Board Game Night - Ghost Stories

Number of players: 1-4 (best: 4)
Playing time: 60 minutes
By:  Antoine Bauza /  Repos Production
Rank on BoardGameGeek: 162nd

This week, a game I want to own, but have only played at a friend's house, many times in fact, and I love it. It started my love affair with cooperative board games. Certainly helps that its theme is right down my alley.

In Ghost Stories, you play four Taoist monks (awkwardly, regardless of the number of players) each with their own distinct powers (indeed, there are two powers per monk, one selected randomly each game), fighting to keep a village safe from ghosts and demons. Each monk's turn, a card is revealed from the ghost deck, which put various types of evil spirits in play (some neutralize your abilities, some advance towards the village to haunt it and make you lose control of it, some make you spin a curse die, etc.), and the monks must do everything in their power to keep them at bay and prevent them from turning village tiles, and then one of several incarnations of the demon Wu-Feng (think Aku from Samurai Jack) is turned and all hell breaks loose. This is a game I've beat a few times, and lost many more times (probably 3 to 1), sometimes before Wu-Feng even shows up! And that was on the easiest setting.

The gameplay offers a lot of variety seeing as you won't always get the same monk, that monk won't always have the same power, each village tile has a distinct ability, the deck won't be shuffled the same way, and you won't face the same Wu-Feng each time. So as far as strategy goes, no two games will be the same. I don't think it's a difficult game, but it is a complex one. There's a lot going on and a lot of options, but that works for a co-op. Players actively help each other keep track of the various powers that can be brought to bear, and hard decisions must be made about what ghosts must be tackled first, looking ahead to all the bad things that will then happen on the next turns. Very much a game where the adrenaline starts pumping as you get overrun by ghosts (especially once they or the curse die starts summoning more), and then endorphins when you regain control of the board.
Of course, there are many ways of losing: Losing 3 village tiles, losing all your monks (I've never found the cemetery's resurrection trick to be cost-effective), and getting to the bottom of the ghost deck without having defeated Wu-Feng. It's a big ask. Beating a ghost is fairly easy - rolling dice to take off hit points, with tokens providing bonuses, though ghosts might be immune to one or the other - but you do have to get to an adjacent tile and as they multiply, it gets harder and harder. Good luck! Hey, maybe you'll lose quickly and get to play again.

The theme is unusual and original, tapping into such films as Chinese Ghost Story and other supernatural kung fu epics, with nice art and miniatures that bring the threat to life. Seeing those creepy hooded figures floating towards the village is truly visceral! The various powers evoke kung fu standards thanks to flavorful names like Dance of the Twin Winds and Strength of the Mountain. Play moves through Yin/Yang phases, and Qi (chi) points fuel some powers. Like Taoists, tokens have an elemental motif. Difficulty levels take you through Nightmare and Hell. Each part of the village has a corresponding power. And between the ghost abilities and the curse die, you get A LOT A LOT A LOT out of the theme. If I had to nitpick, I would make the differently-colored ghosts work slightly differently, but they ARE thematically presented (zombies, vampires, spirits, demons...), but that's only a story-telling concern; they've got to work the same for play balance.

Beautiful art, beautiful miniatures, unique dice, this game is great. There IS an issue with the dice being sticky, but Repos Production will replace them if you write them, and it may be fixed in later editions of the game.
House Rules and Expansions
In addition to three levels of difficulty (for the truly masochistic, I guess), the game has two expansions I have not had the chance to try (I've hardly mastered the intricacies of the main game yet!). In White Moon, your monks must also save individual villagers from the ghosts (rewards for saving entire families, family curses could bring penalties). Black Secret allows a 5th player to play Wu-Feng himself giving the ghost dangerous agency and new types/miniatures; the Taoists gain access to blood mantras to up their own game. The production value of both of these is on par with the original game. Repos has also released limited, sometimes downloadable, content: scenario set-ups, new cards/tiles, and on April Fool's, cards that turns action stars like Van Damme and Bruce Lee into fightable ghosts.

In conclusion: Ghost Stories is complex, but the wealth of options means that players really do have something to discuss on their turn, while the ghosts' turn is ruthless and relentless - it actually fills you with dread! This game will kick your ass, but leave you wanting more.


Shotgun Godin said...

Can't believe I've only played this game once. I enjoyed it so much even though I think we actually lost bit time! A game I have to play again soon :-)

Anonymous said...

Definitely one of my favorite games as well! I love co-op games. Shadows Over Camelot started my love of the co-op genre (which also has the "possible traitor" mechanic). My current obsession is Descent, which now has a free app to make it completely co-op, rather than one Overlord vs. 2-4 players.

I definitely recommend adding the villagers. They add a fun twist to the game, especially with the haunting ghosts.

Siskoid said...

I like Shadows, but it's a tough sell for our group because of the traitor element - we have one person whose kryptonite is bluffing, and she so hates having to turn on others.

I'll check out Descent.


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