Guys … cross the streams. Cross them now.
Ghost Stories, a cooperative game for 1-4 players, taking about an hour.
Designed by Antoine Bauza,
Published by Asmodee and Repos Production in 2008.
Ghost Stories is a cooperative game about desperately fighting horrifying and angry spirits. A lot of reviews of Ghost Stories start by explaining that the game is extremely difficult and expounding upon why this is a Very Good Thing. I don’t disagree on either count, but I would phrase things differently: Ghost Stories is a difficult game to win, but it is at its best on a knife’s edge. The true joy of the game is the struggle, and Ghost Stories has made finding struggle a relatively easy.
You play as one of four Taoist monks (top left) defending a village (center) from an army of ghosts (bottom left), and their leader Wu Feng (right). In keeping with the light, pulp, Chinese horror theme, Taoist monk here means mystical warrior, village means place where every citizen and their dog can cast helpful spells to aid you in your plight, and Wu Feng means Bad Day.
To win, you must defeat Wu Feng. If the entire horde of ghosts is summoned, you lose. If a third of the village is haunted, you lose. If at any point, all Taoists are dead you lose. We should probably figure out what each of those means mechanically. Especially the defeating Wu Feng part, right?
During setup, nine village tiles are randomly arranged in a square (a 10th, blank tile is included in case of loss or creativity). Each tile represents a villager or location players may call upon for assistance. Some will immediately appear more useful than others, but there’s a lot to discover underneath your first impressions of each location. Often where a tile is placed on the board will determine how or when you are able to use it effectively, making every game a little different. On a turn, Taoists can move up to one square in any direction before either engaging a ghost or activating the tile they’re standing on.
Each Taoist has a matching player board that will sit on one edge of the village. The player boards have spaces for ghosts and a unique special ability associated with both the front and back sides. Both of a given board’s powers have a common element, giving each colored Taoist a flash of character that carries from game to game–the Blue Taoist gets extra actions, the Red Taoist has special movement rules, the Green Taoist manipulates dice and the Yellow Taoist weakens ghosts.
Players also have a certain number of Qi tokens that represent life force. Running out of them is bad.
A deck of 55 cards represents the army of ghosts, with one of ten possible incarnations of Wu Feng selected at random and inserted several cards from the bottom of the deck. Each turn, players will draw ghosts into play, placing them according to their color (they come in each of the player colors as well as black). Should the players manage to survive until the special Wu Feng card is drawn and defeat him before the last few cards in the deck run out, they win.
Each ghost has a resistance, in the top left. Getting rid of the ghosts simply involves moving to the adjacent village tile, spending an action to perform an exorcism, and rolling three dice. Get enough dots of the proper color (or the white, wild dots), and the ghost is discarded. If necessary, you can discard any colored Tao tokens in your possession to add like-color dots to the dice pool. Players standing on a corner tile can be adjacent to two ghosts at once; when this occurs, players use the same dice pool against both ghosts simultaneously (you don’t add their resistances together). Especially in conjunction with Tao tokens, double exorcism is a powerful way to clear the board, making corners an attractive site to place ghosts..
Each ghost also has symbols at the base either on the left, right, or center. Left-hand symbols are resolved when the ghost comes into play; these range from calling in another ghost to capturing one of the group’s exorcism dice until the ghost is defeated. Right hand symbols are resolved when the ghost is exorcised–these are either rewards (like gaining Tao tokens), curses (rolling the curse die), or both at once. Middle stone abilities denote intrinsic properties such as immunity to dice (better have some Tao tokens) or Haunter-ish-ness. Haunters are especially important.
When a Haunter comes into play, you get to place an awesome figurine on the card. Leave it alone for too many turns and it haunts the tile in front of it and resets. Haunted tiles cannot be called upon for aid. When the Haunter reaches a tile that has already been haunted it haunts the tile behind that one. If three tiles are haunted at once, you lose … and by the middle of the game, you’ll have seen three of these fellows on the board at once. The most I’ve seen simultaneously was six, so far. Wu Feng doesn’t mess around.
Speaking of haunting. Remember the curse die I mentioned? It has six sides, one of which instantly haunts a tile. Some ghosts force you to roll a curse die after a successful exorcism as a final flip of the hellish bird. Two tiles haunted, a white-knuckle, last minute victory … followed by an unlucky roll of the curse die. Game over. That’s the worst of it, but the curse die can also cause the roller to lose a Qi, lose all Tao tokens, or draw a ghost into play. Two of the sides, mercifully, are blank. So one time out of three, nothing terrible happens. Of course, some ghosts invoke the curse die every round they’re in play. One in three only gets you so far.
Speaking of poor odds … a ghost with one resistance isn’t bad. There’s a 70% chance you’ll roll a successful, 1-dot exorcism. But a lot of ghosts have two or three resistance (25% and 4% odds). A few even have four resistance. Better have some Tao tokens! At the easiest difficulty, the game gives you two tokens at the start–black and your Taoist’s color. Most of the ghosts that reward tokens upon exorcism have four resistance so you might even suffer a net loss of Tao tokens taking them out. The best way to obtain Tao Tokens, then, is the Herbalist’s shop (left). Roll two dice, get the corresponding Tao tokens. Except … there are only four Tao tokens of each color available, and players cannot trade tokens. If you aren’t careful, the tokens might end up spread between various sides of the village when you need them all over by the Cemetery now.
Killing ghosts is hard. Inevitably, all the lesser evils pile up as you dash frantically between the greater ones and someone’s board gets full. Or maybe you just draw three ghosts of the same color in a row. When a player’s board is full at the start of his or her turn, instead of drawing a new ghost, the player loses a Qi. If the all of the player boards are full … everyone starts notifying their next of kin. There’s only so much Qi to lose.
There are 45 of these bastards lining up before Wu Feng arrives, and statistics are against you as far as exorcising them goes. Clearly, Qi will be lost. Even without the curse die. Or the ghosts that steal Qi when they come into play. Those guys are awful.
This is where you go when you run out of Qi and die. It is often a short rest. Sooner or later one of your buddies will decide they need you back in action. When activating the Cemetery (as the amusing icons suggest), a player does three things:
1) Un-deadens a dead Taoist.
2) Gives the un-deadened Taoist 2 Qi from the bank
3) Rolls the curse die.
A hard bargain. Supposing you died because your board is full. You come back with 2 Qi and lose one the second you get a turn. Now you either clear your board and buy yourself a little time or help fight whatever nastiness prompted your resurrection which might be on another board … only to die again on your next turn. And of course, if the Cemetery gets haunted by that curse die-roll … try not to let the cemetery be haunted.
There’s always the Taoist Alter that unhaunts tiles when activated.
Try not to let that be haunted either. Also, make sure you have somewhere to put the new ghost it brings into play.
If all else fails, and doom seems imminent, you have a secret weapon. A Yin-Yang token may be spent any time on your turn. It can instantly unhaunt a tile or activate any tile regardless of where your Taoist is standing. The Yin-Yang does not count as your one action for the turn, either.
Once you spend a Yin-Yang, there is only one way to get it back. Some ghosts will give you a Yin-Yang as a reward for defeating them. If you haven’t spent your Yin-Yang, you can’t get a second one and you can’t trade them with other players. Of course, if one of those Yin-Yang-spewing ghosts is on the board and you know you can kill it this turn or next, you can spend the Yin-Yang with impunity. That plan usually works out poorly.
By this point I’ve described all the basics, and many of the finer points of the game. I have used four of the tiles as examples so far, and I want to describe two more as I am especially fond of them.
On the left is my favorite. The Buddhist Temple. On it are two little Buddha statues. On activating a tile, you pick one up. At the end of your next turn (or any later turn) you may place it on an empty ghost space across from your Taoist as a free action. If a player with two Buddha statues is standing on a miraculously ghost-free corner tile, the player may place both Buddhas at the end of the turn. Any time a ghost is to be placed on a Buddha (by player choice or not), the ghost is discarded instead as though it was never drawn. The Buddha then goes back to the temple. Wu Feng is, sensibly, immune to this effect and simply sends the Buddha back to the temple.
The Temple of the Winds allows a ghost to be relocated to any empty space at the cost of moving another Taoist to any tile, which actually sounds rather helpful for a cost (unless all your friends are dead). Now put these tiles together. The Blue Taoist can activate a tile twice per turn in some games, rather useful when invoking the Buddhist temple or reorganizing ghosts with the Temple of Winds. Every now and then we get lucky enough for the full package–blue with two village actions per turn, the Buddhist Temple as a corner tile … but simply using the Temple of the Winds and dedicating a player to running Buddha statues back and forth can work wonders … while there are still free spaces. Eventually the board gets too full for either temple to work very well.
Playing Ghost Stories, my companions and I slipped into frantic deliberation and last-moment innovation as easily as a Chess player sets his or her chin in hand. The game hands out delightful bundles of tension and desperate action every turn.
So what’s wrong with it?
Ghost Stories is a game often lost, and sometimes there’s not much the players can do about it. It is also a resolutely cooperative experience–each player has a turn in theory, but you are pretty much acting as a group and much of the game is spent deliberating which can sometimes leave more experienced players in charge with others a bit left out. It can be a difficult game to fit into an evening since it has a rather variable play-time from group to group and session to session. The random placement of tiles and selection of powers, until you’ve had enough plays to get used to various combinations, can make certain powers or tiles less powerful or important in a given game–which is fine unless you’re the player who gets stuck dealing with that side of the board, or that Taoist’s ability. The rules also have some rather unfortunate ambiguities and there are some awkward scratches on the otherwise gorgeous design at work here: there are three stepping stones for marking which step in the Haunting process a given ghost is in but ghosts are only ever on the third stone for the time it takes to move the figurine, flip the haunted tile over, and move the figurine back. Awkward.
Overall? It’s quirky, pulpy B-movie material on top of unusual gameplay with an immense amount of tactical flexibility. I’ve played the game with new gamers and hobbyists alike and it has yet to ring false with anyone. It was certainly on the long side the first time (my first game took around two hours), but subsequent games have been from 45 minutes to an hour. The game as a whole is subject to a substantial random factor at the base of the learning curve but experience will show you the way to subvert bad luck and add both temporal and tactical consistency. As I hope the images have suggested, this is one of the more beautiful games available*. I find it’s elegance of play and design as riveting and masterful as its images are fine.
*(see Yggdrasil for a remarkably similar game featuring the same artist, a different designer, and a healthy dose of Norse myth)