Review: Ghost Stories
Both you and this game deserve better.
Ghost Stories is a co-operative game that sees one to four players taking control of Chinese taoist monks trying to survive the longest night of their lives. Wu-Feng (Lord of the Nine Hells and all-around bad time) has returned to haunt the realm of the living. Your collective job is to defend a town against wave after wave of vengeful ghosts until Wu-Feng himself finally comes crawling out of the Ghost Deck. The players win if they exorcise him. They lose if the village becomes too haunted to handle, or they’re all murdered by ghosts.
But what I want to express is that when I take out Ghost Stories, when I lay it out on the table like an exploded, sinister Rubix Cube and get everyone to take their seats, it manages to be an event.
Part of that’s the luxury of it. Lots of games have pretty components- nice miniatures, custom dice, a richly detailed board. Ghost Stories is a cut above even that.
Every part of it feels good in your hand, with a glossy finish and a nice weight. And there’s not just art on every tile, card and token- this is the single most colourful game I’ve ever seen. It’s also the only game I own which rewards anyone who examines it closely with hidden stuff, like that each monk’s board displays a different landscape, or that the colours of ghosts you fight are themed around those landscapes, or that in the backgrounds of each board you can see the central village. True class. In a board game. They said it couldn’t be done …!
Another reason that Ghost Stories becomes an event is that while it might look like a puzzle, it plays like a battle. A grand hate-fest of You vs. Them. On your turn you get to move one space around the village and perform one of two actions. You can either ask the villager whose tile you’re on for help (getting the monks to pray for protection against a certain colour of ghost, getting the night watchman to ring his big bell and propel all ghosts backwards a space, and more besides), or you can try and exorcise any ghosts you’re stood next to by rolling a tidy handful of chunky, coloured dice. If you’re lucky, you’ll banish a ghost from the board.
Oh, there’s one other thing that happens on everybody’s turn. A new ghost appears. So, on a good turn, you’ll exorcise a ghost. On every single turn, a new one appears. Playing Ghost Stories is the tactical equivalent of drowning in quicksand. Your job, really, is to grab a branch and hang on.
It makes for a wonderful bonding experience for your whole team. You’re always sharing pain and terror and panic, but that guy who comes up with a plan that saves the tea house from getting haunted? You’ll feel like hugging him. The girl who goes storming up to the huge, level 4 green behemoth and manages to roll three green on four dice, banishing it? You’ll feel like sweeping everything off the table and making out with her. Even if it’s your sister. Especially if it’s your sister.
For most of the time, though, you’re watching everybody’s precious life tokens get chipped away, groaning as village tile after village tile gets flipped over to their atmospheric “haunted” side and nervously eyeing your personal collection of coloured Tao tokens that’ll help you banish the really big boys. Unless you get one of the really big boys that locks your tao tokens. Still, at least you’re in this together. Unless you’re playing by yourself. In which case, haha ha ha oh you poor bastard
But just as all seems lost, you’ll draw an ordinary blue ghost card off the top of the deck to reveal a red one beneath it. The incarnation of Wu Feng you planted in the deck before the game began! He’ll be here next turn! And suddenly there’s a flush of adrenaline and your team-mates are shouting over one another to sacrifice themselves for the cause, because all that matters is that you pool all of your resources in one player, and they run up to Wu Feng and hit him with everything you’ve got left.
Because, in true, Hollywood style, you only get one shot at this. If all of you ignore your regular duties in favour of having a pop at Wu Feng, and you fail, the board might be utterly overrun before you even get a second chance to exorcise him. It’s beautifully dramatic.
Of course, everything might change when you finally do flip that Wu Feng card off the top of the ghost deck to reveal… well, that would be telling. The game comes with a tiny deck of possible Wu Feng incarnations, every one of them unique and each more dickish than the last, and if you’re anything like me you won’t so much as peek at these cards when you first get the game. You’ll want to preserve Ghost Stories’ mystique, because it’s rare that a game can conjure up a sense of mystique, yet alone quite this much. Ghost Stories is a game best played at night, with a big pot of tea handy. Oh, yes.
A co-operative game with style, poise, grace, all the terrible tension of a last stand and a rockin’ end-of-level boss mechanic. Buy it.
A WORD ON THE PROBLEM WITH CO-OPERATIVE GAMES
There’s one ugly problem with co-operative board games, which is that if you’ve got some players who are more focused on what’s happening on the table than everyone else, know the game better, have the personality of bulldozers or some combination of the above, it’s possible for them to start telling other players what to do and running the entire game themselves. This is fun for nobody.
The excellent Lord of the Rings co-operative card game evades this by giving each player a private hand of cards, while Space Alert, one of my favourite games, ducks it by letting you give problem players the unenviable position of Captain.
Ghost Stories does, at least, present you with so many choices that one player’s going to have a difficult time seeing all of their options, but overall you may want to play with three or even two people instead of inviting anybody who’s likely to play the game for you. But then, I would say that. I’m a jerk!
A WORD ON WHITE MOON
Ghost Stories has one expansion out at the minute, by the deceptively lovely name of White Moon. White Moon builds on the idea that you’re defending a village by filling it with villagers. What do villagers do, you ask?
Well, if a villager is stood in front of one of the new Devourer ghosts, THEY DIE
If a villager is on a village tile that becomes haunted, THEY DIE
If a villager is scared by a haunter ghost onto a tile that’s already full of villagers, THEY DIE
If a villager is scared by a haunter ghost clean out of the village, THEY DIE
If a villagTHEY DIE
And what do villagers do when they die? Why, they CURSE YOU of course. Each family has a unique curse, such as HAUNTING A TILE causing all the villagers on it TO DIE causing MORE CURSES that might kill MORE VILLAGERS and then OH GOD but IT’S OVER
You can, however, get individual villagers to follow your monk as you travel the board, so you can shuffle them around into slightly safer formations or even drop them off in the sanctuary where they’ll be safe. Save an entire family and they’ll give you a reward- a magical breastplate, a taoist sword, a bag of moondust or anything in between. Highly desirable items. Items that might save you. Or you might doom your whole team searching the town for that third member of the Lu family so you can save them and get your sword. Nobody cares, Steven! There’s a haunter right there next to you! Fight it! Jesus!
There are some other features too, like a protective white ghost who fights on your side and a magical barrier around the village for you to power, all of which have to be used if you’re playing with the villagers. Taken as a whole, White Moon nudges Ghost Stories from a relatively manageable entry game towards more hardcore territory, with players being expected to learn many more rules.
In short, this isn’t one of those no-brainer expansions that are all too common in board gaming that either fix something broken about the base game or slot smoothly into place like a book into a bookshelf. It’s a beast, with its own agenda. Pick it up only if you and your friends are getting pretty good at this Wu Feng-banishing thing and wouldn’t mind something more complex.
A WORD ON BLACK SECRET
There’s another expansion coming, too. An expansion which will sound sacrilegious to anyone who’s been defeated by Wu Feng more times than they can remember (like me), because it’ll make Ghost Stories a 2-5 player game where somebody controls Wu Feng.
I simultaneously howled in terror and threw up in my mouth a little bit while typing that last sentence. There was some spillage, but I’ll soldier on.
The Wu Feng player (hurrgh) will be able to place new ghosts wherever he likes, he’ll have minions to send digging through the village in a search for his own corpse, and the taoist monks will gain access to dark blood magic that might just save them as it drains away their life.
It all sounds pretty interesting. I won’t be able to play as Wu Feng, though. I just won’t be able to do it. I’ve got history with the guy. So many late nights spent drinking gloomily with friends as he crushes us just handful of turns before he’d have shown up.
I want to become good at this game. I want to learn all the tricks, the plays, I want to know when to be brave and when to play safe. I want to dance across that board like a spinning top, and I want Wu Feng to fear me.
And that, my Lindels, is just one way of knowing you’re playing a truly great game.