Ghostbusters: Protect the Barrier busted all of my expectations

Ghostbusters: Protect the Barrier is probably a board game. Then again, it’s hard to say for sure.

It is very difficult to define what is and is not a “board game.” After all, “board game” is just a phrase made up of words. Words don’t have any inherent significance. The same word could have different meanings to different people in different situations. Words are just hollow building blocks, one part of the broad spectrum of ways that we communicate ideas—along with things like context, tone of voice, hand gestures, frowns, winks, smiles, ominous pauses, non-word vocalizations, and emoji.

I have to give a 👍 to the insightful folks at for tipping me off to the questions surrounding the nature of Ghostbusters: Protect the Barrier. On their website, it is not categorized as a “board game” with all of the other so-called “board games” like Battleship, Star Wars: Rebellion, Marvel Avengers Monopoly, and the Ghostbusters game that has the male Ghostbusters in it. Instead, it is listed under a category called “Dressing Up & Costumes > Pretend Play.” Other products in the “Pretend Play” category include tea sets, toy vacuums, toy shopping carts, and play kitchens.

Maybe Amazon has caught on to the elusive, chameleonic nature of language and given up on the fool’s errand of trying to categorize things using words! Every “board game” could arguably be called a “pretend play toy,” right?! Maybe, from now on, they’re just going to lump all of the things we think of as “board games” into the “pretend play” category!

Or, you know… I guess it’s possible some person at Amazon saw a product based on a movie that stars women and just reflexively stuck it in the same category as Easy Bake Ovens because that’s where “girl toys” go. Hopefully that’s not what happened, though.

Because this is a fantastic board game for everyone.

Ghostbusters: Protect the Barrier

Ghostbusters: Protect the Barrier components

Ghostbusters: Protect the Barrier is a game where you play as the Ghostbusters trying to remove paranormal devices from a building before it is overrun by ghosts. Each turn, players roll dice to move around the building, bust ghosts, and pick up devices. Players also have to flip over cards, causing ghosts to appear in the building’s rooms. As more and more ghosts appear, rooms become haunted by larger ghosts who are more difficult to bust. If six rooms become haunted, all of the players lose. On the other hand, if all eight devices are removed, all of the players win.

You might assume that this is a hastily-developed game churned out to capitalize on a movie. In fact, it is an adaptation of a celebrated German board game called Geister, Geister, Schatzsuchmeister (Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters), which won the 2014 Kinderspiel des Jahres prize (Children’s Board Game of the Year). In that game, instead of the Ghostbusters, the players were children searching for jewels in a haunted house. An English-language version of Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters is available, but it costs around $35, while Protect the Barrier is only around $20.

There’s a reason this game won one of the Spiel des Jahres awards: it is just plain fun. I love walking into a room and rolling the die to bust a ghost. I love the tension of trying to rush out of the building with the very last device when five out of six rooms are haunted. In my opinion, this is the best cooperative board game you can get for around $20. It is more fun than, for example, Pandemic or Forbidden Desert. I enjoy those games, but after I play them I always feel like, “I’m done playing that for a while.” After playing Protect the Barrier, I find myself thinking, “Let’s do that again!” This is a cooperative game that I would actually consider playing with my entire family, including people who haven’t played cooperative games before.

Adjustable difficulty

The game’s difficulty can be easily adjusted for more or less of a challenge. Additional cards can be added to the deck, causing doors in the building to close, ghosts to appear faster, or a large “boss” ghost named Rowan to appear. You can also require that the devices be carried out in numerical order.

As if anything in the box isn't exclusive to this game.
As if anything in the box isn’t exclusive to this game.

Ghostbusters: Protect the Barrier actually has more strategic depth than Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters because the original game does not have an equivalent for the “Exclusive Rowan Mini-Figure.” It may look like just a tacked-on marketing gimmick designed to manipulate curious children and birthday-shopping grandparents into pulling this game off of the shelf at Target, but the “Exclusive Rowan Mini-Figure” actually adds a very interesting dimension to the game, creating chain-reaction hauntings as it moves through the building.

Card size

Cards from Protect the Barrier compared to cards from Ticket to Ride, Fluxx, and The Resistance.
Cards from Protect the Barrier compared to cards from Ticket to Ride, Fluxx, and The Resistance.

One review I saw said that the cards in Protect the Barrier were even smaller than the notoriously small cards from Ticket to Ride. Technically, the cards are shorter but a tiny bit wider than Ticket to Ride cards. I did not find the small cards to be an issue. The cards don’t need to be big because you’re not holding them in your hand and they don’t have very much text on them. They are large enough that flipping and shuffling them is easy, and the information on them is written in a legible font.

Ghost pieces

Has anyone stopped to consider whether a building full of cute ghosts is actually a bad thing?
Has anyone stopped to consider whether a building full of cute ghosts is actually a bad thing?

Although the card size is borderline, the rest of the pieces are high quality. The game comes with tons of plastic ghosts. If these little ghosts were in my house, I’m actually not sure who I would call… they look pretty adorable, like if Casper the Friendly Ghost showed up at your door with all of his ghost friends. They look like their version of “haunting” you would be bringing you a pitcher of sweet tea and a plate of cookies and giving you lots of compliments on your interior decorating.

Final thoughts

Maybe ghosts are as scared of us as we are of them.
Maybe ghosts are as scared of us as we are of them.

It’s difficult for me to think about Ghostbusters without any cynicism.

In our society, for better or worse, many stories are also intellectual property. Ghostbusters is a wonderful tale about four lovable folk heroes who bust ghosts. Ghostbusters is also a billion dollar line item on some corporation’s ledger that helps pay for their executives’ private jets and mansions. Those executives don’t know or care about P.K.E. Meters or Egon Spengler’s hairdo. They see devoted fandom as a byproduct of their marketing budget. The new Ghostbusters movie is part of a conspiracy, but it’s not a conspiracy that has anything to do with gender. It’s the same conspiracy that pervades every aspect of life in a consumer culture: it’s a conspiracy to move money from your bank account to a rich corporation’s bank account by any means necessary.

But it’s also difficult for me to think about Ghostbusters without any joy. When I think about what Ghostbusters means to people, I always think about one day in high school.

When you’re a junior or senior in high school, freshmen are practically on a different planet. You’re basically an adult and they’re basically little kids. On one of the days that people wear costumes to school—maybe it was Halloween—there was this freshman girl who wore a Ghostbusters costume with an authentic-looking jumpsuit and proton pack. I still remember that costume all these years later. High school is a time where showing passion about anything opens you up to being mercilessly made fun of. Wearing a costume like that was a small act of courage. When I think about all of the hate surrounding the new Ghostbusters movie, I also think about walking past that little girl in the hallway, and I think about all of the other little girls like her who just love Ghostbusters.

No matter what iterations it goes through, Ghostbusters is always going to be exciting because busting ghosts is inherently exciting. But I think a movie about women busting ghosts is actually even more exciting—not just for little girls, but for adult men like me, too. I can’t think of much that is more appealing than a story about smart, capable, nerdy, underdog, science-loving women in frumpy sweaters who investigate and bust ghosts.

I want to see stories with women like that in the lead roles. I want to see them portrayed as actual heroes and not quavering, diaphanous damsels in distress. I want to see them overcome the odds. I’ve seen plenty of movies with women just shrieking at ghosts. I want to see them bust ghosts and save the city. I want to see them take charge, take things into their own hands, and take care of business. Those are the kind of women that I want in my movies, my board games, and my life.