Ghosts of the Moop
Ghosts of the Moor — or Moorgeister in the original German, which sounds like a bodily function run awry — is a dice game collaboratively designed by Michael Kiesling and Wolfgang Kramer. It isn’t an amazing dice game, nor is it a game I’d easily recommend.
That said, it is significantly better than I expected. As in, a whole lot. And there’s one key reasons why.
Here’s the deal. Everyone has a team of explorer pawns. That’s the rulebook’s name for them, in absence of any desire to upgrade them to “ethnoarchaeologists” or “Indiana Jones knockoffs.” Their silhouette resembles the little Dutch boy who saved Haarlem by putting his finger into the town dyke. Whatever they are, you have a team of them, and a burning desire to escape from one end of the moor to the trucks parked at its exit.
The difficulty with accomplishing this is twofold. First, the moor is packed with mud, which sucks at your belongings like, well, mud sucking at a boot. Second, you hope to escape with enough ancient relics to
pad your retirement put in a museum. Add these things together and you get some sad explorers and a whole lot of priceless relics drowning in mud.
So you roll a die and move one of your explorers that many spaces. If they leave a space with a relic, you add it to your pile. Great! Except they have to be the only explorer on that tile, and Ghosts of the Moor tends to jam you up like you’ve eaten nothing but cheese and unripened bananas for two weeks. Worse, if you leave a mud space, you’re forced to drop one of your relics into the muck. Maybe even two relics if you aren’t holding one that matches that space’s watermark. These two facts leave everyone clustered on relics, hoping to be the last explorer to depart, while avoiding muddy spaces like, well, deep sucking pools of reeking mud.
But the reason it works is because of the decisions provided by that simple roll of a six-sided die.
Much ado has been made about “input randomness” versus “output randomness” in board games. The layperson’s definition is straightforward enough: both are forms of chance, but input randomness provides a range of decisions whereas output randomness settles an outcome. When people complain about luck, they’re often talking about the latter type — say, the rolling of dice or the pulling of a card to decide who wins a battle.
Ghosts of the Moor doesn’t do that. Oh, there are a few exceptions, like at the beginning of the game when all of your pawns are on the starting space or near the conclusion when you only have one explorer left. But most of the time, your roll informs which decisions you can take. The number on your die tells you how far you’ll move, but you’re free to choose which of your explorers will do so.
And this decision is often surprisingly difficult. If you have four explorers spread across various stretches of the moor, a single roll might represent a fairly wide decision space between (1) abandoning a desirable relic but stepping onto a space that might prove valuable later, (2) taking a mundane relic but stepping into mud, (3) escaping the moor entirely and earning some bonus points but also limiting your future range of options because now you have fewer explorers to move with, or (4) moving onto a space occupied by an opponent’s pawn and therefore preventing them from taking a relic on their next turn. Mix in other considerations, like ghosts that drain your points but can be sacrificed to the mud, the probable moves of your opponents, and planks that can be laid over mud but might be stolen by other players, and you have a game that’s deceptively simple while providing a decent range of considerations.
In other words, despite being a roll-and-move game, the antecedent for Ghosts of the Moor is Backgammon, not Monopoly.
There are still a few reasons why it doesn’t achieve the level of elegance that it might have.
For one thing, it’s best played with a fairly low number of players. Every additional player means one fewer pawn for everybody — and therefore a stumpier decision tree for the game’s input randomness to work with. This robs the game of its flexibility and produces optimal player counts where I’d simply rather play something else.
The planks are also so considerable that they leave everything else in the dust. On the one hand, they’re a crucial bit of strategy, a wager that lets you avoid mud but that can be swiped by other players the same as any other relic tile. On the other, this places a tremendous value on acquiring them. If you can nab two, you’re pretty much in for smooth sailing. Even better if you’re the last person with multiple pawns on the table, your rivals reduced to accepting their roll while you bounce between planks and grab any leftover relics. Previously dropped ghosts can mitigate this, but the game sometimes feels less like a race to escape and more like a feet-dragging contest. In both cases, diminishing pawns means a diminished decision space, once again shedding the game’s primary advantage.
It certainly doesn’t help that the game’s small form factor leaves it a bit jumbled. Spaces can only accommodate two pawns at once, tiles are tiny and easily jostled, and the map is so compressed that it’s easy to lose sight of which way the path bends. With such a gloomy and disordered presentation, it’s all to easy to overlook the game’s cleverer aspects.
But Ghosts of the Moor does contain plenty of cleverness, however missable it might seem right at first. This is a dice game that understands how to leverage its dice — well, its one die — in a way that engenders player agency rather than stripping it away.
Most of the time, anyway. It slips into the mud often enough that I wouldn’t recommend it to most players, but it’s a good example of how one of our ancientest play systems, a 5,000-year-old Persian racing game, still has something to say about design.
A complimentary copy was provided.