In Spirit Island, 1-4 players take the role of Nature Spirits protecting their island home and its inhabitants, the Dahan, from invading colonists. Spirits needs to support each other, guide the indigenous Dahan, and hamper the rapidly expanding and exploitative colonists. In order to live peacefully, the island must be rid of most of the colonial presence before it is completely overrun.
Spirit Island is made up of an invader board, a modular island board, and individual spirit panels. The Invader Board will track Fear Tokens, the Fear Deck, and the Actions taken by the Invaders. To set up, first place 4 Fear Tokens per player into the Fear Pool. Then set up the Fear Deck.
The Fear Deck will consist of a total of 9 cards and include the 2 Terror Level Dividers. Place 3 Fear Cards at the bottom to start the deck, then add the Terror Level 3 Divider, then 3 more Fear Cards, the Terror Level 2 Divider, and 3 more Fear cards on top. That’s your Fear Deck people!
Spirits generate Fear throughout the game through Card Play, Innate Powers, and by destroying encroaching Towns and Cities. Each time Fear is generated, move one Fear Token from the Fear Pool into the Generated Fear Area. Once all Fear is moved, a Fear Card is flipped and moved from the Fear Deck to the Earned Fear Cards and resolved during the Invader Phase. Generating Fear and Terror makes the end win condition easier for the Spirits and is split into three Terror Levels.
The Win Condition for Level 1 is “No Invaders on the Island.” All Invaders, Towns, and Cities must be removed to win. Terror Level 2 is “No Towns or Cities.” It is assumed the Terror is enough to chase away even the most fearless Explorer. At Terror Level 3, “No Cities” is the win condition and it is assumed Towns will be abandoned. The more the Invaders fear the island and it’s protective spirits, the easier it is to win.
To set up the Invader Deck, remove one card from each of the three stages and then put stage three at the bottom, stage two in the middle, and stage one on top. If the invader deck ever runs out, the players lose and the island is overrun with invaders. This acts as a game timer.
Then choose a random Blight Card and place it on the Blight Space. If you are playing your first game, use the preprinted Blight Space and remove the all Blight Cards from the game.
If you run out of Blight at anytime the island is considered beyond repair and the players follow the directions on the card or preprinted Blight Space which usually lead to a loss.
To set up the island, choose one Island Board per player and arrange in the pattern shown in the rulebook for your player count. Each Island Board is divided into 8 lands with two of each landform (Jungle, Mountain, Sands, and Wetlands). Each board also has an Ocean landform which defines which lands are Coastal (as in adjacent to the Ocean) and Inland (not touching the Ocean). Starting Invader and Dahan pieces will be placed according to the icons on the Island boards. Then shuffle and place the Minor and Major Power Cards next to the board.
Each player chooses a Spirit Panel, it’s four unique starting power cards, and all Spirit Presence and Single-Turn Effect Markers of a single color. Follow the set-up directions on your Spirit Panel, place your Spirit’s influence into your Spirit’s Island section, and fill in all but the leftmost circles on the Presence Tracks.
Reveal the top card of the Invader Deck and place an Explorer in that Land. Then move the revealed card to the Build Action Space.
Each round is divided into 5 phases: The Spirit Phase, The Fast Power Phase (Cards and Innate Powers with the red bird icon), The Invader Phase, The Slow Power Phase (Cards and Innate Powers with the blue turtle icon), and The Time Passes Phase.
During the Spirit Phase, players will choose one of three growth options. This will gain energy for later card play and actions, reclaim previously played cards, gain new Power Cards, and expand their presence on the island. Then players will gather energy according to the Energy Presence Track and play an amount of cards according to the Card Plays Presence Track.
Spirit Presence is where Player Spirits inhabit the land and exert influence. If a Spirit’s Presence is destroyed, the Island is lost and the players lose. Presence on the Island provides increased Range for Power Card Effects. A Sacred Site denotes land where a Spirit has more than one presence. When certain Growth Options are taken, Presence Disks are removed from the Spirit Board and placed on the Island Board denoting Spirit Presence. If a Spirit’s presence is ever completely removed from the Island, the Spirit is considered destroyed and the players lose.
Players will examine their hands and determine which cards to play and pay the appropriate amount of energy.
During the game, Players will also have the opportunity to Gain a Power Card. To do so, they choose four cards from either the minor or major power decks, choose one, and then return the rest to the discard. If the player chose a minor power card, it goes directly into their hand. A MAJOR POWER CARD requires the player to FORGET (permanently lose) any POWER CARD already in their hand and remove it from the game. For your first few plays, I recommend using the Power Progression Chart Card where players instead take the next power card on the progression chart for their Spirit. This will provide you with a balanced and simpler hand for your first few plays.
Cards with a Fast Power icon will be resolved next during the Fast Power Phase. Cards can be resolved in any order according to the preference of the spirits.
Most Power Cards played require an Energy Cost. Energy is earned through the Growth Options portion of the Spirit Phase or from Energy Reserves uncovered on the Energy Presence Track on the Spirit Board. Energy is only valid for the round it is earned and can’t be carried over to the next round.
Playing Power Cards also allows Spirits to Gain Elements. Gained Elements can be used to activate Innate Spirit Abilities or Modify Power Card Effects. Elements are only valid for the current round.
During the Invader Phase players will check the Blighted Island card (or Blighted Island Space if no card is being used) and determine any action to take. Every game begins with a healthy island. However, as more colonists arrive to explore, expand, and exploit, the island becomes damaged and falls to blight. Next, any fear cards that are earned, are now flipped over and resolved.
Next come the invader actions: Ravage, Build and Explore. They are resolved in reverse order, on the invader action track. If a space is empty, then the action is skipped.
During the Ravage Action, if there are invaders in the lands shown on the card, they attack the land and then native inhabitants. Each Explorer causes 1 damage, each town causes 2 damage, and each city causes three damage. The invaders will attack the land first. If the land is dealt 2 or more damage, it is considered in blight and a blights token is added to that area. Invaders then attack any Dahan living in the area. Each Dahan population can take two damage before removed from the board. Remaining Dahan then fight back and can deal 2 damage per population to any invader in that land.
When Blight is added to a land, any Spirit Presence in that land is destroyed. And if Blight is added to a Land that already has a Blight token, then it is also added to One Adjacent Land.
During the Build Action, any of the shown lands with Invaders present will develop Towns or Cities. If the land already has more Towns than Cities, then a City is added. Otherwise, a Town is added.
The card on the Explore Action is then flipped over. An explorer is added to every land of the shown type that contains a Town or City, or is Adjacent to Town, City or Ocean.
Invader Action Cards are then advanced. Ravage Action card is discarded, Build Action Card is moved to Ravage, and the Explore Action Card is moved to Build. Explore Action has the deck of cards on it and will be flipped the next round. Once that pile is exhausted, the Invaders, for all intent and purposes, have expanded past all return and the Island is lost.
Next during the Slow Power Phase, Spirits can take any action previously played with the Slow Power (Turtle) Icon.
During the Time Passes Phase, players discard all their cards, all damage is cleared and reset. All elements are cleared.
First off, let’s examine the rulebook. When a rulebook has to explain how to read the rulebook then you have an issue. The rules are intensive and the authors made the decision to split it into two separate sections: Game Concepts and Sequence of Play. This causes you to constantly flip back and forth between the two in order to understand how to play or to reference the rules. This has led to confused and lost rules and no small amount of agitation in the learning and teaching of the game. A better option would have been to add a nice solid sidebar to explain the larger concepts while the bulk of the main text focusing on game play. Either way, I included a much larger rules explanation at the beginning of the review to help you out. To be honest, I don’t want you to be turned off by the rules and decide not to experience Spirit Island. Suffer through the rules, the game is worth it.
All cooperative games are hinged on good communication between players and for Spirit Island it is absolutely essential. Spirit Island is a game of communication and trust before it is a game of card play and area control. This is especially true with the delayed action mechanism on some of the cards. Cards can have immediate or later effects and this requires conversation and advance planning. If you only have a couple of games of Pandemic under your belt, you may want to try Ghost Stories, FlashPoint Fire Rescue, and Freedom: The Underground Railroad to get your skills up. The complexity of the Spirit Island leads to less of a cooperative puzzle solving game than you may experience in easier cooperative games.
Not only is the game difficult, it is also dense and there is much to explore. As recommended in the rules, you should start with basic spirits and use the progression of card powers to get a feel for how the game plays and how the cards work together. Just working through the innate powers plus the cards PLUS the innate powers and cards of the other spirits provides a wide decision space. Once you get that down, then play while picking your own power cards and all the additional variability that affords you. After that you should grab some of the more advanced spirits with more nuanced abilities. Then the variants. Then the scenarios. Then the adversaries. There is so much to play with in Spirit Island.
The pacing of the game is spectacular. Each player will have a few early rounds with very little interaction with the other spirits. Chances are their presence on the island and their specific island tile will not expand quickly enough to interact. This means everyone has a couple of rounds to work with their hands and powers against the invaders before necessity leads to more interaction. The colonial invaders move QUICKLY and the game is ramps up quickly once spirits are interacting.
That said, there is also a huge alpha gamer problem. I’ve been converted to the school of thought that alpha gamers are not an issue of game design but of group dynamic. It is best to approach this game with a legacy mindset. Assume you are playing a series of games with the same people so everyone starts with the same level of understanding and can grow in experience together. If you mix the experience levels in Spirit Island, I guarantee you will have experienced players pushing around the new players. Success in Spirit Island hinges upon strong communication and an understanding of the game’s mechanics. Other cooperative games can have a new player and still succeed as you teach the game through the first few rounds of play. Someone can learn as they go in Pandemic but in Spirit Island you need to pull your own weight from the onset. Otherwise, go with a good solid teaching game and remain patient.
I’m on the fence with the decision to provide some thematic distance between the colonial invaders and the indigenous people of the island. That additional layer of play through the spirits may make it more palatable to the gaming community but lay lessen the thematic edge provided with a game that successfully flips the setter colonial narrative to provide gameplay that focuses on the indigenous side of the conflict. The “explorers” are seen as invaders. Blight always follows. The generalized Blight in the game could be supernatural, natural, or even cultural where an area explored, expanded, and exploited are left bereft of all indigenous cultural and social evidence. Personally, I would have preferred the conflict be addressed directly and have players assume the roles of indigenous tribes fighting off invaders. However, this has it’s own problematic baggage with players (likely, but not necessarily) white men assuming the roles of indigenous peoples.
That said, this review has gone on far too long and I think Spirit Island dives deep into new territory and is certainly worth your attention. I’ll follow this post up with a longer post on the Settler Colonialism narrative in board games so stay tuned!