So, yesterday, I, as part of a crack team of Daoist do-goods, managed to exorcise a rather diverse group of ghoulish ghosts. It was no simple task, as it took our combined effort to save the town from these haunting presences. This is just the sort of thing you do when you sit down and play a game of Ghost Stories, a co-operative game from French designer Antoine Bauza of 7 Wonders, Hanabi, Takenoko, and Tokaido fame; he seems to have a thing for East Asia (as someone who wrote a 30-page paper on Qing dynasty literature, I am really not pointing fingers, mind you).
Ghost Stories is one of those games that I knew I would eventually get around to playing sooner or later, though I didn’t really go out of my way to play it. As you may be able to tell, I am a big fan of euro games. My idea of a nice evening is sitting down at a table, white wool cubes into brown cloth cubes, and making some sweet, sweet victory points in the process. While this sort of thing is my game of choice, there are plenty of games out there I enjoy playing which do not involve tense wool market control strategies. In Ghost Stories, players go around punching ghosts. Technically, it says we are exorcising them, but I like to believe that I am punching them to un-undeath. There are no 16th century merchants to worry about; there is no track to determine my relationship with Queen Victoria; it’s just me and some buddies, punching ghosts. And it’s all good fun; Ghost Stories is a fun game, for a co-operative game.
Oh no, I feel like I may have just opened a can of worms, but let me just say this: there are a good number of co-operative games that I enjoy and Space Alert may well be on my top 20 or even top 15 list of my favorite games. Ghost Stories is a really enjoyable game that I would like to play again sometime, but like so many other co-operative games out there, it suffers from one major flaw – quarterbacking. In many co-op games, players find themselves just playing through the motions prescribed to them by a single player and the game effectively turns into a single player game in which the one player has other people move the pieces around for him or her. This is remedied in some designs like Space Alert, where things happen in real time and the pace is frantic enough that the best the hopeful quarterback could do is to call out orders like a chef to their line cooks. Shadows Over Camelot succeeds here as well by hiding information from the other players in your hand of cards and introducing a traitor mechanic. In Ghost Stories, all of the information is laid out bare; there are no secrets among Daoists. Those 4 points of Qi you have in front of you may as well be a sign that says, “Please tell me how to spend my Qi tokens.”
Don’t get me wrong, there are still a ton of interesting decisions to make, especially with the variety of individual special abilities and town spaces to choose from, but you have to occasionally fight for your right to make your own decisions and you have to make sure to give other players the space they need to make theirs. Collaboration, rather than quarterbacking, is really the ideal, but it is not something that the games usually create on their own; it is something you have to find, and this is a fundamental design problem in many co-operative games out there and Ghost Stories is also one that falls short in this regard.
Mechanically, the game is one which starts off simple enough and raises to a fever over the course of the first few rounds, after which players will constantly find themselves surrounding by phantoms awaiting their exorcising expertise. With the right group of players in the right mindset, the tension between using a town space and getting rid of that ghost from your ally’s board so they won’t have to lose a Qi point on their turn is quite palpable. Even when you do decide to exorcise, there can a chance of failure or a potential negative outcome even should you succeed. Chance is what the game uses very well to throw a wrench into your perfectly crafted plan. You can make a situation a “sure thing”, but, more often than not, you’ll find yourself going forward when you have to rely on the luck of your exorcism roll to save the day. This can lead to the euphoric heights of success or the dismay of failure and really pulls at the heart of the theme – you are a team of exorcists dealing with the full might of the supernatural with only limited and precious resources to aid you.
In terms of components, boards, tokens and pieces are all of excellent quality. The art on the town tiles is great and helps make it seem as though there is something there that you are protecting from this ominous onslaught. The presentation of symbols is quite good, though there were some moments of minor confusion. The way the player boards and the center tiles fit together to create the play space is quite appealing as well; it is just a nice-looking game to put out on the table.
So Ghost Stories is a lot of fun, but I don’t see it becoming my go-to co-operative game. It offers a great theme with some good decisions and tense moments. If you’re looking for a good co-operative experience that isn’t very heavy and still gives the players something to puzzle over, this might be just the thing for you.