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Subject: The perfect solo game (review after approx. 15 games) rss

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Miguel
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I quite enjoy playing solo games, and have tried quite a few of them. The advent of cooperative games has ironically provided me with quite a few games that are playable solo out of the box.

In my opinion, Ghost Stories is the perfect solo game.



The idea:

In Ghost Stories, each player takes on the role of a Taoist defending a village from a continuous stream of evil spirits and creatures. Using the magical powers available to them, and the help of the villagers they are protecting, the players must survive until the incarnation of Wu-Feng appears and defeat it.



How does it work?

A "village" consisting of 9 tiles (3x3 grid) is set up randomly at the start of each game. On each edge of the village, one of the four coloured player board is placed.

Each turn, a ghost card is turned up and placed on the board that matches it's colour. The player then has a chance to react by moving one space in the grid and taking one action, either to activate the village tile he/she is on or to attempt to exorcise a ghost in front of the tile (if there is one).

At the start of the game, the ghost deck is seeded with one or more more special Wu-Feng ghost cards. At the easiest level, a single Wu-Feng card is placed 10 cards from the bottom of the deck. At higher levels of difficulty, these cards are placed at every 10th card (which translates to 3 incarnations for a solo game).

The game is won if the players manage to defeat all incarnations of Wu-Feng before the ghost deck runs out. There are three ways to lose: allowing too many village tiles to become haunted, losing all life tokens (called "Qi"), or failing to destroy Wu-Feng in time.



... but what's it like to play ?

The basic description of the gameplay unfortunately leaves out the two biggest defining characteristics of the game: the special powers and the variability.

Each player colour has two possible special powers (though only one is available per colour per game). Each village tile has a special power. Each ghost has up to three powers (one that takes effect as it enters the game, one that occurs at the start of each round, and one that happens if it is defeated). Lastly, only a small selection of the possible Wu-Feng incarnations will be included in each game and many of these have a significant game effect or condition to be met in order to defeat them.

Playing Ghost Stories is an exercise in analyzing the current situation, optimizing the various abilities at your disposal and counting on a little luck going your way. At first, the game seems impossibly hard. The initiate level should be understood as "initiate" in the same way that Uma Therman was an initiate in Kill Bill when she trained under Pai Mei... she was pumelled and beaten until she knew what she was doing. It's not meant to be easy. That said, once you've played enough to start to see how the powers can combine to good effect, it becomes much easier. Moving up in the ranks to the "normal", "Nightmare" and "Hell" levels of difficulty are smaller incriments of difficulty than learning to beat the game at "initiate", IMHO. I now play at the Nightmare level of difficulty and win about half the time.

I mentioned that a little luck was necessary. It's important that every prospective player know that there is a non-trivial amount of luck here. The sheer amount of variables in the game mean that some setups will be easier than others. Also, the act of eliminating a ghost from the board relies on rolling dice to try and achieve specific targets so if he you really hate dice this may be an issue. That said, the game provides countless ways to get the odds on your side (from collecting coloured tokens you can use to spend as the difference for a failed roll, to player and village powers that allow re-rolls or weakening of the ghosts, etc).



How are the bits?

I won't dwell too long here. The components are fantastic.

The art is beautiful:



The plastic pieces are very nice and add greatly to the atmosphere:



And the cardboard tiles are thick and sturdy (though mine have warped a little)




The final word

I've only played Ghost Stories with multiple players once. I found that the game played quite differently, and that the opportunities for cooperative play were impressive. I do wish there was some hidden information to keep one player from running the show, but that is a problem only if the people you play with are predisposed to act that way.

For each player short of the maximum 4 that play the game, one of the boards is deemed "neutral". Although the missing player's pawn are not used in the game, the active players get "power tokens" which can be traded in to activate the missing player's special ability. In a solo game, all but one colour are out of the game so the player must learn to manage these tokens effectively to succeed. Overall, I am quite impressed with how well the game scales across the whole player range.

Whether played solo or in a group, the game kicks into high gear right away. There is very little respite after the ghosts start appearing on the board. A ghost can appear which turns the game situation on it's head, such as a ghost which brings in another unexpected series of ghosts, a ghost which prevents the use of tokens, a ghost which prevents the use of a special power, etc. Once familiar with the game, these situations can be dealt with through a combination of anticipating their arrival and dealing with them effectively when they happen but they certainly keep you on your toes.

Ghost Stories is:

1) Highly variable
2) Full of tension from start to finish
3) Challenging
4) Tactical and strategic, though featuring luck which can be minimized with careful play
5) Reasonably short (30-45 min solo)

In short, as a solo game I have to say that this is about as good as it gets.


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Evgeni Liakhovich
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I love your Uma Thurman analogy! Great review.
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Brian McCormick
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Thanks for your review. thumbsup

This game has been on my list for a while, but I haven't gotten around to getting it yet. Thanks for putting it back at the top of my list. shake
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Amanda Bastos
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Great review!

I'm gonna buy this game, but I was afraid it would get too easy without the expansion (which i'm not buying right now). Thank u for taking my doubts away!
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Ingólfur Valsson
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Wouldn't it also be possible to take on the role of all Taoist as a one player since there are no hidden items? So as a solitary game that could add even more variance, playing 1-4 player games solo.
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Was George Orwell an Optimist?
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KronikAlkoholik wrote:
Wouldn't it also be possible to take on the role of all Taoist as a one player since there are no hidden items? So as a solitary game that could add even more variance, playing 1-4 player games solo.


It's certainly possible, and many have said they prefer it that way. I've done so myself, but feel it provides less variance, not more, because then you're playing exactly like you do in a group. The published solitaire rules provide a subtly different experience, and this is that rare game which I actually prefer solo.
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Miguel
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Although I enjoy it in a group environment, I mostly play Ghost Stories solo. I tried playing multiple seats on one occasion, but the solo rules feel much more streamlined to me so that's what I play.
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Rick Weckermann
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Quote:
This game has been on my list for a while, but I haven't gotten around to getting it yet. Thanks for putting it back at the top of my list


Won Ghost Stories: Chuck No-Rice and Ghost Stories: The Guardhouse Expansion for GG, and was considering not getting game lately as i can not find a good price for game (usually means it is a good game). Thank you for review holding out now for game so i can use the expansion and promo cards.
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