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Cardboard Children: Ghost Stories

Hello, youse.

I hope you all bought some new and very expensive board games this week, and then didn't bother reading the rules.

First, the news!


Eccentric game designer Frederic Moyersoen has put out a video trailer for his upcoming board game Van Helsing. You might think that the trailer for a board game should maybe...I dunno... show you the board game, but you'd be wrong. What a good trailer for a board game does is let you watch a 10 minute long low-budget clunky comedy with a creepy final “gag”. It's unmissable stuff, for the bat sound effects alone:

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As for the game itself, I don't know anything about it yet. What I do know is that Moyersoen's last game, Nuns On The Run, was a lovely little bit of fun. So we can be optimistic about Van Helsing, I would say. ARRRE YOU TRRRRRYING TO FOOLME!

In other news, you'll remember me saying a fortnight ago that the only problem I had with the new edition of the great Dungeonquest was that I thought the old, basic combat rules should have been included alongside the new rules. Well, Fantasy Flight Games this week solved the problem, with the release of some combat variants for free download. It's because of things like this that I love Fantasy Flight. I love you guys. You can download them here:

I said it should happen, then it happened. Let's try this again.

The only thing that's wrong with the government is that the Tories shouldn't be in power. COME ON FANTASY FLIGHT YOU CAN DO IT!

With all that said, let's talk about CO-OP GAMES.

There are a lot of co-op board games going around these days. This is either because many board gamers are gay bears who are totally trying to get into the pants of people they play with, and so don't want to fight with them. Or maybe because far more couples are playing board games nowadays, and the guys are sick of being crushed by the women. (Women are the best at board games. Never forget that. That's what happened when Eve ate that apple – the most devious strategies for every board game that would ever be created were poured into her brain, by Ludocifer himself.)

The first co-op game I played on my return to the board game hobby was Reiner Knizia's Lord of The Rings. That's like being introduced to sex by Mick Jagger's Mars Bar. I'm not a Lord of the Rings fan by any stretch of the imagination, but I still expected that the game would be a little bit Tolkienish. You know... “Eladrioliel of Olador, son of Olodriladior of the Gelerin, conqueror of Elordiohlordhelpme.” Instead, it's a weird abstract experience, where you and a group of other bored people work out how to most efficiently use some cards with symbols on them, and work out the best excuse to get out of the room. The only thing Lord of the Ringsy about the game is the artwork that serves as the board's background. Which essentially means I could roll a die onto one of the Rocky Balboa coasters on my coffee table and call it ROCKY: THE BOARDGAME.

The next major co-op I played was that big beast, the iconic Arkham Horror, from Fantasy Flight Games. It's a game that sees you and your buddies playing investigators who are trying to stop one of the Great Old Ones from arriving and fucking up everyone's day/universe. Now, I might find Tolkien dull, but Lovecraft is my MAIN MAN. I'm Lovecraft mad, me. So, Arkham Horror couldn't fail, could it? Big beautiful game, five of us round the table, a Lovecraft theme. IMPOSSIBLE TO FAIL!

It failed. At the end of the game, we were all saying words to the effect of: “Yeah, that was alright.” A game with Cthulhu and Azathoth in it and I'm saying it was “alright”. It was heartbreaking. It was easy, and clunky, and mechanical and – here's the truth – I think I disliked it even more than I wanted to admit. I didn't get over it for a while, to be honest. There's far more to my Arkham Horror story, though. It doesn't end here. I'll be giving AH a column of its own down the line, but let's just say right now that it's a story about how a man eventually fell in love with something he didn't initially understand. Like how Johnny Depp fell for Vanessa Paradis after she learned some English.

Anyway, my point here is this – I don't want any of you people out there trying out your first co-op game and hating it so much you decide not to try any others. That's what happened to me, and I want to spare you that fate. So I'm going to recommend an absolutely amazingly brilliant co-op game that will have all you brainboxes scratching your brainboxes.


Antoine Bauza's Ghost Stories is, excuse my language, absolute fucking genius. Each player is a Taoist Monk, a guardian of a Chinese village. In each turn, the evil Wu-Feng will send ghosts to attack the village, and you must react to the threats as best you can. Eventually, Wu-Feng himself will arrive, and when you exorcise him you win!

If only it were that easy. Ghost Stories is an unbelievably difficult game. It will have you and three of your friends staring at each other, biting each other's fingernails.

PLAYER 1: What if we... No, that won't work.

PLAYER 2: If you place your Buddha there, then I can – Oh fuck, no. I can't. Never mind.

PLAYER 3: We're fucked.

PLAYER 4: No, we're not! Look, if you go to the Sorcerer and take the hit on this one-

PLAYER 2: I only have one life point left.

PLAYER 4: We're fucked.

PLAYER 1: I'll take the hit, die, then you can come to the cemetery and revive me.

PLAYER 2: The cemetery's haunted.

PLAYER 1: Yeah, but you spend a Yin-Yang to bring the cemetery back and then you can-

PLAYER 2: We need my Yin-Yang to stop the other ghost.

PLAYER 1: We're fucked.

You're trying to stop a village from being haunted. Ghosts keep coming until four areas of the board have been haunted, and that's when it's GAME OVER.

The village you protect is made up of a set of 9 village tiles, each of which allows you to visit whoever lives there and make use of their power. For example, you can visit the temple and use a Buddha statue to block the progress of a ghost. Or you can go to the Tea House and heal up a bit. However, these tiles are randomly placed at the start of the game. That means that two locations that were side-by-side in the last game might not be this time. It's hard to bring any well-worn strategies to Ghost Stories. You need to react on the fly. To everything. All of the time.

The ghosts come out of a card deck, and each ghost has some kind of power. Some make you roll a Curse Die on your turn, which can do things like haunt a tile and take life points from you. Nightmare. Other ghosts start to move towards the village, haunting a tile a couple of turns later. Daymare. Other ghosts steal dice from you and reduce your combat efficiency. Eveningmare. Other ghosts stop you using any items. Maremare.

And it's all gravy when the first few ghosts come out. You chill, and start getting rid of them, working out which one is most beneficial to get rid of first. Everyone's smiling at the table. Then they come faster. And then you're being overrun. And then you're choosing between a ghost that need to be gone NOW, and a ghost that needs to be gone NOW. And then you're choosing between a ghost that needs to be gone NOW and a ghost that needed to be gone LAST TURN and another ghost that needed to be gone TWO TURNS AGO. And then the big bad comes out and then you die.

Exorcism of the ghosts is simple, but difficult. Each ghost has a resistance number and colour. Let's say a ghost has 3 Red. That means you roll your three dice, and hope that the red side comes up three times. Tough, right? Fortunately you can use red items to make up the shortfall. Unless a ghost has stopped you using items, that is. So, yeah, sorry man. You need to get three reds on three dice. Oh, and a ghost has just stolen one of those dice. 3 Red with 2 dice. Good luck with that.

Each Taoist has two special powers, and will start the game with one of them. These might give you an extra die in battle, or let you take two actions in a turn instead of one, or lower a certain ghost's resistance, or something equally sweet. And much of the game is trying to work out the best order to act in, and what sacrifices are worth making.

Truth time. I haven't yet won a game of Ghost Stories. I've come close, but never quite managed to beat any of Wu-Feng's various horrible incarnations. I would play it forever, though. It's a masterpiece of game design. The random placement of village tiles, the random allotment of powers, and the random arrival of ghosts means that every time you play you're having to construct a new master plan as you go. Everyone putting their heads together to talk through some hopeful, shaky plan.

In my last game, I made one mistake early doors. One tiny mistake. I took out one ghost when I should have taken out another. The minute I made my move, I cried out in horror. I realised right away that we'd be paying for my fuck-up for the next half an hour. I felt like I'd let everyone down. That, my friends, is the mark of a good co-op game. In Knizia's Lord of the Rings, I just wanted it to be over, whether I won or lost. In Ghost Stories, I wanted to reverse time so I could undo my stupid, stupid, stupid, unbelievably stupid mistake. I wanted to play again, right away.

Please do check this one out. I'll be looking at the expansion, White Moon, down the line. So that I have an excuse to buy it.


Okay, so I've had a read of the new Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. The set itself contains a Dungeon Master's Book, a Player's Book, cardboard tokens with pictures of goodies and baddies on them, character sheets, power cards, a big “battle map” and some dice.

Wow. Okay. So, here's the first thing that came into my head when I looked at all this stuff. “GREAT VALUE FOR MONEY”. Seriously. This is a nice little package for the price.

The Player's Book is pretty sweet. It's written in a Fighting Fantasy style, a choose-your-own-adventure kind of thing, and leads you through the process of rolling up your character. It offers you situations that you can resolve in a manner of your choosing, and gives you a class type based on that. It works beautifully.

The Dungeon Master's Book lays out an adventure for the new players to get their teeth into, and explains the basic rules. I love the Battle Map that comes with the adventure. It's the kind of thing that got me into games in the first place. A beautiful big thing, so lovely it doesn't matter that it's printed on paper the thickness of a kid's bedroom poster.

The rules themselves, as written in the DM Book? Well... in this Starter Set (and please do notice that I'm saying “in this Starter Set”) it looks more like a ruleset for a miniatures battle game than an RPG.


I said it. It looks more like a ruleset for a miniatures battle game than an RPG.


But here's the thing – it looks like an absolutely beautiful ruleset for a miniatures battle game. And I know that, with further reading, and further supplements, there will be nice roleplaying rules to back those battle rules up. What can be wrong with that? And besides, a good GM can make sure ANY system has plenty of roleplaying. If that GM has a tight battle foundation to lean on, where's the problem?

Certainly, the game seems different enough from the narrative-heavy (and utterly brilliant) Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition. It looks like an exciting, well-designed, dynamic dungeon battle RPG. And, quite honestly, I was so impressed with the Starter Set I went straight out and bought the new Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Rules Compendium, and the new Heroes of The Fallen Lands book. Because I have more money than sense and addiction issues.

I'll be keeping you updated with my first nervous steps into the world of D&D in the weeks ahead. Why not come with me, stranger? Pick up the Red Box and we can do it together, traveller!

Keep rolling those bones! (Dice) See you next time, adventurer! (Internet website reader)

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