Spirit Island Review

GeekInsight     
 
5.0
853   0
Spirit Island game set up

The island strikes back.

Spirit Island features, as many games do, new settlers coming to a foreign land and setting up towns and cities. But unlike the vast majority of blithely colonial titles where this takes place, the players are not those settlers. Instead, you represent the native Dahan inhabitants and the animistic spirits of the island trying to throw off the invaders. And these spirits don't exactly like having these colonial exploiters trampling through their pristine wilderness. Using their natural power, the players' goal is to shove the invaders off the island through force and fear. And wind and rain. And fires, floods, killer bees, earthquakes, and anything else that will send them packing.P

Spirit Island hits all the right notes for a cooperative title and steers clear of many of the genre's pitfalls. Narratively, players are in a constant struggle from the very beginning as the invaders threaten to (and can) easily overwhelm them. Yet the game provides a slow ramp-up in power to deal with the escalating threat until the certainty of victory peeks through only at the final moments. But victory can seem also very elusive. What I'm saying is that the game is hard. Like, really hard - at least on your first few plays.

Each player takes on the role of one of the eight included spirits. All of them are different, but they are so much more than just a random player power and a portrait. Spirits operate through their cards and each spirit starts with a unique set of four that focuses on particular elemental or conceptual aspects. Some might be more defensive, protecting the land from the Invaders' blight. Others might be more destructive and straight up destroy their towns. Still others might sow fear and terror encouraging the Invaders to leave altogether or to avoid areas of the island.

But the engine runs on so much more than a simple set of cards. Each spirit also gets one "growth" action each turn - essentially a decision that balances card draws, card reclamation, power tokens, and perhaps other unique abilities. You get to choose one and that will dictate the pace for the rest of your turn. And most spirits have their own growth actions - meaning you'll have very different choices from your fellows. And, as the power of spirits increase, those power levels are represented differently. Some spirits are slow to acquire cards, but have immense raw power - so they can play the big cards. Others have an opposite approach. And all of this must be considered when choosing initial spirits as well as working out how to help each other most effectively.

Getting into the gameplay itself, the whole experience is satisfying. Each player chooses cards from their hand and plays them - up to a limit set by their current growth. Often, they have other abilities that can trigger depending on the color combinations of their cards. Once played, the cards are discarded until a growth action is used to pick them up again. So players are constantly trying to find the right combinations and play them at the right time. Once used, they'll be unavailable for at least a short while so planning for the turnaround is a key strategic concern.

And the timing of cardplay matters tremendously. Powers come in fast and slow varieties. Fast powers happen before the Invaders act and slow powers after. Which means that if you have a slow power, you have to think about where the Invaders will be after they expand or build. It's that future board state you're constantly playing against- proactive strategies are continually at odds with situational decisions, creating a tremendous amount of tension.

With cooperative games, there is always the potential for the "alpha gamer" problem. An experienced player who can basically run the game for everyone else and dictate their actions. But that issue is drastically diminished with Spirit Island. Each player has their own hand of totally unique spirit cards. And you gain more throughout the game. It's just not possible for one player to keep track of it all. And certainly not with sufficient familiarity that they can also match colors effectively and trigger secondary powers. This also forces every player to really get into the game and contribute to the discussion of how to proceed. There is very little specific advice anyone can give you. You have to figure it out and play your own turn.

Which isn't to say that the game is isolated. It's not. Just that the conversation is more about goals and who can achieve them, rather than about specific actions that particular players should take. And that coordination is essential. Spirit Island, on even its basic setting, is fairly difficult. It may take a few plays to figure out a winning formula. And from there, the game has numerous ways to make it harder. It comes with three unique adversaries that provide special rules for the invaders and can be played on 10 different levels. Plus four different scenarios that layer new concerns on top of the game. And you can mix and match them. This allows for a ton of customization and for the game's difficulty to grow with you.

The awesome gameplay carries the day, but its strong theme of is just delightful and refreshing. It turns the normal Eurocentric imperialist/expansionist notion of many titles on its head. Now you get to be the ones trying to stymie that conquest and development. Nevertheless, the game isn't preachy. It doesn't describe the spirits and Dahan as noble and true while the Invaders are evil outsiders looking to spoil natural beauty. Not at all. Instead, it's presented in a very neutral way. The Invaders want the land. The spirits don't want them there. Simple as that. So it's easy to enjoy the experience no matter your socio-political views. With that said, there are options for the invaders to represent specific European nations, but still there isn't necessarily a strict or specific judgment levied against them.

If there is a negative, it's that it is hard to play solo. Many gamers gravitate toward cooperative titles, in part, because they tend to work well in a group of one. Spirit Island, though, isn't the most accessible. The same complexity that eliminates the "alpha gamer" also makes it hard for one player to track everything in a solo game.

With that minor quibble aside, Spirit Island is an amazing title. You feel constantly challenged, you get unique experiences, you have customizable difficulty, and the refreshing pleasure of playing in a fairly unique thematic space. The hobby needs more games like Spirit Island and fewer clones of previously successful zombie shooters and dungeon crawlers.

Spirit Island Review There Will Be Games

Shop Amazon - When you make a purchase using these links a small % goes to the support of this site

For more information, reviews and articles on Spirit Island click here

Editor rating

(Updated: June 08, 2018)
GeekInsight
Rating 
 
5.0

Summary

Game Name
Spirit Island

Drew GeekinsightFollow Geekinsight

Game Reviewer

All through high school and college, Drew Geekinsight (an alias) was a big time role-player and M:tG competitor (mostly local tournaments where he performed at a decidedly mediocre tier). As college turned to grad school and time dwindled, his ability to come up with a compelling story each week for RPGs waned. On weeks when he couldn't get something together, his gang started breaking out Settlers of Catan. It took over from there until it was all board games every week. His first love is euro games (Agricola, Power Grid, and Notre Dame), but he enjoys select adventure games like Eldritch Horror as well. His favorites tend to be are games combine euro mechanics with high theme - which puts him squarely in the camp of Vlaada Chvatil fanhood.

Log in to comment
Posted: 08 Jun 2018 08:10 by Pat II #274973
Pat II's Avatar
Now this sounds interesting and hopefully, as you state, it isn't too heavy on the kill the imerialist/whitey aspect.
Posted: 08 Jun 2018 09:17 by MattDP #274976
MattDP's Avatar
Five stars? Wow! I'd heard it was good, but hadn't expected that.

I've stayed away from this because of the allegedy complexity. A game where the actual description starts "complex and thematic" sets my alarm bells ringing. How hard is it to learn?
Posted: 08 Jun 2018 09:20 by Gary Sax #274977
Gary Sax's Avatar
Been waiting for months for this game to come back in stock since there was buzz in our forums. Great review!
Posted: 08 Jun 2018 09:35 by Michael Barnes #274979
Michael Barnes's Avatar
This is absolutely a five star game. It’s innovative, unique, and the gameplay is tremendously compelling. It is complex, but the payoff is a game with strong themes and a Dudes on a Map concept unlike any other.

The anti-colonial thing is handled with a light touch- it’s not “anti Europe”, even though you can choose to play the invaders as European countries. It’s still very high level, only the most delicate victimized white supremacist would take offense. There is subtlety, like how the invader pieces are all plastic, the island’s pieces are all wood.

I especially love that the things you do in this game you can’t do in any other game. Like using natural, elemental powers to scare would-be settlers away or to force them out of your lands.

Great, great game. Best board game of of 2017, hands down.
Posted: 08 Jun 2018 10:12 by charlest #274988
charlest's Avatar
Michael Barnes wrote:
This is absolutely a five star game. It’s innovative, unique, and the gameplay is tremendously compelling. It is complex, but the payoff is a game with strong themes and a Dudes on a Map concept unlike any other.

The anti-colonial thing is handled with a light touch- it’s not “anti Europe”, even though you can choose to play the invaders as European countries. It’s still very high level, only the most delicate victimized white supremacist would take offense. There is subtlety, like how the invader pieces are all plastic, the island’s pieces are all wood.

I especially love that the things you do in this game you can’t do in any other game. Like using natural, elemental powers to scare would-be settlers away or to force them out of your lands.

Great, great game. Best board game of of 2017, hands down.

Hands down better than Gloomhaven, Shadespire, TI4, Sidereal Confluence and Dungeon Degenerates?
Posted: 08 Jun 2018 10:16 by Michael Barnes #274989
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Didn’t Gloomhaven come out at the end of 2016?

I would say yes to the rest though.
Posted: 08 Jun 2018 11:21 by Legomancer #275002
Legomancer's Avatar
The anti-colonial thing is very present, and good fucking for it. I love that the bits belonging to the natives and spirits are cardboard and wood, and the invaders are all plastic. It's about damn time, and it's very well executed.

I was wary of it at first because it seemed hard as balls and impenetrable, but my first game was with 4p and a not great teach. Since then I've played it 2- and 3- players and it got a lot more manageable.
Posted: 08 Jun 2018 12:06 by charlest #275006
charlest's Avatar
Michael Barnes wrote:
Didn’t Gloomhaven come out at the end of 2016?

I would say yes to the rest though.

It was delivered to backers at end of 2016, but hit retail in early 2017.
Posted: 08 Jun 2018 16:21 by GeekInsight #275026
GeekInsight's Avatar
This is definitely a five star game. It's hard to say more than what's already there, but it's such a refreshing take on a well-traveled theme.

As for the complexity, it's nothing that should pose much trouble to any hobbyist. If your previous experience is limited to Clue and Risk, then this is definitely up a notch. But if you can play any FFG LCG, you can pick up Spirit Island without issue.
Posted: 08 Jun 2018 20:43 by DarthJoJo #275035
DarthJoJo's Avatar
I’ve heard a lot of good things about this game and a lot of appreciation for the twist in the theme, but the presentation actually rankles me. You’re pushing back against foreign invaders/colonizers. Cool, but you’re not the locals. You’re protective spirits. It feels like a cop out. The locals still lack any agency, to the extent any character in any game can be said to have agency. You’re not acting as them but on their behalf.

Is there something I’ve been missing in the reviews?
Posted: 09 Jun 2018 00:15 by mc #275041
mc's Avatar
I don't have a designer's bone in my body (at least, not the designer's bones that have any carry through) but a few months before I caught wind of this game (they had a print and play version out), I was thinking, if I ever design something, it's going to be along the lines of indigenous people fighting against an NPC colonial power or powers. I had in mind more of a semi-coop thing where you could choose to ally with other players if need be - potentially even ally with the colonial power as well (because in my mind, I was thinking Cortez and Tlaxcala and so on). So yeah, this one came out, and of course I don't have any follow through with my idle ideas. But I would eat up a game with the same kind of theme that gave agency to the locals and put it firmly in a historical setting.
Posted: 09 Jun 2018 09:44 by Gary Sax #275052
Gary Sax's Avatar
I think there's a LOT of space left for this sort of thing, fwiw, mc.
Posted: 09 Jun 2018 18:12 by mc #275053
mc's Avatar
Oh, without doubt. Probably the closest thing are Navajo and Comancheria, I guess? But they're solo affairs, obviously, and also fairly brutal and depressing, from what I understand. I just like the idea of something that understands the complexity of the situation, from the indigenous perspective - something that acknowledges the non-homogeneity of those peoples as well, and doesn't just put the idea out of a very straight "noble savages vs evil coloniser" type scenario (although more of these would be fine by me to balance out the multitude of benign colonisation games!).

I think it's beyond me, to be honest, time wise, and gaming chops wise also.... fun to think about though, and my brain does turn back to the idea every so often.


This thread reminds me that I do still have those pnp files for Spirit Island and that I should give it a go.
Posted: 10 Jun 2018 14:53 by stoic #275063
stoic's Avatar
There’s rumors that the upcoming expansion to Spirit Island will be called “Cargo Cult” and you’ll parachute drop parcels of Western Civilization to the indigenous natives for extra end game points.
Posted: 10 Jun 2018 21:47 by GeekInsight #275074
GeekInsight's Avatar
DarthJoJo wrote:
I’ve heard a lot of good things about this game and a lot of appreciation for the twist in the theme, but the presentation actually rankles me. You’re pushing back against foreign invaders/colonizers. Cool, but you’re not the locals. You’re protective spirits. It feels like a cop out. The locals still lack any agency, to the extent any character in any game can be said to have agency. You’re not acting as them but on their behalf.

Is there something I’ve been missing in the reviews?

The only thing I'd disagree with is that last point, "You're not acting as them, but on their behalf." You're not really acting on their behalf. The Spirits themselves want to get rid of the invaders. The native peoples have learned to live in harmony with the Spirits, so the Spirits don't see their expulsion as necessary. These newcomers, though. That's a different story.

So, you could criticize the game by saying it still doesn't give the native peoples a central role or delve into their perspective. But I don't think Spirit Island makes any pretense of doing so.
Posted: 10 Jun 2018 22:58 by Frohike #275075
Frohike's Avatar
The locals do fight back. Each Dahan village causes 2 damage to invaders, enough to destroy a town & increment the fear pool. The villages are also active elements of several power cards and at least one of the gods that I can think of.
Posted: 11 Jun 2018 13:51 by stormseeker75 #275117
stormseeker75's Avatar
Someone buy my copy.
Posted: 11 Jun 2018 14:05 by barrowdown #275120
barrowdown's Avatar
stormseeker75 wrote:
Someone buy my copy.

I'm interested. How much are you wanting for it?
Posted: 11 Jun 2018 14:34 by MattDP #275126
MattDP's Avatar
stormseeker75 wrote:
Someone buy my copy.

After this sea of praise, I'm more curious about why you don't like it?
Posted: 11 Jun 2018 17:03 by Frohike #275143
Frohike's Avatar
MattDP wrote:
stormseeker75 wrote:
Someone buy my copy.

After this sea of praise, I'm more curious about why you don't like it?

I'm still crunching on it and I have a guess.

It's a brain burn. Working out synergies and card combinations is one thing, but knowing the precise advance of invaders and deterioration/blight propagation three turns in advance adds a layer of queuing on top of the brain burn.

This can be pleasurable, but the AP factor can be substantial since the game does reward it. I can't imagine playing this with 4 players, and 3 is pushing it. But I'm keeping my copy, FWIW

Edit: Another thing. The dynamics of the game tend to cultivate a feeling of immense doom roughly 2/3 of the way through the process, similar to what I've experienced in something like Zombicide where the constantly scaling flow of threats leads players to believe that a loss is impending. However Zombicide frequently ends dramatically whereas Spirit Island can feel relatively anti-climactic: aside from a desperate power card pull, the win can be sussed out before the final couple of turns are played. I haven't tried scaling the difficulty yet, though, so this may be unique to the basic mode.
Posted: 19 Jun 2018 14:23 by Gary Sax #275764
Gary Sax's Avatar
This game came back into stock
at CSI yesterday, I dithered and asked my wife if she'd get it for my birthday... and now it's out of stock again! Must really be selling.
Posted: 19 Jun 2018 14:27 by WadeMonnig #275765
WadeMonnig's Avatar
Gary Sax wrote:
This game came back into stock
at CSI yesterday, I dithered and asked my wife if she'd get it for my birthday... and now it's out of stock again! Must really be selling.
MM has stock at the moment.
Posted: 19 Jun 2018 15:17 by Shellhead #275769
Shellhead's Avatar
Frohike wrote:
MattDP wrote:
stormseeker75 wrote:
Someone buy my copy.

After this sea of praise, I'm more curious about why you don't like it?

I'm still crunching on it and I have a guess.

It's a brain burn. Working out synergies and card combinations is one thing, but knowing the precise advance of invaders and deterioration/blight propagation three turns in advance adds a layer of queuing on top of the brain burn.

This can be pleasurable, but the AP factor can be substantial since the game does reward it. I can't imagine playing this with 4 players, and 3 is pushing it. But I'm keeping my copy, FWIW

Edit: Another thing. The dynamics of the game tend to cultivate a feeling of immense doom roughly 2/3 of the way through the process, similar to what I've experienced in something like Zombicide where the constantly scaling flow of threats leads players to believe that a loss is impending. However Zombicide frequently ends dramatically whereas Spirit Island can feel relatively anti-climactic: aside from a desperate power card pull, the win can be sussed out before the final couple of turns are played. I haven't tried scaling the difficulty yet, though, so this may be unique to the basic mode.

Co-op that rewards AP sounds like it also invites the alpha dog problem. I'm guessing there is too much information on the table and part of the challenge of the game is solving the optimization puzzle each turn.
Posted: 20 Jun 2018 02:28 by MattDP #275792
MattDP's Avatar
Shellhead wrote:
Co-op that rewards AP sounds like it also invites the alpha dog problem. I'm guessing there is too much information on the table and part of the challenge of the game is solving the optimization puzzle each turn.

In fairness, I think the review says that the puzzle is so detailed that it's really hard for someone to boss it about. I've seen that before as an attempted solution to the alpha player problem and it can kind of work, it really depends how good your team is.
Posted: 24 Jun 2018 14:40 by Grudunza #276099
Grudunza's Avatar
I’ve mostly played this solo, but the few times multiplayer yeah, the complexity of your own spirit does mute the alpha dog possibility a little. Plus, early on, each player is mostly (though not necessarily) confined to their own island, and that’s enough to deal with. Gradually, you’re all spread around more, interacting more with abilities, and the global situation is more dire and more in need of coordination. It’s definitely not immune to quarterbacking, but lower than many co-op games in that respect.