Spirit Island: Jagged Earth Expansion Review

by Mr. Saint

I have a confession.  I said in our Spirit Island Review that one could easily get dozens of plays out of the base game before looking to expansions.  Yet, when I had the opportunity to late-pledge on Kickstarter for Spirit Island’s latest expansion, Jagged Earth, I jumped at the chance with only a handful of games of vanilla Spirit Island completed.  It didn’t take many plays for me to fall in love with the base game, so there was no chance I was going to miss out on its first big-box expansion.  As an act of contrition, I’ll play solo against Level 6 England on the Thematic Map later.  But for now, Spirit Island: Jagged Earth has arrived.  And I’m here to tell you, it might just be the new bar by which I measure other board game expansions.

Included in Spirit Island: Jagged Earth are ten new Spirits, two new adversaries, three new scenarios, and dozens of new major and minor power cards.  There are enough additional components included to allow Spirit Island to be played by up to six players (including orange presence discs, the superior player color that was noticeably missing from the base game).  Honestly, with the amount of content on offer here, if they had added a couple of additional island boards and invader pieces, Jagged Earth could have been a standalone expansion instead of requiring the base game.

Events and tokens make a return from the Branch and Claw expansion.  For those unfamiliar with Spirit Island’s first expansion, events add an extra step to the Invader Phase, after any Blighted Island effects and before Fear cards are resolved. Most Event cards key off the status of conflict on the island, increasing in severity (sometimes to the invaders’ benefit, other times for the Spirits) based on things like the health of the island, the current terror level, the stage of the invader deck, etc.  Some ask the players to collectively make a choice, and these are often closely balanced enough that there usually isn’t a clear right answer.  Events serve to make the Invader Phase less predictable, and they were a bit of a divisive addition to the game when Branch and Claw came out, as many people disliked adding variance to the otherwise predictable nature of the island’s antagonists.  Personally, I love the dash of added uncertainty the Event cards provide and would never play without them.

The various tokens in action. You can see the new orange badlands token got a lot of use this game.

There are five types of tokens that can be added to lands with various effects: beasts, disease, strife, wilds, and badlands (badlands being the new token type added in Jagged Earth).  Beasts have no intrinsic ability, but instead key off many power cards and events.  Disease prevents the next build in a given land and then is discarded.  Similarly, wilds prevent the next explore in a land and then are discarded.  Strife affects individual invaders rather than an entire land, and reduces that specific invader’s damage to zero the next time it would deal damage.  Badlands, the new addition, represent areas that have become inhospitable to human life.  When invaders or Dahan would take damage in a land that contains badlands, that damage is increased by one.

The two new Adversaries, the Tsardom of Russia and the Habsburg Monarchy, feel refreshingly different from Spirit Island’s previously introduced enemies.  The Tsardom has a big-game hunter vibe, sending explorers into lands to destroy beast tokens and ending the game early if they overhunt the island.  Conversely, the Habsburg Monarchy represents a livestock colony, forsaking the establishment of cities for heartier rural towns.  They’re a new challenge that I’m looking forward to exploring repeatedly.

The new Adversaries.

The island has constantly been under assault from various invaders since the conflict began.  Every successful defense simply brings a new challenger, eager to colonize the Spirits’ bountiful home.  It’s no surprise then, that the Spirits from Jagged Earth feel a bit harsher.  They’ve become battle hardened over the years through countless campaigns and have learned that there is no place for passivity or capitulation in their continuing war against the invaders.  The conflict has become protracted, and the attitudes of many of the new Spirits reflect a darker reality of constant, tenuous survival.

Take Stone’s Unyielding Defiance, in contrast with Vital Strength of the Earth (from the base game).  Where Vital Strength of the Earth was primarily concerned with preserving the land and healing its wounds, Stone’s Unyielding Defiance is less concerned with defending the island directly.  Rather, Stone’s Unyielding Defiance damages the invaders in retribution as they attempt to harm the land.  It’s like Batman played by Ben Affleck versus his portrayal by Christian Bale.  Same character, very different feel.

New Spirit showcase, pt. 1.

Each of the ten new Spirits is thematically on point, and mechanically very different from any other Spirit.  Many Minds Move as One unsettles invaders with swarms of smaller animals, generating fear and pushing them out of lands.  If you don’t involuntarily shudder at the name and art of Many Mind’s unique power card, “A Dreadful Tide of Scurrying Flesh”, you’re made of sterner stuff than I (see the gallery for a picture of the card).  The polar opposite of Ocean’s Hungry Grasp, Lure of the Deep Wilderness tempts invaders ever further inland, where they mysteriously disappear and are “never heard from again” (the name of one of Lure’s innate powers).  The new Spirits are a joy to explore, and are absolutely the highlight of the expansion for me.  

New Spirit showcase, pt. 2.

It’s great to see Spirit Island’s designer, Eric Reuss, really flex his design muscles with some of the new Spirits.  The unique power cards for Fractured Days Split the Sky had to use a smaller font because of their complexity.  Playing as Shroud of Silent Mist was the first time I actually used the recommended method for tracking damage on invaders (see page 15 of the base game rulebook).  Starlight Seeks Its Form is an altogether unique design: a build-your-own Spirit.  Jagged Earth pushes the core design of Spirit Island to its limits, and I am here for it!

New Spirit showcase, pt. 3.

The above point results in my one caveat for unqualified recommendation of Spirit Island: Jagged Earth.  Spirit Island is already a complex game, and Jagged Earth was very much made with the enthusiast in mind.  If base Spirit Island is already a stretch for your complexity comfort level, Jagged Earth may overwhelm.  Even Mrs. Saint and I, who have played Spirit Island (with Branch and Claw integrated) many times before this expansion, noticed our average playtime increase with the added complexities brought by Jagged Earth (from approximately two hour games to around two and a half hours).  

There are no low complexity Spirits in Jagged Earth.  Quite the opposite in fact, Jagged Earth contains a set of Aspect Cards, which make changes to the special rules and/or innate powers of the low complexity Spirits from the base game. The majority of these Aspect Cards increase the complexity of the Spirits that they alter.  They are a welcome addition for a Spirit Island aficionado such as myself, enticing me to revisit Spirits I haven’t had much interest in playing recently.

Some of the new Aspect Cards.

Spirit Island: Jagged Earth is a wonder.  The base game of Spirit Island contained enough content for dozens of plays, but combined with Jagged Earth, it is not an exaggeration to state that I could see a triple digit play count before Spirit Island started to feel stale.  In addition to everything we’ve already covered, Jagged Earth’s rulebook includes six pages worth of variant play options.  These include things like alternative island layouts, balancing the game to play with a larger island, and playing against two adversaries simultaneously.  This expansion adds an unparalleled amount of new content, and Eric Reuss and Greater than Games should be proud of what they have accomplished with Spirit Island: Jagged Earth.  If you’re a fan of the base game, and the added depth and complexity aren’t deal breakers, then you should put Spirit Island: Jagged Earth at the top of your wishlist.  It’s that good.

Check out more Spirit Island: Jagged Earth reviews and information at the below links:

Board Game Atlas or BoardGameGeek– see what everyone is saying and get the latest price information.

Meet the Spirits– a playlist of videos introducing you to several of the island’s Spirits.

Greater Than Games – if you are interested in Spirit Island: Jagged Earth, check out the publisher’s website to see what other great games they’ve made.

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