Spirit Island (Review 2)

review by Kendra

Spirit Island is a cooperative game of invasion by settlers versus the combined might of the local population and the spirits that champion them. This game uses components to convey theme in a way that is absolutely delightful, engages with increasingly difficult combinations and modules, utilizes simultaneous play to reduce the drag of analysis-paralysis and is utterly unforgiving.

First, I absolutely have to talk about the components. The land and native folk are made from renewable resources with plant-based inks and dyes. The graphics for the land are absolutely gorgeous, and whereas the phone app has a few difficulties discerning between certain types of land, this is utterly obviated in the actual board game. The four game tiles provided are also designed, on their primary side, to look like pieces of cloth, replete with different patterns one would expect to see on linen cloth. This small feature allows for greater accessibility for those with color impairment and brings to mind the idea of the grandmother quilt. The grandmother quilt, of course, is a quilt that's meant to showcase someone's history, often made by the generations that came before us. It's a little bit of a lost art, but I very much enjoy seeing it referenced here. Moreover, the bad guys are white plastic figures that look either like single settlement houses, missions, as in the missionaries built monastery missions as they conquered places, or little white male presenting figures with the spear and the helmet being the most recognizable features of them. As if this juxtaposition was not enough, the blight is a dark gray plastic bubbly thing. Through these components, weaponry, homogeny and plastic represent the demonizing forces, whereas the cloth-reminiscent tiles, the organic irregularities of the natural wood figures, and the sustainable aspect of the other components feels much more whole. And this is subtle. People who know to look for this theme will see it. Other folks might perceive it, but not quite know why it is that they have begun to grow an aversion to imperialism and plastic. I like that quite a bit.

Related but separate, the game stores its components extremely well. Not only does it provide little plastic baggies for holding pieces, it also has a number of trays built in so that set up is easy breezy. Everything about setting up this game the second or third time, once one understands the symbols, is enjoyable and relaxing. And then our island is overrun with antagonists. Moreover, the gray plastic of the blight takes primer and paint extremely well, so my blight is now bubbling, oozing green, which I like. It’s hard not to paint the buildings with red topper tiles, but I'm also rather keen on the painfully white aesthetic for the bad guys. Regardless of what I ultimately choose, I very much enjoy that the components allow me the option to choose how I modify my game. As a painter, every board game with miniature figures is an opportunity for me to express my love of that game through paint, so the fact that I hesitate speaks to the execution and immersiveness of the theme.

With certain combinations of spirits, fighting off the invading hordes of conquistadors is brutal. There are some combinations that are pretty effective, but the whole idea is that the teams ought to synergize. It's very tempting to only look at one's own hand of abilities and plan with what is strictly in hand, but that way leads to destruction. This game isn't coercively cooperative in that there is enough individuality and hands are secret, so folks can do their own thing with a common goal. But when the conquistadors really start ramping up, it's important to set aside personal ambition and work for the common goal. And believe me, outside of the recommended few starting figures, this game can really be quite challenging. There are a number of rules features that come into play with successive games. It's not a legacy game, but there are ways to ramp up the difficulty to where the most skilled, elite teams of collaborative players would genuinely struggle. At the same time, the easier modules are engaging enough that a dedicated 10 or 12-year-old could probably figure out the base rules. It is a game that encourages neuroplasticity, too. Counting ahead in the cards for the bad guys and their distribution can be extremely helpful, with that foresight preventing exploration or building or despoiling. However, reactionary moves that murder a bunch of invaders also can prove crucial. The most difficult modules are shown on the reverse side of the four primary playing tiles. On these tiles, there are realistic topographic features. There are modules for chasing off various actual real world nations that engaged in imperialism. Defeating these foes, in many cases, is supremely difficult, but also supremely satisfying. They're worth a play or two, but be prepared for an uphill battle.

A good and bad thing about this game is that there are a lot of options to consider on each turn. Is it more pragmatic to prevent the settlers from building, from exploring and proliferating, or is it more important to keep them from despoiling the land? On each turn, they will do all three; which is most important to mitigate on that particular phase? In addition, it is not uncommon to have a hand of four radically different abilities, each of which offer a short-term payment to potentially unlock another ability unique to your spirit. So, is it better to play a couple of cards that might be rather useful but that do not offer the requisite payment to use a spirit ability or is it wiser to use two slightly less optimized cards to trigger said spirit ability? All of these considerations are fairly important. It is extremely tempting to pause and really try to think through all of the outcomes as the future is laid out before you and it is up to you to interrupt that future.

To handle this rather daunting task of optimizing each and every move, all players play their cards and abilities in the same phase. This is somewhat like a simultaneous play action, but it's not done in a race against other players. There is no aspect of “slap the thing down and go as fast as possible”, but there's also not necessarily waiting for someone else to come up with a decision before you can go. Instead, the players that suffer less from analysis paralysis can potentially play out their moves and then cheer on the individuals who are struggling to make up their mind. Because the hands of card abilities are hidden, quarterbacking is slightly less common. Unfortunately, because everyone must wait for everyone else to finish their actions before moving to the next phase, there can be significant pressure on the slowpoke. This is neither good nor bad, but it is something to consider when inviting folks to play this game. Social pressure can be quite stressful, so if the person in your group who takes the longest time to finish their turn is susceptible to negative emotional responses regarding perceived slowness, then be mindful of that as you play.

When engaged at the same rate of play as one another, with some variance permitted, this game sings. The synergies that can happen when one person says, “My spirit can cause you to have an extra elemental resource, would that be helpful to you?” add a richness and depth of interconnectivity that is quite engaging. Often, those synergies are the difference between winning and losing this game. I like that. I also understand that this can feel coercive to some game players, especially those who would prefer to be more independent in their gameplay styles.

This game is brutal. The amount of synergy required to win with difficult combinations of spirits or with all of the modules revealed is intense. It's also a game where the invaders, for most of the game, look like they're going to win. Moments of, "Aha, we got this!" are few and far between. Unlike Pandemic, where a particular disease might be cured outright while also working toward other goals, there is only one goal here. There are different ways to achieve this goal, but each must be played out to its full conclusion to net the ultimate goal: Remove the settlers. Last month, I recommended a light and breezy game that I genuinely take to cafes and even to brew pubs because it is a low commitment, low stakes, relaxing experience with simple mathematics and easy to explain gameplay. This month, I stand by a recommendation for Spirit Island. But know what you're getting into. Spirit Island is rich in theme, deviously engaging in gameplay, terrifying for showing what the future might be if not interrupted and brutally difficult at the higher modules. Honestly, it's an amazing game. But be prepared for a struggle. The preservation of the island is worth it.

Spirit Island is available now from our webstore.

Spirit Island (Review 2)