Pol Michiels
Belgium
Ottenburg
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Of all people who have nothing to say, those who say nothing are the wisest.
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NOTE: as usual, I will not go heavily into the rules in this review. For a good overview of the rules, try here.

I bought Ghost Stories three years ago, when I saw it in my local gamestore. Since then, it's been one of the most played games in my closet, seeing play both on game nights and in quiet tête-à-têtes with the wife (there's nothing quite as romantic as beating on ancient evils). We've played, and beaten, every difficulty level this game has to offer, and we are still not done with it. I'll use this review to try to explain why, and why I think Ghost Stories is one of the best co-ops out there.

First of all, look at it (for those without a physical copy, look at the pictures). The art in this game is easily some of the best I've seen, from the village tiles, to the landscape backgrounds on the player boards, to the huge variety of ghosts, all are beautifully pieces of art in their own right. Mr. Pierô, I salute you.

Second of all, there is an immense amount of variation in this game, even without the expansions (more on those later). Setting up the game, you build the village out of 9 tiles, randomly placed. You set up a deck of ghosts (depending on difficulty level), and one or more incarnations. And you randomly choose which of the two possible sides each player board will use (each board side has a different power), and in what order the player colors will be placed around the village. All of these will determine how the game will play, and this means that, while theoretically possible, you will never, ever, ever play the same game twice.

So your village is lying on the table, fearfully eyeing that deck of ghosts just chomping at the bit to be let loose and overrun these puny mortals standing in the way of their unholy master Wu Feng. Out of the middle tile rise the defenders, the Chosen One to Four, to bring down this threat once and for all. The battle is joined.

Each turn, a player first has his yin step (the "Ghost" phase of his turn). He suffers the effects of ghosts already on his board, then draws a new one to place on the board. Then, he gets his yang step, where he moves aroud, gets the help of villagers, and smacks ghosts on the nose with the taoist equivalent of a rolled up newspaper and a firm "no!".

What I love about Ghost Stories, and what puts it a step above other co-ops in my eyes, is that there is not "one way" to play this game. Many co-ops become almost formulaic once you figure out the way to win, and so they devolve into either everyone knowing this strategy and using it, or worse, one person who knows the game telling all others "this is how it's done". Even worse is when this is indeed the only way to go, and using any other course of action just leads to a quick loss. Ghost Stories has none of this. Of course, some actions have better results in certain circumstances (it is usually better to avoid a tile being haunted, try to avoid exorcisms where you need to get more than one good die result, put low resistance ghosts on the corner spaces, so you can get two at once, ...), but the game offers a great variety of options, and even now we often disagree on the best possible move to take in any situation. This makes it easy to avoid the "follow the leader" syndrome, and ensures that experienced players can play this alongside complete tao-newbies, and still have an enjoyable game (even more so, sometimes, since cleaning up their occasional mess can feel oh so satisfying).

Fans of playing one color only, beware: the color you pick matters in this game. All taoists have a specialty, and a power (randomly chosen from two thematically similar powers) to reflect this. The Red taoist is a master of movement. He can either move twice in a turn, or help another taoist move. The Blue taoist has mastered efficiency, and can either take the same yang action twice, or take two different ones. The Green taoist is a master strategist, and can either reroll dice, or gets one more to exorcise ghosts and rolls no Curse die. Yellow, meanwhile, is adept at preparations, and gets a free tao token per turn, or can reduce the resistance of one Ghost by one (bypassing all ghost powers). The difference in play style with these different colors is huge, and you will have to adapt your strategy to make the most of the power you have. Most of these powers are well balanced, though playing as Red can sometimes feel like the proverbial fourth wheel on the trycicle. Red gets vindicated in the expansions, though, especially White Moon.

After a few turns, the game gets quite frantic. Ghosts will start to come in from every side, threatening to haunt tiles, blocking the use of your powers, costing you precious Qi (life). This game hits the ground running, and somehow still finds room to build up to a climax. Many people here on BGG have called Ghost Stories anything from hard to impossibly sadistic. As I said, I have beaten this game on all difficulty levels, so I would not call it impossible. That said, it is definitely not easy either. What it is, mostly, is unforgiving. If you fail to exorcise a ghost, you have wasted your action for the turn, and that ghost stays on the board, wreaking the havoc you were most likely trying to avoid with the exorcism. Do this too often, and you will be overrun with bad effects, too many to stop, and you will perish in the nine hells, hearing only Wu-Fengs cruel laughter for eternity. The game pulls no punches, but this just makes the victories sweeter.

To beat the Ghosts, you generally want to build up your strength, using villagers to collect tao and Qi tokens, place buddha statues (that kill ghosts dead when they touch them), lower ghost resistances, and then smack down when you are strong enough. After a few rounds, you will have less and less time to build up, and then maintaining critical mass by killing enough ghosts, and killing the ones that give you some bonuses, becomes crucial. This is also the time when crisis management tends to become the word of the day. Practically every turn, there will be some crisis to resolve. A dark mistress blocking the use of your tao tokens, a vampire about to haunt a village tile, severed heads stealing your dice, ... It is your job to find a way to deal with these as efficiently as possible, with the lowest possible cost to you, your fellow taoists, and the village. this pressure ensures you will never feel unimportant or unneeded in a game of Ghost Stories, and will keep you on the edge of your seat right until the dust settles.

Winning the game is a simple matter of beating every incarnation of Wu-Feng in the deck. Kick him back to the Hells were he belongs, and you can bask in the glory of your victory (also, now that tea house girl will totally go out with you instead of the captain of the sports team). This is usually easier said than done, since the incarnations are appropriately nasty. As such, you get first the building tension, then an epic climactic battle against a powerful dark force at the end. It is this flow which Ghost Stories gets absolutely right, and this is a rare thing in any game, let alone co-ops. Too many a Shadows over Camelot game devolved into "let the Black Knight quest fail as soon as possible for the win". Not so here. Winning this game is always satisfying, leaving you with a feeling of "hell yeah, we just totally did that! Remember when that X nearly Y'ed us all and I Z'ed? That was awesome!". Another reviewer said it best in his title: busting really does make you feel good!

And there it is. That is why I love Ghost Stories, and feel it will always stay as fun as it is now. This game will be on my shelf, and my table, for years and years to come, and when my kids grow old enough, this is one of the games I can't wait to teach them.

I promised a word on the expansions, and I plan to deliver. Ghost Stories has, over the years, received two official, full blown expansions: White Moon, and Black Secrets. There have also been some mini expansions and little promo bonuses at important events. Most of these were "joke" Wu-Feng incarnations, such as B-Rice Lee, Chuck No Rice, and Jean-Claude Van Rice. These are funny, but I find I hardly ever include them. More gimmick than game component. With the base game at the first Essen fair, however, came the Guardhouse expansion. The expansion consisted of 1 village tile (The guardhouse, a great building, allowing you to rearrange the top 4 ghost cards, and take 1 tao of your choice.), 4 extra ghosts (that block the use of village tiles), and one incarnation. This expansion we use all the time, randomizing the village draw from all available tiles, and simply adding the ghosts to the deck for the heck of it. Basic gameplay is unchanged, but the guardhouse expansion offers even more variety and options.

White Moon was the first big expansion for ghost stories. It introduced a bunch of new mechanics, and chaged the core gameplay significantly. The biggest change in White Moon was the villagers. Now, on every village tile, there were innocent bystanders running around. it is up to the taoists to save these poor souls from the onslaught of the ghostly hordes. This gives you yet another problem to consider, and as such I strongly recommend you play White Moon only with people who are well familiar with, and at least a little adept at, the base game. To compensate for the extra trouble from the villagers, players got the use of artifacts (magic items received from grateful villagers when they are saved), Su Ling (a protector spirit that blocks ghosts' powers), and the moonstones and the mystic barrier (a magical point defense system capable of annihilating multiple ghosts when set up).

White Moon can be lots of fun, and is a solid expansion, well worth the price of admission. It also makes the red taoist considerably more useful, since more movement means more villagers move as well. Since red felt slightly underpowered in the base game, I welcome this development. I do have one niggle with it: it can seriously change the flow of the game. With the villagers, the tension at the start is higher. You need to save a critical mass of them before you lose too many. However, due to the lowering amount of villagers, the artifacts you gain from rescuing them, and the buildup of the mystical barrier, it is quite possible that the buildup in tension, which is so perfect in the base game, is less continuous, and tension may even lower towards the end of the game, as the artifacts and barrier make the taoists into an unstoppable force of ghost destruction. The game is still tense, however, and offers plenty of challenge. Also, the extra village tile from this expansion, the kung fu school, is totally usable without the rest, so if you go back to the base game (for playing with new players, or just to enjoy the different flow), you can just swap it in there.

White Moon, came with its own mini-expansion: the village people. One extra family of villagers (the Ma-Cho), plus their associated artifacts, and the crazy Shaman (a ghost that runs around the board and blocks everyone's power). I use the shaman, and sometimes the Ma-Cho family (they replace a random base family). Overall, the impact of this mini-expansion is mostly a little more variety, but nothing game changing. I love the art on that crazy shaman, though.

And finally, Black Secrets was released at Essen last year, and has been officially called the last expansion for Ghost Stories. The entire expansion is built around the addition of a fifth player: Wu-Feng himself, no longer content to be represented by some silly rules, will now be actively controlled by a player. To make sure he has more to do than just turn over ghost cards, they introduced curses (bad effects he can cause instead of placing ghosts), and demons that dig in the catacombs under the village (adding a 3-D element to the game, since it seemed to work well for movies). To even things up for the taoists, they now get the use of bloody mantras, that harness the power of the Qi they lose in their fight to produce beneficial effects, and Blood Brother Bonding, which allows you to look cool while cutting yourself and shaking hands, or to use the power of the player opposite yours when you are near death.

Playing Wu-Feng is a lot of fun, but offers nowhere near the tension of playing the good guys. Sure, you get to choose wether to use a ghost as is, or to burn his essence to cast a curse or summon a demon, but it is usually pretty clear how to hit those annoying taoists where it hurts. Digging in the catacombs can be great fun, but is mostly russian roulette in terms of outcome. You can get lucky, but you might also hit something that helps the taoists more. Howevern if you do get the Shadow of Wu-Feng into play, the urge to go BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAA is immense, and the sense of power from then until you crush the puny mortals in your way is entirely satisfying.

Black secrets give you the joy of playing against human opposition, with all the intelligence or lack thereof this entails. For some, this is a good thing, others prefer the full co-op aspect of the first game. Players here on the 'geek have created an automated Wu-Feng variant for use with Black Secrets, but this expansion really only shines if one guy is willing to play the bad boy. There is very little in this expansion you can use if you don't want to play with added, nastier Wu-Feng stuff. That being said, I love it, and will play good or bad with equal fervor. Again I should caution: play Black Secrets only with people experienced at Ghost Stories, and do not expose yourself to Black Secrets+White Moon unless you are a professional and know what you're doing.

Black Secrets also came with a promo: the infernal die. It is, in essence, a second curse die, incorporating the bad stuff that can happen from Black Secrets (demons move, curses thrown, ...). It gives Wu-Feng an extra choice when rolling the curse die. Overall, I find the base game curse die effects nastier, but do incorporate the infernal die in all Black Secret games (and have used it multiple times), so I guess I do find it adds something (if only relief from my completionist mind, which was sorely taxed by trying to get all the bonuses for Ghost Stories).

The expansions for Ghost Stories are great. They add new mechanics, things to watch out and plan for, new components, ... But even owning them, I find myself sometimes returning to the base game, just for the fun of it (something I hardly ever do for other games). This, to me, points out just how excellent Ghost Stories is, and how little improvement it needed (though it got change and added variety in spades).

And there it is. My long-winded attempt at putting down what I think of one of the greates games on my shelf. Here, at the end, I'd like to thank Mr. Bauza for providing me with one of the most enjoyable experiences of my gaming life, my wife for playing many a session with me, and you, dear reader for sticking through this review (or skipping to the end to see the conclusion, well, joke's on you, it's all over the text). Happy ghost hunting!
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Jeff Davis
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Wow! No one has commented on your review? I found it a thoughtful and well balanced read.

Seems that White Moon is out of print - I am trying to find a place to buy it at reasonable price - HA HA!

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Jeff Davis
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Wow! No one has commented on your review? I found it a thoughtful and well balanced read.

Seems that White Moon is out of print - I am trying to find a place to buy it at reasonable price - HA HA!

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