The Ghosts Betwixt is a retro ’90s modern dungeon crawling board game set in America’s haunted heartland. You start off trying to rescue a missing family member from an abandoned theme park and things just keep getting more interesting from there.
This is a meaty, in depth, dungeon crawling board game that isn’t the light romp the Saturday Morning Cartoon like cover would lead you to think.
Disclosure: Thank you to Innocent Traveler Games for sending us a copy of The Ghosts Betwixt to explore. No other compensation was provided.
What is The Ghosts Betwixt all about?
The Ghosts Betwixt is the first game from Dustin Freund and his company Innocent Traveller Games. It was first published in 2021 after a successful Kickstarter. It features artwork by Travis Hanson, and Cole Munro-Chitty.
This is a one to four player campaign based, dungeon crawler with individual games that can take an entire game night to finish (some of our games lasted over five hours).
You can pick up The Ghosts Betwixt directly from Innocent Traveller Games for $60 USD plus shipping. Which, I’ve got to say, isn’t a bad price at all considering all the stuff you get in this box, plus the length of the main campaign and its replayability.
The Ghosts Betwixt is a modern dungeon crawling board game where a kid has gone missing at an abandoned theme park and you play as family members who are trying to rescue him. At least as things start, there are some twists and turns to discover as you play through the campaign. A muti-episode campaign where each chapter features randomly determined elements like room position and content, making each playthrough both unique and repeatable.
The Ghosts Betwixt features a mix of exploration and dice pool based combat plus all of the expected RPG tropes, like your characters gaining levels, learning and improving their skills and talents, and finding new gear. Despite its somewhat Scooby-doo-like look, this is actually a meaty dungeon crawler approaching the complexity levels of heavier adventure games like Gloomhaven.
For a look at all the stuff you get in the box, including a ton of cardboard and custom dice, check out our The Ghosts Betwixt Unboxing Video on YouTube.
You get a lot in the box with this game and I don’t think it’s worth me taking the time to talk about and show off every bit and chit.
Instead, I will just highlight a few things, starting with the three different books needed to play. One book is meant to be an introduction to the game and how to learn, the second is a reference book that you are going to need to use right away and the last is a campaign book that also includes a lot of rules that are unlocked throughout the campaign. Unfortunately, these are not the best written books out there, and they had us searching Board Game Geek for many answers.
The room tiles are nice and thick and double sided, as are the standees. With the standees, I was impressed to see that the art on the back actually shows the back of the characters and monsters, which it ends up isn’t just for looks as facing matters in this game.
You also get a set of custom dice with clear iconography that’s easy to read. I do wish there were more copies of some of the dice though as halfway through the adventure we started having to re-roll dice to complete our dice pools.
The various cards in the game are of good quality and finish and have held up well to lots of shuffling (though please note, make sure you don’t just open everything up and sort by card back, only open what the books tell you to when they tell you to).
One thing you will not find in this game box is any type of insert. Set up for The Ghosts Betwixt can be a pain, with all of the various card stacks, counters, chits, standees and room tiles. What doesn’t help with this is that often you don’t know ahead of time all the components you will need for a given chapter of the game, so part way through playing you will find yourself back in the box digging out more stuff.
I think most game groups are going to want to invest in some form of organization solution. Baggies just don’t cut it here, as I’ve learned from experience. I am currently using a combination of baggies and plano boxes and am still looking for a better solution.
A note on spoilers:
Before we move on, I want to point out that I’m going to be mentioning things going forward that some people may consider spoilers. The thing is, I don’t actually think any of the things I’m going to mention should be surprises, and they are things I wish we knew before diving fully into The Ghosts Betwixt.
The Ghosts Betwixt Overview of Play
The Ghosts Betwixt is a campaign based dungeon crawler that is meant to be played in a linear fashion, at least up to chapter four.
Each of the six main chapters of the campaign is meant to be played once, though they can be replayed if you fail. After chapter four you unlock Scavenger Hunts. These are different in that you are expected to play them multiple times and they can be played in any order and even in between later missions. This can be done to earn additional XP, levels and equipment. A surprise to us was that the scavenger hunts must be completed to move on with the campaign, they are not optional.
Since this is a campaign game everything you earn in one mission carries over into the next. Even if you lose a game you still get to keep the equipment and XP you earned up to that point, though you do lose some money (in the form of Bennert Bucks) and any bonus XP you could have earned.
A really nice bonus with The Ghosts Betwixt, one that sets it apart from many other dungeon crawling games, is that it is completely replayable. Due to the amount of randomly determined things that come up during each chapter, each time you play through an individual mission it will play differently from the last. This not only makes the game stay engaging when you die and have to re-try a mission, it also means the same group of players could play through the campaign multiple times and it would be a unique experience each time. Adding to this is the variety of different character builds available.
Once you’ve decided which mission you are going to play you then have quite a bit of setting up to do. This involves gathering room tiles, monster standees, monster cards and all of the other components required for the mission. A big part of this is building piles of tokens that are used to randomly determine what order the rooms are discovered in and what is in each room. Individual missions may also have additional set up rules for you to follow.
Each chapter starts with four family members on a starting tile with the first objective card for that mission revealed. This objective card will tell you what you need to do to progress the mission. Note you are always playing with four family members regardless of the number of actual players playing the game.
Most missions start in what the game calls the Exploration Phase. In this phase, you move around the map, open doors, search rooms, and well, explore the map. One thing I really like here is that you don’t move square by square. You just move your standees where you want to be and then do a thing, like search the room or open a door. This is a huge improvement over some classic dungeon crawling games.
Searching rooms is done by making a test. Tests are resolved by rolling a number of D6 dice based on one of your family statistics (for seaching that would be their Focus Points total) and looking for sixes, the more sixes you roll the better. What you find is determined by the room type and the mission as listed in the mission book.
Once you decide to actually open a door you enter a new phase. Here you flip over the top room number token from the token stack for the door you are opening and place out the new room, then you flip over three encounter tokens to determine what’s in that room. These tokens can indicate monster groups, traps, vending machines, story points, more doors and a ton of other stuff.
Now here’s an interesting bit, if you don’t draw enough door tokens to cover all of the exit points from that first room, you continue to the next room, again drawing a room number token and three encounter tokens for that room. There is also a system for splitting the tokens if you hit a branching path. This can lead to some really interesting map layouts and really sprawling fights that span multiple rooms.
You continue exploring and opening doors like this until you reveal a room with monsters in it, by drawing one or more monster group tokens. These tokens are numbered with each number representing a different set of baddies as determined by the mission and listed in the mission book. You then spawn the baddies into the room with their token (or the room with the family in it if you also drew an ambush token) and a combat round begins.
Combat in The Ghosts Betwixt switches play to a more traditional turn based system with one family member acting, then one group of baddies, then another family member, and so on. On each family member’s turn, they can do two things, which both must be different. Options include moving, swapping equipment, using an item, taking a defensive or offensive stance, attacking, using a family member’s unique talents or taking a mission specific action.
Enemies move based on a simple AI that uses a very cool targeting system where the baddies pick a target based on drawing a random family member chit from a pile (or bag, which is included with the deluxe edition). Basically, the monsters will get as close as they have to in order to attack and will then do so. Many enemies have a hit and run ability that has them back off after making their attack. There are both ranged and melee attack types, with a simple line-of-sight system for ranged attacks. Facing also matters in combat, as family members can step up their damage die if they attack an enemy directly from behind.
Combat rolls are made using the custom dice with these dice split into attack dice, defence dice and damage dice. A dice pool is made based on the family member’s abilities and equipment or on the monsters stats shown on the monster card. Some monsters will also get randomly generated abilities that will modify this pool. The attacking player or target of a monster attack rolls all of the dice at once. Hit symbols are cancelled by dodge and shield symbols and diamonds trigger special abilities.
You compare the number of non-cancelled hits to the target’s agility and if you have at least that many hits damage will be dealt and diamonds can be spent. Damage is done based on the damage die with the attacker getting to spend diamond symbols to set off special effects like additional damage, elemental damage, pushing enemies etc.
Combat continues, round after round, until all enemies are defeated. Then the family gets rewarded. You pull a number of cards from the Drop Deck based on how many enemy groups you fought and gain xp. Xp is awarded to the entire family as well as bonus points for the family members who dealt the killing blow for each monster.
The drop deck contains all kinds of things, like items and equipment, money in the form of Bennert Bucks, books that teach weapon proficiencies and more.
One reward I want to specifically call out is Monster Trophies, when you get these you record the trophy number on the bottom right of the monster card somewhere. Note you can have multiple copies of the same reward so each time this card comes up be sure to record all of your trophies. This is something that isn’t clearly stated in the rulebook.
After finishing off combat the game swaps back to the Exploration phase and play continues until you complete the objective on the first objective card. Once you do you will flip it over, do what it says and continue on. Most missions have at least four objectives that you have to go to and these are all over the place. As for what they are asking you to do, common objectives include revealing certain tokens when exploring, finishing set combats and opening specific doors, but there’s a lot more.
Once you complete the final objective card you have completed that chapter and get some big rewards. This includes XP based on how much health the entire family has left, other bonus XP and often draws from the rare equipment decks. At this point, players whose XP totals are high enough to level up get to do so.
Each family member has ten levels they can archive while playing through The Ghosts Betwixt, with each level requiring more XP to reach. XP spent to gain a level is lost so it takes a lot of XP to reach those higher levels.
At each level, you will unlock things like Weapon Proficiencies which give you re-rolls and new talents and talent levels, higher maximum HP or Focus Points, and more. Talents are unique abilities that differ for each family member, for example, Joan, the mom, is good at healing, and Maddox, one of the kids, loves firecrackers. At each talent level, you actually get to pick between two different talents so there are multiple ways to customize each character, so even when playing through a second or later time you could go with a totally different build.
Of course, the other way a scenario can end is with a TPK. If all family members get knocked down to zero health the game ends immediately. Everyone gets to keep anything they found in the adventure so far, but they do lose half their Bennert bucks. They also lose any personal XP and bonus XP they gained, only getting to keep the group family XP they had earned up to the point before the final fight.
Now that’s just an overview of play. This is a complex, involved, dungeon crawler here with a lot going on. I didn’t even touch on elemental damage, the four different kinds of traps, rare equipment decks, buying and selling items, the plethora of different status effects in this game, facing rules or detailed movement rules, but I think this gives you a good overview of how the game plays.
Just realize when talking about The Ghosts Betwixt you aren’t looking at a simple family weight game like Heroquest here, you are looking at something more on the level of Star War Imperial Assault or Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion.
Who will dig The Ghosts Betwixt and who should avoid The Ghosts Betwixt?
The biggest problem with The Ghosts Betwixt is mixed expectations. Going back to when I agreed to review this game up until we finished scenario four we were still discovering things about this game we didn’t expect and not in a good surprise kind of way.
The biggest shock to me, and what I think is going to be the most important thing people need to know when considering picking up The Ghosts Betwixt, is that despite the Scooby-doo look, this is not in any way a kids’ game. While the game does say 14+ on the box, the cartoony look and spooky but not scary looking theme makes it seem like it might be a kids’ game. This is not a kids’ game, both in terms of rules complexity and in content.
While I wouldn’t say things get adult, there are situations in this game that are better suited to playing with people who are at least in their teens. When I signed up to review this game I expected to be playing a light Heroquest style spoopy horror romp with my kid. Instead, it turned out to be a Gloomhavenesque campaign game that we play with another adult couple.
The next big shock was just how much of this game the designers choose to hide from you from the start. One of the biggest being that this isn’t just a six game campaign. When I signed up to review this game I thought I would be able to experience the entire thing over six plays, I had no clue that right in the middle of the campaign I was going to unlock more missions.
These are the Scavenger Hunt missions, the ones you can play multiple times. Now I knew they were coming from when I unboxed the game and flipped through the books, but I thought they were going to be optional and they aren’t. With these in the game, it ends up that you have to play a minimum of nine games to finish the story, and that’s if you manage to get through it all without a loss, which isn’t going to be easy.
The thing is, ending up with a longer game than expected really isn’t a bad thing. Nine missions is much better than six when looking at replayability and value for money. It was only really a problem for me as we were expecting to finish the game based on an unrealistic timeline.
Along with these confused expectations, The Ghosts Betwixt designers decided to obfuscate a number of rules and game options so that they could be revealed as surprises later in the campaign and I found this to be a failure on their part. Instead of presenting you with hints of what’s to come, you instead get a bunch of half rules and things in the book that don’t actually make any sense until you get further into the campaign which led to a lot of frustration until we got to those points.
An example of this is the monster trophy rules. I don’t understand why they couldn’t just fully explain the rules for these right from the beginning. If they wanted to hide what they did they just had to say, “Hey if you draw one of these, note this number somewhere and don’t worry about it for now. Note that you can get each number more than once. Monster trophies are a currency you will be able to spend later on.” Instead, all it says is to record the monster trophy on the family journal. Where we made the mistake was in thinking that you could only have each monster trophy once so when we got to the point where we could spend them we didn’t have an accurate good list of what we had earned.
I also wish the rules had been more clear about when you would be able to sell equipment. The basic rules tell you that you can sell an item for one third of the cost of an item, but it should have mentioned you won’t be able to sell anything until you finish a specific mission and it will be very clear when you can. I also wish they had been clear that you cannot sell to a Vending Machine. I know in real life you can’t sell to vending machines but I’ve played many video games where I can, so we weren’t sure at first if you could or could not.
Unfortunately, the rulebook is filled with these kinds of ambiguities and it really doesn’t help that the rules are spread over three books. There are currently forty threads in the rules section of Board Game Geek filled with questions on The Ghosts Betwixt, which I think is a really good indication that this wasn’t just a problem that my personal group encountered.
What The Ghosts Betwixt could really use is an updated 2.0 version of all three books, perhaps even combining the how to play and reference into one. A better index and more cross referencing would have greatly improved the onboarding experience. A better how to play book is also needed, as every section of that book just sent you to the rules reference book anyway. If you are going to make a how to play book put everything you need to know in that book. I should only have to reference the other book if I need clarification or for edge cases that come up during play.
One more negative before I give The Ghosts Betwixt some redemption here. My final complaint, which is again an issue of missed expectations, is the gameplay time.
Our initial plays were long, very long, well over the two hour time limit listed on the box. Now those did include a lot of time flipping between the three books, Google searching and reading Board Game Geek threads. The thing is, now that we’ve got the rules down and everyone knows what they are doing our games are still taking, on average, over four hours.
I don’t mind spending four hours on a single game but that’s a different type of game than what I want for a regular game night. Once you are over four hours playtime for a single game you’ve got more of an event game or lifestyle game on your hands.
This problem seems to stem from the high “wiff” factor in combat. With most of the damage dice having a zero damage side on them, plus the amount of defence dice both monsters and family members have, there are a lot of rounds where the dice get rolled and nothing happens. This can make a single fight take over an hour to finish and it gets worse as the campaign goes on and defences on both sides go up.
So far I’ve listed a lot of negatives when talking about The Ghosts Betwixt, but the thing is, most of what I’ve talked about here is a matter of mismatched expectations. These are things that aren’t really bad things to find in a board game and wouldn’t even be problems if I had known about them ahead of time.
If I knew I was signing up for a heavy dungeon crawler, one that’s going to be an epic game night experience every time we play and that is going to take a minimum of nine games to finish, I wouldn’t have complained about most of this.
In the end, it’s most important to note that we have actually enjoyed our plays of The Ghosts Betwixt. This really is a solid dungeon crawler with a pretty unique theme. The story has been compelling and the system of exploring, opening doors and combat works really well. I enjoyed the very predictable end to scenario three and like the way that changed the game. I dig the new stuff we’ve unlocked, despite wishing it was explained earlier. While I admit the one game that lead to a TPK was frustrating, we were all back at it a couple of weeks later and replaying the same mission actually felt interesting and different due to the excellent exploration system.
This is a dungeon crawler that does some things very right. The AI in this game is much simpler to understand and implement than other similar dungeon crawlers. I love the targeting system and the way monster attack cards make each individual monster unique. Unlike other dungeon crawling games, we’ve never found ourselves arguing over the way a monster would move or what it would do. I even grew to love the facing system and the reward you get for hitting a creature from behind.
That said the combat system is highly random and can be quite frustrating. It features one thing I hate in any adventure game: the hit that turns into a miss.
I don’t like games where I roll a success only for that to turn into a failure due to the results of other dice. This happens often in The Ghosts Betwixt. Now I’m not talking about my hits getting cancelled by shields or dodges. I don’t mind that part of the system. It’s when I manage to hit but then roll a zero on my damage die. I could have perfect to hit roll, I could roll five hits with the enemy not getting a single defence icon, and it means nothing if that damage die has a zero on it.
We’ve been very tempted to house rule that your minimum damage is 1 on a hit, or that you can spend additional successes for damage so that those lucky rolls still mean something, but RAW (Rules as Written), those rolls are just another wiff and they aren’t fun.
Overall The Ghosts Betwixt has been a bit of a roller coaster for us, but a lot of that had to do with the fact that we didn’t know what we were getting into. The problem though is that some of those missed expectations are the game’s fault. Both the marketing for the game and the way they hold back on certain rules so they can be surprises later can lead you to think you are getting into one type of experience when really you are diving into another. The real key with this game, for anyone thinking of picking it up, is knowing what you are in for.
With The Ghosts Betwixt you are signing up for a long campaign game, a game that’s going to take at least nine sessions and most likely more, and be well aware that those sessions will probably be more than double the playtime of two hours listed on the box.
This is a meaty, involved dungeon crawler but also a good one. A game that has quite the learning curve, that is worth fighting through to get to the end. It includes a lot of character customization and also features an unprecedented amount of replayability, as far as dungeon crawlers go. Of all the dungeon crawlers I have played this is the one I’m most likely to be willing to play through a second time, either playing a different family member or possibility playing through it again with a different group.
Remember that the Rules forum on Board Game Geek is your friend and be aware of some of the rule ambiguities I’ve mentioned above so that you don’t run into the same problems we did.
If you dig meaty campaign games that will challenge your group and take a long time to finish you will want to check out the Ghosts Betwixt, just realise what you are signing up for from the start.
If you are looking for a light, fun, dungeon crawler, something more along the lines of Heroquest than Jaws of the Lion, stay away. This is not the game for you or your group. The Ghosts Betwixt is not a light game. It has quite the learning curve and is not easy. This is a game for experienced gamers who want a deep tactical dungeon romp.
Finally, if you are looking for a silly cartoony horror themed game, perhaps for a halloween game night, The Ghosts Betwixt sadly is not a good choice, despite what it may look like based on the cover. This is in no way a kids’ game and unless you’ve already unlocked Scavenger Hunts it doesn’t work as a one shot themed game night experience.
The biggest problem with The Ghosts Betwixt is mixed messaging and it not being what I think people are going to expect from the box and other press that’s out there. While we did enjoy the game it wasn’t at all what I thought we were getting into when it arrived.
What’s a game you’ve gotten that ended up being something different from what you thought you were getting? Tell us about it in the comments below!