Type: Co-Op / Area Control

Time to play: 60-90 minutes (Teaching: 10 minutes)

Best played with: 3 Player (1 – 4 Players)

When you play Catan or many other area control lands, it feels like you are a new invader on a land – trying to conquer or colonize. Ever wonder how the people of the island feel? Well, in spirit island it turns out that they will fight back and they have local gods that are willing to fight back as well! You are one of those spirits fighting for control of your island – if you build your power, you can push back the invaders and save your lands.

Co-Op games area generally push your luck games or games where the automated actions of the game will bring about your downfall. Either you are probably going to suffer set backs or you are expected to fail if enough time passes. Spirit Island is the latter – as the game progresses the invaders get stronger and stronger, the blight that they cause spreads and becomes overwhelming, and eventually the game times you out! Play the game for too long and you will find that you have lost.

This arc is typical because it ups the suspense and tension – as you get to grips with the game it fights back. As you get small wins, the enemy comes back harder. However, the real trick to Spirit Island is that you can’t just learn how to punch hard early. In Spirit Island the mechanics are carefully tuned that YOU get stronger as the game progresses. You and the game are on this parallel track of growth – if you can utilise your strengths and your small but perceptible advantages then over the course of the game you will edge towards victory rather than defeat.

It’s almost like a campaign trail – it’s all those marginal individual actions throughout that put you in the position to snatch victory later in the game. Alternatively, it’s those missed opportunities, the wrong focus, that leaves you fighting a flood of invaders or a cascade of blight.

So then how is this game played? It’s a card driven map game – you have a tile per player and you have pieces that set out your location / area of control. Then you have cards that are playable if you have enough power (and they are in your hand). The playable cards have a range from your locations and can effect the locals, the invaders or the mysterious blight that damages the island.

The invaders are ever expanding – a man builds a town, a town builds a city and either a city or a town send men into the adjacent lands to restart the cycle. When they ravage the land (third step of the land, expand, ravage strategy of any good invader!), they may kill locals, and if they do enough damage they will destroy the land by causing blight. Blight is a limited resource in that it is the destroyer of lands and once enough is placed on the board it will cause an automatic loss for the player. This is important as many games see the player push back the invader into a corner only to have the blight spill out from the corner as the entrenched invaders continue their attacks.

Now as a mighty spirit you have a few ways to play – you can use those action cards to remove blight, move invaders, destroy invaders or gather more cards. Your powers might be fast (before the invaders) or slow (after the invaders) but they are effective. There are just two limitations you have to deal with (i) your location and (ii) whether you recently used the card. Each card has a range from your current locations on the map and whilst you can build out this will take time. Also, if you use a card you discard. All your cards can be recovered but doing this slows your actions to grow on the map.

How then do you evolve over the game? Well, Spirit Island has a very clean and simple mechanic where you can lay out more tokens across the island – the more tokens you put down the more powers you reveal on you player board. The more tokens you put down therefore, the stronger you get. Through the course of the game you will be putting tokens out and you will be getting stronger.

There are lots of ways to play – defensively halting the advance of the invaders, moving the invaders across the maps to areas they won’t expand in, attacking the invaders directly and causing fear (directly or indirectly) which changes the win conditions. At first, you need to kill everyone (cities, towns and soldiers). As you get more fear, it gets easier to win – only cities & towns, and then only cities, and then an automatic win.

So you build fear, attack the invaders and ensure none of the loss triggers are met. Like Pandemic, Flash Point and other similar games then you are running around trying to put out the small fires that build towards your loss whilst putting strategic markers down to win. Build for the win, whilst avoiding the loss – that’s the key to these games. So then the same is true here. Fight the invaders, stop the blight but always build the terror as a combination.

Now, you may not like this game if the other games of this type don’t appeal. A sense that when you draw a card the location may be easy or difficult, the sense that sometimes the game is easy and sometimes its impossible. Sometimes these games also suffer from an alpha player – a player in the team who tells other players how to play / win. This is a risk more to do with the group than the game, but some games do well at stopping this problem. Spirit Island is such a game – simultaneous play and a complex set of private information on the cards, make it hard to play for another player.

So, all that in mind. This is a great little game, which runs tightly and with lots of variation. Plenty of different spirits to play, lots of different variables during the game and if all that’s not enough – the game plays well but differently between 1-4 players (including a very strong solo game). Oh and I didn’t even mention scenarios, adversaries and the impact these have on the game…

Last notes,

  • If you like classic co-op game against the game – then this is a tight, high variation game.
  • If you hate random drawing of cards and the variance of difficulty for different set ups, then this may be all to familiar.
  • If you win, try again and switch spirit!