by Mr Saint
It took me way longer than it should have to play Spirit Island. Originally released in 2017, Spirit Island was a game I always planned to demo at every board game convention I’ve attended since it came out. Without fail, the Greater Than Games booth was always too busy, or we’d use up all our time on the convention’s many other offerings, or we’d just forget to check it out. But we’d always hear about Spirit Island. How it had top-notch production quality. How it inverted the colonialism theme prevalent in so many Eurogames. How it was one of the best co-ops of the last decade. Spirit Island has a lot of hype behind it. So when Mrs. Saint surprise gifted Spirit Island to me for Valentine’s Day, I was very excited to get it to the table.
Spirit Island is a cooperative game where players will take on the role of primal Spirits defending their island home from colonial invaders. Together with the native people of the island, the Dahan, the players will work together to bolster the island’s natural defenses, repel the invaders, and heal the land from the ravages of war. Each Spirit is unique, complete with its own starting power cards, as well as innate powers that they can use any time they have the necessary elements. A game of Spirit Island is played in a series of turns, and each turn has five phases. Spirit Island is a fairly complex game, so this Overview will only serve to give people a pretty general idea of the turn structure rather than detail every rule in the game.
The Spirit Phase is where the majority of player choices occur, starting with Growth. Each player must choose a Growth option for their Spirit, such as placing additional presence on the island, getting new power cards, or reclaiming previously used ones back into hand. Once that is completed, Spirits will gain energy based on the highest uncovered number on their Energy Presence Track and can then choose to play a number of cards equal to the highest uncovered number on the Card Plays Presence Track.
These cards will either resolve in the next phase or later in the turn based on whether they are fast or slow powers. Each card has an energy cost in the top left corner that must be paid when the card is played, as well as some elements on the left side of the card. These can be useful for reaching certain elemental thresholds for the turn and gaining access to your Spirit’s innate powers.
Next up is the Fast Power Phase. As the name suggests, this is the phase in which fast power cards (and fast innate powers) resolve. You can tell a card is a fast power either by the red bird in its speed section on the middle of the card or by the red circle surrounding the card’s energy cost.
After all fast powers are resolved, the turn progresses to the Invader Phase. The island starts out healthy but can be blighted over time by the invader’s presence. If that occurs, and you’ve flipped the Blight card from its Healthy Island side to its Blighted Island side, then the first thing that must be done in this phase is to resolve the effect on the Blight card. Blight is most commonly added to the island when the invaders ravage (later in this phase), perhaps representing their attempts to bring “progress” to the island or otherwise despoil the land. The effects of having a blighted island are always negative for the Spirits, as if the trapping of modernity are anathema to their existence, causing their power to wane as the invaders gain a stronger foothold.
After any applicable Blighted Island effects are resolved, players will flip over any earned Fear Cards and resolve their effect based on the island’s current Terror Level (Terror Level discussed further in the Review section). Fear is earned primarily by destroying cities and towns, though some Spirits, such as Shadows Flicker Like Flame and the Bringer of Dreams and Nightmares, specialize in generating it primarily through their powers. Fear Cards always aid the Spirits, though, because they are random, their usefulness varies.
Once any earned Fear Cards have been resolved, the invaders act. This is a three part process dictated by the Invader Cards: ravage, build and explore. When invaders ravage, they deal damage to the land (and any present Dahan) equal to their health: one for explorers, two for towns, and three for cities. If the land suffers at least two damage, it becomes blighted, and a Blight is taken from the Blight Card and placed in that land. Then, if any Dahan survive the invaders’ assault, they can strike back, dealing two damage divided amongst the invaders as the players see fit.
From there, the invaders will build, adding either a city or town to the lands identified by the Invader Card in the build slot (as long as invaders are present in that land). If there are more towns than cities in the target land, then you add a city, otherwise a town will be added. Finally, players reveal the Invader Card in the explore slot of the board and place an explorer in any matching coastal land and any matching land with adjacent cities or towns. The Invader Phase concludes with each card that was used advancing to the left, so that this turn’s build card becomes next turn’s ravage target, this turn’s explore action is where the invaders will build next turn, etc.
Finally, slow powers will resolve in the Slow Power Phase. Denoted by their turtle icon and blue ring surrounding their energy cost, many slow powers are exceptionally powerful. This is offset by the fact that they only take effect after the invaders have fully completed all of their actions, so often slow powers end up being used reactively instead of proactively, especially in the early game.
Once all slow powers are resolved, Time Passes. This is Spirit Island’s cleanup phase, where nonlethal damage on invaders and Dahan is reset, elements are lost, and power cards are discarded. After the Time Passes Phase, the next turn repeats starting with the Spirit Phase. Play continues until either the Spirits win by ridding the island of invaders (though this can become easier via the Terror Level, discussed in the Review section) or the invaders attain victory by removing the last Blight from the Blight Card.
There are so many things to love about Spirit Island. Let’s start with the titular Spirits. Spirit Island places you in the role, not of some individual or group or nation, but instead you play as a more intangible concept. You will not be representing Sweden or England as you vie for control of the island. Indeed, these are some of the enemies the invading forces represent. Nor will you be directly taking control of the Dahan, the native people of the island. Instead, you’ll be representing Spirits with such evocative names as “Vital Strength of the Earth” and “Ocean’s Hungry Grasp”. Never before have the names of playable board game characters been so instantaneously resonant to me. It sets the tone for the entire experience.
Mrs. Saint and I love co-ops, and a large portion of our collection is dedicated to those types of games. Spirit Island is one of the most refined cooperative board games I have ever played. The Invaders are largely predictable, but they are no less threatening for it. Rather, this makes your wins feel well-earned, and one can usually trace a defeat to decisions made earlier in a game. Even the distinction between Fast and Slow powers shows a level of polish and detail in the game’s systems that rises above many other cooperative board gaming experiences.
The complexity of each individual Spirit ensures that players work together organically to solve the puzzle that Spirit Island presents. It’s an interesting solution to the “Alpha Gamer” or “quarterbacking” problem. Because each Spirit has so much going on between its innate abilities, starting power cards, minor and major powers gained, etc. it’s almost impossible for one player to dictate optimal plays to the rest of the table. Rather, each player is empowered to actively participate in the discussion, and table talk during a game of Spirit Island is full of comments like, “I can handle this area. Is there anything you can do about that one?” and, “I could use a little help over here.” Even the occasional, “Wait, you can do what?!” Please excuse me while I rend the Invaders with claw-shaped lightning. Spirit Island feels truly collaborative in a way that few other co-op games do.
A game of Spirit Island often follows a particular narrative arc. At first, the Spirits are hardly present on the Island, and after a turn or two, the Invaders are everywhere. It seems almost an insurmountable challenge to rid the island of these interlopers. By the midgame, assuming you haven’t been completely overrun, the Spirits and Invaders often have reached an equilibrium. The Spirits become adept at clearing Invaders from the board at a similar rate to which the Invaders spread. If you make it to the late game, victory feels almost guaranteed, and can usually be seen coming a round or two ahead.
There are a couple of factors at play that reinforce this narrative arc. Firstly, the manner in which Spirits grow during the Spirit Phase helps create a linear power curve, whereby, as you add presence to the Island, you also increase your options turn after turn. You’ll have more energy each turn, more card plays, maybe you’ll unlock some bonus elements to make using your innate powers easier. As your Spirit grows, the Invaders go from overwhelming to almost trivial over the course of the game.
The second thing that really reinforces Spirit Island’s narrative arc is the changing victory requirement represented by the island’s Terror Level. At a game’s beginning, the only way to win is to scour the island completely clean of Invaders down to the last explorer, an almost impossible task. As you destroy cities and towns (or generate fear through other means, such as card powers), you’ll eventually be able to upgrade from Terror Level 1 to 2, whereby victory can be achieved by destroying all the cities and towns on the board. Earn enough fear, and you will eventually reach Terror Level 3, which requires only the destruction of all cities on the board for a declaration of victory. In this way, Spirit Island moves the goal posts, making victory easier to achieve in tandem with the players’ Spirits growing more powerful. We almost always win within a couple turns of reaching Terror Level 3.
Mrs. Saint and I don’t particularly mind that most games of Spirit Island follow this pattern. In between the crushing uncertainty of the early game and the powerful inevitability of the late game, there are so many interesting choices to make. Figuring out how your chosen Spirits synergize, the opportunities presented by newly acquired Minor and Major Powers, identifying critical areas of the island and suppressing the Invaders there; there is so much to think about on most turns. And because so much of Spirit Island is deterministic, it is easy to tie good decisions made earlier in the game directly to your ascension to late game dominance (and vice-versa).
Some might view the players’ late game strength as a bit of an anticlimax. For me, the journey is more important than the destination. The puzzle that Spirit Island presents is compelling in the extreme, and making it to the late game is not guaranteed, so I don’t mind that the game sometimes feels solved a couple of turns before it ends. I just treat those last couple of turns as a victory lap. If you feel like you’re getting to a dominant position too early, that’s probably a sign that it’s time to move on to a higher difficulty. Though I understand if spending two hours to figure that out is a nonstarter for some.
With eight different Spirits, three Invader Adversaries (each with six difficulties), and four Scenarios, the amount of content in Spirit Island’s box can only be called generous. I’m not great at math, but I think you’ll easily be able to get several dozen plays out of the content on offer before looking to expansions. I went into our first game of Spirit Island with high expectations, and I was still blown away. Now, after several more plays, I can say definitively, the hype is real. If you’re a fan of complex co-ops, you owe it to yourself to try this game.
Check out more Spirit Island reviews and information at the below links:
Board Game Atlas – see what everyone is saying and get the latest price information.
JonGetsGames– watch Jon’s playthrough of Spirit Island.
Greater Than Games – if you are interested in Spirit Island, check out the publisher’s website to see what other great games they’ve made.