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Yes, I am using Cooperation Month as an excuse to try some new games out.
So sue me.
Anyhow, whereas last week’s endeavor resulted in an (admittedly tense) victory twice, this week’s endeavor brought with it only crushing defeat and unending shame. Based on word of mouth surrounding the game, this should not have come as a surprise.
Yes, while last week was all about preventing the end of the world and succeeding heroically, this week was just about trying to save one tiny, Chinese village and failing miserably.
Yep. I played Ghost Stories this week.
Ghost Stories is a game I’ve gotten a lot of word of mouth (or word of text, I guess?). The lovely folks over at Shut Up and Sit Down (if you don’t already read/watch them, you should) hyped the game quite highly and, when I investigated further, I found quite a bit of love for the game elsewhere as well.
Overall, there were two major things I heard about the game.
1. The game is ridiculously hard.
2. The rules are a Fantasy Flight level mess.
Was this all true? Well, let us put on our taoist ceremonial clothing and find out!
Ghost Stories Vital Stats
Publisher: Repos Production
Time to Play: 60+ Minutes
Flareon is ready to fight some ghosts with me!
So. Ghost Stories. Right off the bat, this game is pretty different from a lot of other horror themed games in that it deals largely with Asian spiritualism. You are not a bunch of muscly guys blasting zombies with shotguns, you’re a group of monks relying on your spiritual power to fend off Wu-Fen and his hordes of hungry ghosts.
Honestly, this theme permeates about every inch of the game’s (very, very lovely) design. Let me get this hype out right now. This game is beautiful. This game is practically bursting at the seams with its theme, every inch of it conveying a fantasy world rooted Asian themes. Despite the dark theme of the game (a village beset by hungry and terrifying ghosts isn’t a pleasant place to be), the game wisely keeps its components bright and easy to identify.
Seriously, I could gush for a while about just how nice and neat this game looks when all set up.
See? It just looks so cute on my table.
There was an immediate concern with the quality of the card stock, though. This particular copy was borrowed (I don’t own my own copy of Ghost Stories, a mistake I shall soon rectify!) from friends and almost brand new, so imagine my shock at seeing the cards showing wear already! I definitely recommend you consider investing in some sleeves. Everything else seemed pretty solid, though.
Lookit all the goodies in the box!
The core of the gameplay is pretty simple. Every turn a ghost is drawn from the ghost deck and placed on one of the player boards. These ghosts have a variety of effects (conveniently explained through Euro symbols). The two most pressing of these are the Tormentors (who force the board owner to roll the curse die on their turn, a die that brings all sorts of nasty effects into play) and Haunters (who place one of the ghost figures on their card and then, every other turn, will turn a location facedown, disabling it and bringing the monks one step closer to defeat). There are other effects, but those are two of the big ones.
To deal with these ghosts, a monk must simply stand on the location adjacent to them and attempt to exorcise them by rolling three dice and matching their resistance value on the dice (white being a wild color). So, if you are adjacent to a ghost with one yellow resistance, you just need to roll 1 yellow or 1 white side on a die! Easy peasy!
But then you see a green ghost with 4 resistance and suddenly things aren’t so clear cut. Where, this is where the Tao tokens come into play. Tao tokens of the correct color can be added to a die roll to enhance it. So, that nasty 4 resistance ghost could be stopped by any combination of the 3 dice (showing white or green) and green Tao tokens!
And where do you get Tao tokens from? Well, in addition to the one you get when starting the game and the occasional other you get from defeating a ghost, you can use the locations on the board for a variety of effects, including acquiring more Tao! Of course, sometimes it might be favorable to visit the Sorcerer and have him banish a ghost for the low, low cost of 1 Qi (your monk’s life). Or perhaps the cemetery to bring one of your fallen companions back to life.
Oh. And did I mention you can only move one space and either exorcise a ghost OR use a location?
Oh my, I don’t think I did yet.
Yes, you and your friends are going to need to put your heads together for some serious collective problem solving as you find that your limited actions are going to be running headlong into the unceasing hordes of the undead.
Was a nasty Haunter just played on Red’s board, two spaces from everyone? Better get over there quick! But you don’t have enough Tao to safely do it? Better go collect that. But now he’s getting ready to haunt the Cemetary, so you need to use the Guards to drive him back and stop him from haunting! But in those two turns, Yellow’s board was overrun and he was killed while a ghost that blocked all uses of Tao tokens just showed up on Blue’s. And that Haunter is STILL over on Red’s board.
What are you going to do now?
No, seriously. What are you going to do? Because I need help.
But I get ahead of myself. You probably want to know how to win Ghost Stories, not one of the multitudes of ways to lose the game.
To win, you must simply weather the hordes of terrifying ghosts until one of the 10 incarnations of Wu-Feng (chosen randomly) rises out of the deck to challenge you. Then you must simply defeat it before the ghost deck empties, a mere 10 ghosts later. And, of course, the incarnations of Wu-Feng are some of the most terrifying ghosts that Ghost Stories has to offer. You’re going to need each of your monk’s special powers and every location to their fullest if you want to win.
So. Winning covered. How do you lose?
If you fail to defeat it before the last ghost appears, the town is swallowed by the darkness and you lose.
And of course, if all the monks die before then, the town is swallowed by the darkness and you lose.
Oh, and if three locations are haunted, the town is swallowed by the darkness and you lose.
Yeah. There are a lot more ways to lose in Ghost Stories than there are to win.
Now, before I go any further and heap on my praises about my first experience with this game, let me address the nasty, nasty ghost in the room.
The rulebook is a little hit or miss. I actually did a fair amount of prereading (including skimming boardgamegeek for common rules questions) and didn’t really have too many major issues (except for needing to doublecheck a misrepresented symbol) crop up while I was playing, bit this is a game I would recommend a thorough look through the rules on first.
The most recent rulebook seems to have addressed the most egregious issues, but there is definitely still some ambiguous wording in the game and a few clarifications needed. Still, Mr. Bauza has been quite gracious and has answered many questions on the Board Game Geek forums, so if you do get stuck on something, look over there to find an answer.
I’m going to admit right here that, in writing this, I discovered I played Haunters wrong. Imagine the egg on my face right at this moment and the shame that fills me. I was activating them every turn, which led to me making some slightly hasty uses of the Sorcerer. So let me use this opportunity to remind you: Ghost Stories has a lot of moving parts. Read the rules carefully!
Now then. Difficulty. That’s going to be a tougher one. I will say that, while playing, in addition to the rules mistake above, I was also suffering from a bit of a nasty head cold while playing, which probably impaired my decisions making a bit, so it is hard for me to pass exact judgement on how tough I consider the game.
For reference, though, I was playing on Initiate level, all 4 monks (controlled by myself, Ash was busy sadly). The game does feature rules to play with fewer players, but I liked using all of the monks.
Looking back over the game, if I account for my silliness regarding Haunters, then I believe I was still angling to lose that game. I wouldn’t have had all 4 monks die as quickly (I burned a fair amount of Qi using the Sorcerer to banish strong haunters), but I think my resources were running dry.
Ghost Stories simply buries you with deadly threats at every turn. Every turn is a new ghost and some ghosts are significantly more dangerous then others. Of course, every ghost is a problem (a monk whose board is full at the start of their turn will lose a Qi instead of adding a new ghost), but some ghosts will dramatically shift the game condition by blocking your ability to roll dice, use Tao, or just being a Haunter/Tormentor of the wrong resistance.
If I were to make a direct comparison, Yggdrasil is a game where you are walking a razor’s edge, carefully managing each threat with just enough expenditure that you can handle the next threat, carefully determining exactly how much force is necessary to deal with each enemy.
Ghost Stories is a boat with a hole in the bottom, in the rain, and you and your friends just have buckets to empty it out with. Also the boat is probably on fire.
Flareon is not all pro at handling watery situations.
This is not to say that Ghost Stories requires less thought. Not at all! It is simply that you and your friends must simply cope with a deluge of bad things, terrible things, and even worse things without drowning. Despite my rules flub, you can sort of see the effect: I burned through my Qi too quickly, leaving myself unable to last out the ghosts that were bearing down on me.
Still, due to my unfortunate rules failure, I can’t adequately pass judgement on the difficulty of the game at this juncture. It certainly looked hard, that mistake aside. The game provides you with a lot of options on each turn, and the new threats are going to acquire fairly constant reassessment of the game state. In addition, well, this was the Initiate level in the game.
There were several more difficulty levels above this that further stacked the odds against the players.
So. I’ve covered the components (pretty), the rules (messy), and the difficulty (indeterminate). What remains to be discussed? Oh, right.
Is the game fun?
Yus. A million times yus. Despite my devastating head cold, medicinally imposed drowsiness, and a crushing defeat, I wanted to set the board right back up and start playing again. The game put me somewhat in the mind of an SRPG (strategy RPG, like Final Fantasy Tactics for all of the non-video gamers out there): I was constantly have to readjust my plans based on what ghosts showed up, where, when, what my resources were, what the board state was, where haunters were, where individual monks were, etc. I was racking my poor belabored brain cells harder then I usually do, because, on every turn, there seemed to be multiple, legitimate options for every monk.
So yeah. I was hugely disappointed that I had to return my borrowed copy so quickly and am hoping that the game can come out one of these Wednesdays to be played as a group soon.
That, or that I go out and buy a copy to play myself soon.