The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Ghosts!

Designer: Alex Randolph
Publisher: Milton Bradley
Players: 2
Time: 5 minutes
Reviewer: Greg Aleknevicus

I've seen copies of Ghosts! many, many times and never gave it a moment's thought. I assumed it was yet another boring old American game with little or nothing innovative or exciting about it. This was a mistake as Ghosts! has proved to be interesting despite its simplistic appearance.

Each player has eight identical ghosts, four are marked with a blue dot (your "good" ghosts), and the other four with a yellow dot (your "bad" ghosts). These markings are hidden from your opponent so she cannot tell your good ghosts from your bad. The board is a 6x6 grid and you set your pieces up any way you like on the middle four spaces of your two rearmost rows. Play is simple—on your turn, you move one of your ghosts one space forward or backwards, left or right (no diagonal movement). If you move onto an opposing ghost, you capture it (and reveal whether it was a "good" or "bad" ghost). There are several ways to win:

  • Move one of your blue ghosts off an opposing corner of the board.
  • Capture all your opponents' blue ghosts.

If this was it, Ghosts! would be boring and trivial. However, there's a third condition:

  • Your opponent captures all your yellow ghosts.

That is, if your opponent captures all your yellow ghosts, YOU win! This rather unique condition is what makes the game. If your opponent has already captured three of your yellow ghosts, then he's in trouble—any further capture runs the risk of losing the game. This also creates a lot of fun: bluffing your opponent into thinking a certain piece is a good or bad ghost.

Play is (or should be) very quick, and revolves around moving your ghosts towards your opponent's corners. Since the board is so small, pieces are very constricted and furious exchanges occur. Depending on how these fall out, the game then switches its focus to the other two possible victory conditions. If you've captured three blue ghosts, then you can work towards finding that last one. If you've lost three yellow ghosts, you can try to bluff your opponent into capturing your remaining one. Ideally, you'll want to make moves that bring you closer to any of the three victory possibilities and such moves are possible. Still, the board-play is very simplistic so it's best not to praise this aspect too highly. It really is the bluffing element that makes Ghosts! so much fun. It would be pointless to play against a computer, you need the inscrutability of a human opponent.

Why is this so? Well, the game is very light and while there is skill involved, there's also a massive element of luck. Quite often, the game will come down to a 50/50 random chance situation. Your opponent has only one yellow ghost left and has moved a ghost onto your corner of the board. Do you capture it or not? If you do, and it's his final yellow ghost, you'll lose. But if you don't, and it's a blue ghost, then you'll lose when your opponent moves off the board. If there's any "strategy" in the game, it's in deducing your opponent's playing style—how well can you read your enemy?

Ghosts! playing piece Generally speaking, players will be bold with their yellow ghosts. After all, if they lose them, then they're closer to victory. A little more caution is required with their blue ghosts as they look to either preserve them, or sneak them off the corners of the board. Knowing this, you can try to figure out which pieces are which simply by how they're being moved. Naturally, this leads into levels of bluffing and double-bluffing. For example, by being aggressive with your blue ghosts, you might fool your opponent into thinking they're yellow. However, this can lead to a Rock-Paper-Scissors situation, where it becomes irrelevant what you do. Are you thinking one step ahead of your opponent, or two? Fortunately, there's an easy way to address this and that's by playing a series of games. An individual game is very quick, often less than 5 minutes. (If you're taking much longer than this, I'd suggest that you're over-thinking it.) As such, it's very easy to play a match of 5, 7, or 9 games and this allows more skillful play to affect the outcome. It also has a secondary effect and that's that you start to detect patterns in your opponent's play which you can then turn to your advantage.

The components are nice: an attractive board with 16 large plastic ghosts. Ghosts! has been released in many different versions, one of the more recent is a German edition called Geister by Drei Magier Spiele. The Milton Bradley version claims that the ghosts are glow-in-the-dark, but mine did not seem to possess this supernatural ability.

I'm very pleased with this recent discovery and I've been playing it a lot. When played quickly (and over a series of games), Ghosts! is highly recommended.

- Greg Aleknevicus

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