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Spirit Island (Acquire-To-Zendo)

🏝️ We've Got Spirits, Yes We Do...

2017, 1-4 players
Complexity: HEAVY

Games--not just tabletop games, but video games as well--are increasingly about ideas. Modern gaming puts more emphasis on tying theme to gameplay and using gameplay to have something to say about the ideas at the core of its theme. This can be subtle, as in the way Megacity Oceania is premised around a world flooded by rising sea levels, or it can be not so subtle, as in CO2, where the point of the game is to create green energy production to stave off a climate disaster. In addition, recent changes in popular attitudes to the West's imperial past have cast games like Twilight Imperium or Catan in a new light--games where exploiting scarce resources is at the heart of gameplay and the game is themed explicitly around colonization. Spirit Island is an attempt to shift that paradigm. Instead of asking how people can compete most aggressively against each other, Spirit Island asks the players to band together and protect their home from invaders.

Let's See It In Action

In Spirit Island, you and up to three friends take on the role of spirits worshipped by the indigenous people of an island that is currently being colonized. To do so you'll need to balance your presence on the island, your energy, and your use of powers, while also anticipating where the invaders will go next and attempting to head them off.

The eponymous (and yet somehow also unnamed) island is built from individual map pieces. Each piece has a coast and two of the each of the four basic land types: jungle, mountain, wetlands, and desert. Each map tile also has a configuration of starting conditions for the invaders and the indigenous islanders, called the Dahan. The Dahan are your allies, represented by unpainted brown wooden huts, in contrast to the white plastic invaders. The theming here ain't subtle.

The game is played over a series of rounds, each round broken out into a Spirit Phase and an Invader Phase. During the Spirit Phase, players will take actions and use powers. All player actions happen in whatever order the players decide, so rather than taking turns, you'll be negotiating how to plan out actions in order to make them the most effective in terms of removing invaders or generating fear--put a pin in that, fear is important and we're going to come back to it later. Powers are classified as either Fast or Slow meaning they will resolve either just before or just after the Invader Phase.

Your spirit starts out pretty weak, only having a couple of presence tokens on the board and being very limited in the number of cards you possess, the number you can play, or the energy you produce passively--energy that you'll need in order to play power cards. Every spirit is unique, but they mostly operate along similar lines. The first thing you do each round will be select your Growth, which will typically add presence to the board, add cards to your hand, gain energy, or reclaim cards that you've already played (or some combination thereof).

Power cards are the heart of gameplay. They allow you to move pieces around the board, attack invaders, protect the Dahan, and so forth. Once fast powers have resolved, you get to the Invader Phase. First the Invaders will ravage a land type that they're in, meaning they will attack the Dahan and blight the land, which can remove your presence from the board and make it more difficult for you to fight back. The Dahan will fight back if they're attacked, but only if they survive, so your protection is going to be key. After they ravage, they will build in a different land type, adding towns and cities. After that, they will invade a new land type. Then the cards move down the track, meaning whatever they just invaded will be built in on the next turn and ravaged on the turn after that. After the Invader Phase ends, slow powers resolve, anything that's only partially damaged will heal, and the next round begin.

Presence tokens added to the board not only give you more influence over the board, but they also uncover more abilities, meaning that as the game progresses, your spirit will become more and more powerful, gaining stronger cards and being able to do more on each turn. Which is a good thing, because as the rounds progress, the Invaders will get increasingly more aggressive, moving into multiple lands at a time, making it harder and harder to achieve your victory conditions. And what are those? Well... now's when we get to go back and talk about fear.

Fear is how you win. Fear is generated whenever towns or cities are destroyed, and it can be generated by power cards as well. You have a pool of fear (four tokens per player) and once you've gone through it all, you take a Fear Card, which will give you a bonus at the start of the Invader Phase. After three Fear Cards are played, the Terror Level increases, which determines the victory conditions. At Terror Level 1, you can only win by eliminating all Invader pieces from the board. At Level 2, you only have to remove structures. At Level 3, you only have to remove cities, and at Level 4, you just win, freeing the island from imperial tyranny forever.

But you have to act fast, because if the Invader Exploration deck ever empties, or if the land becomes too blighted, or if a Spirit loses its last presence on the board, then the Invaders win.

What Makes It So Good?

This is a big heavy brain-melter of a game that emphasizes careful planning over reaction. There's very little randomization--and what little there is will usually be to your benefit. You may not know where the Invaders are going to explore next, but the Exploration deck is a known quantity, so you can usually narrow it down. E.g., the first tier of the deck consists of three of the four land types, and while you don't know which one has been omitted, you do know that the first three rounds will be exploring exactly one land type that has not been explored before, and you know that any place that gets explored this round is going to be built in on the next and then ravaged after that. And so you have to make your plans accordingly. Do you want to grow with an eye towards getting an energy boost so you can do some damage quickly, or would it be better to spread presence and try to get yourself some extra card play to make you more effective on future turns? Hand management is a part of this game as well, so every time you play a card, you have to be conscious of the fact that it won't automatically be available to you until you reclaim it. Invaders spread explosively, so the need to mitigate is extremely strong, and it's truly challenging to find the right balance between handling immediate threats and building your engine for the long term.

But where this game really shines is in its theme and the way that translates into gameplay. Greater Than Games also makes Sentinels Of The Multiverse, and I mentioned in the write-up for that game, the designers here are incredibly good at taking character facets and abstracting them into the game mechanisms, and this same skill is on display with the spirits of Spirit Island. Lightning's Swift Strike, which takes the form of a bird made of lightning, has a play style that uses fast powers effectively against individual invaders but is not particularly good against structures. Its more powerful cards also cause it to damage the land, and it has very little passive energy generation, so it will typically have an extremely powerful turn followed by a turn where it does little and needs to recover. Vital Strength Of The Earth is presented as a stone golem, and its playstyle is largely defensive, but it relies on slow powers and takes a long time to spread its presence and ramp up its power. Bringer Of Dreams And Nightmares cannot do any direct damage--meaning it cannot stop or even slow the Invaders--but it excels at generating fear, which will hasten the Spirits to victory. My favorite is Thunderspeaker, which presents as a fully anthropomorphized female and is a personal Spirit to the Dahan. As such, Thunderspeaker can move its presence with the Dahan, giving it a lot of influence that is specifically tied to the people.

Overall there are eight Spirits in the game that cover a variety of play styles and complexities, as well as optional scenario and adversary cards that will change the game in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, making for lots of ways to tweak and balance in order to make the game more suited and interesting to you.

I'll finally mention that the components are pretty nice, especially the figures for the Dahan and the Invaders. The individual Invader pieces are a touch flimsy, but the buildings are all decent quality and you can lay them down in different configurations to indicate how much damage they've taken. The maps boards are really cool and have a "thematic" map on the reverse, which groups land types in ways that make a bit more thematic sense. It's also drawn more like a map would look, which makes it a big harder to read, but looks very cool.

What's Not To Like?

The insert is not great, and if you're not here for tons of complexity and challenge, then this isn't for you. But those are extremely minor. Honestly, my only real quibble is a philosophical one. This is a board game that is basically an anti-colonialist power fantasy... but it was designed by a white guy of European descent, and it depicts indigenous people in loincloths and feathered headdresses. I don't know whether or not actual First Nations people were consulted in the development or not (and the cursory googling hasn't given me much one way or the other) but it just feels ever so slightly exploitative of the thing its trying to champion. So, that's a wee bit morally conflicting.

Is It Expansible?

This was originally a Kickstarter game and has had two major expansions as well as two collections of KS Promo material--all of which can be acquired separately. The first expansion is Branch And Claw, which adds a new adversary, two spirits, four scenarios, and a host of new power cards, as well as Event Cards which add a bit of randomness to the Invader Phase. Thematically, it's about beasts and nature overwhelming both the Dahan and the Invaders, so it adds new mechanics around Strife, Beasts, Wilds, and Disease. The second expansion is Jagged Earth, which is new enough that I haven't actually had a chance to play it, but is thematically about geography. It adds new map tiles allowing up to six people to play, as well as a Badlands mechanic, as well as ten more Spirits and more Event, Power, Blight, Adversary, and Scenarios. It also includes new powers for existing spirits. Lots of variety here.

Final Thoughts

Spirit Island is a big game about big ideas that challenges players and paradigms alike.

Tune in next week when we build engines out of gems in Splendor...

In Acquire-To-Zendo, Kurt is going through his favorite board games in alphabetical order. Read the explainer or see more posts.