Thursday, 31 December 2015

WE GOT ONE! A Ghostbusters Board Game Review

I had this 80s Ghostbusters board game as a micro-George: I was able to play it again just last year when I was cat-sitting for a friend that had it in her wardrobe.
After a couple of days of Christmas laziness - much of it spent stuffing as many Lindor chocolates in our mouths as is humanly possible - the good lady and I finally burst open one of my Christmas presents.  The Ghostbusters board game was set-up and we decided to spend an evening playing it to see what we made of it.

No matter how many players are in the game you always use the same amount of Ghostbusters, i.e. a full team of the four GBs themselves.  Therefore in a two person game it's two per player, so I took on Ray and Winston while Sister Superior took Peter and Egon - or as she called him, "Sexy, Sexy Egon."  (Remember she finds me sexually attractive, so obviously she has unusual tastes.

Set-up at the beginning of our first mission.  The ECTO-1 has arrived on the street, with all four Ghostbusters in tow, and three open gateways are surrounded by a multitude of ghosts of varying strengths.
So, how did things go down?  Did we like it?  Would I recommend it to my fellow geeks?

Each mission has a different map and some special rules but they usually follow a standard format.   The Ghostbusters must on their turn attempt to close one or more open Gates on the map to the Spirit Realm (which is represented on the table as a separate board square piled full of ghosts)  After every Ghostbusters has moved a special die is rolled and from that either more Ghosts appear on the table, the existing Ghosts move about or other such shenanigans depending on the special rule. 

The gates are almost always the scenario objectives, either directly or implicitly.  (I.E. The fourth mission we had to catch a particular Ghost but could only do so when all the gates were shut.)  The reason one catches and traps the bulk of Ghosts on the table is that that's the only way to put them back in the spirit world - if the spirit world is empty of Ghosts and you need to add another one to the map, you would instead lose the game.  Therefore you must constantly take time to blast and trap the ghosts then dispose of them (usually back in ECTO-1) to keep the spirit world full enough for you to finish the mission.

Ray's character card in the middle of our first game.

The game is designed with a psuedo-campaign aspect, so we ended up playing through four linked adventures and our Ghostbusters got better throughout.  Every Ghostbusters earns XP for the same standard thing - busting Ghosts and closing Gates - while each one also earns XP for another thing unique to them.  As they advance they got unique abilities - Egon becomes better handling the Proton Pack than the others, for example, while Winston becomes your go-to man for sticking trapped ghosts back in the ECTO-1 at range when everyone else must be adjacent. 

Play is pretty quick - we managed four games in an evening and they all moved fairly quickly.  Although there are special linked scenarios provided there are also some stand-alone ones which are ideal for shorter play space so this could very much fit into whatever timeframe you have available.

Mid-way through mission 1 and a ghost has broken through and is flying around over ECTO-1, sliming the team something rotten.
The maps include various lines to mark areas that the Ghostbusters cannot move and/or see through - so in the above picture, that red line on the fence shows it blocks both line of sight and movement, while the orange line for the cracks shows it blocks movement but can be seen over.  Yellow is the colour for blocking line of sight but not movement, as used for some blasts of smoke or dust on the map.  These are a little too samey looking for our tastes and it took a bit for Sister Superior to be able to distinguish the two - I think patterned colour or much clearer shades like red/yellow/ice blue would have been preferable.

Those green tokens are Slime tokens, the main way the Ghosts can harass the Ghostbusters.  GHosts moving through you Slime you plus various missions have special rules that send Slime tokens elsewhere.  Each one removes one of your actions - you normally have two a turn, though after enough XP is gained you can have three.  Removing a slime token from a buddy costs one action, while removing one from yourself costs your whole turn no matter how many actions you had.  Therefore you will do better if working together, but sometimes the mission will make you wanna split off to cover more ground.

Here in mission two, we see the Slime tokens flying thick and fast.
This is perhaps part of the game that would be more fun with four people.  As well as only having two players, Sister Superior and I also played the game the way we play all games - that is being able to second-guess and third-guess each other's actions fairly easilly.  Edward, a former flat-mate who we used to play some games with, complained that we would "mind-meld" and be effective as a team without ever giving each other verbal instructions.  As such we happily worked together on these missions, clearing each others slime tokens and co-ordinating our efforts.

However I think a lot of the fun of the game would come from four people bickering with each other, being unable to decide whether their limited actions are best spent helping each other or trying to bust a nearby ghost or make a dash back to ECTO-1.  That level of panic was somewhat missing from our playthrough but, I would imagine, should be a big part of the fun.

Four players argue over whether the best strategy is a straight-up attack, trying to close the nearest gate first or splitting up to confuse their opponent.

Difficulty wise, we sailed through the first mission or two and I felt a bit underwhelmed - as fun as this game looked, was it just a bit too easy?  Missions three and four of the first campaign proved a bit more of a challenge, though, and though we victored in them all there was a feeling they could very quickly have gotten out of hand.  With extra players to co-ordinate and the harder missions I can easilly see how players could lose through some bad luck and poor decisions.

Mission three, for example, saw us try to take care of a major Class 3 spook - but even with three of us teamed up it was a long struggle and poor ol' Winston saw some terrible luck that left him covered in slime constantly.  That meant we effectively had to complete the gates with three useful Ghostbuster and one jammed-up on.  Meanwhile, mission four saw us having to make a mad dash for ECTO-1 at one point to stop the spirit world from running out - it started with hardly any ghosts so we had to keep it topped up pretty constantly.

Mission three, and while Peter (red) drives ECTO-1 to the gate in the top left of the board, the others try to take care of the big giant ghost in the middle.  This would prove to be... a mistake.

Mission four was the closing one of the campaign and the first to feature a fancy-pants named Boss ghost.  This was the one and only spud himself.... Slimer.

I had this figure!  I suspect Slimer's name couldn't go on the toy because Mattel had a trademark on the word "Slime" in a toy context for their He-Man "Slime Pit"
 The Slimer mission was the first one in which closing all the gates wasn't an insta-win.  Instead, it was necessary before you could catch Slimer.  The ghost of John Belushi would run a little circuit around the gates and if he passed one he became more powerful - therefore beating him quickly was the order of the game.

To make matters worse, the Spirit Realm was really light on ghosts, so it was a pretty manic final adventure.  We had to catch and store ghosts to keep the Spirit Realm full up; close gates so the Ghosts couldn't get back out the Spirit Realm; then finally catch Slimer, who was only going to get harder the longer we waited.

Set-up of the fourth mission, with Slimer waiting by the No-Ghost symbol to kick off.
In the end we did victor but this definitely felt the biggest5 challenge of the lot, especially as Slime tokens were shooting out the gates left and right.  One of the complaints I've read about the game online is that it's a bit easy for experienced game players and while I can kinda see that this did still feel like a challenge at this point.

When we put our last Stream token on Slimer and stuck him in the trap, Sister Superior and I felt like kings and put the box away with a happiness that made us confident we'd try and play it again sometime soon,

The last moment of the fourth mission.  Those donut-shaped tokens are Stream tokens to track how much damage a Ghost has taken and from who - Winston got the fifth and final one on Slimer to finish this mission of.

If I have a complaint, it's not so much the game I received as the game I didn't receive... 

The game was a hugely successful Kickstarter project - like, $1.5 million successful, which isn't bad for a board game based on a film which came out the year I was born.  The game was popular enough to rake up a huge list of stretch goals and so Kickstarter pledgers who signed up to the "Mass Hysteria" level - that's $125 USD - were in line for a huge list of extras.

The below picture shows everything you got at Mass Hysteria.  As well as a Kickstarter exclusive version of the box and additional red-coloured "Impossible Mode" versions of all the core games ghosts there were a host of unique Ghostbuster figures (including female Ghostbusters, with secretary Janine and goth Kylie from Extreme Ghostbusters represented) and a bunch of new ghosts, board tiles and missions. This even includes board tiles and ghosts to represent major characters from the films and cartoon show as opposed to the more generic ghosts that make up the core game. 

Even one of the three boss monsters and the theoretical lead one is, ultimately, a Captain Ersatz for the first movie's Gozer - the real deal was one of the Kickstarter additional items.

Click to embiggen to see all the things available in the "Mass Hysteria" mega-pledge.

Here we hit a rather big problem which seems to split the fanbase for this game in two.  Basically everything in the Kickstarter that wasn't the core game was Kickstarter exclusive.   If you weren't willing to cough up $125 USD within the timeframe of the original money-earning campaign then there's no toys for you, because the company have promised not to release these items to retail.   The above picture shows most of the items marked "Kickstarter Exclusive" but on closer reading of the campaign you'll find everything - even the movie stuff like Janine, Gozer and Walter Peck - is marked as off-limits to retail.

Now it's quite common for Kickstarters to offer early-bird-only deals and these are not always just cosmetic.  Dreadball, for example, offered some figures for MVPs that were Kickstarter-only - you still can't get the Penny-Arcade themed characters on their webstore.  However, the actual rules were still in the rulebook so theoretically you could proxy it and play with another figure, even if the figure itself was a special collectors treat. Some other Kickstarter stuff, like the exclusive art prints, tended to be more cosmetic or completest elements.  The bulk of the stretch goals were additions to the master game line that everyone benefited from in the long run.

Would this mission have been easier or harder if Janine and Kylie replaced Egon and Peter?  I'll never know.

For Ghostbusters, however, the exclusive content is everything beyond the core game and that includes a whole bunch of mechanical stuff.  Nothing that has been unlocked as a stretch goal changed the core game or is available in a lovely supplementary kit.  Cryptozoic have basically spent a whole bunch of money on game design and tooling then declared that no late-comers can ever receive it.

All the Ghostbusters have unique stats so presumably Janine plays different to the others - I wouldn't know as there's no way to see her rules if you don't get the card that came with her Kickstarter-exclusive figure.  Similarly the powers of Gozer, the ghost librarian, Walter Peck etc will all be on the card included with their rules.  With the exception of the "Impossible Mode" ghosts - basically just red recasts of the figures with slightly harder rules - and a box to store the extra game cards in, every other Kickstarter Exclusive items looks to have unique mechanical aspects as so actually notably changes he game experience in a practical rather than purely visual way.

This seems to be shooting the game in the foot a bit.  I enjoyed Ghostbusters and if there was a retail supplement I'd probably have bought it by now.  That some stuff should be kickstarter exclusive is understandable but EVERYTHING, especially a whole bunch of stuff based on key elements of the film, is a bit weird.  I can play in generic streets and parks with the board game but only Kickstarter backers get to play in the hotel and apartment block that make up the core of the film's best fight scenes.  I get to bust two named ghosts from the movie, but the actual head baddie of the film is hidden away.

Kinda how I felt when I went looking for supplements to this game.
 The fanbase online seems very torn on this, judging by a few messageboard posts I found.  The people who have bought the game at retail and have no way to get the supplemental material are pretty miffed, while some people who bought the kickstarter feel that releasing the goods at retail after promising not to would be highly unprofessional behaviour.  Cryptozoic themselves are pretty clear that they aren't going to go back on their earlier promise, but that future Kickstarters might offer the same supplementary material again.
It seems part of the problem is the Kickstarter had other issues to do with late arrival, poor communication, limited material available during the campaign etc so a bunch of backers are already pissed.  Telling those same people that the "kickstarter exclusives" they imagined would be limited edition and pay for their retirement suddenly become generic annoy some people, while others feel miffed that the manufacturers have left themselves hardly any room to make supplements.  (I mean, what's left from the first film?  It's Ghostbusters 2 or nothing at this stage, and if the first game is anything to go by we'd get a generic shopping mall with Vigo and the art gallery being Kickstarter exclusive.)

It's a shame, because I loved playing the game a couple of nights ago and look forward to playing it again.  But I find myself in the surreal situation of wanting to support an in-print game and being told by the manufacturer that they won't sell me anything.  My only option is to look online, where scalping resellers and US-to-UK postage charges mean my best options are pretty pricey and don't even benefit the manufacture but rather those same people the manufacturer doesn't want to offend.

Ghosts swarm out of a portal, desperate to make Ray and Winston's life miserable

So, long story short?  I love the game, I hate the support material or lack thereof.  Local nerds are encouraged to give me a shout if they fancy trying it out sometime.

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