Gaming Unplugged: White Moon

January 31, 2010


Last time I discussed Ghost Stories, a cooperative struggle against the evil spirit Wu Feng and his seemingly endless hordes of ghostly minions. There is only one way to win Ghost Stories, and three ways to lose. The game is hindered by a reliance on randomness, especially as more players become involved, which can turn some players against it. Fortunately, the recent expansion, White Moon, addresses some of these problems.

There is still only one way to win, although there are even more possible incarnations of Wu Feng that might turn up. White Moon even adds one more way to lose, but it makes one of the previous loss conditions a little less likely and — more importantly — adds a bunch of new tricks to help the taoists in their struggle. Finally, it also adds new ghosts and one new village tile; one random tile will not be included in the village when you set up), and ten (additional) cards are randomly removed from the Ghost Deck prior to adding the Incarnation(s) in order to keep the numbers consistent. Which ghosts are — and are not — included can have a dramatic impact on how the game plays, which keeps the game fresh.

The main addition to the game are two dozen villagers inhabiting the previously mostly-empty hamlet. Eight stacks of three villager tiles are placed on the shop tiles (only the top villager is face-up), with the ninth tile (recommended to be the center tile for most plays) housing a Portal through which villagers can be sent in order to rescue them. The villagers come in families that range from one to three members; rescuing an entire family bestows that family’s boon to the active player. Many of these boons are powerful artifacts that grant additional abilities (some of them one-shot, others continuous), while additional Qi, Tao Tokens, or other benefits are also possible. Unfortunately, each villager that dies inflicts a curse on the poor taoists, some of which can be very nasty — including immediately calling forth one of the unused incarnations of Wu Feng (this is the curse of the Wu family, appropriately)! If twelve villagers are killed, then the players lose the game.

Villagers die in one of several ways. The most direct is via a new ability of the ghosts that “devours” one every time it happens. If a tile that would become haunted contains villagers, then all of those villagers are killed instead (and each of their curses applied) and the Haunter re-sets as normal; villagers are aware of the threat posed by Haunters and the closest revealed villager to a Haunter will run away the first time it advances… but if they can not run (because the tile they would run to is haunted, non-existent, or already containing its limit of three villagers), then they die. Finally, one of the villagers’ curses it to kill another villager (not to mention one family that haunts their tile upon death). When not running away from Haunters, villagers can move along with taoists as long as the destination tile is not already full. Taoists on the Portal’s tile can use their action to rescue the top villager of that tile’s stack. Finally, the Graveyard tile (if present and not containing three villagers already) can resurrect a slain villager.

One other villager who assists the taoists is the spirit of Su-Ling, who gave her life to secure the ashes of Wu Feng so long ago. Whenever something bad happens to the players — a villager dies, a tile becomes haunted, or the Curse Die is rolled (even if it yields a blank result), then Su-Ling may be placed at the end of that turn. Su-Ling neutralizes the center ability of whichever ghost she is placed in front of: Haunters do not advance, Tormentors do not force the Curse Die to be rolled, etc.. While she cannot be placed in front of the mighty Wu Feng, this is still an incredible ability that can buy the players a ton of time, but that’s not the limit of Su-Ling’s powers. If she is placed next to a corner tile and there is no Moon Crystal on the pedestal next to her, she can place one there from the reserve.

Moon Crystals can also be obtained via the Herbalist village tile (if present), defeating certain ghosts, or via one of the family rewards. Players can place them on the pedestals if they end their turn on an appropriate corner tile or spend them as if they were Tao of any color (although they cannot be shared on other players’ turns like actual Tao). If all four pedestals contain Moon Crystals, then after the active player’s turn there is a special Mystic Barrier phase.

Starting with the player (or board) to the left of the active player, the Mystic Barrier can either consume a Moon Crystal to rescue a villager (if none are present at the Portal then the player may choose any revealed villager to rescue) or roll all four Tao dice (including the grey die normally only rolled by one of the powers of the green taoist) against all of the ghosts on that board; remaining Moon Crystals can be spent as if they were wild Tao, but regular Tao and any reroll abilities of the taoist (including artifacts) are not applied — and nor are the curse/rewards of any ghost exorcised in this manner. Once all four boards have had their Mystic Barrier phase, any unspent crystals and Su-Ling are returned to the reserve. My group has dubbed this the “spirit bomb,” and the destruction it can wreak on the ghosts is significant — and if along the way you happen to rescue the family whose boon is to erect the Mystic Barrier, you get to do it again! 

It’s amazing how much more I appreciate Ghost Stories when played with the White Moon expansion. Su-Ling is invaluable in containing threats while you deal with more pressing matters, and rescuing villagers isn’t as much of a distraction as it would seem at first glance. Being able to “sacrifice” three (or fewer) villagers to delay a haunting is also surprisingly effective in buying you more time to deal with threats, although you do run the risk of a nasty backlash from the curses. Without the expansion, Ghost Stories is a game of attrition and heavily luck-dependent; with it, strategy takes a much stronger role in determining the outcome, although a nightmarish shuffle can still smack you around. I won’t go so far as to say you shouldn’t play without White Moon under any circumstances (you should at least do it once, if only to have a “before” frame of reference), but I know I’m never going back to playing without it.