W. Eric Martin
Antoine Bauza's Ghost Stories is an incredibly fun and thematic cooperative game that often has players on the edge of their seats with uncertainty over whether their monks will be able to protect a village against the many aspects of Wu-Feng that threaten it. The 2009 release of the White Moon expansion gave players an additional challenge – protecting the villagers themselves against the haunting ghosts and other threats – while also bringing them new means with which to stand up against the forces of evil.
With the release of Ghost Stories: Black Secret in Q4 2011, the players will face an even more powerful dilemma: Wu-Feng himself. (Or perhaps "itself" – hard to know how to refer to a lord of evil properly) Yes, the player count for Black Secret will be 2-5 (instead of 1-4) as one player will take on the role of Wu-Feng and harass the monks in a more direct manner than they've experienced previously.
To start with, when a new ghost appears at the start of each player's turn, the active player no longer has the ability to place the ghost where she might want. Wu-Feng is now calling the shots and can use the power of the ghost in three ways:
1. Wu-Feng can place the ghost on the appropriate monk's board following the standard rules for placement. (Alas, the ghost will likely no longer arrive in the spot most advantageous to the heroic monks, but this change makes more thematic sense.)
2. Wu-Feng can use the power of the ghost to cast a spell, with a green ghost powering a green spell, a black ghost powering any colored spell, and so on. The ghost is discarded, but each spell inflicts its own pain on the players, with more powerful ghosts bringing about more powerful spells. A level 1 spell, for example, might cause one player to lose a Tao token with Wu-Feng choosing who gets nipped, or it might bring a new ghost into play, thereby possibly swapping a weak ghost for a stronger one. A level 2 spell might allow Wu-Feng to move a ghost, while a level 3 spell might strip a player of all Tao tokens.
The spells are placed in a pyramidal structure, with the level 2 spells building on those in the first level, and so on up to level four, the apex of the pyramid which is, as you might expect, a Wu-Feng icon. If the Wu-Feng player reaches this level, he immediately draws a Wu-Feng card from the deck, then plays one from his hand.
(Oh, yes, Wu-Feng has a hand of Wu-Feng aspects available to him instead of these cards being placed at particular intervals in the deck. In Black Secret, the ghost deck instead has placeholder cards for whenever an aspect of Wu-Feng would appear, and when one of those cards is revealed, Wu-Feng chooses which aspect of himself comes into play. Better choice for Wu-Feng = more pain for the players.)
3. Wu-Feng can use the power of the ghost to call additional forces into play. Wu-Feng has access to three special figures: discard a ghost of resistance 2, and you can play the smallest figure, whereas a resistance 3 gets the middle figure and a resistance 4 the largest figure. These figures roam the catacombs, a 3x3 playing area that lies underneath the village; one of these spaces is black, and the other eight are divided equally between red, green, yellow and blue.
Wu-Feng awaits your attention...
On each player's turn, an active figure can move or dig in the catacombs, and if a figure digs through enough dirt, it might find something. A skull brings a new ghost into play, for example. If the figures find the three Wu-Feng icons hidden in the catacombs, then the shadow of Wu-Feng descends upon the village, ready to harass the monks and strike them down. On a turn, the shadow of Wu-Feng can move anywhere in the village or attack monks located on the tile where it's located, possibly causing them to lose Qi or forcing them to roll the black die.
The players don't have to allow these figures to roam freely and dig in the catacombs, however. Each village tile has a ladder; after a monk moves for the turn, it can change levels. If a player is down in the catacombs, it can choose to fight these figures, but fighting can be tough as the figures change color depending on where they stand in the catacombs. Everything is all about timing, and good Tao in one location will be useless in another. What's more, while your presence alone is enough to deter the smallest figure from digging, the medium-sized figure will dig despite you standing nearby. Even worse, the largest figure will fight back, possibly costing you movement or life or both. Some new ghosts in Black Secret remove ladders when they enter play, making it more difficult to move between levels – and if a village tile is overrun, your options are limited even further.
To aid the monks in their fight against this more devious incarnation of Wu-Feng, they have access to blood mantras, special abilities that come in different levels to adjust for the difficulty of play. With the level 2 mantra, for example, when a monk loses a life, the Qi token is placed on the mantra. When two tokens are on the mantra, one monk of the players' choice gains a Qi. With the level 4 mantra, all tiles will be dehaunted when it triggers. Says Repos Production's Thomas Provoost, "It's a lose-win mechanism. If Wu-Feng is strong, then the players will lose life, but have help from the game. Of course if they lose too many lives, they'll all be dead."
One new village tile will be added to the game, and when monks activate this tile, they can add more dirt in the catacombs to keep Wu-Feng from finding things too quickly.
"The challenge of Black Secret is managing the different fields of war in the game," says Provoost. He mentions that he, Repos partner Cédric Caumont, and Ghost Stories designer Antoine Bauza are all fans of Reiner Knizia's Lord of the Rings, particularly the Sauron expansion. "We want the bad guy to have lots of choices. We're not basing Black Secret on LotR, but the Sauron expansion made the game even better with more choices. Similarly, with the village, with spells, with the catacombs, We-Feng is always divided in things to do."
Not that Wu-Feng is weak, mind you – Provoost says that the monks have a tough time in Black Secret, even with experienced players. The game is still undergoing final development, though, and details of play might change before the expansion is available in late 2011. One change Provoost mentions, for example, is that initially the game ended if the three Wu-Feng icons were uncovered in the catacombs. "That felt really abrupt, and not fair to the players," he says. Now the shadow of Wu-Feng comes into play, escalating the tension and the danger to the monks, but still giving them a chance to prove themselves stronger. Says Provoost, "We need to help the monks a bit more..."
(Artwork is in progress on Ghost Stories: Black Secret so there's nothing to show for now. —WEM)