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Review: Ghost Stories

7

GhostStories_Boxcover

Long ago, the evil warlord Wu-Feng was defeated in costly battle. In the years that passed, his dark legacy was forgotten to all but a few. Now, Wu-Feng has reincarnated in a new form, and is sending his army of evil spirits against your village. Fortunately, you and your fellow Taoists have kept watch, and you stand ready to face the enemy. You must fend off the ghostly onslaught, defend your village, and send Wu-Feng back to Hell where he belongs.

This is one Ghost Story you won’t forget.

How It Plays

Ghost Stories is a cooperative game tasking players with defeating an army of ghosts attacking a lonely village. In order to claim victory, the players, or Taoists, must defeat all incarnations of Wu-Feng before the village is destroyed.

It takes a village
It takes a village

Players alternate turns, activating Ghosts and taking their own actions. On your turn, you activate each ghost with a Haunter or Tormenter ability. Then, if your board is full of ghosts, you lose a Qi point. If it’s not full, you draw and add a new ghost. New ghosts must be placed on the player board matching their color if possible; otherwise, it is placed in any open space. Some ghosts have abilities that trigger immediately when they appear.  This is the Yin phase.

In the Yang phase, your Taoist takes his or her actions; first, you can move your Taoist to any adjacent tile, including diagonals. You do not have to move if you don’t want to.

Then, you can choose either to fight ghosts, or request help from the villager on your current tile.

To fight ghosts, you roll the three white dice. You may spend the colors you roll along with any Tao tokens you’ve collected. If you can match the Resistance of an adjacent ghost, you can destroy it and collect any rewards (or penalties) that apply. If available, you can use Tao tokens of another Taoist on the same village tile as you in order to defeat ghosts. If you fail, nothing happens.

Ghoooooosts
Ghoooooosts

Instead of fighting, you might request help from a villager. The abilities vary in purpose; some give you Tao tokens or Qi, some help you hurt or push back ghosts, and some assist in defense. One tile grants Buddha tokens, which can later be placed on a player board; any ghost that is placed on top of a Buddha is immediately destroyed. One tile even brings a Taoist back from the dead.  Many of these villagers require a sacrifice on the part of the Taoist, such as losing Qi or adding new ghosts to the village.

You and each of your fellow Taoists have a unique power which you can use freely, whenever applicable. Each player color has a two-sided board with a different form of their power on either side, but the colors have their own theme. Blue gets two actions, yellow is strong against ghosts, Green can manipulate dice, and red is good at moving around.

To round out your toolbelt, you each have a Yin-Yang token, which can be spent in one of two ways. You can either activate any villager tile on the board (even if you aren’t there), or you can un-haunt a haunted villager tile. These tokens are one-time-use, and are difficult to recover.

The ghosts make for quite an impressive army. Their presence alone is dangerous, but many have deadly effects that apply each round. For example, some prevent the use of any Tao tokens until they are destroyed. Some lock up dice. Some take away the player’s Taoist ability.

Red's facing down some evvvillllll
Red’s facing down some evvvillllll

Then there are the Haunters and the Tormentors. Haunters attack the village directly, causing tiles to become “haunted” – the tiles flip facedown, and its ability can no longer be used. Meanwhile, Tormentors force their target player to roll the Curse die, which can have some nasty effects like losing a Qi, haunting a village tile, or forcing the player to discard all their Tao tokens.

If players can destroy Wu-Feng before the deck of ghosts is emptied, they win the game! In harder difficulties, there are multiple incarnations that must be defeated. If, on the other hand, all players lose all their Qi, or three village tiles become haunted, or the deck runs out before Wu-Feng is defeated, it’s game over, and the Ghosts win.

A scoring system is included so you can know just how badly you were defeated.

You're gonna need some Tao tokens...
You’re gonna need some Tao tokens…

Ghosts In The Graveyard

As a kid, my family would take an annual trip up to the Michigan dunes to go camping for a week with cousins, aunts, and uncles. One of the staple activities of this vacation was sitting around the campfire late at night while my uncle told ghost stories. Frequently he would retell old Twilight Zone episodes. These stories would chill us, would make us think, and most of all would entertain us for hours and hours.

The thing about these ghost stories, is they didn’t always have happy endings. In fact, more often than not, by the end of the story the main characters have realized they made some fatal mistake, or a surprise twist reveals the true doom of the protagonists, or everyone is simply forced to grapple with their mortality, or their inevitable destruction.

Antoine Bauza’s Ghost Stories doesn’t exactly provide chilling morality tales or deep philosophical musings, but it certainly captures that feeling of inevitable doom, of impending mortality.

And of course by that I mean the game is really, really hard.

Wu-Feng Strikes Again!
Wu-Feng Strikes Again!

Seriously. The outpouring of ghosts just never stops. You get at least one new ghost every turn. Sometimes, thanks to ghost abilities, you get a chain of five or six new ghosts. The only way to win is to keep the mass of ghosts under control so you don’t get overwhelmed, and it is very difficult to kill more than one ghost in a single turn. You’re going to have to make calculated sacrifices, balancing on the razor-thin edge between glorious victory and instant death. The doomsday clock is ticking towards midnight, my friends, and you can only slow it down, never stop it. At least, not until you eradicate Wu-Feng. The game wastes little space; you’ll have to use every tool on your toolbelt to achieve victory, or you’ll be dead. Fail to use those Yin-Yang tokens? Dead. Don’t work together and communicate? Double dead.

Ghost Stories keeps the pressure on the players with a constant onslaught of enemies that never lets up, but there aren’t a whole lot of cheap shots, here. Players retain their agency, even when they face certain limits, and that’s one of the key marks of a well-designed cooperative game. I hate it when games add “challenge” by hitting you with a sucker-punch; taking away your powers, losing you your turn. I get it, it’s hard to find that perfect balance between a game that just permanently crushes you and one that is a walk in the park. This game finds that balance, and it’s always exciting. And always nearly impossible.

Fending off two ghosts
Fending off two ghosts

Pacing is important; it keeps players involved and engaged, and Ghost Stories does not disappoint here either. The “maintenance” phase is quick and painless. It’s never extremely fun to break character while you update the game state or manage the AI in any cooperative game, but here it becomes a fluid part of the turn. I’m not even sure how many turns a game actually lasts, since they just flow one after another. You never feel like you’re waiting forever to get back to your actions. Everything slides right along.

Part of that stems from the fact that, above all, this game really requires cooperation. The board is small enough that almost any player can get to almost any position with smart play, so it’s hugely important for players to communicate and figure out the best, most efficient way to do things without stepping on each other’s toes. With the rate of ghost encroachment so high, you can’t afford to have two players trying to accomplish the same exact thing (unless of course it’s necessary for the two players to work together to defeat one particular ghost).

Villagers are here to help
Villagers are here to help

That does mean an Alpha player can take charge and command everyone to do what he or she wants, especially as there is no hidden information whatsoever. But, if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times… an Alpha player problem isn’t a problem with the game. It’s up to you to decide if your group can handle… you know… actually cooperating.

To find issues with the game, I really have to dig deep into the bag of nitpicks. Minor nitpick: like most cooperative games, luck can sometimes vastly affect your outcome. If you get a series of 6 ghosts added to the board in one turn? You’re probably doomed. Get the village tiles arranged in a neat way that puts the most commonly used tiles in convenient positions? It’s going to make the game a little easier.

Here’s another nitpick: if you lose before Wu-Feng appears, it’s kind of a letdown. There’s no huge, climactic moment. It’s more of a straw-that-breaks-the-camels-back moment, wherein everything has been gradually building on you and suddenly you lose. At least the game is still fun to play, but there’s no dramatic moment of “We could do this! We might actually win if we do this one thing!” and then bam, it’s over.

Bam!
Bam!

Unless, of course, you reach the final Wu-Feng incarnation. Then the drama is sky-high.

Nitpicks.

If I have one more serious criticism of the game, it’s that it seems like over time, there’s not going to be a lot of variance in the strategy of how to win. Oh sure, you’ve got plenty of options most of the time for what you specifically tackle on each turn, but overall there are patterns and high-level strategies you learn and then utilize, regardless of the arrangement of village tiles or which powers you use. It may grow stale after many plays… but that’s just conjecture. In the meantime, it’s difficult enough to win on even the normal difficulty that this probably isn’t even a real issue.

Those Buddhas are useful. Use them well.
Those Buddhas are useful. Use them well.

Here’s another nitpick: this only goes up to four players, and most commonly my game group has five players. Yes, I know, that’s my issue.

I like the unique Taoist powers. They come in a variety and each one feels very, very useful, and there’s often a synergy between them. However, I will mention that even though each color has two power options, most of them seem like there is a clearly better option between the two. Maybe it’s just my group’s play style, but, for example, red’s ability to move other players seems way more useful for the whole team than simply allowing Red to move twice on their own turn. Not that the moving-twice thing is useless, I’d just always prefer to play with the other ability. A couple others have that odd imbalanced feel to them, but I’ll let you figure that out for yourself.

We're here to fight!
We’re here to fight!

Moving on… a game like this demands nice components so you can immerse yourself in the battle. Ghost Stories delivers the goods, with ominous Haunter Ghost miniatures, heroic player minis, and sufficiently creepy art that captures the ghostly feel of the game. The graphic design is clean and readable from across the table, so you can take the situation in with a quick glance. The icons for the most part are easy enough to remember, but some of them have a bit more nuance that’s harder to nail down, so I still have to keep the cheat sheet handy. My only complain is that the player boards feel a little flimsy, and are already starting to warp. Just a tiny bit, though, and it’s still fully playable. The rulebook is… okay, I guess. It doesn’t appear to be broken in any fashion, but the layout could be a little cleaner and easier to reference.

All in all, Ghost Stories is a whole lot of fun. It’s fast-paced, keeps you on your toes, and requires full cooperation between all players. The rules are easy enough to pick up, and most of the complaints I have are just nitpicks over an otherwise grand experience. If you’re into cooperative games, this is definitely one to check out.

  • Rating 9.0
  • User Ratings (2 Votes) 9.5
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Summary

Pros:

  • Easy rules
  • Fast-paced gameplay
  • Good components
  • Challenging without cheap shots
  • Many interesting decisions

Cons:

  • Some luck elements affect the difficulty
  • Strategy doesn't change a whole lot from game to game
9.0 Excellent

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion7 Comments

  1. Everyone is saying this game is hard. But i played one game and… ! We won 🙂 4 players and only one had played it more then one time. But the tiles were in the right place and 3 players had a very good idea what to do from the start ( i wasnt one of them)
    But i can see that i can get very difficult with a bit of bad luck from the card draw. I dont know if i need to have this game but i would play it again. And loose? 🙂

    • You can always try a higher difficulty level. Perhaps it was luck, perhaps you simply have the innate ghost-fighting skills to claim victory with ease.

  2. Pingback: Review Roundup | Tabletop Gaming News

  3. The second expansion (Black Secrets) adds a fifth player – Wu Feng. Yep, the fifth player gets to play the ghosts.

    If you’re afraid that the game might get stale, the two expansions do give you options to keep things fresh. In addition to a fifth player in the second expansion, the first expansion gives players some extra defensive options, a couple of new town locations, and actual villagers that need protecting.

  4. Excellent review and some really great pictures as well! I’ve had this game bouncing around as a “maybe I’ll pick it up this time” game for a few years, but this may have pushed me over the edge! Thank you!

  5. Pingback: Ghost Stories | Board Games Live

  6. Pingback: Ghost Stories | Board Games Live

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