In Antoine Bauza’s Ghost Stories (published by Repos Games), you and up to three other players are the last line of defense against Wu Feng, Demon Lord of the Nine Hells. The tiny village that houses his funerary ashes is under siege by a horde of Wu Feng’s spiritual minions; if they succeed in locating the ashes, all is lost. The villagers will lend you what aid they can, but ultimately you and your fellow taoists must succeed on the strength of both your strategy and your willpower… and a little luck wouldn’t hurt either.
The village consists of nine tiles randomly laid out in a three-by-three array. The four taoist boards are then randomly placed around that central array (with the side facing up also randomly chosen), indicating which player(s) will have which power(s). Each player receivers four Qi (life points), a tao token of his color (or one of each color in solo play), and their yin-yang token; if playing with less than four players, any neutral (unused) boards receive just the Qi, and then each player receives a Power Token (or all three tokens if solo). Finally, the Ghost Deck is prepared: after shuffling — and removing five cards per missing player, if any — one of the ten possible Incarnations of Wu Feng is secretly placed on top of the bottom ten cards of the deck, with the rest set aside unseen.
Each player’s turn is broken up into two phases. During the Yin Phase, the ghosts on that player’s board are active. Each ghost card has three stones on it (although many have one or more of those spaces blank) along with its name and strength. Any abilities on the center stone apply first; this usually involves a Tormentor causing the Curse Die (with four undesirable results and two blank faces) to be rolled by that taoist or a Haunter figure advancing one space (a haunter that advances twice has haunted the first tile in front of it, rendering that tile’s ability unusable). Then the toaist checks to see if his board is overrun with ghosts. If it is, then that player loses one Qi; if not, the player must draw the top card from the deck and place it on the board of its color or his own board if it is a black-aligned ghost (if there is no open space on the appropriate board then the ghost can be placed anywhere that is open). Any abilities on the left stone of the new ghost are applied, then the turn proceeds to the player’s Yang Phase.
During the Yang Phase, the player may move one tile (including diagonally, so a taoist in the center can reach any other tile), then perform one action. That action can either be to request the aid of the villager on his current tile or to perform an exorcism of any adjacent ghosts. An exorcism consists of rolling the three tao dice and then checking against the ghost(s) strength. If enough of the correct colored symbols are rolled, then the ghost is exorcised (discarded) and any effects on the rightmost stone are applied (this can be a curse and/or a reward); tao tokens can be spent to make up the difference, and any taoists on the same tile may share tao if necessary. At any point during the Yang Phase the player may also spend his Yin-Yang token to either request the aid of any villager or to un-haunt a tile, but it’s not easy to regain that Yin-Yang, so plan accordingly. Also, for games with less than four players you may spend a Power Token to temporarily gain the ability of one of the neutral boards; the Power Token is placed on the center tile and anyone who ends their turn there may pick up one or more Tokens present.
The players win once the incarnation of Wu Feng is defeated (and they have survived any curse that might be inflicted by doing so). That’s the good news. The bad news is that there are three ways for the players to lose: all players run out of Qi (and thus are dead; a dead player’s board is “possessed” and functions as a neutral board until the player is revived using the Graveyard tile), four tiles become haunted (even if all three tiles in the row of the ghost causing the haunting are already haunted), or when the Ghost Deck becomes exhausted. Oh, and that set-up is for the “Initiation” level of difficulty; on “Normal” each player/board only gets three Qi and it takes only three haunted tiles to lose. If you’re brave enough to attempt “Nightmare” you have to defeat four incarnations of Wu Feng (three for one or two players), and the brave souls who attempt the “Hell” difficulty will do so without the benefit of their starting Yin-Yang token!
As you can probably guess, every time the players win a game of Ghost Stories, it is an epic achievement and cause for celebration. Even a close loss can be a tale to be retold by those who suffered through it. The problem comes when the losses aren’t close, and with the heavy reliance on dice that can be a problem. A poor shuffle that brings up a bunch of horrific ghosts in rapid succession can possibly be overcome by strategy and luck, but there isn’t a lot that can be done about poor rolls. Every failed exorcism is essentially a wasted turn. Use of tao tokens and some other abilities can combine to make rolls unnecessary or otherwise reduce the luck involved if you’re really good about how you use them; this is much easier in solo play where you theoretically have access to all four Taoist powers on nearly every turn. Unfortunately every player beyond the first limits the combinations available, and with the full four players you’re relying on a fortunate roll more often then you would probably like. Additionally, neutral boards do not add ghosts during the Yin Phase; extra players may mean more ghosts and more actions, but actions can fail — adding ghosts does not (or else you’re losing anyway).
I enjoy playing Ghost Stories solitaire; it turns the game into a sort of puzzle that is actively trying to smash your face in. Playing with others is less fun for the reasons stated above. However, if your group isn’t as turned off by randomness ruining strategy as I am it can still be quite enjoyable. As with any cooperative game, there is the risk of one player taking charge and turning the game into a solitaire game with several pairs of hands doing the work, especially with newer players mixed with veteran taoists. As players gain experience with what strategies are best (where to place ghosts, which ghosts can be safely ignored to use a village tile, how much randomness to risk on a roll) that will go away, but it can affect the fun of the game until then.
Randomness issues aside, Ghost Stories is still a great-looking game with awesome flavor. The art is awesome and the figurines are well-sculpted; the cards are a little on the flimsy side, but it’s not a major issue. It’s worth a play just to experience it once. However, if you really want to enjoy Ghost Stories, both solo and with others, I highly recommend picking up the expansion, White Moon. But more on that next time…