Spirit Island Is Brilliant Once You Get Used To It

Pandemic was one of those board games that very quickly found itself in just about every gamer's household. It's a co-op experience so it works across a range of audiences that competitive games don't. But its mix of mechanics are also super digestible, making it a great gateway to other, deeper board games.

But most of Pandemic's gameplay and challenge can be solved supremely quickly after a few playthroughs. So if you're looking to move onto something more engaging, but you still want that co-op tension of beating back the rising tide of defenders, Spirit Island might be just the thing.

Spirit Island has been one of the more acclaimed co-op games since its release in 2017, picking up a bronze Diamant d'Or award for heavy eurogames in 2018. It's very similar to Pandemic in the sense that players work together to constantly bat back the ever growing threat of the colonists, with factors like towns, cities and a corruption called the Blight spreading to adjacent cells similar to Pandemic's outbreaks.

A good friend of mine got a copy Spirit Island as a birthday present last year, and it's taken our group all that time to break it out. I've had other board game friends pick Spirit Island and rave about it over that time. It's partly down to the theme, where players get to pick from a variety of ethereal spirits that combat the invaders of Spirit Island by calling down lightning, flash floods, pure fear, empowering the natives to fight back, and sometimes just by nudging the invaders closer and closer to the shore until they accidentally end up in the sea. How unfortunate for them.

What makes it worth looking at is the extra layers of replayability. When you punch out the tokens and lay out the board for the first time, the manual advises you to leave a couple of components to the side. Say you're playing the least complex heroes, ones whose powers rely on the last interactions, or can operate the most effectively alone. Instead of drawing four cards and keeping one whenever you draw a major or minor power, the game sets out what powers you take.

It's really a way to help new players cut through all the iconography and interlocking systems. And the game needs it, because your first game of Spirit Island can be rough.

Turns of Spirit Island play out simultaneously, but it'll probably take your group a solid hour before you actually get to that stage. Even then, there's a ton of stop-start because you'll constantly be having chats back and forth, trying to work out who needs to push or pull invaders into this cell or that cell, so someone else can clear all of the towns and cities in a single hit.

This is completely necessary, because the board fills up quickly after the third turn. Players begin the game by placing tokens called presence, which gives you a foothold on the map while giving you more energy, resources and cards you can play that turn. Factions vary a little from there, but afterwards it's down to the business of smiting colonists from on high.

Precisely how you do that is a bit complicated. Powers either resolve immediately or after the invaders do their business, so there's an obvious advantage (and premium) in resolving things sooner. But irrespective of when those cards take effect, the cards grant you elemental resources that hang around for your entire turn, so very quickly you'll be doing a bit of mental math trying to work out what your possible combinations are.

That's a good deal of complexity to begin with. Adding to that is the particulars of each of the spirits. On the player mat they'll have a nice little graph outlining their capacity for direct damage, control, utility, fear and defence. You need a decent mix across the board to guarantee survival, especially once you start playing with adversaries (like the King of England) or extra scenarios. The game is always adding more explorers, towns and cities to the board, and about halfway through, just to fuck with everyone, the invaders will colonise every single cell adjacent to the shore.

Given that the game already spawns extra explorers as long as they're next to any town or city, and at least two land types are always dealing with a) colonists popping up buildings or b) colonists just straight out ransacking the land and, if they do enough damage, spreading corruption everywhere, it's a right pain. As an added annoyance, if they happen to do enough damage and you have any presence in the area, you lose that presence permanently.

If you're not paying attention, you can find yourself on the back foot very, very quickly.

One of the factions you can play, Lightning's Swift Strike is pretty straightforward: bank your energy, and then blow a ton of shit up all at once.

But that's part of the natural tension that makes the best co-op games work to begin with. And then there's this fun little element called fear that's ticking over amongst all of it.

Fear is basically something designed to mimic how scared shitless actual colonists would be if, say, the forest decided to grow up one day and just strangle everyone in their midst. It's a resource that slowly tricks over as you clear the board of towns and cities, but some factions can generate fear faster through certain cards and abilities.

And then there's one faction that solely revolves around generating fear, so much so that all of its abilities do precisely zero damage. Their speciality lies in the devastating effects that the fear deck offers players, depending on what phase of the game you're in. Initial fear cards will let you do a small amount of damage — one to a unit here, one to a town there — but cards later in the game will let you clear out explorers, towns and cities wholesale, like an attack of the bubonic plague. Even better, the more fear cards you clear out, the easier the win condition for the players.

So the fear mechanic alone can be a primary strategy for winning. But you can also concentrate on strategies that revolve around clearing the board through player powers. Or you can focus on doing primary damage through the natives of the land, with a secondary strategy underneath that revolving around either pushing or gathering (moving units out of cells, or pushing them into specific cells).

Some of the basic powers the lightning spirit starts with. In the top left you'll see the energy cost for playing the card, as well as some of the iconography outlining when the card resolves, whereabouts it can be played, what it can and can't target, and what elements it grants the player once played.

It's a very, very clever game. It's also seemingly an enormously complex one, because there are so many icons and small calculations to learn before the whole table can start getting into the groove of thinking of the implications of what the colonists will do, and how that sets up the next turn, and the turn after it.

But some of the best board games, especially from this decade, aren't the simplest of beasts. The added spice and depth of approaches is what gives people reason to pull a game out of the shelf after the fifth or sixth playthrough. Spirit Island is absolutely one of those games that has the mettle for repeat sessions, which is why its still one of the most beloved board games of the last few years. It's much easier to get a copy of the game now, but just make sure your group has a little patience to work through that first hour.


Spirit Island is available now, along with the Branch & Claw expansion, from all good game stores.


Comments

    this game had the ingredients to be an interesting co-op, but I just found it to be an interminable slog that lasted around three times longer it felt like it could support.

    I suspect it's one you really have to have the right set of people for.

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