A magnificent board game experience, but not for the faint-hearted
Greater Than Games
I’m going to level with you, this has become one of my favourite games of all time, so this is going to a be a positively glowing review. The theme, the mechanics, the artwork, the components, the replayability all combine to give one of the strongest games we’ve ever played, so let me talk you through it.
In most games about islands and exploring, players would be colonists seeking to expand as much as possible, exploit the natural resources of the island and fight off any opposition (think Catan), but in Spirit Island, players are the island, or rather the spirits embedded there. You must combine as a team to throw back the invaders before they blight the island beyond repair, growing your spirits’ influence and protecting the native Dahan. It’s a really neat theme, original and striking.
You aren’t fighting as the Dahan, and the invading explorers don’t necessarily mean much harm, but through their expansion they are over-using the island’s resources (sound familiar?) and they must be scared off before it’s too late.
How the game works
Each player takes on the role of a different spirit on the island, each spirit works in a unique way with different strengths and weaknesses. Get to grips with and make the most of these to help your team as much as possible. If you’re quick and good at scaring the invaders, make sure you do that as much as possible. If you’re slow but good at defending, make sure you get to the areas where your defence will be most useful.
The game takes place over a series of rounds that all follow the same pattern. First, your spirits grow. This means they gain energy, increase their presence on the island, gain new powers (cards) and use these powers to perform actions. Make the most of this phase as it will set you up for the entire round, pick the wrong cards to play and you could end up in a whole heap of trouble. At first you won’t gain much energy or be able to play many cards at once, but every time you add presence to the board you also improve one of these two things.
Each card you play is either a “Fast” or a “Slow” action. Straight after the growth phase players perform their Fast actions, which vary in what they can do, but your main aims are to destroy towns and cities to generate fear among the invaders and prevent them for expanding later in the round.
After the Fast Action phase it’s the invaders’ turn to expand. If you’ve caused enough fear in the invaders during the previous phase, you get to reap the reward on the Fear card you earned at this point. The further you get into the game, the better the Fear cards are for you and the more Fear cards you get through the easier it is to win (more on that later)! From then on it’s all bad news…
There are four land types; water, mountain, jungle and sand. Each round all the territories of one land type will be ravaged (the invaders blight the land they occupy and destroy the Dahan’s settlements), one will be built upon (invaders build new towns and cities) and one will be explored (invaders move to new areas in order to build later). If a land type is explored one round, it will be built upon in the next round and ravaged in the one after that. This should help you plan ahead to minimise the affect of the ravaging, because blight is very bad and you want to avoid it wherever possible!
Having too much blight on the island is one of the main ways you can lose the game. But break the chain of invader expansion and you can buy yourself some time. They explore, build and ravage in that order so if you can keep the exploring in check then you can focus on other things for a bit, but later on in the game there’s more than one land type on each card, so things can quickly get out of hand…
After the invaders have had their fun, then it’s time for your Slow action phase- hopefully it’s not too late for these to be useful and it can set you up for the next round.
So how do you win? Well, that actually changes throughout the game depending on how many Fear cards you’ve managed to draw. Between 0 and 2 Fear cards and you must eradicate all invaders from the island in order to win (surely almost impossible?), between 3 and 5 Fear cards and you win if you destroy of all the towns and cities and between 6 and 8 Fear cards you just need to destroy all the cities (this is mainly how we’ve won). If you get through all 9 Fear cards you automatically win the game no matter how many invaders are still present! So as the game goes on it should get easier to win, as long as you continue to instill fear into the invaders.
You can lose in three ways. The most common way is by running out of blight tokens, but you can also lose by running out of time (12 rounds), or if one of your spirits has no presence remaining on the island (your presence gets removed from an area if that area is blighted).
The main part of this game is making the most of your power cards. Combining the cards from the whole team to be as efficient as possible is the key to keeping the invaders in check. You gain new powers and discard old ones, spending energy to use them, and as mentioned earlier putting presence on the board allows you to gain more energy and play more cards each round. It’s a fine balancing act trying to keep the invaders at bay whilst instilling enough fear in them to scare them away. Each power card has a range that it can be used over, so some need to be used within 1 territory of somewhere you have presence, others have a longer range. In addition to the power cards, each spirit has their own unique powers which can be used at various points so use these to your advantage as much as possible!
Spirit Island is a masterpiece, it really is! You’ll have seen from the pictures how good the game looks. The four board sections which create four different maps depending on player count look bizarrely shaped but somehow they tesselate perfectly, and they’re of very good quality. The invader miniatures are really very well detailed, the explorers (very intricate!), towns and cities look nice and menacing but the blight tokens could be bigger! I love the little wooden Dahan settlements, they look like old-fashioned buttons (I thought they were when I first saw a picture of the game), but sadly the presence tiles each player uses to denote where they exist on the island are just round discs which is the only slight let down.
The artwork is superb, not just on the box but the player boards and all the cards too, it really helps build the theme and make you feel like you’re spirits doing mystical things to scare away the invaders. The power cards all have amazing names too, like “The Trees and Stones Speak of War”, and “Pillar of Living Flame”, it’s awesome!
The best thing about Spirit Island is the gameplay and mechanics. Once you get your head around the round structure it flows pretty nicely and the bulk of the game is spent doing the things you should be spending most time doing – deciding how to play your powers. How do I make the most of the 4 power and 2 cards I can play this round? Can I stop the explorers building in this jungle or would it be better to try and defend this mountain to prevent it from being blighted? Or would it be best to accept the damage but inflict 3 fear on the invaders instead, getting us closer to easier victory conditions? It’s a really fun game to get to grips with.
Because each player makes their own decision on which cards to play (as this part is done simultaneously), there’s no quarterbacking in this game like there can be with other cooperatives (like in Pandemic it can be easy for a more experienced player to make all the decisions for the team “we could do that but we should do this”), this is a major positive for me as new players are bound to feel part of the game and can make their own mistakes, and that’s ok!
Spirit Island is a very replayable game, not only because there are many different spirits to play as, but there are scenarios to play through and adversaries to play against. These alter setup and gameplay, gradually increasing the difficulty of the game as you become more experienced. For me one of the few downsides of a game like Pandemic is that there is limited replay due to either having 4, 5, or 6 Epidemic cards in the deck (albeit the Legacy and other versions attempt to mitigate this through variants), but here you can play through the scenarios at your leisure, offering so many different game modes. You can also flip the board tiles over to give a trickier, more realistic island to play on.
Another thing in its favour (in my opinion this is a good thing anyway) is that it’s really hard to win! The invaders are relentless! This creates a challenge to come back and try again until you beat it, then move onto the next scenario and beat that too.
It’s a very complicated game to learn. Probably the second most complicated game we’ve learnt after CO2 Second Chance (truly a beast). The rulebook even has a section called “How to read this rulebook”, which I have to admit is always an ominous sign! It’s a big rulebook and there’s a bit of a learning curve to get to grips with it (letalone winning the game!), but the rules are thorough even if a little hefty. It is easy however to accidentally overlook a rule and inadvertently cheat either in your favour or against you. But if you spot a mistake just try and rectify it as best you can – don’t lose sleep over it!
The invaders expand in a fairly predictable way. Because you know which terrains will be built on and ravaged each turn, the only surprise is which terrain will be explored. This could be seen as a bad thing as it does make the game slightly easier, but just because you know what the invaders will do it doesn’t necessarily mean you have the capacity to do anything about it! It doesn’t have the same chaos of Pandemic in that sense, as your entire game can be thrown up in the air when an Epidemic card is drawn and suddenly you must rush to suppress it.
The only other slight gripe is that it can be quite easy to lose track of how much fear you’ve generated in the invaders. You have 4 fear tokens per player, and once you have generated enough fear that all those tokens have moved from one side of the board to the other, you draw a fear card and move them all back. However, amongst the flurry of actions and destruction, it can be easy to lose track of whether or not you accounted for it all, so try your best to keep tabs on it.
Overall though it’s a fantastic game, a really epic experience especially when you first banish the invaders and win the game. It reminded me of my first game of Pandemic, it blew my mind and instantly made me want to play again and again and again. Hopefully Jess doesn’t get bored of me wanting to play it all the time :). It is very highly thought of and I can totally see why. Highly recommended, but if light and simple games are your thing, stay well clear!
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