Base price: $90.
1 – 4 players.
Play time: 1 – 2 hours.
BGG | Board Game Atlas
Buy on Amazon (via What’s Eric Playing?)
Logged plays: 7
It’s finally happening. God, I’ve been wanting to write about Spirit Island for years; I just never had the time or mental headspace to actually write the darn thing up. Part of it was, honestly, I didn’t want to write an entire setup and rules explanation for Spirit Island both from a modularity perspective and from a more frank “it’s been done” perspective. Like, I love the Before You Play folks; go watch their video. I struggle with highly-modular games in my traditional review format; what’s the best way to enumerate over all the possibilities? Do I just pick one primary path? Do I try to do everything? And that’s part of the reason I split off into this mini review format. All the review, none of the setup. We all love it. Either way, I’m super excited to dive into Spirit Island as part of a Eric Played a Bunch of Heavier Games When He Was Visiting His Friend Ashley special event. More to come on that front. But here we go!
In Spirit Island, it’s the same old story. “Settlers” have “discovered” an island (that people already live on, so, A+ work there) and seek to colonize it. However, there’s a new twist that they probably didn’t account for; this island is protected. By you, specifically. Players take on the role of the guardian spirits of the island as they proceed to rebuff the invaders through the power of
friendship incredible violence. Whether it’s casting them into the depths of the ocean, haunting their dreams and waking nightmares, or sometimes just using the power of the earth itself to tear their cities asunder, you’ll have plenty of options at your disposal and the native Dahan to protect as you seek to keep these aggressive colonizers off of your island. They’re a persistent bunch, however, so they probably won’t give up after their first city sinks below the waves (real talk: I would.); you’ll have to keep up the offensive. To do so, you’ll grow as a spirit to gain new powers, increase your presence, and gain energy. You’ll use this energy for Fast and Slow Powers, changing the land and decimating the invaders before and after they explore, invade, and ravage. Finally, time will pass as you enter a new phase of growth, beginning the cycle anew. Are you up to the challenge? Will you be able to protect your island?
Player Count Differences
I mean, Spirit Island is so dynamic that two different two-player games can be completely unique experiences, to say nothing of what happens when you add more players into the mix. See, each player gets a spirit with a very distinct power and specialization, so what abilities they have greatly impacts gameplay. To handle that, the board increases with size as player count changes (especially at higher player counts, where the board can even have variable shapes). More invaders, more to do, more powers that can be used. The game, consequently, will be longer, since there are more players trying to coordinate actions. You might have a bad time if you’re playing with four new players, as a result, since there are so many possible spots for oversights to happen. I actually like Spirit Island a lot at two, but I’ve played it at three and four and loved it there, still. The sheer combo potential of four different spirits acting in concert is incredible, when it works, and it’s definitely not something you want to miss out on. It’s just a complex game that only gets more complex with more people; the extra brains are there to figure out some of that complexity. No major preference, though if I’m looking for a shorter version, I’ll definitely play with fewer players.
- Spirit Island is fairly complex, but there are still some things that are almost always bad. Don’t do those. Try to avoid spreading too much blight unless you can remove it. Try to avoid destroying your spirit’s presence on the board. Don’t let invaders destroy Dahan settlements. These are all pretty much “no matter what you’re doing, don’t do this” things.
- Even if you’re not using Power Progression Cards, you should still try to get a Major Power eventually. But not too quickly! Getting a Major Power too early means you may not have the energy / card plays to actually make good use of it, so it just ends up being a junk card in your hand. Getting it too late might mean that you’re no longer alive. There’s a sweet spot where you can actually use the power that makes it more effective, so try to identify that and then make good use of it.
- You can do a few useful things to stop invaders. One particular thing you can do beyond using your spirits’ abilities is just getting rid of Towns and Cities. Invaders always Explore the lands near the coast, but they need to have a Town or City in an adjacent land to explore non-coastal lands. So if you stop a few of those, you might actually be able to prevent an invader spawning. Keep in mind that you’re unlikely to completely stop invaders, though. Some spirits’ powers and Fear Cards force the invaders to skip steps of their phase, so look for those, as well.
- Come up with a shorthand to communicate with other players, so that you don’t have to explain your entire strategy to them. There’s a lot going on. Try to identify which areas are going to be problems and see who can deal with them. Maybe someone can attack with a Fast Power or defend with a Fast Power or move invaders or attack with a slow power so that they don’t attack next turn. Explaining the full extent of everyone’s strategies will take forever, so figure out a way to be clear but succinct.
- Your Innate Abilities are pretty handy; if you’re not sure which Powers to pick up next go after the ones that will give you Elements to fuel your abilities. They’re pretty much always-on cards that you don’t need to play, so you can (and should) try to use them each round. These also give you a nice guide for what cards to pick up next! Ideally, your cards that you get should try to use the same set of elements (or at least the same major element) as the ones on your innate power, so that as you play more cards you can activate more of your Innate Ability. It’s a useful shorthand for which cards to pick.
- Generating Fear can be a pretty good way to keep the invaders at Bay while you’re doing other things. Plus, it makes it easier to win (by raising the Terror Level). As you raise the Terror Level, the threshold for winning lowers. At first, you need to eliminate all invaders. Level II makes it just Towns and Cities, and Level III makes it just Cities. That would be good on its own, but Fear Cards also give you a progressively better bonus depending on your Terror Level that can sometimes help turn a bad round into an okay round. Fear is usually worth going after, but if you have a player that’s going all-in on fear, make sure you have some offensive and defensive players to back them up as well.
- Look for combo potential between your abilities and powers! You’re in this together, after all. There are many, many different combos available to you between spirits, abilities, and powers. Too many for me to enumerate in this entire review. Part of the game is figuring out how to find them and then how to make them work for you. Look on the back of your Spirit Board to see what you focus on, and see if that overlaps with another player or contrasts with them; both options may give you ideas for what to do next. If you can get combos working between players, you can take out huge swaths of invaders in a single turn, sometimes.
- Also remember when different things fire. Fast Powers, Slow Powers, different Invader Actions; they’re all things you have to manage. Fast Powers happen before Invader Actions happen before Slow Powers, and knowing that is critical. This should influence what cards you play, when you reclaim cards, and what cards you’re thinking about picking up. Usually (especially at lower player counts) it’s good for everyone to have a Fast Power so they’re always doing something, but with more players you might be able to get more coverage, depending on what’s going on.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I think that one of my favorite things about Spirit Island is the call-out in the rulebook that if you make a mistake, just move forward and try not to make that mistake again. It’s a very cool vibe for a complex game to take on, and while I can’t in good conscience call this game particularly approachable, given its complexity, I find it much more approachable than other games of similar weights given behavior like this. You’re going to make mistakes! Just do what you can to fix them and then keep going.
- Thematically, I think this game is amazing. It’s a really cool anti-colonialism theme being presented as a particularly difficult and complex game. I love how rich the game’s lore is, as well, since each spirit is given extra backstory and context that ties into the other spirits in the game. It’s a world that I’d like to know more about, if possible, so I’m always glad to see more expansions.
- The art for the spirits and the cards is impeccable. They’re very evocative! I really like how creepy or scary some of the spirits look compared to some of the more elemental ones. The art does a really nice job of conveying the very real forces of nature that these spirits represent. Some are more friendly to the Dahan, and others even the Dahan avoid if they can. They all really hate the invaders, though, so some common ground there.
- The components too! They’re great. The little invader tokens are very nice in a conquistador kind of way, which is interesting. Pretty much everything else is great too! I particularly like that the city tokens are set up so that you can track how much damage has been done to a city in one turn, before it heals up. Hopefully you do three, but just in case, I suppose.
- There’s a lot in the box and a lot of configurability of play; you really can tweak just about everything to your liking. There are so many ways to add extra difficulty or make the game easier that you can really just find a particular configuration that works. The “easier” spirits aren’t actually easier; they’re just lower-complexity, so determining their strategies can be accomplished a bit more quickly, in my opinion. But yes, you can change your spirits, you can change the effect of blight, you can add an adversary; lots of things, and they all add different configurations to the game itself. Lots of ways to customize your experience!
- I find it fascinating that Spirit Island’s solution to quarterbacking is just “provide players with so much information that no one single person can track or manage everything happening”. It’s a very smart way to deal with quarterbacking among players; just make the game impossible to quarterback. At four players, there’s just too much going on for any player to determine all of it in a reasonable timeframe. At two, it’s still a lot, but you can at least discuss with your partner. My general rule of “don’t tell anyone what to do on their turn” works here, but more often than not, I’m asking my partners what they plan to do, not what they can do.
- The variety of spirits is incredible; each plays extremely differently but without requiring you to learn an entirely different game (my usual complaint about asymmetric abilities). The asymmetry is more of how they engage with the rules of the game and world as written, rather than how they engage with the game mechanically. That’s not always true (some of the expansion spirits can be pretty distinctive), but it’s a lot of variety. I think Spirit Island does an excellent job of helping players find their preferred playstyle and then giving them a spirit that resonates with that. Everyone’s going to have some favorites and some Powers that work well for their strategy. This is especially true with the expansion content adding ways to change up the Innate Powers for the spirits from this game, but I’ll talk a little more about that in a future review.
- The game also keeps expanding, which I love; there seems to be no end to it. I’m always here for more Spirit Island content. As of writing, we’re still waiting on Nature Incarnate, but it’s not too far off. That said, I still honestly need to dig more into Branch & Claw and Jagged Earth. There’s a lot of ground to cover with these games.
- The internal organization of the game is pretty good, as well. There are multiple trays that can be removed to hold various tokens and minis, which makes it pretty easy to play the game by just pulling out the various trays and such. There are third-party inserts, as well, but I think the core game’s inserts work perfectly well.
- Initially, blight didn’t scale proportionally with player count; that’s since been fixed. I honestly thought Burgle Bros. worked the same way for the longest time, but now it’s essentially just “add one blight to the Healthy Island card / Blight space at the start of the game”, so that effectively you always have two “usable” blight per player. I found this fascinating, but I also respect that Reuss is probably constantly thinking about Spirit Island, so this change (and many others) have been done after watching a ton of players play a ton of Spirit Island over many years.
- I mean, I wouldn’t recommend playing Spirit Island with young players anyways (though there are plenty that are great at it), but even then, if you’re thinking about it, take a look at some of the imagery on the cards to make sure there’s nothing that’s gonna upset them. The subject matter is, of course, a bit intense, but the card images specifically can be even more so. That said, y’all know your families best, so just keep that in mind.
- I love this game, but I find its complexity can be daunting. I obviously played Spirit Island wrong the first couple times I played it, and even now I haven’t dug into everything that the core game has to offer; there’s just so much! It’s a weighty game both cognitively and physically, and part of the reason this review took so long to do is that I felt like I’d never really have “earned” a writeup of one of my favorite games without giving it a number of attempts. That’s a bit silly, I’ve since realized, but that doesn’t undersell just how complex I think that this game is. That said, I think it’s brilliantly made, and I think you can get away with a lot more complexity in a cooperative game, since players are sharing the cognitive load. It’s definitely a lot to learn, but I think it’s worth it if you’re looking to step up the complexity of what you play.
Overall: 9.5 / 10
Overall, Spirit Island is one of my favorite games, period. I love just about everything about it. Sure, I find its complexity overwhelming at times, and I’m hard-pressed to play more than one game in a row, but the mental effort of playing it is happily given to one of the most engaging games that I think has been designed. It’s not quite as thematically “fun” as Millennium Blades (since that’s a very silly game at its core), so Millennium Blades still takes my top spot, but Spirit Island is in good company near the top. I think Reuss is brilliant, and he’s crafted a game that is compelling both from its gameplay and from its mythology. I’d love to know more about the spirits! This isn’t just because they have fantastic art (though it’s worth mentioning that they do), but they also represent forces of nature in ways that are equally fascinating and terrifying. It’s a compelling narrative, and I think Spirit Island does a fantastic job of placing players in the seat of all that power. It’s a slow start and the game can be quite stressful if you get behind the power curve, but as you learn the ins and outs of how to chain together powers and combos, it’s hard not to feel uniquely powerful yourself. Plus, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for the colonizers, so, you know, all’s well that ends well. It’s no surprise that this is a near-universally-loved game (I think it’s #10 on BGG, as of writing), and there have been a wealth of expansions (with even more on the way!). I know I’m all-in and always excited to see more Spirit Island, so it’s been a joy to be able to revisit this and tell y’all more about it. There’s a satisfying depth to the strategy, a joy in figuring out how to organize order out of the chaos of invaders and ravagers and blight and the mess that the island becomes. You won’t always survive the onslaught, but you’ll get a bit better every time that you try. Spirit Island is one of a notable class of games that lets you, the player, feel smart as you figure out the game’s myriad systems, but in such a way that you can’t help but admire the skill of Reuss’s design. It’s far and away a modern classic, and one with long-term staying power. Just an overall brilliant game. It even manages to avoid the common pitfall of one player taking the reins of the entire game by just making each individual player’s role so complex that one person cannot hope to manage it all. I admire so much of what Spirit Island does, and it will always have a place in my collection. Honestly, writing about it just makes me want to play again. If you’re looking for a genuinely fantastic cooperative game, you’re not daunted by a complex and engaging experience, and / or you just want to cast invaders off of your island, I cannot recommend Spirit Island enough. It’s one of my all-time favorites.
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