Before I begin I was sent a prototype copy in exchange for an honest review. This is not a paid preview.
If you would prefer to watch a video preview, check it out below.
I know there are people out there who witness miracles: Jesus on their grilled cheese, major traffic accidents where no one is remotely hurt, a family reunion without a passive aggressive exchange. However, for me, I can only think of one. My game collection is not filled with dungeon crawlers. I love them. So much. They are the best. Yet somehow I have restrained from buying all of them…sort of. I have bought several played them a bit and then sold them as they just weren’t perfect…at least that is what I told myself. The reality is that I just wanted to try a new one and knew that I would be disemboweled if I brought another one into the house without sending one away first.
Mechanically they all have some variety, maybe they don’t use dice (Gloomhaven, though the cards serve the same function), maybe there are no “bad” rolls (Alter Quest), maybe it has adorable heroes (Mice and Mystics, Wander), or maybe they have complex dice pools (Descent). However, as fun as all of these games are, the one thing that they have in common is theme. All of them are some variant on fantasy heroes working together to save the world from evil. That is an awesome theme. A fun theme. A theme that I want to play over and over again. I am currently super excited for my Alter Quest KS pledge, its gonna be great.
However, every now and then something comes a long with a theme that feels fresh. The Ghosts Betwixt is one of these games. It eschews the normal fantasy trope, and world saving trope for something much smaller. In TGB you are a normal family striving to rescue the kidnapped 5th member who has been kidnapped by the small town creepers. Now I am not going to go into all the details because this would be an even longer review, however I will highlight a few things.
TGB utilizes various tiles that are slowly discovered as the family works through the house, as they try to find their missing member, each room will be, somewhat randomly populated, with traps, monsters, treasure, and/or special events. All of these are specific to the mission that you are on.
Each of the characters has their own set of basic stats, and a special ability (these will be able to be leveled up, and switched out as the game goes on). Additionally, like any good crawler you are able to equip your characters. This is interesting because, if you recall up above I said this was just a normal family. This means they are equipped with baseball bats, and maybe a kitchen knife, or some old fireworks, and prior to the mission I got to play you are given “x” seconds to gather what you can. Each of the potential starting items is listed as taking “y” seconds to gather. So you are able to take whatever you like but the idea is that even equipping your characters is a story on its own.
Like other dungeon crawls you make your way through the level clearing rooms, and completing objectives which unlock other objectives. Combat is tactical, as there is a large variety of options you have in combat: special abilities, offensive/defensive stances, moving into position behind enemies to gain bonuses etc. When it comes time to actually fight you gather a dice pool of colored dice, each color is a different strength, based on your character, abilities, stances, position, and weapons. Whomever, or whatever you are attacking does the same with their defensive dice. You roll them all, compare and see how much damage you do, what special abilities can be activated, then rinse and repeat.
So what do I think?
To start with I really like the theme. It is different, it is well realized, everything about the game draws you in to the story. Along with that the artwork is just spot on. I really like the art work a lot. Along with that, I am personally a fan of standees, but that is because I like paying a little less for games, and I am not someone who has the time or talent to paint minis.
I also really enjoy the smaller scale of the game. Now, I only played a single mission so maybe it will all open up, but I get the feeling that the game takes place on a single property; it is not a sprawling epic that traverses a country, or even an entire city. I have to say I like that. To go along with that your “heroes” are ordinary people. I do not mean that in the usual “the farmhand will rise to become a great hero”, no these are actually just normal people out to rescue their family. This shows up in the gameplay, you definitely do not feel like a hero in the first mission, you definitely have to play up the positioning and use your stances or you will miss all the time. You feel like your characters are normal people stuck in an extraordinary situation. That is so cool. (Also, I did ask, and Dustin assured me that you will become slightly more heroic in capability as the game goes on, but you really do start out as just a mother or father or sibling trying to battle evil with a water pistol, carton of milk, and baseball bat.)
I really enjoy how the game lays itself out, as you discover each room you do not know what you will find, heck you do not even know what room will be there, and there may be bad guys there, or there may be useful items or there may be traps etc. It really adds to the verisimilitude of it all. Speaking of the immersion, I like the story, and I like the flavor text on the cards. The story and flavor text actually supports the special abilities each character has. It is well done. There is also a single part of the combat that stands out to me and that is the targeting of the family members. Each foe you draw will randomly have a most hated target they want to kill dead. They will do whatever they can to get to them, but if someone gets in their way, then they will attack them. They are not stupid. This is nothing new, but in many games they will still have their preferred target, in TGB there is the possibility to make a foe switch to a new target, often the one that just smacked them in the back of the head. Again this adds to the immersion of the story and pulls combat a little bit off the rails.
I am going to start with the combat dice mechanics, and this is something that you will see me talk about again later. I think it makes sense, the use of varying colors of dice depending on which character you are, what weapon you have, how you are standing, and where you are standing, all makes sense and is fun. It is fun to gather up a big pool of dice and roll them and then play the mini game of figuring out did you hit?; did they dodge?; even if you didn’t do a lot of damage, did you roll enough specials to still do something filled with badassery? However, at the same time there are a LOT of dice to sort through, there are quite a few symbols to navigate on both the offense and defense dice. Every character has a potential stance, a different weapon, a different base die, and a different strength die. At the same time every bad guy has the same pool of dice. It can be a lot, and if you wind up on a streak of straight up missing it can become frustrating. I am putting this in the middle because this is something that will fall to your preference. A lot of players really like “crunchy” combat, and that is what this is. I mentioned earlier, that it almost feels like its own mini game. However, if you prefer something that is light and simple then you might not be as much of a fan. For me, I enjoy it, but I recognize that it can get a frustrating with a spell of bad luck.
Let’s talk about story. I know I praised it heavily above, and I stand by it. However, I do feel the need to say that there is a lot of it. There is a lot to read and that might become dull to you if you are not as engaged by the story as I am. Something to think about.
My last middle of the road thing to think about is, that this game takes up a lot of space on the table. There are a lot of tokens, a fair amount of cards and standees to keep at hand, a moderate number of tiles and 4 very large player boards. What’s more is that you have to use all four of them at all times. The game does not allow for you to play as only one or two of the family members. This is great for the story, and your chances in combat, but not so hot when it comes to table space.
I only have one major quibble, and this is something that I have been assured is being looked at. The dice color system. I actually had a hard time discerning some of the colors of the dice, and for a long time was handicapping myself something horrible. I was almost live massaging with Dustin on my first game, and we were both shocked at how I simply could not hit the broad side of the barn. This was because instead of light blue dice, I was using turquoise dice. This small error resulted in a swing of hitting 50-60% of the time to only hitting 10-20% of the time. Or for me, acceptable odds that make sense considering the story to OMFG I AM GOING TO FLIP THIS TABLE AND SET EVERYTHING ON FIRE IF I MISS AGAIN. The table flip and flames was only prevented by Dustin asking me if I was using the right color, and letting me send a picture to him. In addition to this, I am not sure if a color blind player could play this game at all.
That said, I do need to reiterate, in its own paragraph even, that I have been told that this is something that is going to be fixed for the relaunch of the game in October.
Bringing it all together
The Ghosts Betwixt does not necessarily do a ton new mechanically, though there are a few things that feel really fresh (stances and how they are implemented come to mind). The way it mixes these mechanics with its unique story, and ability to actually make you feel like you are playing ordinary people make this game a winner. Combat is dice pool based, and is on the more complex side of dice based combat, and the game does require a lot of table space to play. The art is awesome and the game is a fun jaunt back to the 90’s. Definitely worth a look if you are a dungeon crawler fan like me.
The real villain of the story is how long this review is. Chop! Chop!
*Gorgeous art, riveting, and immersive story
*Theme feels unique for a dungeon crawl, and is masterfully realized
*Combat MIGHT be fiddly for some
*Very large table footprint
*Current system of colored dice can be hard to differentiate, and might be unplayable for a colorblind player. Do note that this is something that is being revamped for the relaunch
*Characters feel like normal people in an extraordinary situation, this really creates a sense of accomplishment when you succeed. Whether or not you are, you feel like underdogs
*Characters all feel unique and fleshed out
*If you are a fan of dungeon crawls, then this one will feel fresh to you