Friday, 23 January 2009

Ghost Stories

Han was in town over the weekend of 17 Jan 2009, and came over for some games. He had just picked up his new game Ghost Stories, so we gave it a go.

Ghost Stories is a cooperative game, where the players are Taoist monks defending a village from an onslaught of ghosts. The big bad ghost Mr Wu Feng is trying to came back from hell to do bad things to humanity (something like that). His minion ghosts are trying to locate his urn which is hidden in the village. The monks have to work together with the villagers to hold the ghosts back. To win the game, they have to defeat all incarnations of Wu Feng that appear during the game. There are many ways to lose. If all the monks get killed, you lose. If a certain number of village tiles get haunted, you lose. If you can't defeat all incarnations of Wu Feng when the ghost card deck runs out, you lose. Sounds like Pandemic doesn't it? One way to win, many ways to lose.

On a player's turn, he first does the "bad stuff" (in the game, called the Yin phase), and then he does the "good stuff" (Yang phase). In the Yin phase, some ghosts already on the board will do bad stuff. Some will move towards the village, threatening to haunt a village tile. Then a new ghost (drawn from the ghost card deck) may appear. Ghosts sometimes do something when they appear, and sometimes they do something every time that they are activated while still in the game, and sometimes they do something when they are exorcised (is this last situation sometimes they give a reward). After this, the active player gets to do something good. He can move, and then either get some help from the villagers, or try to exorcise a ghost or two. Each of the nine village tiles can give some form of benefit to the monks. There is even one tile (the cemetary) where you can bring a dead monk back to life! To exorcise a ghost you need to roll dice and get enough rolls of the right colour matching the ghost's colour and strength. You can make up the shortage by paying Tao tokens of the right colour.

So during the game, ghosts keep appearing and doing bad stuff to you and to the village, and you need to hold them back while trying to stay alive. The ghosts have many different characteristics. Some are easier to defeat, some are harder. Some cause trouble every turn, some only when they appear / go away. Some prevent you from using Tao tokens, which is nasty. You not only need to survive, you also need to prepare for the showdown with Wu Feng. Depending on the difficulty level, there can be one or four incarnations of Wu Feng that you need to defeat.

This is how the game looks like when set up. 9 village tiles randomly arranged in the centre, and four player boards on the four sides. The ghosts appear on the player boards, and some of them get a black figure which will attack the village, e.g. the one on the blue board.

Two Taoist monks confronting a ghost.

The two buddhas still chatting about last night's TV show without realising the ghost sneaking up on them.

Han and I played one 2-player game. Well, actually we played three games, but in the first two we played wrong and restarted. The first one was too easy, because we forgot to do actions for the two neutral boards. The second one was too tough, because we did too much for the two neutral boards. We played that they can add new ghosts to the game. Of course that turned out to be quite a nightmare. Double the number of ghosts were appearing. On our third attempt, we finally played with what was quite close to the correct rules (we later found out we did make some mistakes afterall), and won.

I find the game quite interesting. There are quite many choices - which ghosts to defeat first, where to move, which village tile to make use of, when to use your YinYang tokens and Power tokens. The game is a constantly changing puzzle of how to use your actions and resources most effectively. Sometimes there is some tough prioritisation that you are forced to do. The basic game structure is not complex, but there are many small details (e.g. the powers of each of the nine village tiles, and the unique powers of each monk) which although individually are simple, give you a wide decision tree that can be daunting when you are learning the game. In our first game we have only used a few of the village tiles. I am sure each tile can be very useful if used the right way or at the right time, but in our learning game, we have not yet appreciated all of the nuances. We tend to use the Buddhist temple (get a Buddha figure which can protect a space and instantly kick a new ghost back to hell), the sorcerer's hut (spend Qi, i.e. health, to kill a ghost) and the circle of prayer (discount when fighting ghosts or a particular colour).

As we played, the situation became more and more bleak. The number of active ghosts was growing, and we were starting to fall behind in trying to exorcise them quickly. By the time that Wu Feng finally arrived (11th card from the bottom of the stack), it was actually a relief, because we knew we just needed to defeat him to win, and we could ignore the other ghosts. And that was exactly what we did. It so happened that the incarnation of Wu Feng that we got was the one requiring 5 different Tao tokens. I already had four, and could use my Power token to use the Yellow monk power to get the fifth colour. So I instantly defeated Wu Feng on my next turn. It was actually rather anticlimatic, as if he came to save us from losing the game.

After the game, Han read the rules himself (I was the one who had read it first and I taught the game) and found that we had made at least two mistakes, both of which had made the game easier for us. (1) When using the sorcerer's hut to kill a ghost, we should not have gained the reward for defeating the ghost. (2) The ghosts which haunt village tiles only need to take two steps, not three, to haunt the nearest tile. The second mistake would have made quite a significant difference. So the next time that we play (I definitely want to play again) we probably should stay at Introductory level.

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