Ghost Stories: Black Secret First Impressions

Ghost Stories is one of my favorite cooperative board games, and I’ve played numerous times with a varying number of players, and with and without the White Moon expansion. While I wasn’t quite sure how things would work out having someone play the villain, the idea was intriguing and adding a fifth player had appeal so I recently picked up the Black Secret expansion.

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Gameplay:

As I alluded to above, the gist of the Black Secret expansion is that one player actively takes the role of Wu Feng and works against all of the other players. There are three main aspects to this:

  1. The Wu Feng player now controls the ghost phase, including where each new ghost is placed. Instead of placing the ghost, there are options to cast curses or summon demons.
  2. Curses are tokens played on a special board that harm the taoists. They are color coded and must match the color of the ghost the Wu Feng player is discarding to play the curse. They are played in a pyramid structure, with stronger curses available as you near the top.
  3. Demons are agents of Wu Feng represented by three plastic figures that roam an underground board that directly correlates to the main game board. The demons “dig” in the dungeon, searching for three relics that will unleash Wu Feng’s avatar on the village. As the demons dig they may find nothing, bonuses for their master, bonuses for the players or the artifacts they seek. If the demons are successful, Wu Feng’s figure is placed in the village, can not be attacked/beaten/removed, and can attack players every turn.

In return, there are a couple things meant to aid the players as well:

  1. Each time any player loses a life point, they place it on a card. When a certain number of points get placed on a card the players get that card’s bonus. There is a new villager tile that allows players to swap out the cards to get bonuses of their liking,
  2. When any player is down to one life, they get the power of the player opposite them as well as their own.

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Thoughts:

Black Secret is an interesting expansion, but one that tries a bit too hard. There are an almost overwhelming amount of new components and rules, and in the end a lot of them were a bit perplexing.

The Demons: The demons have a summoning mechanic, a whole new board devoted to them, unique plastic figures, a system connecting it to the main board using ladders that can be destroyed, a special phase of each turn for them, etc. And their entire purpose is to search stacks of tiles. That’s it. They can’t fight/hurt/hinder the taoists in any other way, and all a taoist has to do is be on the same spot to keep the demon from digging.

Now this is a problem for the taoists since there are often much more important things to be doing, and there can be several demons out at once. And if the demons succeed in getting to the bottom of the right piles Wu Feng’s avatar appears, which is major trouble because now it’s the taoists who can’t do anything about it. This is kind of the point of our issues – the Wu Feng player spent most of the game wishing his cool looking demons could do something besides dig, and the rest of us realized if the avatar came out what very little chance of success we had was pretty much immediately eliminated. This aspect would have been a lot more interesting if there was more give and take in each stage of progression.

Balance:

While the demon part could have been better, it wasn’t a deal breaker. The bigger issue was that in trying to justify the expansion and make sure the Wu Feng player had enough to do, things were moved too far from the rest of the players. Having the Wu Feng player in control of the ghost phase and adding the demon phase meant that on every players turn he had two phases, then the player whose turn it actually was got to move and take an action. With the full four taoists we were essentially waiting for 11 phases to pass before we got to do anything again, with 8 of those phases belonging to the Wu Feng player. Making things even worse was the fact that with things tilted in the favor of Wu Feng, there was usually an obvious best move to make, so our turn didn’t even feel like a turn when it did come around.  Our Wu Feng player wasn’t thrilled either, as after the game he remarked it was interesting but he got to the point where he wanted a break, as he was basically constantly playing for the full time.

Beyond play time the other balance issue with giving the Wu Feng player the ghost phases was difficulty. Ghost Stories is a notoriously hard game in the first place, and not being able to place ghosts in advantageous positions for fighting ramps that up even more. Obviously we probably weren’t playing optimally, but we didn’t find the benefits given to the taoists even remotely countered the added advantages given to Wu Feng.

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Overall

Black Secret expansion for Ghost Stories seemed to tilt things WAY too far to towards the player playing the bad guy, in both game advantages and gaming time. I really wish they had handled certain elements differently, as the core ideas are really good. Not the best first experience, but the game was still fun overall and I’d be up for giving the expansion another shot sometime.

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