Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Ghost Stories- Cooperative Supernatural Action

Ghost Stories is a cooperative game based on the movie genre of Chinese ghost fighting. For much of the American public this is about as obscure as you're going to get and that's a shame because the films and the game have a lot to offer.

Readers looking for some background in this entertaining field should consider movies like Chinese Ghost Story or Mr. Vampire. In a general sense these stories usually feature a cast of exorcists who use taoism to fight and banish various supernatural beings. This may involve the use of martial arts or certain magical substances- special grains of rice, magical scrolls, or special bells play a role. The movies assume that you understand why sticky rice repels the undead or why placing a scroll on a vampire's forehead will cause it to stand frozen in place. If you choose to just accept everything you see at face value rather than wonder "what's the deal with the rice?" then these films are outrageously fun.

In the game of Ghost Stories the players take on the roles of taoist ghost fighters. Your job is to protect a village from a relentless flood of ghosts and eventually defeat their leader, Wu-Feng. Each player has their own turn. During a given turn the ghosts are first given a chance to appear on the board and then may haunt part of the village. In the second half of the turn the play may move their figure around the village and attempt to banish one or more ghosts. If the players can banish all the ghosts and their leader then they win the game. In several cases players will have to act together to succeed, sharing gear or teaming up.

Ghost Stories adds drama and strategy through a number of details. There are a wide variety of ghosts which may appear and each has some special ability. Some ghosts are easier to banish than others and some may require the players to band together or share equipment. There are four ghost fighters in the game to choose from and each has a different set of special abilities as well. Finally, the evil spirit Wu-Feng will have different abilities in each game. The game delivers good replay value through the random assortment of foes and abilities to deal with.

In addition to replay value Ghost Stories has a number of other positive qualities. Firstly- banishing ghosts is fun. Working together is fun. Working together to banish ghosts is thus especially fun. For a certain group of players working together and using kung fu and magic to banish ghosts is just crazily outrageous fun.

Multiple reviewers have also agreed that Ghost Stories is hard. So hard to win that players are better off concentrating on the fun factor of banishing as many ghosts as possible rather than winning per se. This is hard to assess- we want to win in general but if we know we're not likely to then is it just as fun to play hard and see how far you get, only to try harder next time? For a lot of players that's a good time but for the player who wants to win on the first try Ghost Stories will be a frustrating time.

Speaking of frustrating, it appears as though the rulebook has been translated through several languages. I feel pretty experienced in rules reading but these were tough. After a few read-throughs I did get the ideas and it's not like the game is very complex, it's just that the rules are poorly explained. Further, there are plenty of items ("tao dice," "Qi tokens") whose purposes are not immediately apparent from their names. Be patient, their use is actually fairly simple once explained.

The second caveat to Ghost Stories is in its choice of language. Players are told they are banishing ghosts back to hell. The ghosts themselves have fairly spooky names like "flesh devourer" or "hope killer." This may be troubling for some parents who find that type of verbiage inappropriate for their homes. As an aside, the same warning extends to the films- they have sequences that are hysterical but also some spooky or sexual scenes- please preview before having your teens watch them.

I personally liked Ghost Stories. I like cooperative games and this one really has the players working together to accomplish their goal. The genre is one I'm fond of and the game really captures the spooky and silly flavour of it. Most parents have a sense of whether their children will say "fighting Chinese ghosts and zombies using magic? Count me in!" For those families this is a great product.

Pros: cooperative, exciting, great subject matter

Cons: terrible rulebook, spooky language may not be for everyone, esoteric subject matter

Beyond the Basics: good replay value and several supplements.


  1. I haven't played (though I know friends who have it and enjoy it), but it seems like a link to BoardGameGeek is in order, since there are a number of rule clarifications and FAQ lists there. If people have trouble with the rules or questions about a passage, it's likely that someone else has, too, and that the BGG community has worked out the answer.


  2. That's a really good idea, and something that I probably should have been doing, well, for a while now. BGG is a pretty awesome resource.