The spirits themselves all feel individual and bring something unique to the table. They have powers that fit beautifully with their different personas, and every player will have a pivotal, and different, role to play in the war ahead.
There is trouble afoot. Invaders from afar have landed upon our golden shores. Our unsullied lands now face a threat like never before. There is blight upon the soil, there are towns and cities rising high into our blue skies, casting long shadows over our homes, and there is death. The icy hand stalks our harmony and strikes it down wherever it may. Please spirits…save us.
Every once in a while, a game will land upon the table that simply drips with theme. The sort of theme that is so strong you can almost taste it upon your tongue, and smell its presence in the air. It sucks you into its world and grips tight, refusing to allow you to leave…not that you want to anyway.
Whenever such magic occurs, it is always to be savoured and celebrated.
Please, all hail Spirit Island, it is here to enchant you.
Spirit Island is one of those special games that transform the, occasionally, more mundane tasks of moving pieces upon a board, or throwing down cards, in to something meaningful and otherworldly. Every action taken when playing this wonderful game whisks you away from the table and places you firmly into the soul of your colossal spirit, and the struggle against rising odds to drive off the invaders and reclaim the land. The weight of decisions made is felt heavy and the ebb and flow of success and failure continually tips the balance between peaceful victory or death and destruction. Spirit Island is quite something.
But, let us backtrack a moment and lay some foundations here.
Spirit Island is a co-operative game where players take on the role of various island spirits in their challenge to drive away the invaders that threaten the idyllic and balanced way of life that exists between said spirits, and island natives, the Dahan.
The basics see each round of turns allowing spirits to utilise the fast acting powers at hand, progressing the invaders influence and impact upon the island, before then allowing the spirits to unleash the slower acting powers to push them back. It sounds perfectly simple, however, there are so many beautifully delivered details at play, and so many moving pieces, that at first it is easy to become equally dazzled by the theme, and lost in the rules. In fact I thoroughly recommend having a look at one of the ‘How to play’ videos out there on the internet before your own first play, simply to gather some guidance amid the mayhem.
The actual order of play is very simple; spirits choose powers by playing cards, fast powers activate, invaders act, slower powers activate, then rinse and repeat.
The potential confusion though actually lies within the details. It isn’t that Spirit Island is a particularly heavy game, nor is the rulebook particularly cloudy, it’s just that there is a lot to keep track of during the space of a single game turn. For example, the island board is ever shifting. On a single turn, invaders might explore the land, and build upon the land, and expand as towns become cities, and spread cascading blight across the land, and then even find some time to shed the blood of the indigenous people in brutal battle. Each action changes the face of the board as pieces move and are removed from play. All this is before the spirits have even got their game faces on. Those initial turns on the rolling hills, deep forests, and towering mountains of the island are daunting to say the least.
However, everything is backed brilliantly by a logical progression. The invaders land upon the island, they explore, they settle, they grow, and they blight. It makes sense. Then they also experience fear. And this too makes perfect sense. Imagine exploring uncharted areas and encountering terrifying spirit powers at play, intent on driving you away, it would be pretty scary to say the least. And this is what lies at the heart of Spirit Island, a battle between man and the mysterious that for the players proves wonderfully deep and thoroughly engaging.
That’s the Spirit!
The spirits themselves all feel individual and bring something unique to the table. They have powers that fit beautifully with their different personas, and every player will have a pivotal, and different, role to play in the war ahead. Brilliantly the various powers are shackled by time. Some will activate instantly at the start of the game round, but others won’t happen until after the invader turn. What this opens up is some wide expanse for strategic thinking that for myself was the key element in bringing the game to life. There are so many options available to the players that the time spent trying to determine the right course can be lengthy, but it never drags the game down as all other players have equally critical decisions to make and ponder over. Also, no actions feel throwaway, every power impacts upon the game in wondrous ways and affects the ever shifting face of the island just as it should.
As invaders move and spirits act, in the background are the ever moving elements of fear and blight. The more fear generated the easier it is to defeat the invading hordes. Fear is determined via a terror level, and each ascending level has different win conditions. For example, initially it might be a requirement that all invaders, town and cities are gone from the board, but a change in terror level can see this reduced to just the towns and cities. Again, it highlights how everything within the game plays a notable role in the overall outcome, fear is a real element that sways the battle upon the island significantly and thus should be paid some close attention.
A Blight Upon the Land
Blight is equally critical. As invaders multiply the land becomes increasingly blighted and this can quickly spiral out of control. I’ve read comparisons between Spirit Island and Pandemic, and this is a definite nod in that direction. If blight hits an area already blighted it will cascade to adjoining areas much in the same way the virus spreads in Pandemic. For the spirits it is another area for consideration when determining how to use the powers to best affect. Keeping blight at bay is paramount in the search for glory.
Like I said earlier, Spirit Island has a lot happening on each turn and this might put some players off. I certainly found it mind bending to try and keep up during the first couple of plays. But as with most games with additional levels of complexity, the rewards are there for those who persist. Before long you’ll be spending your time plotting the powers rather than pondering over what should be happening next.
The actual spirits themselves grow gradually more powerful as the game plays out allowing players further depth of options, but so too do the invaders whose ever increasing population upon the island makes the challenge all the more difficult. And this game holds a serious challenge.
On the table Spirit Island is beautiful. The colours are wonderfully vibrant, the pieces are well made and the artwork is absolutely eye-meltingly gorgeous! It does spread out across the playing area much like the invaders spread across the land, but with a game so stunning this is never an issue.
On the downside, some will definitely be overawed by the sheer amount of moving pieces during each round of play. It is easy to lose track, especially in the early plays, and at times this can prove time consuming as you attempt to rectify missed moves and forgotten actions, however, as with anything, the more you play the easier all this becomes and with a game as good as Spirit Island, the rewards are great.
One for the Kids?
The reality here is that although Spirit Island is bright and attractive on the eye and will almost certainly appeal to the younger player, it is only a realistic option for the twelve plus age range in my opinion. The depth to the strategy and layer upon layer of options make it a little too much for the younger mind. However, for a family with older children looking for some brilliant co-operative play, this is a gem.
I could go on much, much more about the various mechanics and choices this game holds, but to be honest, what would be the point? The truth is, if you want a game that will enchant and engage, will challenge and delight, and will make every moment spent in its company rewarding and worthwhile, then look no further.
Spirit Island was touted as a Pandemic killer, but for myself it is the Pandemic companion. It is Pandemic’s deeper, more thoughtful sibling. It is a game that will make you consider every action you take, it will have you lost in wonder at its many layers and possibilities, and most importantly, it will make you smile.