Pretend for a minute that Ghostbusters was a real operation and that ghosts actually existed. How would the events of the film really play out? As soon as supernatural beings started showing up all over New York, the military would’ve likely stepped in. Scientists would work around the clock studying these apparitions. Neil DeGrasse Tyson would be interviewed on CNN. I mean, we’re talking about ghosts!
But I’d like to think that Spengler, Venkman, Stantz, and the inexplicably disappearing/reappearing Zeddemore would lead the charge regardless, outfitted with makeshift weaponry and the ability to think on the fly. A meticulously planned operation is unnecessary when these guys, from the front lines, know to cross proton streams and destroy the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Why have a tank endlessly fire bullets when four doofy dudes can animate the Statue Of Liberty for a stroll around Manhattan? The Ghostbusters don’t need anyone else—just each other.
Ghostbusters: The Board Game asks us once again to trust this fearsome foursome, and only them, to get the job done. The impromptu chaos of the films is replaced with a calculated endeavor of precise ghostbusting tactics and map study. It deftly accomplishes what none of the films have done: approach busting from an unexpected angle. Every decision must be scrutinized and analyzed, yes. But teamwork and flying by the seat of your pants are central to success.
The ghostbusters in the film are headstrong, but here, they must be vigilant about each move and attack. Precision trumps gumption in each of the game’s four campaigns, which are broken down into at least three scenarios that can be played individually or as one long story. Every scenario has its own objective and way to lose, as well as a map that dictates the layout of the board, ghosts, and ghoul-spouting portals for that particular story. Each ghost, be it a lowly Galloping Ghoul or the mighty Boogaloo Manifestation, gets its own card that tells you what happens when it is killed or trapped, what happens when it’s hit but still “alive,” how powerful it can be if you miss, and a whole bunch of special abilities. So there are plenty of missions to go on, but at around two hours of concentrated play for a full campaign (according to my playtest group, which consisted of fellow board game store employees who literally play board games for a living) the game runs long and attention wanes.
While the stars of the Ghostbusters films remain fairly static—which is part of the appeal, something along the lines of “These doofusses again?”—those in the game are able to level up and gain new abilities. Stantz gets one experience point for removing slime from another ghostbuster—slime being a byproduct of a ghost moving through you that eliminates one of your two available actions per turn. All of Spengler’s abilities relate to the rolling of proton dice, your one weapon against the hellish hordes, befitting his character’s frantic curiosity. Best of all, experience points carry over from one scenario to the next, meaning your chosen crew member will grow and change as the campaign moves ahead.
A lone player can control all four busters and take the game on solo, but it encourages play with a group of four. The fight is collaborative and demands communication. There are so few moves you can make and so many ghosts on the board that being on the same page as your teammates is key. Most enemies are there from the start, while others emerge from the Spirit World when a Ghostbuster fires his stream into an open portal—in an attempt to close the pesky hellmouth—and misses. Everyone must be at the ready, at all times. Your team grows from its victories, and the feeling of building toward a fully equipped squad, as opposed to one or two star players, is constant. If Venkman becomes more powerful, everyone does. The ultimate abilities of each character, unlocked after maxing out their experience points, gives invaluable bonuses to all four busters. It’s four against hundreds, with no room for error.
But while the character leveling allows for more powerful dudes, the ghostbusting is frustratingly random. Dice are rolled to determine whether a particular ghost was hit or missed. At best, it’s rolling a three or higher—a 66-percent chance of success. At worst, it’s four or higher, no different than flipping a coin. Pouring multiple hours into a game is tough to stomach when even the dinkiest enemies don’t get any easier to eliminate. In similar games, like Zombicide, players can loot for stronger weapons that mow down bottom-rung zombies in an instant. Ghostbusters: The Board Game only gets harder. Slimer, for instance, requires four proton streams to trap, and they must be coming from at least two different Ghostbusters. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, however, won’t go away unless 10 streams are attached and all four characters are involved.
Still, just like the film, Ghostbusters: The Board Game pits four unlikely New Yorkers against the most evil beings imaginable, and hopes for the best. There’s no cavalry on the way, just Spengler, Venkman, Stantz, and Zeddemore saving the world. The threat of failure feels far more real, but the game captures the spirit of the film’s paranormal pandemonium. Consider disbelief suspended. Real or not, the busting of ghosts is best left to the experts. It’s in their name.