Monday, July 28, 2014

A Ghostbusting Team

The cooperative board game is still a somewhat rare animal amid the many German style board games now being produced. The problem is, cooperative is a hard style of game to do well, with two common pitfalls: it's hard to give every individual player his or her own agency within the group process, and it's hard to strike the right balance of difficulty in allowing the players to win. I don't know that I've ever truly loved any game in this genre, though I do think fairly well of Pandemic.

Recently, a game called Ghost Stories tried to change my mind. It's one of the more distinctively flavored games I've ever come across, an odd blend of undead, Lovecraftian horror, and Taoist philosophy. Up to four players take on the roles of monks trying to save a small village from being drawn into hell by the evil minions of Wu-Feng, who seek their master's ashes to return him to life.

Players move on a 3 by 3 grid of tiles, each tile with a unique power they can wield against the enemy. Those enemies congregate along the edges of the grid, threatening the player who sits along each particular edge. As is typical for the cooperative genre, the game itself puts up a relentless onslaught of calamity that the players must try to mitigate. If they survive long enough, Wu-Feng himself shows up in the final act of the game. When the players defeat him, they win.

Ghost Stories does pretty well with the "player agency" problem. Each of the four monks has a unique power (two, actually, which can be swapped from one playthrough to the next), and all four monks can prove very useful in the efforts to win the game. It's harder to tell how the game does with the difficulty issue. Moments through your first playthrough, you'll realize some very basic strategic considerations you simply must adhere to; if you ignore them as a group, you'll simply have no chance of winning.

Luck plays a pretty large role in the game, which is also typical of the cooperative genre. But where I think Ghost Stories isn't quite as strong is that it's very easy (more so than in Pandemic, I think) for one player to get pigeonholed into a kind of "janitor" duty -- taking the unfun job of keeping the crap at bay so that another player can try to be the hero. At least Ghost Stories rules don't provide for a "true winner" as some co-op games do; you either all win or all lose together. Still, it's possible even in victory to feel like one player didn't get to have as much fun.

Still, I have played far worse co-op games. If you're a fan of that genre and haven't tried it, it may be worth a look. The easiest difficulty level certainly seemed to offer a challenge, and the three harder difficulties above that would surely keep a play group striving for many plays to come. I give Ghost Stories a B.

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