And now for something completely different: a board game review, even though I shouldn’t use ‘completely’ – Spirit Island has both narrative and speculative elements, so it might be of interest to some of my regular readers too.
I have no intention to write more about board games on this blog – for the simple reason I don’t play them enough – but I did want to write a review for this particular one, because I’m smitten with it.
R. Eric Reuss’ game design is incredible, and as such Spirit Island is a monument to human creativity. It is no surprise it has become so highly acclaimed.
Spirit Island is a cooperative game for 1 to 4 players – make that 6 players if you get the Jagged Earth expansion. Currently, it’s ranked as the 10th best game on BoardGameGeek’s overall rank, and as the 10th best strategy game too. It has also topped the influential People’s Choice Top 200 for solo games for three years straight, this year finishing before Mage Knight and Marvel Champions. It’s considered a complex game, but if you put your mind to it, the rules are pretty straightforward and easy to remember after a game or 2. Thematically, Spirit Island is about natural spirits that try to defend an island that is being overrun by colonizing invaders – aptly sculpted in hideous plastic.
Before I dive into the game play, let me first say a few words about myself as a board gamer, so that you get a bit of an inkling where I stand on that front.
My interest in the gaming hobby – aside from computer games in the nineties – started with Magic: The Gathering, but I’ve never truly thrown myself into that game, basically because I was already in my 30ies and unwilling to invest the time and the cash to become a dedicated player. As a kind of ersatz MTG I bought Dominion, a solid title, even though I don’t take it of the shelves anymore.
Over the last 10 years, I’ve especially developed an interest in abstract 2 player games, most notably some developed by Kris Burm: YINSH, TZAAR, ZÈRTZ, DVONN, PÜNCT and LYNGK, all part of the GIPF-series, all highly rated on BoardGameGeek’s abstract game ranking. Incredible games really, easy to teach, lots & lots of depth. If you like pure strategy full-open-information games like chess or checkers, they are more than worth looking into. I have other abstract games too, of which Azul and Hive stand out – not because they offer depth, but because they are simply fun to play, with non-gamers as well. I guess I should also mention Santorini.
Over the years, on weekends with friends, people brought Pandemic, Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, Citadels and a bunch of other stuff – I liked it all. During lockdown, piqued by the hype, I decided to give Wingspan a go. A friend of mine bought Dune: Imperium – a fantastic, nail-biting game, and that convinced me to buy Terraforming Mars – a game I had been eyeing for years, in part because of my interest in science fiction.
Both Dune & TM convinced me I could actually deal with complex games, and it turned out I also liked the solo mode of Terraforming Mars – even though rote fairly quickly set in. Discovering I liked games solo as well turned out to be crucial, because a big problem with board games is finding people that want to play the game you want to play. Spirit Island – supposedly great both as a solo & multiplayer game – had caught my attention for quite some time, and I decided to take the jump.
Spirit Island is a brain burner, offering an immersive experience that makes you focus on the island board, your spirit panel, your cards, and not much else, as each decision is crucial, especially if you play at higher difficulty levels. Games last about 1.5 to 2 hours.
Each turn, the invaders explore some more lands, build new towns or cities, and ravage the land, possibly fighting the indigenous Dahan tribe too. That progression is fairly linear and predictable, and so players can plan ahead, trying to stop too much damage or invader progression. In doing so, the spirits move Dahan, generate fear, and move or destroy invaders. Once you destroy all towns or cities, or generate enough fear so the invaders flee the island, you win the game.
While playing your spirit grows and becomes more powerful, giving the game a great sense of progression and increased awe – this growth is not only cool, but also necessary, as the invaders multiply each turn as well, often making the game tighter & tenser as it progresses. That suspenseful arc is one of the main draws of the game.
The other draw is the intellectual challenge it provides: the game is a puzzle: trying to determine the most efficient way to do the things you need to do with the cards at your disposal.
I’ve played about 35 games so far – 5 times a two-player game, the rest solo games. In multiplayer, the spirits synergize and support each other: certain powers tie into each other, not necessarily unlike engine builder mechanisms from other games. In a true solo game it’s just one spirit on one island board, providing a clear and focused challenge.
The base game comes with 8 spirits, and each of those has different qualities, tactics & complexity. If you get all 3 expansions – and you probably will, if the game clicks with you – the total spirit count becomes 24. It’s really something to behold how each of these 24 spirits differ, at times offering a very different strategical experience. There’s also a cheap version of the game, Horizons of Spirit Island, originally made for Target exclusively, with 5 new, low complexity spirits, and Nature Incarnate – a new expansion due 2023 – with yet another 8 spirits.
As it is a cooperative game, you can play multiple spirits yourself as well: 2 to 6-handed solo. Doing a 6-player game solo might take half a day, but it’s perfectly doable. The good thing about the fact that Spirit Island is cooperative is that there is no downtime. Each player performs and thinks about their next turn at the same time, and obviously there’s the social aspect too: discussing the best possible strategy, asking for help, etc. – saving the island very much requires a team effort.
The game design is so robust that you could even play a 24-spirit game – or even a 38-spirit game – if you get enough boards and pieces: you just make a bigger island. You could even play all that solo. I’ve seen people do it on a Tabletop Simulator, but such a game takes days to complete.
If you play on multiple island boards – each of them different – you can also chose the way you set up your island, different island shapes provide a slightly – or widely – different game. On top of that, island boards are 2 sided, one side offering a balanced design, the other side offering a more swingy, risky island layout that’s more thematic and often a bit more difficult.
I haven’t talked about adversaries and scenarios yet. The base game includes 3 adversaries and 4 scenarios, and with the expansions those total to 7 adversaries and 13 scenarios. The adversaries give the Invaders unique rules and effects to change the pace of gameplay. On top of that, every adversary has 7 levels of difficulty, each making the game harder. The scenarios alter the rules of the game a bit, giving you specific goals and challenges to meet, and a different way to play the game. You can even combine adversaries and scenarios, and for instance play a game with a scenario, Sweden at level 3 and the Habsburg Monarchy at level 6.
At the moment, I can beat adversaries up unto level 2, but haven’t been able to do so beyond. Playing at the maximum level is extremely difficult and requires a lot of skill. It’s another big part of what makes this game so interesting: you can tweak it precisely to a playing level you feel comfortable with. There’s no upper end to that, because even the best players that know the game in & out can’t always beat two adversaries on the maximum level, and even if they would be able to, they could add a third, a scenario, etc.
I’ve never come across a game where everything fits so nicely: not only the mechanics, the visuals and the production quality, but especially the fact that the thematic story side of the game really ties into the game’s mechanics. The nature & lore of each spirit translates well into specific rules and actions on the board. There are times when I make tactical decisions based on the thematic content of the game: choosing or playing a certain power a certain way because it is the most logical thing to do, not because of the numbers and tactics itself, but because of theme. It is this marriage that makes me write things like “Spirit Island is a monument to human creativity”.
A few more words on the expansions:
There’s Branch & Claw: it introduces 2 new spirits, 4 scenarios, 1 adversary, new cards, and, most importantly, a few additional mechanics that add some unpredictability to the game. As such it opens the game up a bit, making it more thematic & realistic. Feather & Flame combines 2 previous promo packs and offers 4 new spirits, 1 adversary, 2 scenarios and a few new cards. Finally, there’s Jagged Earth. It adds a little bit to the mechanics of Branch & Claw – even though you don’t need to own B&C to play Jagged Earth – and as such makes the game complete. It also offers 10 new spirits, 2 adversaries, 3 scenarios, a whole lot of new cards, a few new ways to play base game spirits, and 2 extra boards so you can play up to 6 players/spirits. I’d say they are all very much worth the purchase.
Worth noting are some very active online communities, on Reddit, BoardGameGeek, Discord and Facebook, and there are tons of threads & posts to read with strategy guides, spirit opening analyses, and so on. People have even made their own custom build spirits – but they never match the balance Eric Reuss has managed to achieve. There are lots of playthroughs on YouTube to improve your game. This is a particular useful strategy guide for beginners, and now that I’m at it, be sure to check out this one crucial erratum if you are new to the game.
The fact that the game spawned so much content and analysis is a testament to its depth & replayability.
So there you have it: Spirit Island offers immersion, scalability, modularity, variation, endless replayability, tension, depth, awe and brain burn.
It has proven to be addictive playing solo, and it’s extremely fun playing with more people. I really feel I will play this game at least 100 times more, and as such it offers a lot of value for money.
It obviously will not be for everybody, but what is? Almost all 9 games that are ranked higher on BGG have a lower complexity rating, and I guess that complexity might scare some people off. But paradoxically, it really isn’t that complex to learn, and I’d even say the game is fairly easy at the basic level, especially if you have a bit of experience with other board games – I’ve taught 2 friends and they were playing fairly smoothly after about 20 minutes of explanation. So to those with cold feet I’d say: there’s no need, just dive right in if what I wrote above captured your imagination.
Truly a classic, singular game.