In Ancient Sands, players take on the role of treasure hunters who’ve turned treasure hunting into a competition as they race to claim the most valuable artifacts from an ancient desert. Players will recruit workers and leverage their skills to help unearth riches for themselves and to hamper their opponent’s efforts. Most treasures offer a bonus or confer a special ability in addition to a point value and, as the players delve deeper into the desert, the stakes will rise. The first player to start their turn with 10 points worth of treasures is declared the winner!
Disclaimers and such
• I’m a friend of the designer!
• I have received a pre-release copy to review.
• The pre-release version I’m reviewing includes the final cards from the manufacturer but has a temporary box and rules sheet so I will not be covering those two items (though the rules themselves are final, just not necessarily their exact wording/presentation/production).
33 Worker Cards
48 Treasure Cards in 3 tiers
18 Event Cards
All of the components are cards. They are of a nice quality and size (standard Magic/Poker size). The Worker and Treasure cards have a depiction of the relevant Worker or Treasure and basic stats, card name, and abilities laid out in an intuitive and usable manner.
The event cards are a bit simpler and perfectly functional. For the most part they have a textured background behind card text. The exception is the weather cards which have a depiction of the associated weather behind the card text (which helps distinguish them since they have a special function).
Some characters you may encounter.
Treasure cards are laid out in a 4x4 grid of stacks with each stack having 3 treasure cards (a Level 3 covered by a Level 2 covered by a Level 1). Each player draws 1 Worker card. You are ready to begin!
Players take turns around the table. On a turn the player does these things in order; draw, play or discard, and then optionally dig. To draw, the player just takes the top Worker Card from the deck and adds it to their hand. Then they choose one of the Worker Cards from their hand and either discard it or play it to the table in front from them. Either one of these actions may trigger a special ability as specified on the card.
The final part of the turn, the dig, is optional. Each visible treasure (the top most treasure of each stack) has a required dig strength and required worker count. In order to dig a treasure, the player’s in-play workers must have a total dig strength that meets or exceeds the requirement on the card OR their number of workers in play must meet or exceed the worker count requirement. The player may choose any one visible qualifying treasure to dig.
If the player digs, they discard all of their workers in play and take the treasure (which makes the next treasure in that stack, if any, visible). The treasure goes into their play area face up where they will now potentially benefit from a special ability in addition to earning points.
There are special powers on most (maybe all?) of the workers and treasures which I will not go into in much detail. Some cards can lock one or more treasures (making them unable to be viewed, dug, etc) and some can unlock them. There are cards that can swap workers, re-order or move treasures in the desert, and various other effects. The cards all clearly indicate when the power takes effect. There is also an optional event deck which can impose some special rule or restriction for each round of play.
That’s basically everything you need to know to get started. Play continues until a player starts their turn with 10 or more points. The game then ends immediately. The player with the most points wins!
The game is quick to explain. You can pretty much get people going with “draw, play or discard, then dig” and some notes on the requirements to dig. There are some details in the cards but the cards start out mostly hidden so those details naturally ease in over time.
It is also quick playing. I’d guess it was 20-30 minutes on a learning game with new players. Subsequent games are definitely closer to 20. Turns go quickly and, though most cards have a special ability, they enter the game over time and so can be absorbed without slowing things down (especially on subsequent plays).
It is very interactive but very low on spite. All players are digging from the same desert so, of course, a player may lock or dig a treasure you were going for before you can get to it. However, the interactions with the treasures are very indirect and never targeted at a player. Then there are some cards that can swap workers, block a player from digging for a turn, and similar effects. However, these are relatively small percentage of the cards and they are all what I’d call nudging more than kicking over your sand castle kind of interactions. I’d say the game keeps things interesting and interactive and even allows for a little bit of ‘policing the table’ but nobody is likely to have their feelings hurt.
Everyone has a shot to win. There is enough luck in this game that victory will not always go to the most experienced player. Luck factors in mostly with the Workers you happen to draw and which treasures you dig. Everyone should feel like they have a shot.
Player decisions are meaningful and plentiful. Like many great light games, everyone has a shot to win but players putting more into it will have a better shot. Each turn you are deciding which character to keep and which to play. Sure, dig strength and special abilities are the obvious considerations. However, laying low, striking at the opportune moment, minimizing your worker dig power investment to return ratio, and planning whether you want to build up for a big treasure that’s been uncovered or grab another level 1 are all things players could also factor in to their decision process.
With digging, since all treasures start face down, luck is of course the major factor in determining what you get initially. However, as the game progresses, treasures will be flipped face up, you may get a chance to view certain treasure, and you’ll start to get the choice between saving up for one level 2 or 3 treasure vs. grabbing multiple level 1’s quickly. Also, after you've played a couple of times, you’ll start to be familiar with the possible treasures you can uncover from each level and this is another thing you can factor in to your decisions. None of these options make it a game of high player agency but they do give you ways to hedge your bets, stack the odds in your favor, and make a move that has some meaning.
It is quick to explain and quick to play. It is very interactive but with very low spite. It is an accessible game with a good dose of luck while also having plenty of meaningful decisions players can make to influence their chances of winning. This is an excellent family game or game to play with non-gamer friends and a great filler for gamers.
The backs of the 3 tiers of treasure cards.
All images courtesy of Capashin.