Tabletop Game Review #7 – Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories CoverLast night, I started thinking about what I was trying to do with my reviews. The obvious is that I want to promote accessibility in gaming and center the marginalized voice of disability, but what else do I want to accomplish? As passionate as I am about challenging and changing assumptions about disability, that isn’t the sole reason why I write this blog. I also write to express myself, in hopes that you’ll express yourself too. I love geeking out with other people, and blogging helps me connect to other people through the stuff that we love. The Geeky Gimp has fostered new friendships, and is a constant source of positivity in my life – especially when I need it the most.

A huge part of that positivity has come from the board game community, and that is why I am writing this review now. I’ve been dealing with some heartbreak, and so many of you have inadvertently helped me by either making podcasts/videos/reviews to keep me distracted, or offering me a virtual shoulder to cry on. Because of your awesomeness, I am inspired to share with you one of my favorite games, aptly brought to me by last year’s BGG Secret Santa. I hope you see why I adore this game, and maybe you’ll pick a copy up for yourself. So I guess this is less of a critical review and more an unabashed squee fest. Either way, enjoy, and let me know what you think in the comments section.

Overview:  

Game: Ghost Stories

Designer/Artist: Antoine Bauza / Pierô

Publisher & Date: Repos Productions, 2008

Players: 1 to 4

You’ll like this if you like: Elder Sign, Mice and Mystics, Pandemic

Rules: (or skip ahead to my review)

Ghost Stories is a cooperative dice-chucking game known for its relentless difficulty. I’ve played it over ten times, and only won once – and even then, just barely. Players are Taoist monks fighting against ghosts summed by the hellish Wu-Feng. As ghost after ghost materialize on the board, you and your team must roll dice to banish the ghouls back to hell. You can summon the help of local villagers, but there may be consequences. Once you exorcise the ghosts, you still have to fight Wu-Feng himself. If you manage to finish him off with at least one Taoist still alive, you’ve won the game.

Before starting, you have to set up the play area. Players choose a Taoist, and take their corresponding board. Each board has spaces for three ghost cards, as well as an explanation of your Taoist’s special ability. You must use all four Taoist boards, even if you’re only playing solo or with two/three players – the unused Taoists can still be summoned to help you in dire situations. Take the nine villager tiles, and arrange them in a 3 x 3 grid, with the Taoist boards placed on the four sides of this grid. Each village tile allows you to perform a special action that can help you defeat the ghosts. Players also receive two Tao tokens in their respective color, a black Tao token, and a Yin Yang token. Additionally, you get 3 Qi (pronounced “chee”) tokens; these represent your life – if you lose them all, you must place your Taoist on the cemetery village tile. These tokens will be explained more as we go along.

An aerial shot of the game.
An aerial shot of the game.

Now you must prepare the ghost card deck for the game. Discard ten cards if you are playing with two players. Then take ten cards aside, and place a random Wu-Feng card on top of them. Put the remaining cards on top of that, and you have created your ghost deck. Place your Taoists in the center village tile, and play begins.

On your turn you must perform the following steps – the first two steps are called the Yin phase, while the following steps are the Yang phase:

1) Check to see if your Taoist board is overrun with ghosts – meaning your board already has three ghost cards on it. If it isn’t overrun, proceed to step two. If it is, lose one Qi token and skip step two.

2) Draw a ghost card and place it on the appropriate Taoist board. Ghost cards come in five colors: red, blue, yellow, green, and black. You place the card on the matching Taoist color board – black automatically goes on your own board. If the needed board is already overrun, you can choose any other available slot to place the card. Immediately resolve any actions on that card.

  • Ghost cards come with special actions. There are three spaces on the bottom of each card, and one or more of these spaces can show an action. If the action is on the left space, that action must be resolved as soon as the card is drawn. This can include: rolling the curse die (basically a die that summons more ghosts, or makes you lose your tokens), summoning another ghost, or advancing spirits. If the action is on the middle space, that action occurs for as long as the card is on the board. The most common one here is the spirit (which I will explain further below), and the curse die. So if the space has a curse die, for example, you must roll the die every time it’s your turn until that ghost is exorcised. If there is an action on the right space, that action is resolved as soon as you exorcise that ghost. These are usually positive things, like receive two Tao tokens of your choice or gain back your Yin Yang token. Sometimes, though, it’s not good (like roll the curse die) and you must decide whether it’s even worth it to exorcise that ghost.

3) You can move your Taoist one space to an adjacent tile.

4) Choose to either battle a ghost, or take the action of the village tile you are on. You can only battle a ghost that is directly in front of your Taoist.

  • If you battle a ghost, roll the three d6 dice, each of which has six colors on it: red, blue, green, yellow, white, and black – white is considered wild. Every ghost card lists what colors you need in order to exorcise them. You can use your colored Tao tokens to fill in for rolls. For example, the Yellow Plague ghost requires four yellows to exorcize. You roll the three dice and get a yellow, black, and white. Since white is wild, you technically rolled two yellows. You also have two yellow Tao tokens, totaling four yellows. This means you can exorcise the ghost and remove it from the board – they are no longer a threat.
  • If you decide to use to village action, simply perform the action of the specific tile you are on. Each tile does something differently, and they are always helpful. Some actions include: gaining two Tao tokens, pushing back spirits, healing a Taoist, gaining back Qi, and placing Buddhist statues. The statues are quite powerful. If you choose to take a statue, you can place a Buddha in an empty adjacent ghost space in a subsequent turn. If you draw a ghost card that would be placed on that space, the ghost is automatically exorcized. For example, if you draw a blue ghost card, and there is a Buddha statue in one of the three blue Taoist’s spaces, you can immediately exorcize that ghost without having to roll.
  • Some ghost cards summon spirits that will attack the village. If you draw such a card, place a spirit miniature on the card. Before each subsequent turn, the spirit advances toward the village. If it makes it to the village, flip the village tile over. That tile is haunted and no longer active – Taoists cannot use its special ability. If the ghosts haunt three tiles, you lose the game. These spirits will continue to haunt as long as the card is in play. Let’s say it is your turn and you are the blue monk. You draw a card on your turn – it is red, and has a spirit icon in the middle space. Place that card on the red Taoist’s board, and then place a spirit miniature on that card. Perform your remaining actions, and now it is red’s turn. The spirit on their card moves forward one space, immediately in front of the card. On red’s next turn, the spirit advances again, haunts the village tile in front of it, and immediately goes back on the card. The process starts again, and continues until it is exorcized. Now imagine this with three or four ghost cards in play! But there is some hope. You can use your Yin Yang token to flip back a haunted tile. Once you use that token, it is gone, and it’s difficult to get back. Also, note: if your Taoist board has spirits on it, you must first advance those spirits before drawing a ghost card on your turn.
The Tao dice, and the black curse die
The Tao dice, and the black curse die

5) Place a Buddha, if applicable. You have completed your Yin and Yang phases.

After you perform your actions, the next player goes. If you are playing a two-player game, your partner is directly opposite you; the Taoists to your left and right are considered “neutral” boards. They still take turns, but you only perform the Yin phase with them – they do not draw ghost cards on their turn. However, each real player receives a token that allows them to summon these neutral boards when needed. This means you can use that Taoist’s special ability on your turn. Once you use this token, you place it in the center of the village where you can retrieve it on a following turn. But you have to be careful, as these neutral Taoists can still die if they lose their Qi. If they die, you can no longer use their ability, so it’s probably wise to make sure their boards are not overrun with ghosts.

You may be wondering what the Taoist’s abilities are. Each board is double sided, with a different ability on either side, but you must choose one and stick with it for the remainder of the game. Red can move another Taoist after he moves himself, or he can move two spaces instead of one. Blue can battle ghosts or use the village spaces twice, or battle AND use the village tile. Green can roll an extra die and never roll the curse die, or reroll any die once. Yellow can choose a Tao token of their choice before every turn, or place a Mantra on a ghost of their choice, weakening that ghost by one color. These abilities are for every turn, but can be taken away temporarily by certain ghost cards.

You win the game if you defeat Wu-Feng. Depending on your difficulty level (yes, there are different levels), you may have to defeat more than one Wu-Feng incarnation. You can lose the game by haunting 3 tiles, all the Taoists die, or the last ghost card is put in play with Wu-Feng still undefeated.

There are a few more rules that I didn’t mention, but feel free to let me know if I missed anything significant or made an error!

What I liked:

First off, this game is simply gorgeous. I admit to judging a game by its appearance, and I knew I had to have it as soon as I saw it. Bright, vibrant colors, and shiny Buddha statues add to the atmosphere of the game. Pierô’s artwork is brilliant and almost terrifying, while remaining tasteful. The attention to detail is spectacular, as each tile and each card is like a tiny work of art. Some might think this game looks too busy, but I can assure you that isn’t the case here. The iconography isn’t confusing or lost amidst this heavily artistic board.

The components are your basic cardboard punch-outs, minus the shiny, pointy mini Buddha statues. The cards are sturdy, and shuffle easily. I’ve seen a lot of people sleeve their cards, but I’ve never felt it was necessary. They still look brand new after multiple shufflings. The box insert is pretty basic, just…you know, a box, but everything fits easily. Snack baggies will do the trick here.

The green Taoist's board
The green Taoist’s board

Ghost Stories plays very smoothly, especially after multiple sessions. There are also player reference sheets, which help with the iconography. But don’t let that nice reference sheet fool you, because this game is intense. It’s one of the few games that literally makes my heart race. When you’ve got four spirits on the board, all looking to overtake the village, and you know you can exorcise two of them – but then your partner draws a Black Widow ghost, and now you can’t use your Tao tokens on any card, you start to panic. You scramble to come up with a plan that will allow you to hopefully survive another round, and never have you felt so stressed out by a game. But that is why I love Ghost Stories – it completely sucks me into its world, and actually makes me care about plastic spirit miniatures infecting a fake village.

And it’s just so much fun. I can’t ever imagine getting sick of it, especially since the board is really modular. You can arrange the nine village tiles any way you want for each game, and choose different Taoist abilities. It’s cool to try different arrangements to see which works best. My gaming partner (aka my nurse/friend) and I haven’t figured out the best combination yet, but we think we’re getting close.

A lot of people complain that this game is too hard, but I think that’s why it’s so damn exciting. There are times where you are close to victory, you can just about taste it, and bam – you draw a ghost card which requires you to summon another ghost card, which requires you to draw yet another ghost, and so on. There’s the perfect ratio of luck to skill. To me, that’s fun – because when you finally manage to win, it’s an awesome feeling. It’s like reaching the top of Mount Everest, you know?

As far as this game’s complexity, I think it can be taught easily. My rules explanation may seem confusing, but in person, it’s simpler. Rolling dice to match the colors on the card is a concept most people will understand. After a few turns, your non-gaming friends should get the hang of it. Ghost Stories is a nice mix of deep play and easy mechanics.

What I didn’t like:

When I first got this game, I noticed the dice were very sticky, and became increasingly stickier after every play. I went to my trusted BoardGameGeek, and discovered this was a common problem. After e-mailing the company for replacement dice, I was happy to get them in the mail, sticky-free, in a matter of two or three weeks. They also gave me some promo cards, which was super cool. So I can’t say that was a bad experience, though I’m still wondering what made them sticky.

The rulebook is confusing, and the reference sheet has one error – it doesn’t list one of the icons on the cards. Expect to have an interrupted first GSsideviewfew plays, as you need to look up stuff, which the rule book doesn’t explain properly, and then you have to look it up on the Geek.

The Gimp Glimpse:

This game is language independent, so there is no reading involved outside of the rulebook. Players who are colorblind will have trouble, I think. Even for me, the yellow on the die is more orange than anything, which gets confused with the red. Color is huge in this game, so bear that in mind. You also have a lot of dice throwing, and I found the dice to be slightly heavier than normal. The only other potential issues I can think of are placing the spirit miniatures and Taoists. They have a tendency to fall over, so some dexterity/balance is needed.

Score:

Five out of five. The rulebook is a pain, but everything else about this is just so awesome that it doesn’t even matter. As the kid’s say, this is amazeballs. Kudos to Bauza, my favorite board game designer, on a stellar game.

6 thoughts on “Tabletop Game Review #7 – Ghost Stories

  1. I have a friend who refuses to play this game again because he doesn’t like the hopeless feeling he gets from the very beginning! I’ve only played it 4 times and won once and I love how it does something that no other game really does – it pumps you up and get a real feeling of anxiety and panic going. It’s a roller coaster of emotion. “Yes, we’re going to win! Oh, crap, five monsters just hit at once – we’re all going to die…” Literally in the same breath.

    You’re review is spot on accurate and I loved reading it. Please keep up the good work and game on!

  2. I’m not sure I like how hopeless the game makes you feel, but it’s a game that keeps both my husband and I on our toes when we play. There’s no rest for the not-so-wicked and no free lunches. We’ve won twice out of five games but kind of need to put asterisks beside those wins because we messed up some of the rules along the way. The rules are confusing but once you get the hang of it, it’s a frustrating kind of fun.

Leave a Reply