Ghost Stories is one of those games that I'd heard a lot about before I actually got the chance to play it. The 1-4 player co-operative game comes from a highly successful designer - Antoine Bauza - who has designed some of my favourite games, and well-known publisher Repos Productions. It is widely regarded as being an excellent, but fiendishly hard to win, co-op game.
Ghost Hunting with a Twist
As the name suggests, Ghost Stories is a game about ghosts. A game about fighting ghosts, to be precise. But it's not another gothic horror game to add to that category's long list. Instead, Ghost Stories is set in China. Each player is a Taoist monk, represented by plastic miniatures, that is trying to protect a village from the vengeful spirit of Wu-Feng, Lord of the Nine Hells, and his hordes of ghoulish minions.
All of the action takes place on a randomly arranged 9 x 9 grid of tiles that represent locations in the village you're protecting. Surrounding this grid are the four player boards, all of which are used no matter what your player count is. The villagers are there to give you bonuses, like regaining health or giving you powerful Buddha statues, but they're also constantly at risk of being haunted by Wu-Feng or his minions.
Ghost Stories - A Quick Overview
I want to keep this overview of the game's mechanics brief, as they're fairly simple and a lot of fun is in the discovery of what different things do. At the start of a player's turn, they first check their board, which has three slots that a ghost could be sitting in. If they have ghost there with an ability that activates, they do that first. Then, if all their slots are full they lose a life. If they have space left, they draw a new ghost from the deck of ghost cards and add is to the correct player board.
Every ghost either corresponds to the four player colours, meaning they have to be placed on that player board, or is black, which means they can be placed anywhere on the board. Some ghosts have an effect when they hit the board, others have an ongoing effect, others have an effect when they leave play, and still others do a combination of things. The ghosts you have to watch out for are those that haunt village tiles. These ghosts will normally haunt a tile within two turns of the player whose board they're on. A haunted tile gives players no more benefits when they land on it, and if three tiles are haunted at any one time, you lose.
Players can also lose by all being killed, which happens when they lose health (Qi tokens) from being overrun, rolling the curse die (which happens with some ghosts' effects) or losing health from some village squares. The final way to lose is by failing to kill Wu-Feng before all the other ghosts have come out (in the beginner and intermediate levels of the game - the nightmare and hell levels are harder but we won't go into them now). Wu-Feng is always the 11th from bottom card in the deck, so there are 10 other ghosts that can follow him.
How do you avoid losing? By surviving long enough to exorcise Wu-Feng. You do this by gaining village bonuses and fighting ghosts. On your turn, you can move one space, then either gain a bonus from the tile you're on or fight an adjacent ghost. To kill ghosts, you rolls three (or occasionally four) die. You need the results to match the number of coloured spots on the ghost card, of which there could be between one and four. If that sounds hard, it is. But there are village tiles you can use to make them weaker, some player abilities weaken them, and you can also obtain Tao symbols that act as a die roll of a specific colour.
I mentioned player abilities, which are unique bonuses that each coloured Taoist has to help them out. Each colour has two abilities that you choose between at the start of the game. There are a few other variables I didn't mention, such as what the tiles do and all the ghost abilities, but I recommend going away and looking at the rule book if you want more info. The game's core mechanics are very simple and easy to learn, but remembering all the symbols and what stuff does can be a little hard at first.
Impressions from my First Play-through
I'm not normally a fan of co-op games, so I wasn't sure how much I'd enjoy Ghost Stories. Turns out I really enjoyed it. Maybe I've just played the wrong co-op games up to this point! The pacing of the game was one of the best things. It had a really nice ebb and flow to it, with the tension dialling up and down every couple of turns.
I much preferred that aspect than to the tension in Pandemic, which can suddenly escalate dramatically with the drawing of a single card. Sure, Ghost Stories had moments long those lines, but they weren't as shocking when they happened and they didn't warp the game as much. It felt like we were constantly on the brink between success and failure. We eventually won, but it was a close run thing and we were only on the beginner level!
One of the hardest things about the game's mechanics, as I alluded to earlier, were the number of individual abilities, through players, village tiles and ghosts, that you have to process when you play for the first time. None of my group had played before, so it felt like we were referring to the rules or reminder sheets every couple of turns. This is to be expected for a weightier game, but I felt like some of the iconography could have been a little more intuitive.
Another criticism is the rule book itself. It explains the game, but it's pretty dense, making it hard to find specific information by flipping through during the game. The reminder sheets don't cover everything, so you will need to flip through the rules if you're not playing with an experienced player. I was able to pick the game up and teach it to my friends fairly quickly thanks to a Rahdo Runs Through YouTube video, but without that video it would have been much tougher to learn. This is surprising, as other games from Bauza and Repos Productions don't have the same barrier.
Negatives aside, Ghost Stories is an excellent game. Each player has enough agency on their own turn that I don't think it suffered too much from one player dominating the game, as can happen with some co-ops, though the potential might be there if one player is noticeably more vocal than the others.
There is also randomness in the dice rolling but it's mitigated by Tao tokens that you can acquire and other abilities. Rather than the randomness making or breaking a game, it's a factor that should be incorporated into your strategy. Essentially, if you're always hoping for a perfect dice roll, you're probably doing something wrong.
The game was also a nice length - if it had been longer it would have felt repetitive, but any shorter would have been unsatisfying. The player turns felt well-paced and the objectives were clear. There were meaningful choices throughout and plenty of options available to you every turn. Though we didn't have time to replay it immediately, the whole group is keen to meet up again and play the harder difficulties, which is a great sign.
And the difficulty levels are my final positive. Though I haven't played the harder levels it looks like the scale nicely, though the game looks terrifyingly hard at the highest level: 'hell.'
Ghost Stories might just be the game that changes my mind about co-ops. I can't wait to play it again.