Reviews

Ghostbusters: The Board Game Review – Who Ya Gonna Call?

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Developer: Cryptozoic
Publisher: Cryptozoic
RRP: £69.99

This game was provided free of charge for review by Esdevium Games.

(Single-Player is a new series designed to review tabletop games that can be played solo, as well as with friends. While I do talk about playing the games with friends, these reviews will primarily focus on the single-player experience.)

The Ghostbusters were an integral part of my childhood, and of my adulthood, too. Sitting about 3ft from me right now is the Ghostbusters blu-ray, a movie that has been watched frequently. So when I head a Ghostbusters board game was being  Kickstarted made I was naturally excited, especially when it cleared its funding with ease. Tempering that excitement, though, is the fact that its made by Cryptozoic, a team that has a less than sterling reputation. So, how have they fared with one of the most beloved licenses imaginable?

The answer is that they’ve fared okay, their creation aiming for a relatively straightforward set of mechanics so that fans of the film who perhaps don’t dabble frequently in tabletop games can sit down and enjoy it. A single scenario can be played in around 20-30 minutes, so it’s a quick, light, easy game that can be used to perhaps act as a warm-up for something more complex. Sadly, though, it’s also kind of forgettable and the Ghostbusters license doesn’t feel like it was properly utilised.

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Setting up the game is a pretty straightforward task; you grab your scenario card and then follow the simple guide on the back which presents the layout. The game board is actually made up of ten different tiles that are placed and orientated based on the scenario card’s map. Each tile can be flipped over as well, hence them all being marked with a letter and number for quick and easy identification. These tiles naturally alter the game itself because Ghostbusters can’t pass through things like fences, and such obstacles can also block their line of sight, too, while ghosts are free to merrily float through walls because they just don’t care about our pesky human limitations. Sadly from a visual standpoint the tiles just look kind of boring, packing all the character of a slightly damp marshmallow. That’s annoying, because otherwise the randomized board makes a lot of sense. Once you’ve got the tiles down you place a series of gates on the board which act as spawn points for the enemy, and then you distribute starting ghosts around the board. Once you’ve done that you add ghosts to the spirit world tile at the side of the board, look out the character sheets, grab some proton markers and ensure all dice are to hand.

Rather than series of individually levels Ghostbusters: The Board Game opts for a campaign that’s split up into three chapters, with each chapter having four scenarios. A boss fight awaits you at the final scenario in each chapter, culminating in a showdown with the legendary Stay Puft Marshmallow Man himself, represented by a sizable playing piece that looms over the board. Through these campaign the Ghostbusters level up and earn new abilities. Spengler learns from his mistakes by earning an XP point whenever he rolls a measly one during combat, while Stanz earns his stripes by helping de-slime his comrades. Venkman gets XP when he’s slimed by a ghost, and Zeddemore works by depositing adversaries in the Ecto-1. All four members of the team earn XP from busting ghosts and closing gates, too. As you level up the ‘Busters new skills will become available, like increased line of sight or being able to roll two dice during combat and picking one of them to actually use. This adds a nice sense of progression to the game, and if that isn’t your thing then there’s always three standalone boss battles to try out, or you can build your own custom scenarios.

There’s a small balancing problem with the XP, though, as I found a couple of my team earning XP at a pretty incredible rate, and that was before I’d even realised that they also earn XP for capturing ghosts. By the time I’d moved on to the second chapter, two of my team already had their level 4 abilities unlocked.

As the Ghostbusters you’ll mostly be ambling around the board while busting ghosts and closing down gates to the Spirit World If either of those terms means nothing to you, then you seriously need to go and watch the movie.  Each Ghostbuster can perform two actions per turn; move (two spaces), attack, remove slime from a fellow Ghostbuster, drive the ecto-1 car six spaces, and deposit any trapped ghosts. Any of these actions may be taken more than once, so you could potentially move four squares in a single turn or attack twice. On top of that one free manuever can be taken, manuevers being clambering inside of Ecto-1 and handing trapped ghosts off to another character. These free manuever can be used at any time during your turn, and you can perform a second maneuver at the cost of an action.

To “bust” a ghost is actually a straightforward mechanic; first you ensure that you a line of sight to the ghost, which means it has to be within three spaces of the Ghostbuster’s playing piece, and then you roll a six-sided die to see if the attack is successful or not. The ghost’s personal character card will indicate what number is needed to beat in order to successfully hit a ghost with your Proton Pack, so a Galloping Ghoul needs at least a three while something more powerful might take four, or even five or six. A simple level 1 ghost just needs a single proton stream to be captured, so provided the number rolled is high enough to hit the ghost is successfully trapped and added to that Ghostbuster’s card. Higher level ghosts, however, require more than one stream, so that means either attacking multiple times with the same Ghostbuster or getting a few Ghostbusters involved in the fight. The catch is that to successfully trap a ghost a Ghostbuster must remain within three spaces of the target or else the proton stream/s that he’s firing will be broken, so you need to try to contain a powerful ghost by positioning characters until it can be trapped.

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Moving out of range of a ghost and losing the stream is where the ghost’s special rules come into play, because  provided you don’t actually target the ghosts they’ll mostly just sit there and do absolutely nothing, which is a little bit odd because in the movies they’d simply wreak havoc on just about everything. There are some exceptions, as some scenarios and special rules let ghosts move at other times. Rather than including some sort of ghostly movement phase every round enemy beings will only begin to become a real problem when you fire at them as their cards contain special rules for successful hits, misses and even being trapped. A level 1 Galloping Ghoul, for example, will move two random spaces if shot at and missed, which is where the PKE meter makes its presence felt; you roll an eight sided dice and then consult the cardboard PKE meter which shows which direction the ghost travels. A Boogaloo Manifestation moves just one space toward a Ghostbuster that hits it, but moves two if they miss and then moves a further square based on the PKE meter, making it a more aggressive opponent. This makes enemy movement hard to predict, and so keeping proton streams locked becomes a weird little dance that can be both enjoyabe, and irritating if it goes on for too long.

Ghosts can’t actually kill Ghostbusters or even truly harm them, though, so there’s no threat of dying on the job. But should a ghost pass through the same square as one of the team (they can’t occupy the same space, instead a ghost carries on in the direction it was moving until it comes to an empty square, therefore multiple Ghostbusters can be passed through in one movement) then that Ghostbuster gets slimed, covering him in lovely sticky gunk. For each gruesome sliming a slime token is placed on the corresponding Ghostbuster’s character card, and for each token that ‘Buster loses one of his two actions, thus getting hit twice actually renders them unable to do anything except for cleaning himself of a single token at the cost of both actions. Of course a Ghostbuster can also help get rid of the slime on one of his team mates at the cost of a single action, making it the more preferable cleaning option of the two. Ultimately cleaning slime off of jumpsuits is probably the most common thing you end up doing in Ghostbusters, which can be frustrating. Against tougher foes being slimed numerous times in a single round is not uncommon, and having to cope with it can become a real chore.

But what exactly should be done with trapped ghosts? Venture back to Ecto-1 and you can deposit these horrible being back to the Spirit Realm, a seperate tile at the side of the board. Except, the Spirit World is also where the Ghosts are spawned for whenever the game’s rules calls for one to be brought forth, so why exactly would you want to even bother trapping and depositing ghosts if you’re merely feeding the cycle? The answer is that in every one of the game’s scenarios the Ghostbusters lose if a ghost has to be summoned from the Spirit Realm and none are left, so in essence they’re a constant countdown to defeat, a resource that must be collected and deposited in order to provide enough time to complete the real objective. Essentially this forces you to eventually interact with the ghosts, especially in later scenarios when the amount of enemies within the Spirit World is pretty low at the start.

It’s an interesting idea, but both this and the fact that the ghosts tend to remain entirely motionless until attacked does have the unfortunate side-effect of making them feel less like a threat and more like an inconvenience that can be ignored until required. Their randomized movement also feels a bit odd. I get the idea, certainly, and Cryptozoic have tried to imitate the movie by having Galloping Ghouls run away and other more aggressive types head straight for when, but when you combine this strange movement with the other things I mentioned it creates a set of mechanics that feel…off, and very susceptible to the whims of fate. Combat and enemy movement both feature hefty amounts of luck that the player can’t mitigate very much; there’s no bonuses to accuracy for flanking ghosts or even working together as a team, and a run of bad luck can leave you feeling frustrated as you chase a troublesome foe around the board like an idiot.

What about the Ecto-1? Aside from serving as a place to deposit captured ghosts this vehicle can be driven around the board, and considering it can move six squares with all four members of the team inside it’s the best way to get around quickly, plus it’s generally a good idea to keep it close at hand for tossing spirits back into their realm.

At the end of each round the Event die is rolled which has symbols matching the five different gate tokens inscribed upon its six sides. Depending on whether the gate you roll is closed or open different things occur based on the scenario card’s instructions, so you might find three ghosts suddenly entering the fray or even slime being hurled at you, as if battling the spectral denizens of the spirit realm wasn’t gross enough already. There’s also the Chaos symbol that sends all nearby ghosts into a frenzy, forcing any adversary within line of sight of Ghostbuster to move as if they had been shot at and missed. This is one of the few times ghosts will move outside of a Ghostbuster actively engaging them in combat. Some special rules cause ghosts to move toward the Ghostbusters at the end of a turn as well, plus some scenario feature special movement rules.

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It’s the scenario cards that help spice up the somewhat mediocre gameplay, bringing in some twists and goals that make the game feel a little more interesting. As an example an early scenario demands that you close two open gates by depositing Boogaloos in them, class 3 ghosts that not only require three streams to capture but that also spew slime if missed. The catch is that with just one Boogaloo present on the board you need to summon a second one by sacrficing ghosts that have a class equal to four or greater at an open gate. Adding tension to the senario is that there’s just eight ghosts residing in the Spirit World, meaning you don’t have heaps of spare time, and the map is layed out so that you have to head up the middle and then decide which of the two gates to aim for first. The campaigns first boss battle is against Slimer who is attempting to move to four different slime pits around the board, moving one square after each Ghostbuster’s turn and becoming harder to trap with each pit he successfully arrives at, with the fourth pit signalling defeat. Before you can tackle Slimer directly, however, you must first close all four gates, except each gate requires two proton streams and not only slimes every Ghostbuster that misses, but also spits out a ghost, too, which is something of an issue when the Spirit World contains a measly three ghosts to begin with. Other scenarios have ghosts trying to swarm the Ecto-1 or escape from the board, plus there’s some neat new rules that get introduced, like ghosts spawning on Ghostbusters instead of gates or having to swap places with enemies. Not all the scenarios are very interesting, but for the most part they’re solid.

Sadly this Slimer scenario also demonstrates some of the game’s problems. In this instance once you’ve closed the four gates the only way to lose the game is by letting Slimer make it to the final slime pit. By hitting Slimer you can coax him towards a Ghostbuster by two spaces, and a miss sends him off in a random direction, so with a bit of patience you can lure him away from his goal. When I attempted this scenario he’d already made it to three pits by the time I’d closed all the gates, meaning seven proton streams were required to catch him. What this resulted in was an agonizingly long cycle of slowly dragging him back across the board, before inevitably losing a couple of proton streams due to pure bad luck and spending a lot of time simply cleaning slime off of Ghosterbusters, and then repeating the whole process again. It took ages. Other boss battles also suffer from the fact that the big baddies just aren’t a real threat. In the final confrontation with the massive Stay Puft Marshmallow Man defeat comes when a ghosts with a total class of 7 venture off the edge of map, or if the Spirit World runs out of ghosts to deploy. If you roll a closed gate on the event die one ghost from the Spirit World is removed entirely from the game, obviously creating a tricky situation, but this is combated by the fact that when you successfully close the final gate ALL ghosts on the board are added straight to the Spirit World, meaning you have a finite amount of time to battle the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, which should be awesome!. But Stay Puft himself can’t do anything more than shove Ghostbusters backward and slime them, so play devolves into players mindlessly rolling attacks before Stay Puft can reach his goal at the top of the board. It’s just tedious, which is exactly what a fight with Stay Puft should not be!

How the Ghostbusters license has been integrated into the experience is obviously important, and here we encounter something of a mixed bag, because in many regards it feels like Cryptozoic struggled to incorporate a lot of elements from the movie. Traps, for example, aren’t something that need to be considered, nor do you have to hunt down ghosts and gates using the PKE meter, rather its function is handling random movement. Things like ghostly possession, telekinesis and transportation also don’t get translated over into the board game, with the exception of teleportation which gets used once. Even the act of trying to battle ghosts with the Proton Packs feels like a wasted opportunity because you feel like you could be doing anything else, such as firing a gun or attacking with a sword. And seriously, Cryptozoic, how do you make a Ghostbusters game with no rule about crossing the streams? I’m not a fan of the Proton Stream tokens, either. They have holes in the centre so you can kind of hang them off of ghosts, but not all ghosts allow for this. The other option is to put the stream tokens under the foe, but that means trying to move a minituare and a bunch of tokens around. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is the worst because tokens can’t really be hung off of him, his base is massive compared to the tokens and he needs a lot of streams to be captured.

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Now that we’ve covered the general mechanics we can move on to the packaging and such. The character miniatures fair considerably better than the tiles, the highlight of course being the sizable Puft Man that looms pleasingly over all the other pieces and is begging me to give him a touch of paint to bring him in line with his movie counterpart. All the pieces look great from a distance, although up close the detail is rather soft and undefined. You can’t make out the Ghostbusters face’s very well, for example, which is a shame for people wanting to break out the paint and spend some loving hours getting them to look exactly like the movie. With some skilled brushwork they should still look great, but the shiny, smooth plastic that they are made from could prove to be somewhat problematic.

In total there’s 47 miniatures to play with, and all of the cardboard components are made of reasonable card stock. Inside the rulebook there’s a few pages of story that setup the basic narrative of the game, although the scenario cards drop the ball somewhat here which is a real shame. The rulebook also contains artwork done by Dan Schoening, the artist of IDW’s Ghostbusters comic book series, and it looks utterly glorious. The flavour of the art doesn’t manage to translate as well as I’d hoped to the actual game, though. The miniatures are based on the artwork, but again that lack of defininition makes it hard to see.

The game does actually work rather well as a solo experience, since you simply take control of all four Ghostbusters and don’t have to worry about forming a plan with three other potentially argumentative people, although naturally this means that being defeated falls squarely on your shoulders. Not that much tactical thinking is really needed. This isn’t a game that rewards careful planning outside of choosing whether to split the team up or focus on one objective at a time.  Playing with other folk does increase the enjoyment factor quite a bit, mostly because despite my love of the theme I struggled to really get into the gameplay. It’s good, but nothing about Ghostbusters: The Board Game amazes me. There’s no mechanic that makes me say, “well, damn, that’s clever.” or anything of the sort. I enjoy playing it, but it’s not great. It’s hard to put my finger on it; the game doesn’t do anything truly bad, but then it doesn’t do anything truly amazing, either.

In short I’m a little unhappy to report that Cryptozoic have produced a solid but entirely unremarkable board game that features some very familiar mechanics. For these reasons it doesn’t earn itself the coveted recommendation sticker (yes, its coveted. Mostly by me) because its reserved for products that are either entirely exceptional or that have one or more superb elements that make it worth experiencing just for those, and this game has neither of those. Does that mean it isn’t worth buying? Well, no. Hardcore Ghostbusters fans should hopefully enjoy it, and it’s light, quick nature make it a reasonable choice for those nights when you don’t fancy anything heavy or perhaps have some friends round that don’t dabble in board games often.

 

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