Episode 296: Spirit Island
Release Date: May 16, 2018
Designer: R. Eric Reuss
Publisher: Greater Than Games
1-4 pl | 90 min | ages 13+ | MSRP $80
Spirit Island is a cooperative game where each player becomes a force of Nature, hellbent on forcing European invaders to abandon their colony. Each Spirit has its own set of powers and playstyle that will help stem the invaders' progress.
Fear is your ally but time is short. Can you build enough terror in the hearts of these would-be conquerors to send them home before the island succumbs to Blight? Can you Spirits save the Island, the last place of true magic on Earth?
Written review continues after the break.
At the dawn of the 18th century, European nations are setting sail around the globe, claiming supposedly undiscovered lands as new colonies in order to control more resources, territory, and (most sadly of all) people.
Somewhere in the vast seas, these European Invaders stumble across a mysterious island. On this island, the spirits of Nature itself seems conscious in every form imaginable. Stones speak is hushed whispers. Trees wander, entire forests moving to soak up more sun. Rivers sing in gentle rhythms all their own. Spirit Island, as it comes to be called, is a place that defies modern science. It holds secrets to magic only found in stories.
So, of course, Spirit Island must be conquered. Colonized. Owned. Invaders from Europe spend ten years bringing colonists and explorers to the island, setting up towns and cities through mountains and forests across the land. As they spread, they bring Blight to the land. And the island begins to suffer and die.
That’s when the original residents, the Spirits of the island, say enough is enough. They begin an all out effort to drive the invaders from the island to protect the land.
Spirit Island is a cooperative game where each player becomes a force of Nature, hellbent on forcing the Invaders to abandon their colonies. You might become the Vital Strength of the Earth or wield the power of Lightning’s Swift Strike, or control the Shadows that Flicker like Flame or be the force behind the River That Surges in Sunlight. Each Spirit has its own set of powers and playstyle that will help stem the invaders progress. Fear is your ally but time is short. Can you build enough terror in the hearts of these would-be conquerors to send them home before the island succumbs to Blight? Can you Spirits save the Island, the last place of true magic on Earth?
Spirit Island is a BIG game! There are lots of miniatures, cards and boards included.
The island itself is made up of four modular boards. They can be arranged in many different patterns and they are double sided. One side has stylized art depicting each type of land or terrain. The other side is a thematic map with a lusciously illustrated fantasy map (think Middle Earth).
There’s a board for the Invaders. This will get a lot of attention during the game since your ultimate victory or defeat will be tracked in some aspect by this board. It contains the Fear deck which dictates the current victory conditions, the Invader deck which serves as a game clock and determines which lands are impacted by the invaders. There’s an area for Blight cards, showing the current Blight level. The largest area of the board is for Fear tokens. They will start in the general pool and move to the center of the board once the Spirits begin to generate Fear.
The last kind of boards in the game are the Spirit boards. These represent each Spirit and each player will select one to play. The boards keep track of a Spirit’s presence on the island as well as describing each Spirits special abilities. These boards are sturdy and wonderfully illustrated, as is the whole game. The artwork is colorful, stylized, imaginative and definitely helps enhance and build the world of Spirit Island. To that same end, rather than a generic name, each Spirit has a poetic description: Instead of Fire you can play Shadows Flicker Like Flame. Instead of Water you play River Surges in Sunlight.
There are lots of cards in the game. Each Spirit has several specialized ability cards. There are Major and Minor Power cards. These cards allow Spirits to enhance their capabilities as the game progresses. There are Invader cards, Fear cards, Blight cards and Terror level dividers which track Invader abilities and ways to win and lose.
There are several advanced scenario and adversary reference sheets which add many new ways to customize your experience with the game.
There are also tokens for each player and tokens for Fear and Energy.
Last but certainly not least is an assortment of miniatures depcting the Invaders, their explorers, towns and cities.
There are minis for Blight and the Dahan, tribes of local people who live on Spirit Island.
Each player selects a Spirit and follows the setup instructions included on the back of its board. Build the island and populate it based on icons on each board. Prep the decks and tokens for the Invader board and you’re ready to play.
Spirit Island is an involved and very strategic game without being overly complex or confusing.
What’s the difference, you ask?
In an involved game, each game phase flows nicely and logically into the next. There may be several steps to each part of the game, but the way they are organized make them easy to remember after a turn or (at most) two.
An overly complex game has too many exceptions and might also have a structure that meanders so that it’s easy to forget entire steps or important details that could break or ruin the game.
Think of a game like a big machine. With an involved game, all the parts mesh together and you can see how each part of the engine moves and feeds the next. With an overly complex game, there are parts that dont seem to fit or are obscured by others in such a way that you might even forget they’re there.
Part of the joy that comes from a game like Spirit Island is being able to understand how the engine of the game flows. As a cooperative game especially, the challenge and fun comes from discovering the subtle nuances of each part of the engine. In fact your success and the fate of the island depends on it to a great extent!
So, no question, Spirit Island is involved. This is part of why we love it.
The intent of this section is to you a very good sense of the engine that drives the game without (I hope!) getting bogged down in too much detail.
Let’s start by talking about how to win or lose. In typical cooperative game fashion, there are multiple ways to lose and only one way to win.
You lose if:
- one Spirit (player) loses all presence on the island.
- all the Blight tokens are removed from the Invader board.
- the 12 card Invader deck is exhausted
You win if you meet the current victory conditions listed on the Terror marker in the Fear Deck. The more Fear you generate as Spirits, the easier the victory conditions become. At the start of the game, you can only win if there are no Explorers, Towns, and Cities on the island. That means every invader mini must be gone from the board! As your team of Spirits generates Fear and removes cards from this deck, the conditions become less strict. Now you only need to remove towns and cities (we don't care if there are a few stray explorers). Next you need only remove cities. If you’re able to remove every Fear card from the deck, you win regardless of the number of minis on the board. The idea is: you’ve scared them so much, they’ll pack up and leave.
Now that we have a sense of our goals (stay alive, destroy Blight, act quickly, and generate fear), let’s learn how to play.
I can distill the essence of the game down into a single digestable paragraph.
First Spirits grow and gain cards, energy and place presence tokens. Then they gain energy and play cards with that energy. Cards played will be either FAST or SLOW. FAST cards go next, the group decides the order they trigger. Then Invaders go. They will attack, build or add explorers based on the land type on the Invader card. Then SLOW cards go. again the group triggers the order of the cards. Discard played cards, heal damaged minis and go again. Generate fear to make it easier to win. Avoid getting a Spirit killed, too much Blight or taking too long or you will lose.
There are four main parts to every turn in Spirit Island:
Fast Power Phase
Slow Power Phase
In the Spirit Phase, each player will do three things in this order: grow, gain energy, then pay and play power cards.
When you grow, you look at your Spirit board. Each board has a growth area with three sections. Each section has 2-3 action icons in it. You pick one of these sections and perform all the actions in it. These actions might be to place presence tokens on the board, gain energy, draw a power card or regain all your discarded power cards back into your hand.
Energy is easy; it’s the currency you need to play cards.
Presence tokens are colored counters that are placed in specific land areas on the board. Most card or Spirit abilities are keyed to areas where you have presence or near where you have presence, so the more presence you have on the island, the more options you will have to mess with the Invaders.
The presence tokens you place come from two tracks on your Spirit board. Each track represents a different ability which will grow stronger as more tokens are removed. One track will increase the base amount of energy you gain each turn. The other increases the number of cards you can play each turn.
You start with a few special power cards unique to your spirit but there are two decks of power cards available - minor and major powers. If you choose to draw a card as part of your growth phase, you select one deck, draw four cards and pick one to keep, discarding the others. These powers are many and varied and can line up with other cards or your Spirit’s innate abilities to create some amazing combinations. Cards come in two basic flavors: fast and slow (depicted by a bird or turtle icon). This speed determines which phase their abilities will trigger when played.
It’s worth noting here that another way the game mitigates complexity is by using a constructed deck of power cards for each Spirit the first few times you play. Instead of drawing multiple power cards, you draw a single card from a pre-made deck tailored for great combos that help you get the most out of your Spirit’s abilities.
So, one growth section on your Spirit board might say place 2 presence tokens in two different lands. Another might say draw a card and place one presence token. And the final section might say gain an energy, draw a card and reclaim all your played cards. You pick one of these sections and do all the things listed in any order.
After growth comes energy. Look at your Spirit board and collect energy based on the most recently exposed number on the track. Remember energy is currency for playing cards which is the very next phase.
Every card in your hand has an energy cost. To play the card, you pay the energy listed. Every Spirit also has a limit to the number of cards it can play. Look at the track on your Spirit board to see the most recently exposed number on this track.
As mentioned these cards have so many game effects I couldn't possibly describe them all but they do fall into basic categories - some help defend the land, some help push or pull Invaders, some may aid the Dahan (your human allies), some gain energy, many generate fear or cause damage or destruction.
The biggest disconnect or learning curve in Spirit Island comes during this phase. You will want to discuss at length what cards each of you intends to play and whether they are fast or slow cards. The disconnect is that, though the cards are played now, their effects do not happen until either the fast or slow part of the turn. You’ll also want to double check that you meet any prerequisites listed. The card may only impact a space adjacent to your presence token or only impact a specific type of land. The entire plan for your team’s turn will come together in this stage of the game.
Once all cards are paid for and played out for all to see, we move on to the Fast Power phase of the turn.
As you probably guessed all cards that are labeled FAST go off now. There is no formal turn order, so the group can decide which powers trigger first and second, etc. as long as each card is resolved fully. This is your team’s big chance to change the conditions on the board before the Invaders take their part of the turn. You’ll have information from the Invader board on what areas are threatened, so you can try to mitigate or eliminate problems before they get to cause trouble.
After all Fast cards have been resolved, the Invader phase begins and this is where the game can get ugly.
The phase begins with a Blight card in place on the Invader board with a certain number of Blight tokens on it. If all these tokens are ever placed on the board so the card is empty, the Blight card flips and adds another layer of difficulty to the game.
After Blight comes Fear. This might sound bad but is actually the one silver lining to the Invader phase.
Fear is the currency of the realm in Spirit Island. Each time you destroy a town or city you will generate 1 or 2 fear. Likewise, many cards you play will generate fear. Each time this happens you slide fear tokens from the general pool into the center of the Invader board. When all the fear tokens in the pool are in the center, you add a fear card to the invader board and resolve it during this step. Fear cards help the Spirits AND move you closer to a new victory condition. Every three fear cards you resolve will change the victory conditions for the group.
After Blight and Fear have been dealt with, the Invader phase now begins in earnest with three possible actions: ravage, build and explore. There’s a small track on the invader board for invader cards. There are three slots on this track.
If the leftmost slot is filled, invaders ravage lands of the type depicted on the card. This means they attack and destroy presence tokens, Dahan minis and place Blight tokens if they do enough damage.
If the middle slot has an invader card, then new towns and cities sprout up across the island on the land type depicted. Most places will get towns; some places will get cities. Towns are easier to destroy (2 damage) Cities harder (3 damage), but more minis on the board makes it harder and harder for the Spirits to win.
If the first space on the track has a card, then the invaders add explorers to the board in spaces of the land type with towns or cities or in spaces of the land type adjacent to a town or city. This is how the invaders expand into new areas of the island. Explorers are fragile but they come out in large numbers usually so they can be very difficult to manage.
Once all Invader actions have been resolved the current cards slide over one slot and a new invader card is added to the track. This means you always have a heads up on what lands will be ravaged what lands will build and what lands will explore next turn, so you can prepare.
To sum up, invaders can attack and add blight, add towns and cities, and add explorers to the board. This isn’t an either or situation once the game moves into its third and fourth turns. You’ll be dealing with all three of these actions EVERY TURN! And it’s even possible the same land type might come up together so multiple actions could effect the same land on a turn!
Now don’t give up yet. After the invaders are done, the SLOW POWER phase rounds out the game turn. Every SLOW card now triggers in the order of the group’s choosing. Since you know what’s coming, you can get a head start on the next wave of problems from the Invaders.
Technically there’s a final phase called Time Passes but this is essentially a bookkeeping phase where spent cards are discarded and tokens are removed and minis are healed (any damaged mini heals at the end of a turn - friend or foe!).
And there you have it, a full turn sequence! It’s lather, rinse, and repeat until the Spirits win or lose. There are a maximum of 12 turns in the game since there are 12 cards in the Invader deck. You only have a limited number of turns and actions and cards to play before you turn the tide or things get out of hand.
So as you now know, there are several steps to consider BUT…. let’s return to that opening paragraph. There’s a lot going on in Spirit Island but designer Eric Reuss has done a great job of streamlining the flow of the game.
First Spirits grow and gain cards, energy and place presence tokens. Then they gain energy and play cards with that energy. Cards played will be either FAST or SLOW. FAST cards go next, the group decides the order they trigger. Then Invaders go. They will attack, build or add explorers based on the land type on the card. Then SLOW cards go. Again, the group triggers the order of the cards. Discard played cards, heal damaged minis and go again. Generate fear to make it easier to win. Avoid getting a Spirit killed, too much Blight or taking too long or you will lose!
What Sets This Game Apart
Elements, Timing, Modularity and the Rulebook set Spirit Island apart.
Elements are one critical aspect of the game I have yet to mention. Each card, in addition to its cost and its FAST or SLOW ability has a sidebar with different colored elements listed. Every card (once played at the beginning of the turn) gives a Spirit access to those elements. These elements are needed to use the powers listed on a Spirit’s board. Essentially there’s a recipe listed. If you have the type and quantity of elements listed, then you can trigger this ability during the FAST or SLOW phase depending on the details listed. These abilities grow in their force, the more elements you can pour into them. There are also many minor and major power cards whose abilities can be enhanced if you have the right combination of elements present.
Elements add a really fun and challenging layer to the game. Sometimes you may consider playing a card not for its great ability but because you really need the element listed. And because you are (at least initially) very limited in the number of cards you can play, this adds another fun and strategic way to look at your hand.
Timing, though, is the greatest way Spirit Island stands out to me. This is a giant puzzle of a game on many levels. You can see how the Invaders are going to mess with you from turn to turn. Can you stop them or roll back their gains? By splitting up the card playing phase and then also seprarating the cards into before and after the Invaders go each turn, the heart of the game lies in the many discussions and plans you will go through trying to mesh fast and slow cards together over multiple players and most likely over multiple turns. You'll almost certainly goof up a few times before getting everyone in synch so one card helps feed the next. Once you understand how to use timing to your advantage, it’s very satisfying to see the little engine you build work with great efficiency! If you ignore these timing issues and each try to do your own thing, the Invaders will almost surely settle and rename the island Catan! :)
Modularity is also a great aspect of Spirit Island. The game offers so many ways to customize your experience. It does a great job of easing new players into the flow for starters with the constructed decks. From there, four more Spirits offer more involved abilities and strategies. And any mixture of Spirits can play together. There are adversaries which introduce specific European powers as the Invaders. Each one changes some aspect of the game and setup. And there are scenarios that introduce new goals or loss conditions as well. Any and all of these options can be mixed together to provide a virtually limitless number of gameplay options and level of difficulty.
Last but not least another interesting thing that sets Spirit Island apart is…
There will be some who may take issue with the way the rulebook for Spirit Island is put together, but it certainly sets the game apart. It is atypical, I will grant you that. Instead of stepping through each part of the game turn in order and including every last detail in sequential order, the rulebook has two main sections - one describing the overall sequence of play and one for game concepts. The sequence of play section is much like this review, an overview of the structure and general flow of each part of the turn. The game concepts section, which follows after, gets into the nitty gritty details. There’s no denying it takes a little getting used to, since you may have to flip from the sequence to the concept section back and forth. But I actually understand and applaud the reasoning behind this division.
The first goal of any rulebook is to give the reader a solid sense of the overall structure of the game, the flow of a turn and the order in which things will happen. The decision to divide the rulebook was guided by this goal. The nitty gritty details are without question very important but with an involved game, the risk is you may lose the overall sense of flow for the game if you throw every last detail at the reader as you go. The goal of this rulebook is: get the reader up to speed on the overall flow and then flesh out each section as needed.
I wasn’t openly hostile to this method (as I know some have been) but because it took a different approach to teaching me the game, I had to be willing to approach learning the game differently as well. Now I’m not saying this method is perfect or without its initial frustrations, especially if you’re used to a different method. What I am saying is I really like the fact the Greater Than Games is willing to take risks in trying something different and new in an area that most publishers barely seem to concern themselves with these days. I’d classify the rules as a noble attempt at a new system. You have to be willing to set aside some preconceived expectations to see this, but the rules have an interesting (and in their own way) very clear system and structure. It certainly sets the game apart, I’d argue for good, while others may say for ill. If you’re aware of this fact going in, and approach them with an open mind, I think you’ll be intrigued by learning the game in a new way. I think they may be onto something and I hope they continue to refine this structure and system on future titles.
Spirit Island is HARD. And as a high strategy co-op, it should be! A victory should mean something if you’re going to spend two hours at the table puzzling out a way to win. One of the most pressing challenges for any designer of co-op games is to keep the tension constant. Too easy and, sure, you win. But who cares? Too hard and everyone leaves the table frustrated and never wants to play again. Spirit Island strikes a lovely balance creating tension and pressure on players throughout the game. You only have so many turns to load up on cards and find some ways to work together before the island is teeming with invaders. It’s long enough, you probably will only get a single game in in an evening but the feeling I have after finishing, especially if we lose, is “set it up and let’s go again!”
Last of all, I want to applaud the politics of the game. Spirit Island is perhaps the first post-colonial board game. So many historical games are built around the European colonial powers exerting their dominance across the globe. Even the game that started the tidal wave of modern board gaming is colonial: Settlers of Catan. Understand, there’s nothing inherently evil or wrong with games that explore this aspect of history or civilization. It’s simply a matter of representation and voice. Certain voices, certain people have been conspicuously absent from the game table when we talk about colonies and conquerors.
It’s long overdue for the gaming world to flip this metaphor on its ear and see the world from the viewpoint of the colonized rather than the colonizer. Granted, we are dealing with a mythical island and mystical beings, but the underlying political voice and power given to those being conquered is very real and very noteworthy. Instead of competing to control and dominate others, the game asks us to work together to prevent oppression. Even in this pseudo historical setting, this a positive hopeful message and one that allows us, perhaps, to consider our own very real past in a new light. You dont play games of expansion and economic domination thinking about those you conquer or rob. By flipping the script, Spirit Island gives us a new way to play and think about these same scenarios. It might be a stretch for some to believe, but I think play is a path to empathy. And this wonderful game takes us on at least one step down that path. It’s certainly not the only reason Spirit Island is worthy of our Spiel of Approval Award, but it’s the one I’m most proud to point out.