Matt Thrower from Fortress: Ameritrash approached me about writing a review for Ghost Stories on iPad. We have previously reviewed Ghost Stories, but it is always great to have a second opinion and the guys over at Fortress: Ameritrash have a unique look on games. I hope you enjoy the review.
Ghost Stories iOS Review
Matt Thrower, Fortress: Ameritrash
My distaste for the majority of co-operative games is well known, but most of them also play well solo. And of all the co-operative games I’ve ever played my favourite for solo play is Ghost Stories. So when I heard it was coming to the iPad I got wildly excited: not only would I be able to breeze through solo games whenever I felt like it, but I’d have the chance to hand it round my friends for a co-operative experience too!
Or so I thought. Turns out that the app currently only supports two players. So that’s great to have a co-operative experience with one friend, but if you’re anything other than a social isolationist, you’re stuffed. I find the reasons for this limitation baffling - surely it’s actually marginally more complex to implement the variants required for solo play than it is to allow four players to partake at once. I suspect there may be commercial concerns here: less people would buy the board game. An update to allow the full compliment of four is apparently in the works, but there’s no sign of it as of yet.
In terms of how well the software implementation of the game works, I kind of feel I can sum it up in a single sentence concerning my first few session with the game: I aborted my first three plays, lost my next two, and won my sixth and seventh. What does that tell you? It tells you three things.
The first is that that the interface is tricky and takes some getting used to. I did finally get to grips with it - it took three aborted games, as I said - I was initially not overly impressed. It tries to be as user friendly as possible, indeed it even has a context help icon that you can utilise to query anything in the play area which is extremely helpful, bar an irritating bug that gives you the information for the village tile that’s underneath the ghost card you’re considering where to place, but there’s just so much going on it can’t help but be confusing. Icons you can use at any given time are usefully highlighted, which is great for big things like ghosts and villagers, but less so when it comes to small icons like those for spending yin-yang, or placing buddhas. Once you get used to it, it’s a breeze, but it does take some grappling with. On consideration though I’m being overly picky here: this is a game with a lot of information and it’s not like the iPad has a huge screen. The developers have probably done about the best they could in terms of presenting everything the players need in a confined area. You can take actions back, which is helpful, but the game does little to stop you from taking useless actions, such as spending Power Tokens during phases of the game where they can’t be used.
The second thing it should tell you is that despite the limitations, the game is easily good enough to get you to keep trying to learn its interface. If you’ve not played Ghost Stories before this is a good, and relatively cheap, way to try it. The game requires taoist monks to move around a board, and each turn either attempt to exorcise a ghost adjacent to the board space they are in or enlist the help of the villager who lives there. Since the aim of the game is to remove the super powerful ghost of Wu-Feng lurking somewhere toward the bottom of the deck, where you choose to go and what you choose to do each turn is critical. Many of the villagers and ghosts have variable powers that you need to leverage (or avoid) in differing priorities according to the situation. It generates a very tense and claustrophobic atmosphere as problems just keep piling up and there’s never quite enough time to sort it all out. You just have to prioritise as best you can and keep on going. The game has a lot of randomness, but a lot of ways to inject strategy to try and offset the chaos and the balance is generally very good. To me it falls over when it comes to Wu-Feng himself: he can show up in different incarnations which vary wildly in power, and you don’t know which you’ve got until you turn over the card near the game end. In the physical game I found it terribly dispiriting to invest a lot of time and thought in the game only to turn over some horrific incarnation at the end which effectively ruined my chances without giving me the chance to plan and overcome it. In the iOS game, I can rattle through a solo session in 15-20 minutes and so I no longer care particularly if this unfortunate event occurs. The implementation is complete, faithful and (so far) bug free. It also has pretty much all of the glorious art of the board game brought to life vividly on the iPad display, which is an absolute joy.
The third thing my experiences should communicate is that this is a game with huge re-playability, even once you’ve beaten it. Slightly different ghosts and a different incarnation of Wu-Feng show up in each game. Each one of the four taoists has one of two different powers in play, and the villager tiles can be shuffled and end up in different positions (which does have a surprisingly large effect on strategy). At the start of the game these are randomised for you, as they should be, but usefully the iPad version gives you the choice to change these as you wish, which can also make your game easier or more difficult. Speaking of which, there are four different difficulty settings. Initiate and Normal are tough but beatable once you’ve got the strategy down. Nightmare and Hell are, well, pretty much as described: extremely difficult to beat but satisfying if you manage it. In the physical game I never bothered with these as it seemed a wasted effort to start a game you were almost certain to loose, but with the iPad it’s totally worth trying as the games are so quick to start up and play through. As an added bonus the game also gives you a score at the end of your session and keeps a leaderboard for you, encouraging you to go back and keep trying even once you’ve become proficient just to see if you can beat your previous best. One slight fly in the ointment is that difficulty level seems to have little impact on your score: my best score so far is from an Initiate level game, even though I’ve since beaten Normal several times, which seems odd.
I was a little disappointed that the game didn’t make better use of the multimedia aspects of the digital platform. Animations are few and far between. Different ghosts do make different, slightly spooky noises but with more work these could have been more varied and more disturbing. There is no music, and other sound effects are forgettable. This is a board game adaption of course, so none of this is required to make the game lots of fun to play, but it does seem a bit of a missed opportunity. No use is made of the motion sensitivity of the device, nor the sound input but that’s just fine as that would have added little to the experience and seemed gimmicky. There’s no online option for multi-player either but that’s also just fine as the level of communication required between the players would have made any kind of implementation very difficult, and, besides, it would probably have spoiled the frenetic pace and atmosphere of the game. Solo and pass and play are where it’s at with this one.
In summary this is a good choice of game to port to a tablet, and they’ve done a pretty good job of it. With most of the aspects that don’t feel entirely up to scratch, if you stand back you have to acknowledge that even if they feel sub-par, it’s hard to see how they could have been all that much better. Lack of three and four player support is unfortunate, and I’m hoping we might see that, plus some or all of the white moon expansion available in the future. The bottom line is that since acquiring my iPad I’ve shelled out on quite a lot of board game applications, many of which have only been played once. Ghost Stories has been played a lot and is going to get played an awful lot more in the near future, and at its current price point it represents good value for the money.
I hope you enjoyed the review. You can read other great reviews by Matt Thrower over at Fortress: Ameritrash.