Game at a Glance
A review copy of this game was provided by the publisher; however, my opinions are my own
Ghosts of Christmas is a trick-taking game with a time-travel twist. Rather than settling one trick at a time, cards are played to three eras – Past, Present, and Future – after which the tricks are resolved. Although these cards may be played in any order, they are solved chronologically. The Era Dials help players keep track of the lead suit for each time period; however, the lead suit may change while the tricks are resolved depending on which players end up winning tricks and leading.
Ghosts of Christmas has 48 cards divided into four colored suits that display characters from the classic tale, A Christmas Carol. The deck is shuffled and 12 cards are dealt. Players wager on how many tricks they believe they will win with these 12 cards over the course of four rounds (three cards are played each round). To make their bet, players select the number of doors that correspond to how many tricks they want to take. If they win a trick, they will place a wreath on the door.
The goal in this game is to correctly predict the number of tricks you will win each hand and hang a wreath on every door. If you take too few or too many wreaths (tricks), no points are awarded for that hand. Fortunately, players can choose to hedge their bets in a sense by taking a red door. This adds a bit of wiggle room to the bid, which is nice when players are not feeling confident about how many tricks they think they can take. The downside to taking a red door is that you earn fewer points if you hit your bid.
The game ends when you have played as many hands as there are players, and the player with the highest score wins and has the most Christmas Spirit.
Players must do their best to evaluate their hand’s potential during the bidding phase. It is important to make an educated guess and think about several potential strategies. Common trick-taking strategies, such as eliminating a suit to slough off cards, are still relevant here. But there is more to consider than the basics.
Each round is a multi-faceted tactical experience – it is crucial that players watch which cards their opponents are playing into each era. This is where the strategies begin to deviate from traditional trick-taking games. The player who wins the Past will lead in the Present, and the winner of that Era will lead the future. This causes a unique situation where there are two different leads for each Era – the lead card for the purpose of playing, and the lead card for the purpose of resolving the trick. This results in some mind-bending strategic opportunities that are not often found in this genre.
Figuring out the best strategy for your particular hand is the key to most trick-taking games and Ghosts of Christmas is no exception. In most instances, I have had plenty to work with, but occasionally a player may be dealt a hand with low cards and no trump suits. In this case, it can be a bit difficult to score, as there is no bonus for hitting zero tricks. My strategy in these situations would be to bid very low, perhaps one or two tricks, take zero red doors, and do my very best to hit that bid exactly. A round of two or four points may not feel great at that moment, but catching up with a bold bid later in the game can make up for a bad hand.
Ghosts of Christmas comes with a small rulebook that cuts out the fluff and gets right to teaching the game. It was very easy for me to learn and I appreciated the concise approach. The game itself is not difficult to play, but there is enough complexity to make teaching it to new players a bit difficult. In my experience, it takes a round before the game flow starts to click, and for that reason, I think a practice round is helpful for new players. It is easy to play once everybody grasps the game’s structure.
Although Ghosts of Christmas isn’t extremely heavy, the structure is bizarre enough that this game could be fairly difficult to pick up without an adequate understanding of common strategies and terminology in trick-taking. This is a game that I would only recommend to experienced trick-takers and not to somebody newer to the mechanic.
Ghosts of Christmas seems just as replayable as many of the other classic trick-taking games, if not more so. Playing three cards in a round before resolving the tricks and the changing lead suit both add depth to an otherwise straightforward card game, and that is what will keep me coming back for more.
There are additional modes that can be explored as well for further replayability. The Tiny Tim Variant eliminates bidding allowing for an easier game, and the Beyond Variant adds a fourth Era which in turn offers extra complication.
I appreciate the classic A Christmas Carol theme applied here as it works nicely with the time-travel aspect. For those unfamiliar with the tale, the protagonist is visited by three ghosts from different eras of his life. And in this game, players add characters from the novel to one of the Eras. It’s a card game with a clever theme applied loosely, which works to its advantage because it doesn’t feel like a game that should be relegated to the holidays. I would play it year-round.
The component quality on the cards is ok – they stand up well to shuffling which is my primary concern. The Era Dials are very useful and simple to put together. After several plays, they are holding up well. The first player token (a top hat) and the wreaths are perfectly functional, but for those wanting to get fancy, a component upgrade is available. This adds wooden wreaths and a chunky wooden top hat. My only component complaint would be around the score tracking board – it is small and the trackers can get moved around too easily if nudged.
The minimalistic illustrations on the cards add style without taking away from legibility. I especially appreciate that the suits are easy to see – the entire card is boldly colored per its suit, so it is very easy to glance across the table and see what your opponents are doing.
It is possible to fall behind your competitors in this game rather quickly due to the punishing nature of the scoring. In many of our games it appears there is a runaway leader; however, I have seen some impressive comebacks. As the player in the lead starts to hedge their bets by taking red doors, other players have the opportunity to make bold bids in an attempt to shoot up the points track. Players off to a rough start shouldn’t count themselves out early.
Although there is some luck involved in the hand that is dealt, I would argue that the game is balanced as well as a card game can be. It is the responsibility of the player to figure out who will be leading each Era, and try to manipulate that to their advantage. The cleverest players will be able to set themselves up to win a lot of tricks.
Ghosts of Christmas is a highly interactive game. It is critical to watch your opponents’ eras carefully as you play. If you are not paying close attention to what your opponents are doing, you will lose any chance at controlling the outcome of your bid. In my experience, it is a game that lends itself to in-game chatting as well, which is nice if your group enjoys games that are a little more social and less solemn.
With very little downtime and an investment in your opponents’ actions between turns, this game moves quickly. There are plenty of opportunities to manipulate the trick-taking mechanic to your advantage, but at the same time, your opponents could easily mess up your plans with their own schemes. These types of games lead to engaged players and exciting table moments that make Ghosts of Christmas a lot of fun to play.
Trick-taking is one of my favorite card game mechanics. I cut my teeth on the standard 52-card deck games such as Hearts, Spades, and Oh Hell, and at this point, I prefer any new-to-me games in the genre to offer new “tricks” to keep my interest. This game is able to give me fresh challenges that aren’t present in the classics without losing its identity. Even with its new strategic offerings, Ghosts of Christmas still manages to feel cozy and familiar.
The scoring can be a bit punishing. Red doors do add some flexibility to your bid, but the possibility of earning zero points in a hand – which can equate to either 1/3 or 1/4 of the entire game – might feel overly harsh to some players. I’m very familiar with games that combine trick-taking and bidding so this was not bothersome to me. In fact, I liked the upped stakes and tension this bidding mechanic provides.
Ghosts of Christmas can be played with either three or four players, which feels a little restrictive. I wish the game allowed for a wider range of players, but I don’t usually expect a lot of player flexibility in this genre.
I want to stress that this is not a game for players who are new to trick-taking. Ghosts of Christmas takes standard trick-taking terminology and mechanics and disrupts them just enough to make learning difficult for a person who does not already “speak the language” of the mechanic. As for those familiar with it, it is really easy to pick up after a practice round. The blend of bidding and three-tiered trick-taking makes for a fresh take on some of the classic card games many families are already comfortable with.
I really enjoy the unusual strategic opportunities this game presents, and for that reason, I think Ghosts of Christmas is a worthy addition to any trick-taker fan’s game shelf.