We had been called out in the middle of the night. A major disaster had been declared. It was all hands on deck. After a swift site rep, we were dispatched to various locations around the oil platform. As we approached by helicopter, which was going to lower us onto the deck of our assigned rescue boats, we could see the extent of The Spill by Andy Kim from Smirk & Dagger Games.
So you are taking on the role of experts helping stem the spread of crude oil that has started to engulf the sea life above and below the water right from the beginning of the game. You're thrown in right at the deep end straight away. The Spill really doesn't take any prisoners. The disaster is in full flow and it's up to you to work out how to deal with it.
Unlike in other co-operative games, in The Spill, it doesn't matter whether there are four of you playing or you play solo. The game always features four experts, each with their own unique skills. They are evenly distributed between players, except in a three-player game, when the fourth expert is shared. That's a very nice way of making the game feel the same at all player counts, without it becoming samey. The game is really different, based on what experts are in play and there is also a lot of randomness due to the dice.
The impact of the weather dice can be really huge or it can be really benign. There is also randomness in the oil, that's threatening to kill the sea creatures. It is represented by dice and you throw a certain number into a dice tower with four openings, one for each quadrant. The dice are allocated to one of six different columns within the quadrant that they landed in, based on their pip value. So there are 24 possible places where the oil can spread, which wonderfully emulates how crude oil seemingly randomly spreads on open water.
The Spill quickly ramps up in difficulty. The number of dice you roll slowly goes up, imitating how the fracture in the drill pipe is getting worse. So all you can do is try and keep on top of everything, but there are never enough actions to do it all. You can eke out an extra action or two if you desperately need to, but then the next player will suffer and more oil will spill out for them. Sometimes that's necessary to stop a loss, but sometimes it just speeds up the inevitable end.
The thing is, one of the win conditions is that the oil dice, which are limited in number, run out, which emulates the flow of oil going down so much that engineers can fix the leak easily. So just trying to survive long enough until the oil has run out is a valid strategy. Alternatively, you have to complete all of your objectives, which isn't easy.
Losing the game is much easier though. If too many animals get contaminated and die or if the oil spreads too much in too many locations, the game is over and all your efforts have been in vain.
Focus On Your Stuff
You'd think that The Spill would allow alpha players to take over and tell everyone what to do. However, the randomness of the oil and weather dice make it impossible to identify an optimal path to victory. What might seem like the best option at the beginning of a player's turn, can easily transpire to be the biggest mistake when the dice are rolled again. There is literally no point to try and tell others what to do. You're much better off focussing on your expert and suggesting what they can do when it's their turn. If another player can avoid wasting precious action points on something that you can deal with and that's not critical right away is much more useful and a much better way of winning the game.
Also, the physical tower in the middle of the game board makes it impossible to see everything that's happening in the sea of oil dice. So players do need to make each other aware if there is a major problem developing on their side of the table. Again, it's about focussing on your own thing and sharing information. That makes The Spill feel like a really positive co-operative gaming experience.
Spilling The Tea
Now, there is one thing that is a bit ironic about The Spill. It contains plastic components. For a game that tries to illustrate how terrible an oil spill is, using a material made from oil seems wrong. However, I reckon using it for the dice tower was the best compromise. So, yes, I can forgive the use of plastic for this one specific thing in the game. Everything else is either paper, cardboard or wood.
Yet, during the crowdfunding campaign, the publisher offered to upgrade the components to deluxe versions and, in a faux pas that they later apologized for, they wanted the animal tokens to be offered as screen-printed acrylic pieces. The outcry from backers was huge and the plan was changed. Now the upgraded animal tokens are made from wood. As I say, the publisher profusely apologized when they realized the irony of their suggestion.
Overall though, The Spill does look really impressive on the table. I mean, when Kwanchai Moriya is hired to provide artwork, you know you will end up with a stunning game. So, yes, it's a lovely game to play. The component quality adds to that feeling and I recommend you go for the deluxe version with the wooden tokens, if you can.
The Spill is really a fun co-operative game. It creates a game experience that's quite different from the usual disaster-defeating games of the genre. The game length is also just right. You win or lose within the hour. It certainly doesn't outstay its welcome. Gameplay is also pretty straightforward, making the game relatively easy to learn and teach. It looks great, offers enough randomness to make every game feel different and there is even an option to increase the difficulty level.
So, if you want to save turtles, dolphins, sea horses, octopuses, pelicans and rays, then I'd say you should try and stop The Spill yourself.