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Subject: Games for Learning Review: Ghost Stories rss

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Scott Beattie
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Original review at

Ghost Stories is a cooperative board game in which players take on the roles of Taoist adepts, striving to rebel ghosts, hopping vampires and other creatures away from a Chinese village. This is a setting inspired by the wild Hong Kong ghost cinema of the 1980s. The focus on cooperative play along with an addictive mixture of simple mechanics and hard difficulty make it a useful tool for understanding team work and resilience in the face of adversity.

The Game
Each player selects a different taoist, each of which has different bonus abilities. The main game board is a randomised 3 x 3 grid representing the besieged village, each tile being a different location (temple, tavern, etc) which provides a different resource for players. Taoists move from location to location each turn, gathering the resources that they need to fight the ghosts.

Each turn a ghost is drawn randomly and is placed on the outer edge of the village board and unexorcised ghosts creep forward. Each have different power levels and conditions that the players must meet to exorcise them. Player decision making is about a balance of performing exorcisms and gathering resources that will be crucial later in the game.

The pace starts out reasonably gently but quickly snowballs. Undefeated ghosts can cause a village tile to flip – losing its resources and eventually leading to defeat if too many locales are lost. There is a certain tipping point in every Ghost Stories game. It begins with a feeling of confidence as easy ghosts get exorcised, resources are stockpiled and suddenly you start feeling overwhelmed. Then, in the end game, the villainous Wu Feng appears as a powerful enemy who is drawn randomly from a selection of different and tough manifestations.

This is a game about teamwork. The Taoists have to coordinate their activities and plan carefully so that they have stockpiled enough resources for the endgame. Often though, it ends in defeat but games usually last less than an hour and defeat never feels cheap or unfair.

There are two expansions, White Secret and Black Moon which add more complexity (and difficulty). Black Moon includes an asymmetric play option that lets one player control Wu Feng.

For more detail, see the Ghost Stories entry in the Board Game Geek database.

The rules are available on the publisher's site at

Key Features
Cooperative Play
This is one of many cooperative games (see for example Pandemic or Arkham Horror) where players pool resources and share tactics to beat the game mechanics. This can be quite a revelation for those who are used to traditional adversarial board games – it adds an additional level of negotiation, strategy and squabbling onto gameplay. There is a danger that overbearing player can dominate, but if you are hosting the game you can try to mitigate this problem and balance the team dynamics.

Cooperative games provide excellent models for learning activities and provide inspiration for how group decisions can be broken down into chunks and mechanics – quantified as resources or individual abilities. This can be useful for workshop exercises that have more intangible goals which can be transformed into more concrete game mechanics to give a structure to the activity.

Near Certain Doom
Hard core players claim that there are (undisclosed) ways to beat Ghost Stories but I’ve never done so. While you might assume that this makes the game frustrating and limits motivation, the opposite is true. Each loss is a hard-fought loss and in the aftermath you can discuss what went wrong and which decisions you might have made differently.

It also creates an interesting place to talk about resilience. Like the fictional Star Trek ‘Kobayashi Maru Test’ you can use the opportunity to reflect on defeat, what it means to show character in the face of overwhelming odds. Resilience is an increasingly relevant topic for learners and some have unreasonable expectations that learning activities should be easy or beatable on first attempt. Games provide an example of where difficulty leads to challenge rather than frustration and demotivation.

Strong Icon Design
Antoine Bauza is a European designer and accustomed to creating games that will be translated into many different languages. This has lead to strong visual design in Ghost Stories – the different icons for resources and abilities tend to be very intuitive and easy to come to grips with. This is important for design of learning resources too, especially where learners have limited time to come to grips with mechanics and rules.

Uses of the Game
Ghost Stories would be a useful game for teambuilding exercises, particularly for reflection on team decision making, negotiation skills and resilience. While the theme might be too weird for some, it is at least easy to understand and doesn’t require previous viewing of Mr Vampire, Spooky Encounter or any of the source material.

The rules are reasonably straightforward but the cooperative concepts may be a challenge for those used to simple ‘roll and move’ games like Monopoly. It would be best used with preparation time and used on more than one occasion so that the time invested to learn the rules is rewarded.

Learning Design Inspiration Seeds
If you use scenarios or hypotheticals that require cooperation, think about creating mechanics that demonstrate what that cooperation has achieved. Think about quantifying outcomes and the resources needed to achieve those outcomes, then distribute those resources in ways that require teamwork to collect. For example a class roleplay on a new environmental proposal might require buy-in from different lobby groups (measured on an approval scale), each of which might involve acquiring and trading different resource cards that are need to win over each group.

Mechanise teamwork. Provide different team members with access to different resources or abilities that mean that everyone has to cooperate on a project. Make time to talk about group dynamics and to evaluate the interpersonal aspects of an activity.

Think about including a failure condition in learning activities – along with a reflective opportunity to learn from that failure. If learners can discuss what went wrong and discuss what different strategies might have worked, then they are already on a path to higher order learning.
Focus on visual design. A strong set of icons and simple guidelines can make mechanics more palatable and reduce confusion. Even if there are complex algorithms underlying your learning activity, these should be mostly invisible to learners. They know what dice to roll, cards to draw or pieces to move – they don’t need to know all of the mechanics that drive the activity. The nitty gritty of the mechanics CAN be an excellent source of discussion at the debriefing stage, especially if your mechanics are driven by coursework theories and concepts.

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