Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ghost Stories - One Part Jackie Chan, One Part Ghostbusters, Two Parts Priapism

First, let me tell you that "I ain't afraid of no ghost." I mention this because while I may not be "afraid of no ghost", the prospect of ever beating Ghost Stories scares the hell out of me. It's clearly haunted by the ghosts of the noted masons Ci Alis, Via Gra, and Levi Tra, because this game is just so damned hard, even on the easier levels. I've played it no less than 15 times with a multitude of different game groups, and I have yet to be party to a single win. That being said, it is a really fun little jaunt through a Wong Fei Hong film, but in this film, the bad guys win. To top it off, it’s as Ameritrashy as a Kentucky trailer park, but it’s smart like a euro game; I guess the analogy would be that Ghost Stories is the chemical engineer that lives in the trailer park, toying mercilessly with the toothless inhabitants of the park about the merits of fluoride.

This game's recent iteration as published by the powerhouse that is Asmodee Editions may be one of the hardest games I've ever played, but it's also one of the most fun cooperatives I've played. It's not as abstract as Pandemic, and it's not as light-hearted as Castle Panic, but it's easily as much fun as either of those games while being far more difficult than either. The art is superb on every single printed part, and the Chinese Kung Fu theme is soaked through to its soul. If only my Kung Fu was not so weak...

When you crack open the box, which is the standard bookshelf size, you'll be met with several rulebooks in different languages, four double sided player dashboards and several sheets of truly well illustrated chits which were manufactured with the best die cutting I have ever seen. The pieces glide off with an incredibly small effort, so when you remove them be sure to have the upturned box under them to catch them lest you lose one as I almost did. Next, there are about a hundred cards which all represent evil spirits, all superbly drawn and thematic to the hilt, and nine heavy cardstock village tiles with equally impressive art. Also, there's five dice, one of which is big, black, and loaded with evil, four plastic miniatures, in four colors, that represent your characters, and a handful of black, plastic ghost miniatures used to haunt spaces. Finally, and most hilariously, there are two little golden Buddha statues, complete with little pointy hats and chubby little bellies. The quality of everything in the box is superb, but with the myriad little bits you'll definitely want to bag these up separately. I ended up getting, through sheer luck alone, some little Plano boxes that fit perfectly within the box cavity and hold every bit separately, although I had to deface the cardboard insert to make room for the cards and the village tiles. It worked out really, really well, to be honest!

As noted, the premise of the game is that there are ghosts and Chinese monks battling, but let me get more into the meat of the theme. The idea of the game is that the Lord of The Nine Hells, Wu-Feng, has located his ashes in this little village, and if he gets them back he will wreak havoc upon the world. Luckily, four Taoist monks with all manner of superpowers are around to stop him, but he has an almost endless supply of minions he has summoned to fight for his cause. In short, there’s only one way to win, a ton of ways to lose, and there’s a ton of luck involved in the outcome.

Luck is the word of the day, because the only real way to do that is by rolling dice or spending a very limited supply of chits in lieu of dice rolls. The ghosts that materialize are also random, so getting certain combinations of ghosts coming up in quick succession can be an absolute killer for our brave heroes as well. That being said, even with all the luck, there's a ton of strategic options and the real spectre of the dreaded the real strategy in the game boils down to placing ghosts in the right slots at the right times, using the right powers at the right times, and having a coordinated strategy with your fellow wee monks. So, now that I've told you about what the game is about, let me tell you a bit more about the game itself. The game is playable by 1-4 players, but because it’s most fun with four, I’m going to explore that.

Setup is a breeze, and should only take a couple of minutes, provided you have your chits separated. First, each player takes a player board and decides which side they wish to use, as both sides are printed and almost identical, but each monk has two special, persistent powers that completely change the way each player acts, but only one power per player may be selected to use per game. Next, you lay the nine village tiles face-up in the center of the play area in three by three pattern, with the player boards being laid across each side. Chits are then handed out, with the amount being varied in the difficulty desired. In all game variants, though, players are given some amount of life tokens, a special Yin-Yang token that allows you to break a few rules, and one Tao token in the color of the player. Finally, you take an appropriate amount of “Incarnation of Wu-Feng” cards, and stuff them in the deck of regular ghosts at certain intervals as prescribed by the level of difficulty you elected to play at. These are the super-baddies, and defeating these is the only way to win the game, and on the easiest level of difficulty come into play 10 cards before the end of the deck. Once that stuff is done, you’re ready to rock.

Gameplay is fairly straightforward and is broken into the Yin and Yang phases, which translate roughly to the upkeep phase and the action phase. In the Yin phase, you first update your player dashboard and check that any effects are resolved, if any. Now each player board has space for three ghosts, and thus if you have three ghosts you lose a life and then move to the Yang phase. If you do not have 3 ghosts on your board, you draw a ghost from the ghost deck and resolve it. As noted before there are 4 colors of Taoist monk, and the ghosts come in those four colors as well as black. Ghosts of your color must be played to your board, and ghosts of other colors must be played to their respective boards, with one exception. Black ghosts, who are particularly nasty, must be played to your own board, if possible, otherwise may be passed to another player’s board.

The fun of Ghost Stories really begins on the Yang phase, where each action you take is critical. The first thing you can do is move your player one space in any direction to an adjacent village tile. You may then attack one or more ghosts that you are adjacent to, or alternatively, use the tile that you are currently on to perform an action. The tiles have a wide variety of powers such as killing any single ghost in exchange for a life point, taking a Tao token from the pool into your inventory, resurrecting a fallen Taoist, and so on.

Combat, however, is where the luck comes into play. You are allotted a default of 3 Tao dice, which are D6’ers with each side matching a ghost color, plus a white side that acts as a wild card. To kill a ghost, simply roll the dice and if enough of its color comes up, you win and it is defeated. If, perchance, you do not roll sufficiently, you can use the Tao tokens of the proper color to bridge the gap and defeat him, whereas the ghost is defeated and the Tao token goes back to the supply.

The ghosts themselves have powers as well. Some ghosts have abilities that come into play when they are first summoned, some have persistent abilities that force you to roll the black Curse Die, which has a 66.6% chance of causing ill effect, and the worst of the abilities ghosts have is the Haunter ability. The Haunter, when put on a board, has one of the black ghost miniatures placed on the card. Each turn the owning player takes, you move that Haunter figure forward one space toward the village, and on each second turn the ghost haunts a village tile and returns to its card, thereby repeating the cycle every two turns. When a village tile is haunted, it is flipped face-down and its action may no longer be used by the players. If three of these tiles in a row are haunted, game over, man. Some ghosts, when killed, also reward you in a variety of ways, such as with a life point, a Yin-Yang token, or Tao tokens. Some, however, curse you on the way out and cause you to roll the dreaded Black Curse Die of Doom. All in all, the order of killing ghosts is very important because some ghosts inhibit you from performing certain actions, steal your Tao dice, reducing your attack strength, or are immune to certain types of attack.

Play continues until either the players lose or the Incarnation of Wu-Feng comes into play, at which point the end-game begins. Players have roughly ten to defeat the scourge, because if the players run out of ghost cards to play before the incarnation is dead, they lose. The incarnations have special powers that make them a real terror to kill, such as only being able to be defeated if moved onto a dashboard space that is occupied by a Buddha statue. Defeat the final incarnation, and you win, defeating evil and restoring the village to its normal communist state.

Since I brought it up, I’d better explain the Buddha statues. There is a village tile that allows you to pick up a Buddha statue for later use, and once you have one you may place it on a player’s dashboard on an unoccupied ghost space, after taking all other actions, on any of your turns. These little dudes are chubby little ghostbusters, and if a ghost is placed on a tile that’s occupied by a Buddha, the Buddha goes back to its village tile and the ghost is killed instantly, without reward or ill effect taking place.

The final aspect I haven’t mentioned are the variable player powers. These are the single most important weapon in the Taoists’ arsenal, and they are as varied as the ghosts. The red Taoist has the option of either moving to any tile you wish on your turn, or alternatively moving your own Taoist and then another player’s Taoist. The yellow Taoist can either take a Tao token of its choice for free, or may curse a single ghost and reduce its defense value by one point. The green Taoist can either re-roll any or all of the dice it rolls on its turn, including the Curse die when applicable, or may instead opt to use a fourth Tao die in combat and be immune from being cursed. Finally, the blue Taoist may elect to have the ability to attack in addition to using its current village tile’s power, or alternatively make two attacks consecutively or use a village tile’s power twice consecutively. You choose your power at the beginning of the game, and it is both persistent throughout the game and may be used every turn for free.

The power selections you choose for yourself as well as the synergies between the other players’ selected powers truly make or break you, so careful discussion of which power you choose to use is vital. The rules state that the selection of the players and the powers is random, but after loss number 10 I’ve decided to drop that quicker than a bet on OJ Simpson’s innocence and choose which we want to play with. I’m sure that this was designed to extend the game’s replayability, but the game stands well enough on its own that I just don’t think it matters that much.

All in all, if you like ghosts, Chinese mythology, Kung Fu, Ameritrashy dice fests, cooperatives, and really tough thinking games, this game is for you. I bought this, yet again, with my own cash and I’ve fortunately not regretted it, even though I have gotten my ass kicked mercilessly fifteen or so consecutive times. This game is a total keeper and I highly recommend it.

Things That Prove Ghost Stories’ Kung Fu Is Strong:
*Smart, sophisticated gameplay make this a thinking person’s game
*Great, beautiful art and really interesting theme choice make this a beauty to behold
*Production quality is great, with every bit being appropriate and purposeful
*The replayability is phenomenal, as I’ve illustrated, and I still want to play it again, even knowing I’ll lose
*This game is unique in its blending of European and American styles; truly a treasure

Where Ghost Stories’ Kung Pao Chicken Tastes Like Dog:
*The difficulty can be absolutely tremendous, which might be a turn-off to lighter-fare lovers
*There rules took me several readings to understand, and without Universal Head I’d have been screwed

I have to say that this is one game that lives up to the hype. It’s a great fun, and can be played by all kinds of people with all kinds of tastes with all liking the game equally. I can only envision the snootiest pure Eurolitist not liking this, and it would be because dice come standard with the game. Pick this one up; it’s a winner.

4.0/5 Stars

For more paranormal research, check out Asmodee Editions Ghost Stories site:

And if you want to NOT read the manual 4 times before “getting it”, try the Headless Hollow’s “Freebies” Page here:

1 comment:

Greyweather said...

"Defeat the final incarnation, and you win, defeating evil and restoring the village to its normal communist state."

Thanks, I got a good laugh out of that.

I first heard about Ghost Stories during an extended discussion about another co-op game, Arkham Horror. Whenever the two games were compared, Ghost Stories was always looked at more favorably.