Quick to set up, break down, teach, and play
Enjoyable game with wide appeal
Minimal strategic depth
Ancient Sands is a fantasy-themed archaeology game in which players compete to dig up treasure cards for points and special powers. Along the way you’ll be recruiting teams of workers, both mystical and mundane, and dealing with game-changing events that vary turn-by-turn.
The play area for Ancient Sands is a 4×4 grid of cards laid out at the beginning of the game, three cards deep. The top card of each stack is the easiest to dig up, but the better cards further down are, of course, worth more points and have greater magical powers. To dig up a treasure you must discard a team of workers with either enough total power (a nice, big, easy-to-read number in the corner of each worker card), or just create enough quantity of bodies to meet either the power or the worker requirement on that treasure. In either case, the whole team leaves, so there’s no banking away a large team of workers to try to make a quick dash for several point cards at the end of the game.
Worker cards are free, but very limited. Everyone starts with one in their hand, and then on their turn follow a basic “draw one, play one” sequence. Workers have game text as well, most triggered as they come into play. A few, however, have powerful discard effects that tempt you into giving up your once-per-turn opportunity to recruit another digger.
A new event card pops out of a fairly large deck once every time around the table. They’re about what you’d expect, generally making digging up treasures easier or harder, or limiting your choices. There is a neat mechanic where weather events stay out until another weather event appears, but other events only last one round. So some rounds might have two significant modifiers, while others have only a single minor one.
Treasures in three tiers, workers, and events: those are all the components in the game. This has some wonderful ancillary benefits like making the game super easy to transport. It also takes almost no time to set up and break down. When you factor in the simplicity of the rules, this makes Ancient Sands a superb filler game, always welcome to tag along for game nights to salvage those gaps at the beginning or end of the night. Alternately, it’s a great game for younger or more casual players, without being so mindless that it will be torture for more hardcore gamers.
What depth there is in the game arises from two main sources. First, while all the treasure cards start the game face-down, you’ll have many opportunities to peek at them, flip them face-up, move them around (including to the bottom of stacks), and lock them in place to keep people from digging them up. So you have something of a memory game going on at times. It’s fun, and we could wish that they had done more with this. Second, you have the choice of which of your (usually) two workers you wish to play each turn, and how you want to utilize their game text. Unfortunately, the correct play is usually fairly obvious, but at least this keeps turns moving quickly.
Play proceeds clockwise until someone starts their turn with ten points, at which point the highest score wins. Along the way there will be, as you would expect for a game like this, a fair number of attack cards. They’re not as cutthroat as I’ve seen in similar games, though. They tend more towards “I trade you this crappy worker for your good worker” than “I destroy your victory points”.
You’ll typically see less than half of the workers, treasures, and events in any game. That and the good variety in cards means that individual games should have a lot of variance.
Simple and straightforward, what it lacks in strategic depth it makes up in fun. The theme, which is well-supported by the rules, is great too. While playing Ancient Sands it is easy to imagine yourself as an Indiana Jones-type, dealing with a rogues gallery of only-semi-reliable diggers while unearthing ancient artifacts of great power.
((A prototype copy was received for the purposes of this review, although that did not affect the outcome of the review. Prototype components are shown and are subject to change before final production.