Antoine Bauza


No. of Players:
2 - 5



With the introduction of the White Moon expansion Antoine Bauza considerably enlarged the scope of his Ghost Stories boardgame, but as it seems he still had some ideas which were not yet implemented in the game. Thus, the two Belgians from REPOS PRODUCTION once again have brought a new expansion set to the SPIEL '11 convention, and this time the Black Secret expansion deals with the darker aspects of the game.

In essence, Ghost Stories - Back Secret is an expansion which allows the inclusion of a fifth player, but as the whole symmetry of the game is orientated to a maximum of four Taoists the new fifth player will not join the ranks with the other players. Instead, the new player will assume the role of Wu-Feng himself, and so the mechanisms for the automatic management of all dark elements will be replaced by rules which allow the Wu-Feng player to attack the village protected by the Taoists. In a way, this expansion can be compared to the -expansion for Reiner Knizia's successful Lord of the Rings-boardgame, since that expansion also introduced a new evil player to a so-far purely cooperative game.

Whereas expansions adding a fifth or sixth player who follows the same rules as all other players are not unusual, the creation of an expansion allowing a player to assume the role of an antagonist to all other players is much more tricky. On the one hand, the game needs to keep its balance and playability, and on the other hand the new player needs to receive some real instruments to hinder the progress of the other players. It would be quite unsatisfying for a new player to be a "human robot" without any strategic choice, and so Ghost Stories - Back Secret must prove itself to offer a good gaming experience to the new Wu-Feng player.

One of the most striking new elements included in this expansion is a 3 time 3 squares Catacombs board. This board is placed next to the village, and it is aligned in a way to match the general alignment of the village. So, the Catacomb board now introduces the caves below all nine village locations, and during the game the players can move down into the Catacombs and up again on ladders which were placed at every Catacombs space at the beginning of the game. In the catacombs some face down catacomb-tokens are placed, with the number of tokens which is placed at each space depending on the number of Taoists participating at the game. Three urns containing the ashes of Wu-Feng are hidden among these tokens, and Wu-Feng aims to recover these urns in order to activate his ghostly shadow to act within the village.

For the recovery of the urns three different demons stand at Wu-Feng's service, and whenever a new ghost card is drawn the Wu-Feng player may opt to discard the card instead of placing it on a player board and instead summon a demon into the catacombs which is matching the ghost's resistance rating. If one or more demons are present in the Catacombs, the Wu-Feng player is allowed to act with each demon at the beginning of each player's turn, and for his action a demon either can be moved or search the uppermost catacombs token at his current location. As indicated, these tokens may display one of the three urns sought by Wu-Feng, but otherwise a variety of effects may be triggered, ranging from the finding of a Buddha which removes the demon from the catacombs to a pile of bones which Wu-Feng may use to hamper one of the players with a skeleton.

Of course, the players will use their Taoists to stop Wu-Feng from recovering his three urns, and so the time may come when some of them decide to go down into the Catacombs. The level change from the village to the catacombs and back may be done for free directly after a Taoist-movement, provided there is a ladder in the space where the Taoist has moved. As indicated, there are ladders on all catacomb spaces at the beginning of the game, but when a village location becomes haunted the ladder leading to the catacombs from that location will be removed. Even if the location is restored, the ladder will not be returned!

In the catacombs, the Taoists may fight the demons following the usual rules, with their resistance depending on the type of demon and the demon's colour being determined by the catacombs space currently occupied. Furthermore, it should be added here that each demon also possesses a special ability, making it harder to defeat or giving at another benefit like a better searching ability or a special effect which is triggered upon its defeat. A defeated demon is returned to Wu-Feng, but none of the demons may be permanently removed. Instead, Wu-Feng may reactivate them in a later turn in order tore-enter the catacombs. However, it once again costs Wu-Feng a ghost card to re-activate a demon, and as the demons usually have to enter the catacombs through one of two different entries he will also have to avoid Taoists standing on guard, because a catacomb space containing a Taoist cannot be searched for a catacombs marker.

Depending on the efforts Wu-Feng spends for searching his ashes, the time may come when he finally discovers his third urn. At that point all demons will leave the game because they have fulfilled their purpose, and instead a figure symbolizing the shadow of Wu-Feng will be placed on the catacombs space where the third urn was found. At the beginning of each player's turn the Wu-Feng player now may either move his shadow to any space / location of his choice, or - if a Taoist should be present at his current location - attack the Taoist with a roll of three Tao-dice, removing one Qi (life) for each black face rolled. As a third option, the shadow may be used to attack an empty village building at his current location, and in this case the curse dice will the thrown and its effect applied. Unfortunately, the shadow is invincible for the Taoists, and so his presence will hamper them for the rest of the game!

So, whenever a ghost card is drawn, the Wu-Feng player now has the choice of playing a ghost cards in the normal way or to use it to summon a demon, but as a third possibility he may also choose to discard the card to and play one of the curse tokens which were dealt to him at the beginning of the game. These curses can be used in different ways for Wu-Feng's benefit, but to activate stronger curses a pyramid-layout must be followed. So, the activation of stronger curses first requires a base of weaker curses, and so the Wu-Feng player must judge how many ghosts he really can afford to discard for activating curses.

In addition to the use of the ghost cards the Wu-Feng player also is put in control of all incarnations of Wu-Feng. In the basic game a number of Wu-Feng's incarnations simply was added to the lower part of the ghost deck, appearing late in the game and being the ultimate enemies for the players. Now all incarnation cards have been replaced by placeholders, and instead Wu-Feng may draw some incarnation cards from a separate deck during the course of the game. Thus, whenever a placeholder for the activation of an incarnation is revealed, Wu-Feng now can choose which of his incarnations is put into play, and this gives his player a quite powerful choice to activate the incarnations which may be most harmful for the players at this point of the game.

Overall, the correct balancing of his actions poses a considerable challenge to the Wu-Feng player, since he must try to keep the Taoists occupied at the ghost front and the catacombs front at the same time. If one of this fronts is neglected, the Taoists will have a chance to recover, and this usually will mean the downfall of Wu-Feng because only a gradual weakening (and killing) of the Taoists will allow a victory for the forces of evil. However, at this point the initial question for the attractiveness of the new role of Wu-Feng can be answered positively, since the new player really has been equipped with some meaningful possibilities to interact with the other players, and at the same time there is a satisfactory degree of tactical decisions which is demanded of the Wu-Feng player. Multiple options need to be weighted, and apart from the search for the urns it's also quite attractive for the Wu-Feng player to haunt different spaces to destroy ladders in order to cut off passages between the village and the catacombs. Another approach is the collection of incarnation cards, since a broad choice of incarnation cards can give the Wu-Feng player a very strong position in the end game.

As a matter of fact, the new role of Wu-Feng is so strong that a bit of counterbalancing was needed, and this in turn has led to the introduction of the new Bloody Mantra cards which are randomly dealt at the beginning of the game. Whenever a Taoist looses a Qi, that Qi is not discarded but instead placed on a Bloody Mantra card of the player's choice, and when a certain number of Qi has been placed on the card its special ability will be activated. Depending on the Mantra, the Taoists will receive a small benefit which should help them in their mission, and so even the loss of Qi now may have a positive effect.

To make the whole expansion coherent, a new village tile of a Calligrapher has been included, and this tile may be used by the Taoists to place a Qi token from the reserve on one of the Bloody Mantras, and at the same time the Taoist also can chose to replace one of the Bloody mantras in play with one of the unused Mantras which may be more helpful at the current situation. In addition, it should not be forgotten that some curses and some Bloody Mantras have been designed for the simultaneous use of the White Moon expansion, and so Antoine Bauza has taken good care of allowing a use of both expansions at the same time. However, this is only advised to experienced players, since otherwise the somewhat complex rules level will not be easy to handle for newcomers.

To sum it up, Ghost Stories - Back Secret has left a rather good impression, with lots of new contents and a very interesting new perspective which may be explored by an additional player. The expansion is a meaty and harmonious addition to the whole game, and so it can be recommended without reserve.

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Copyright © 2011 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany