Full disclosure: A review copy of Ghosts of Christmas was provided by Board Game Tables.
What better time for a Christmas-themed game than whenever I’m publishing this? It probably makes sense to someone, so, we’re doing it. Just let it happen. That said, Christmas is actually one of my favorite holiday seasons, so, I’m pretty pro-Christmas being whenever. I think that’s more out of an enjoyment of snow and jazz and holiday drinks and snacks than any particular religious or capitalism-focused motivations, but, who’s to say? Either way, Board Game Tables dropped three new titles, and I haven’t gotten around to the other two yet, but I was intrigued by a new time-bending trick-taking game (see: my great love of Time Chase), so I figured I’d take this one for a spin.
In Ghosts of Christmas, you’ll enlist the services of Scrooge’s tormentors: the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. However, you’ll be doing more than just showing some old guy why he shouldn’t be a jerk to his employees; you’ll be subtly manipulating time along the way! The past influences the present influences the future, and setting yourself up in an early time period may make for an even merrier Christmas in the others. Your opponents want to do the same thing, so, you’ll need to be clever (am I allowed to say tricky? Who knows.) as well. Will you manage to pull off a Christmas miracle?
Not a ton to tell. You should shuffle the cards, removing the 1 / 2 / 3 of each suit if you’re only playing with three players:
Set the dials upside down:
Then, give each player a player color token:
Give them a set of Ghost Board Pieces for each Era, as well:
You can remove the Beyond Dial and the Beyond Board Piece if you’re not playing with that Variant. If you’re not using the Tiny Tim Variant, set the various door tokens within reach, as well:
No matter what, keep the wreaths handy:
Want to designate the start player? Maybe use this giant top hat that comes with the wooden pieces:
Either way, set the scoreboard nearby:
You should be ready to start!
Truly, my dream in life is to stop rehashing what trick-taking games are, but alas. In Ghosts of Christmas, over the course of several hands, players play cards, trying to win tricks in the Past, Present, and Future eras. That’s going to be complicated, so let’s dive into it.
To start a hand, players will look at their hand and decide how many tricks they think they can win. When they’ve settled on a number, starting with the Start Player, they take a number of purple door tokens equal to the number of tricks they think they can win. If they’re not 100% sure, they can take one red door. If a player takes three purple doors, that means they believe they’ll win three tricks. If they take a red door, as well, that means they believe that they’ll win three or four tricks. There’s a cost for that indecisiveness, but we’ll talk scoring later.
After all players have bid, the first round begins! Each hand has multiple rounds.
Playing a Round
Beginning with the Start Player, each player takes a turn until a card has been played by each player above every slot on their Ghost Board. The first time a card is played to an Era (Past / Present / Future), the dial for that era should be flipped over and set to the same suit as the card that was just played. For the remainder of the round, all cards played to that era must be the same suit, if possible. If a player no longer has any cards of that suit in hand, they may play whatever suit they want. Players may instead play to a different Era, and multiple Eras may have the same first suit (known as the “led suit”). Additionally, players may choose any Era to play cards to; they do not have to start with the Past.
Once every player has played a card to all three Eras, score the round.
Scoring a Round
The round is scored starting with the Past, then the Present, then the Future. Each Era is treated as a separate trick. Start with the current Start Player. The suit of the card they played to the Past is known as the Scoring Suit (which may be different than the led suit for that Era!). When the Scoring Suit is determined, the highest card of the Scoring Suit wins that Era, unless a Heart was played by any player to that Era. If a Heart was played, the highest card of the Hearts suit wins. This is typically known as a trump suit.
The player who played the winning card takes a wreath token, placing it on one of their door tokens (or nearby if all doors are filled). They also become the Start Player, taking the Start Player token. Score the Present and the Future the same way, with the winner of the Future becoming the Start Player for the next round.
At the end of a round where every player no longer has any cards in hand, move on to scoring the hand. If players still have cards, flip the dials face-down, discard all cards currently on ghost board tokens, and start another round.
Scoring a Hand
After all cards have been played, the hand concludes. Now, players look at their door tokens. For each player, if all of their purple doors are covered, that player successfully completes their bid. If all purple and all red doors are covered, that player also successfully completes their bid. If that player has extra wreaths that aren’t on door tokens (each door token can hold one wreath) or they have any purple doors left uncovered, that player failed their bid.
Once you know if players succeeded or failed their bids, you can convert their bid to points:
- Failing a bid: 0 points. At least you don’t lose any.
- Completing a bid with no red door (covered or uncovered): Each wreath is worth 2 points.
- Completing a bid with a red door (covered or uncovered): Each wreath is worth 1 point.
Like I said, that flexibility can cost you. Players return their wreaths and doors to the various supplies, and check to see if the game’s ended.
End of Game
The game ends when three hands (in a three-player game) or four hands (in a four-player game) have been played. The player with the most points wins!
The Beyond Variant isn’t too intense, conceptually. Rather than just playing with the Past, Present, and Future, add in the Beyond Dial and give each player a Beyond piece for their Ghost Board. With this, you can now play to four eras each round, rather than the old, boring three! Have fun with that.
Tiny Tim Variant
If bidding isn’t your scene, try the Tiny Tim Variant instead! No bidding, whatsoever, so you can put the doors away. Keep the wreaths though. Now, whenever a player wins a trick, they take a wreath! At the end of the round, score based on your player count:
- 0 wreaths: 6 points.
- 1 – 6 wreaths: 1 point per wreath.
- 7+ wreaths: 0 points (oops!).
- 0 wreaths: 6 points.
- 1 – 5 wreaths: 1 point per wreath.
- 6+ wreaths: 0 points.
As with the standard game, play a hand for each player, and the player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
Honestly, not many. The game has a pretty tight player count, so, I wouldn’t say there’s a ton of difference between three and four players? You’ll see some slight differences in trick bid distributions, since you’re really only introducing additional low-value cards, but there are more players with cards, so the distribution of high cards will be a bit different. I think, mathematically, the two player states are pretty similar, though, so I wouldn’t say much to comment on. I’ve tried both, enjoyed both, and would happily continue to play this with either three or four players.
- If you’re already in the lead, you can always just tank everyone’s bids by playing erratically. I tend to call this strategy Status Quo At All Costs, because it effectively maintains it, but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. The one thing to watch out for is that winning your bid helps build a wider points gap between you and your opponents, so trying to tank everyone’s bid means that your point gap may stay pretty small. If that’s the case. then your opponent may not require all that many additional points to beat you. That said, if it’s the final round, winning by 1 point and winning by 10 points are both still wins, so do what you need to.
- Even if you might lose the Present or Future eras, taking the Past Era might allow you to win them all. The Scoring suit is set by the Start Player at the beginning of each era. This can (and sometimes will) differ from the Led suit, or the suit that’s on the dial for that specific era. This means that if you want to win more tricks, the Past is your go-to era. Winning the past means your card’s suit becomes the Scoring suit for the Present, and if you win the Present, your card’s suit is the Scoring suit for the Future. If you can chain that together, you can win three tricks in a row!
- Note that just because an era has a led suit, doesn’t mean you need to play to that era. You can use that. One of my favorite ways to win an era is to play my last card of that suit to a different era, freeing me up to play a Heart to that era and win it, after that card color is locked in. This is a great way to try and swing a win in the Past and then try to take the Present. Dump a card of the Past’s led suit into, say, the Future, then play a Heart to the Past. You can make it work decently well, if you have the right cards.
- Be careful: sloppily winning tricks can cause you to win a lot more tricks than you expect. The challenge with bidding is that you need to be somewhat precise. This means that if you’re just always trying to take the Past, you might end up winning tricks you don’t expect, like the Present and the Future. This can throw your bid off pretty wildly, so try to make sure you’re scoping your wins pretty narrowly, so you’re not accidentally extremely surprised.
- Even if you can make your bid, it’s often worth trying to mess with your opponents’ bids. If everyone bids 4, that’s fine and all, but do what you can to make sure that you win four tricks and your opponents win three and five. There’s nothing really stopping you, once you’ve got a plan for how to win your bid, so you might as well try to help your opponents miss their target. Ideally, only you scoring in a round is a great way to put some distance between yourself and your opponent(s).
- I tend to use a red door bid early in the game, anyways, while players are finding their footing, to get a read on every other player’s trick-taking style. There are a lot of different ways to go about trick-taking, so using the first round to play a bit more conservatively and try to get a sense of how your opponents play can help you. Do they tend to go aggressively after their goal and then kind of stop? Do they wait until other players have cleared their goals and then try to clean up at the end? Lots of options, but if you go in guns blazing in round 1, you run the risk of butting heads with another player and their incompatible style, which can really mess you up.
- Be careful with Hearts! The trump suit can hurt you just as easily as help you. If you’re stuck with a lot of Hearts, you really can get stuck taking a bunch of tricks. Make sure you’re factoring that into your planning for your bids, especially if you have the 12 of Hearts. That guarantees you winning at least one trick. Plus, your opponents may be able to leverage that against you, since they can throw off a card that will lose to your Hearts as soon as they have run out of Hearts on their end.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I appreciate that the game comes with both a more complex variant (Beyond) and a less complex variant (Tiny Tim). I like when games have a bit of wiggle room, in terms of complexity. A lot of games will come with either a more complex variant or a less complex variant, but I always appreciate when games come with both! It lets me tweak the gameplay a bit to target my specific gaming group (since the needs of the group(s) change a bit from time to time).
- Love the art style, even if I do wish it were Muppet Christmas Carol-themed instead. I just really like the Muppet Christmas Carol, y’all. It’s rapidly moving up my favorite Christmas movies list? Can’t recommend it enough. Michael Caine is a gift. But in all seriousness, there’s a beauty to this game; I love the unlined artwork, and I think Maria Surducan did an incredible job.
- The game’s primary schtick is pretty interesting, too; I love games that mess with time. Here, I think it opens up a lot of cool strategic avenues, since you really have three distinct tricks that are being taken in a round. The fact that one influences the results of the others is really great, as well, since it plays nicely into the temporal theme of the game. It doesn’t quite relate to the novel, since he really moves from past to present to future (so you playing to different time periods out of order doesn’t quite jive with that), but, it’s strategically interesting enough that we can just … overlook that, a smidge.
- I ended up getting the wooden upgrade set, and the first player giant top hat is genuinely entertaining. I do wish it had a hole in it so I could put it in on my thumb and talk in a faux-Victorian accent, but we can’t always get what we want. Regardless, having a massive top hat in your game is a surefire way to at least get me to amusedly mention it.
- Beyond that, though, the components are pretty nice, as well; having the dials helps keep a lot of gameplay straight. I usually kind of expect some high-quality components from the BoardGameTables folks, but as usual, they always hit the mark pretty well. The dials are nice, the doors are nice, too; even the cardboard wreaths that I ended up not using because I have the wooden ones are pretty nice.
- I also like that there’s some flexibility around bidding; it makes the game less punishing than other bidding trick-taking games I’ve played. It’s a nice way to not be Skull King, even though I love Skull King. Sometimes you’re just trying to teach bidding mechanics to folks, and Skull King punishes players for missing bids. This, sure, you don’t score anything, but you also avoid losing a ton of points, too.
- Pretty portable. It’s about the same size as other small-box BGT games (Sequoia, Mountain Goats, GPS), so that’s nice. It’s not quite Oink-sized, but what is?
- Trick-taking games can be challenging for newer players to learn, and I will say that the distinction between the “led suit” and the “scoring suit” can throw players off a bit, too. I made a mistake one game and kind of flew through the scoring phase, which did not help my co-players learn. That’s my bad. It helps to show a few examples of rounds being played or play one round that doesn’t count, so players learn the feel and ebb and flow of the game. Trick-taking is a tough genre. Bidding adds some complexity. Adding in temporal shenanigans only adds more complexity.
- Fitting everything back in the box is an adventure. It mostly works. I’ve had some trouble, friends have had some trouble. You need to stagger the dials, is the trick, and the massive top hat needs its own section of the box. It’s worth it; essentially a VIP corner.
- The lack of a “0 bid” puts a decent amount of weight on the “quality” of your hand, which can feel a bit frustrating. So, back to Skull King. There’s a tension in the later game where you draw a hand that’s bad, but not “bad enough”. See, you can get a ton of points if you bid 0 and successfully take 0 tricks. If you draw a hand that can definitely win one or two tricks, you can bid 1 or 2, but you won’t get a ton of points. So the tension is, do I take the safe option and get a few points, or do I go for broke and play the best game of my life or die trying? It’s exciting. In Ghosts of Christmas, that latter, near-Icarian option doesn’t really exist. If you bid 0 tricks, well, you will score 0 points, win or lose. This means that some weight is given to hands that are “higher-quality”, in this game meaning they have a higher density of high-value cards or Hearts. That’s a bit of a bummer. It’s also confusing, because the Tiny Tim variant recognizes the challenge of winning 0 tricks (it’s the way to get the most points). I wonder why there was no version of the bidding variant of this game that accommodated a bid of 0.
Overall: 8.25 / 10
Overall, I quite enjoyed Ghosts of Christmas! I … do need more Christmas-themed games, for the holidays, and I’m slowly coming to terms with my dad being a secret trick-taking fiend, so I’m hoping I can talk him into a few more of them come the next holiday. I have high hopes for our professional relationship. He’s not going to play any of these with me, but it’s a nice dream. Either way. The game looks great, plays great, and is exactly what I want: a trick-taking game that adds some needlessly complex additional element that works, but makes the game harder to learn. I love weird trick-taking games, and including the past, present, and future as separate play areas and eras is certainly weird. That said, it’s also strategically interesting, giving players alternate valid places to play cards, since that lets them effectively manipulate their hand during a trick, which is cool. It’s a good way to learn how to dodge around taking tricks you want (or avoiding tricks that you don’t), without being so complex that it overwhelms new folks. I taught my first game of this to relatively inexperienced trick-taking folks, and I certainly didn’t win, so at least someone got it. But Ghosts of Christmas is a fun game to lose, as well, so I’m pleased. Now I just need them to give me a Muppet Christmas Carol edition. One day. If you’re looking for a Christmas-themed game, you love trick-taking, or you just want to mess with time, a bit, I’d recommend checking Ghosts of Christmas out! I had a great time with it.
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