see how a third or fourth player adds anything except sloggish extra playtime, but this game sings at two players.
So it looks good, it’s got cool card combos, and it plays fast with two players. It checks all my boxes. I should love it! I like the game a lot, a lot a lot, but I don’t love it. A few things hold it back for me.
The first is that the game doesn’t make me emotional enough. My favorite games in the world make me euphoric, angry, or both. The feeling of an incredible card combo going off feels fantastic, but on the other end, if I pound my fist on the table during a game, I’m probably having a great time. I don’t mean when people topple over my stuff in a combat game, but rather those passive aggressive moments when someone takes your spot in a worker placement game, or buys the card you were about to take in a deckbuilder. Yes, Ancient Knowledge has the race element and some fighting over tech cards, and there’s certainly some tension at higher levels of play, but it doesn’t make me angry enough.
That would be fine, if Ancient Knowledge made me euphoric enough. It absolutely has some great card combos, but the ultimate result is usually that you… didn’t lose a bunch of points. The game centers around moving knowledge tokens off of your cards before the cards slide off and the tokens become “lost knowledge” which count as negative points. This is a great concept, but the inversion means that I’m not feeling like “wow, I got this and this and this for 40 points!” but instead I just feel relief at avoiding the punishment. There are also some great moves that lead to drawing lots of cards, but the standard Excavate action allows for that to happen most of the time anyway. I’m not completely sure why, but the game just never gives me that feeling off “going off” that I get from many deckbuilding and card combo games. But it’s possible I’m not good enough at to accomplish moves that give such a feeling.
This is all exacerbated by two other factors: the lack of simultaneous play, and the lack of icons. I can’t believe I’m saying this, after railing against Race for the Galaxy on my first few attempts to play it, but I wish Ancient Knowledge had almost no text and tons of icons. I can’t tell at a glance what even one opponent has going on across the table, much less several. Since the game is not simultaneous, I would like to spend their turn studying their board so I have a better sense of how fast they’re headed to the endgame or which Technology cards they might Learn, but I can’t read upside down that fast while that far away, and there’s a fair amount of text. If I can’t get useful information while they take their turn, then I wish we were playing at the same time, or some kind of blend, like in Furnace.
Now, it sounds a bit like I’m being overly critical – it always does, sorry – but Ancient Knowledge is definitely a good game. I said that at the beginning, remember?! And when I think about its predecessors, I remember that it took me four tries to even learn and play a full game of Race for the Galaxy, and that I gave Res Arcana a 5 initially (I would now give it a 10) because I was bad at the game and didn’t understand what was happening. The card-text I just complained about did make Ancient Knowledge much easier to learn, which is good! And after a dozen games, I can see that there are many layers to this onion. And I can also say that I didn’t peel them all back before writing this. It’s entirely possible that Ancient Knowledge is a way, way better game than I think it is. But I’m also old, and busy, and my gaming time is at a premium, so I’m much less patient than I used to be when a game takes 30 plays to fully open up, and I feel like playing it 12 times was a very fair attempt to dig down.
In the meantime, though, I know for sure that there’s more beneath the surface, and I would happily spend more time digging into it; it’s just hard for me to justify spending the time doing that instead of playing Res Arcana or Race for the Galaxy or Innovation or several other of its ancestors.
The Bottom Line
It's not quite up there with its predecessors, but Ancient Knowledge is very good in its own right.