Ghost Stories – Game of the Month Review


Ghost Stories



Designer: Antoine Bauza (2008)
Publisher: Asmodée Editions, Repos Production
# of Players:
1-4
Play Time: 60 min
BGG Rank/Rating: #159/7.08
Weight: Medium

Ghost Stories was one of the leaders in 2008’s “rise of the coop game” revolution, and claimed its spot as the Game of the Month! of the Hypermind BoardGamers for February. Overall, anticipations were high but reactions were mixed as several players struggled to find the fun in getting smacked around by Wu Feng and his ghostly minions. But I’ll talk more about than in a minute.


Components and Setup

Theme and style are certainly one of the strengths of this game. The Chinese Ghost Story setting is pretty unique, and the artwork on all the village tiles and cards is absolutely beautiful. The plastic “haunter” figures are appropriately menacing, and the Taoist and Buddha miniatures are nicely sculpted. In addition to the great art, the village tiles are solid and resistant to wear, and they even throw in a blank tile just in case you lose one or want to invent your own. The only gripe I have with the components is that the cards are a bit flimsy, and one of mine even had a little scuff on its face while still in shrinkwrap. That being said, the cards are only shuffled before the game and don’t see a lot of handling during play, so they’ve held up pretty well through the 20 or so games I’ve played with them. There are also 4 “Tao dice”, which are pretty standard quality 6-sided dice with colored dots on their faces, a larger black “curse die” which has cool stylistic ioconography on it, and a selection of nicely-illustrated cardboard tokens that are used for a few specific purposes.

Before each game, you randomly deal out the Village Tiles in a 3×3 grid, and then (again randomly) assign the players their color and which power (determined by which side of the player board is used) they will have. Even if there are less than 4 players, all 4 player boards are still used, with uncontrolled colors being referred to as “neutral boards”, which I’ll cover later. The ghost deck is then built with a few modifications based on the number of players and the difficulty level you choose. At least one (based on difficulty) incarnation of Wu Feng (the big bad guy) is inserted into this deck, and the only way for the players to win is to survive until he shows up and then defeat him before the rest of the deck is used. Each player gets 3 or 4 Qi (life) tokens, their Yin-Yang token, and one Tao token that matches their color.
 



I like games (particularly coop games) that have difficulty levels. And while all four levels in Ghost Stories would probably be described as “freaking hard” for most other games, I really appreciate the names that they give them. In order from easiest to hardest, you have “Initiation”, “Normal”, “Nightmare”, and “Hell”. And like I said, even “Initiation” is rather hellish for new players.


Basic Gameplay (click here for complete game rules)


There is one way to win Ghost Stories and several ways to lose. As I’ve already mentioned, the players win by surviving until they encounter and defeat all Wu Feng cards in the ghost deck, the last of which is always the 11th from the bottom. They can lose from either all being killed (losing all their Qi), having the deck run out before sending Wu Feng back to hell, or by having 3 or 4 village tiles become haunted (based on difficulty).

On each player’s turn, there are two phases, the Yin phase, where the game does nasty things to the players, and the Yang (Taoist) phase, where the players get to take their actions to try and defeat the evil undead scourge!

Yin Phase – Two things are done in this step; taking ghost actions and then revealing a new ghost:



  • First of all, the player checks to see if any of the ghosts currently on his board are haunters or tormentors. Haunters are the ghosts that have the black ghost figures placed on them, which are advanced on a three-step track each turn. When they reach the third step, the village tile directly in front of them is “haunted” (and therefore flipped over) and then the figure is returned to the first step on the track. Tormentors require the player to roll the dreaded curse die, which can do any number of terrible things (including making them lose a life point, haunting a village tile, and bringing out a new ghost) or, if you’re lucky, nothing at all.
  • Next, the player checks to see if any of the three ghost sites on her board are empty. If there are any empty spots, they flip the next card of the ghost deck and place it appropriately (the specifics of which I’m not going to get into). If there are no empty spots, then they instead lose one Qi.

Yang Phase – Before taking an action, the player may move his Taoist to an adjacent village tile, with adjacent being both orthogonal and diagonal. Then they can do either one of the following things:



  • Request help from a villager – The Taoist can use the power associated with an unhaunted village tile where they are located. It’d get right ridiculous to cover all these specific powers here, but in general they do useful things like unhaunting village tiles, killing ghosts at the cost of Qi, getting more Tao tokens, and resurrecting fallen Taoists. Learning the different village tile powers is pretty much mandatory for being proficient with the game, but that happens with just a couple of plays, and the iconography in the game does a good job of helping this out (check out the end of the rules to see what I’m talking about).
  • Exorcise a ghost – Players may instead choose to attempt an exorcism against ghosts that are adjacent to their current location. Every ghost has a resistance in its upper left-hand corner, which is represented by a number of colored circles. To exorcise a ghost, the Taoist must roll a number of colored dots on three Tao dice that match both the number and color of the ghost’s resistance. To make it a little easier, there is also a white dot on each die, which is considered wild and can be used for any color. Even more important are the Tao tokens, which can be turned in to count as successes of their matching color. So, for instance, if you try to exorcise the “Death’s Army” incarnation of Wu Feng pictured to the right (with a resistance of 5 black) and rolled one black and two white results on the Tao dice, you’d need to also have those two black Tao tokens to spend in order to be successful. And one last thing that I need to mention is that if the Taoist is in the “corner” adjacent to two ghosts, the exorcism attempt actually applies to both, which can be an important tactical move.

Players take their turns in order until they are either overwhelmed by the invasion of ghosts or they manage to face and defeat the incarnation of Wu Feng. At its core, the game is pretty simple, but there are lots of other little rules and factors that go into play which add a lot of complexity and variety into the game. Let’s take a look at some of those things now.


Taoist Powers: Every player board grants a specific power to its Taoist. The boards are actually double-sided, so there are two possible powers for each color, and each color has a theme to their abilities. Blue allows the Taoist to perform two actions (either to both exorcise and use a village tile each turn or to perform the same action twice), Green makes actions more powerful (either rolling an extra Tao die and never having to roll the curse die or getting to re-roll all dice), Yellow assists the player in exorcising ghosts (either through getting a Tao token each turn or by reducing the resistance of a single ghost each turn), and Red powers assist movement (either by being able to fly to any tile or by being able to move another Taoist on your turn).

Ghosts: In addition to their resistance, most ghosts also have one or more effects on the game. These ghostly powers can take effect either when the ghost comes into play, every turn during the Yin phase, or when they are exorcised. Again, there are neat little icons (found in the rules) for each power, which are pretty easy to learn. While the comes-into-play and Yin phase powers are always bad, some ghosts actually have a reward associated with when they are destroyed (such as getting Tao tokens, Qi, or your Yin-Yang token back). Therefore, important decisions must be made about where to place ghosts, which ghosts are the biggest threat, and which ghosts to pretty much completely ignore.

Yin-Yang Token: Players may spend their Yin-Yang token before or after any action to either un-haunt a village tile (flipping it back over to its active side) or to use the power of an active village tile even if they are not currently located there. This effect is in addition to their normal action for the turn, and can often give a vital boost to either save the game or turn it in their favor. Once used, the player’s Yin-Yang token can be recovered only by exorcising certain ghosts that have the correct reward power.

Playing with Less Than 4 (especially Solo Play): Ghost Stories scales really well from 1 to 4 players, and for most of the people in my game group, solo play was actually preferred to multiplayer games. As I briefly mentioned earlier, the game setup is always the same, with all four boards still being in play regardless of the number of players, and “neutral” boards still even have a “turn” (but it’s handled very differently and I’m not going to really get into that here). The thing that is most important (and most fun) is that players may actually choose to use the powers of neutral boards in addition to their own power on a particular turn. This is done through spending Power Tokens, which are given to players at the start of the game depending on how many players are missing. Once spent, Power Tokens are placed in the center village tile and may be picked up by ending your turn there. This ability to look for and use “power combos” adds another wrinkle to the solo and 2-3 player game, which makes the game even cooler.

Rules Confusion: I hate to even mention it, but the rulebook as written has some issues. The complexity of Ghost Stories makes certain questions about how thing things should interact almost inevitable, but then translation and other issues muddy the waters even more. From what I have read, Antoine Bauza has already written a revised rulebook which will be available sometime in the near future, but there is a lot of good information at BGG that can clear up most of the questions you’ll have in the meantime (check out some stuff here and here).  


Strategy and Tactics

From what I’ve seen, doing well in Ghost Stories depends on managing three areas of play: placement and exorcism of ghosts, forward planning, and using player and tile powers effectively. Like most other “purely cooperative” games, play is very puzzle like, where you must work together to figure out the exact right sequence of actions that will give you a chance to win.

Placement and Exorcism of Ghosts: When you reveal a new ghost, there are actually a few choices to make about where exactly it will go. Unless it is full, a ghost will be placed on the player board that matches its own color (or on the active player’s board if its color is black), but since each board has three spots available on it, it is still important to think carefully about which one to use. In general, you want to put ghosts that will be exorcised quickly on the sides, and use the center as a “parking lot” for ghosts that can wait. The reason for this is that, for efficiency sake, you usually want to attempt exorcisms in the corners, where you have the chance to take out two ghosts for one action. Low-resistance ghosts and haunters/tormentors should usually be placed on the sides, while curse/reward ghosts should go in the center. Experienced players will find a bit more intricacy in these decisions, but what I’ve laid out here is a good starting point.

A bigger issue to consider is actually when you need to exorcise a ghost. The simplest way to play the game is to run around the village taking on whatever is the newest or biggest threat. Unfortunately, such blind activity often leads to destruction, because the random factors in the game (most namely the card draw and freaking dice rolling) tend to build up threats and waste actions in such quantities that you can not overcome them. To do well, you must be efficient. And efficiency often depends on making tough decisions about which ghosts need to be taken out immediately and which can wait. You can also use the Sorcerer’s Hut (which destroys a ghost at the cost of one Qi) instead of attempting an exorcism, so that consideration needs to always been on your mind as you figure out how to use your actions.

Prioritization is very case-dependent, but factors that need to be considered include:    


  • Threat to the village (Is it a haunter or tormentor? Where on the haunting track is it?)
  • How many village tiles are currently haunted?
  • How many Yin-Yang tokens are still unused? (since they can un-haunt tiles)
  • Threat to a player (Is their board full of ghosts? How many Qi do they have?)
  • Threat to play (Does the ghost do something so bad that it we can’t win with it in play – such as prevent the playing of Tao tokens or hold a Tao die hostage?)
  • Possible reward (Will it give me my Yin-Yang token back or give me a much-needed Qi?)

The worst thing that you can do in Ghost Stories is to fail an exorcism, so weighing all these factors against the other possible benefits that you could get from your action is very important.

Forward Planning:
I would say that you should virtually never attempt an exorcism needing more than one die result to succeed. If you rely on the luck of the dice to be successful in Ghost Stories, you’re not going to have a very good time. To properly prepare, make good use of village tiles such as the Herbalist’s Shop (gives you 2 random Tao tokens), the Tea House (gives a Qi and a Tao token but brings out a new ghost), and the Prayer Circle (reduces the resistance of all ghosts of a chosen color). If you get lucky, then you get to hold onto your tokens for later, but failing a roll is a total waste of time that can cost you dearly.

Another important thing to do is to get the Buddha statues from the Buddhist Temple and place them out as often as possible. Buddha statues are placed on empty ghost sites on the player boards, and when a ghost is put there it is automatically destroyed. So, when there’s not an obviously better move required, it’s always good to grab a Buddha.

The last thing I’ll mention here is to remember how to share Tao tokens. You can never trade or donate Tao tokens directly to another player, but if you are in the same location as another player when attempting an exorcism, you can use their tokens as if they were yours. So, one valuable tactic to take out big ghosts or even Wu Feng himself is to get two or three Taoists (and therefore their Tao tokens) in a location prior to attempting the exorcism either through regular movement, the use of the Pavilion of the Heavenly Wind village tile (which moves a ghost and another Taoist), or the Red player’s power.

Using Powers Effectively: I could probably write a whole article about this alone, because this is where the meat of play really takes place. I’ll touch on a few basics, but for me, figuring out this stuff was a lot of fun and I’d hate to ruin it all for you.

Like I said, you must first get a good working knowledge of what the village tiles can do. Then figure our how they interact best with the different Taoist powers. For instance, if the blue player has the “Second Wind” power (either use a tile or exorcise twice), they need to be the one that picks up the Buddha statues, because they can get both with just one visit. Likewise, the green player (especially with the “Strength of a Mountain” power, which prevents him from rolling the curse die) needs to always be given tormentors if possible (either through placement or use of the Pavilion of the Heavenly Wind) and should be the one to exorcise ghosts that curse when they are destroyed. A yellow player with “Bottomless Pockets” will be collecting Tao tokens each turn, and should therefore never roll the curse die (if you can help it), because one of its faces makes you lose all your Tao tokens.

And don’t forget about the use of the Yin-Yang and Power tokens, either. I’d say that most of the time, the Yin-Yang is used to un-haunt a tile, but sometimes you can pull off some really cool actions by using it to activate another village tile instead. Think about all of your options, especially when using your Yin-Yang may help to get it right back, such as activating the Prayer Circle to make it more likely that you will succeed in your exorcism attempt. And with Power tokens (in games with less then 4 players), your options really multiply as you must begin to think about how your power can interact with the neutral board(s) power(s) as well.



What I think…



 


I like Ghost Stories a lot, but not everyone in my gaming group shares this sentiment. The first thing that turns people off is the randomness in the game. On top of the card draw (which is similar to something like Pandemic), you also have the Tao dice to contend with when exorcising ghosts. Like I’ve already stressed a time or two, however, you really can’t leave exorcisms to chance if you want to do well. Counting on the dice should be a desperation move only, and I’ve come to accept this as just part of the game.

The bigger issue that people have with Ghost Stories is that it’s just too freaking hard. For people who play this game only a time or two, it will be almost impossible. We didn’t really see an improvement in our success rate until a handful of us started playing it solo, which let us explore many of the tactical “combos” in the game and develop some real strategy that we could then bring back to the table even with groups of less-experienced players. For people that are not predisposed to like the game because of its theme or its puzzle-like play, it will be hard to keep them interested long enough to “turn the corner” and begin doing well. On the other hand, you don’t tend to just stumble into a win in Ghost Stories, so it really does feel like a true accomplishment when you win the game or move up to the next difficulty level.

And while I’m talking about solo play, I have to again make it clear that I and everyone else in my group that have played Ghost Stories solo think that it is better solo than with a group. Partially, it’s because you actually get more game when you play it alone, with the introduction of the added strategy in using all three neutral powers along with your own each turn. It’s also a bit easier, because you can coordinate all of your moves and make clearer priorities by yourself, and you have more overall control of the pace of the game when you are the only one pulling out new ghosts. In general, you can probably play at least one difficulty level higher alone than you would in a group, and it’s fun enough to be my current favorite solo game of choice.

But I’d like Ghost Stories even if the solo game sucked. It’s not perfect, but I think it does a really great job of being a very complex, purely cooperative game. Sure, there are more complex cooperative games out there, but most of them rely on some human element to keep the system running. Here, the “machine” of the game itself is enough to present an incredibly difficult challenge, but for the experienced player at least, it is also a challenge that can be met and even overcome. I like puzzle-style games, and with all of the many interactions and combinations between powers and actions in this game, the depth and variety of strategic and tactical play is pretty staggering. Ghost Stories is something that you can spend time thinking about and planning for. There are tricks to decipher and learn, new approaches to try, and new opportunities to cooperate with every play. For me, it got into my head and occupied my thoughts on a regular basis for months, capturing both the creative and the analytical elements of my mind. If you’re like me and love a game with both of these sides to it, then maybe Ghost Stories will be for you as well.


The Verdict!

Fourteen different people in the Hypermind BoardGamers have played Ghost Stories, with their lowest rating being 6 and the highest being 8, averaging out to an 7.24 out of 10. However, three of us play it regularly solo and, as a solo game, give it an average 8.17 rating.

Rules: Flow of play is easy to understand and teach, but learning the powers has a pretty steep learning curve.
Downtime: Very little. Turns are quick and play is cooperative, so you’re always involved in what’s going on.
Length: We’ve played 12 games that averaged just over 38 minutes and with an average of 3.1 players per game. Solo games tend to be closer to 20-30 minutes.
Player Interaction: Lots of group planning and working together, but obviously no conflict because it’s cooperative!
Weight: Medium
GamerChris’ Rating: Ghost Stories is a very challenging yet addictive game that I’d rate as an 9 for solo play and an 8 for group play, which averages out to a highly-recommended 8.5.