- Designer: R. Eric Reuss
- Publisher: Greater than Games
- Players: 1-4
- Ages: 14+
- Time: 90-120 minutes
- Times played: 3, with review copy with Spirit Island
[Ed note – my review of this was published right as the game came out, and though it was not the sort of game for me… there were a number of other Opinionated Gamers who had a chance to play the game in the intervening months, and I thought it would be a good idea to re-do the review with their counterpoints included as their experience was much different than mine. I felt like it would be beneficial (and fair) to republish the review with their comments. DY]
In Spirit Island, players are powerful Spirits that live on an isolated Island. They must use their powers to fight off invaders which are trying to colonize said previously isolated island. The game is cooperative, with all Spirits acting simultaneously to fight off the invaders. The Spirits will win if they can destroy the Invaders while they lose if the Invaders are able to entrench themselves on the Island OR if any of the Spirits is completely defeated.
To setup the game, you first set up the Invader board – making both a Fear Deck and an Invader Deck. The Island board is made up of the appropriate number of map pieces, and the board is seeded with Invaders, Dahan (the native inhabitants), and Blight icons. Blight is the decay of Nature as well as damage from the Invaders. Blight is taken from the Blight card on the Invader Board and if it is ever removed from the board, it is placed back onto the Invader Board. As Blight is added to the game, it will cause Spirits to remove their Influence markers. Be careful as Blight placement can easily cascade into neighboring areas.
Each player chooses a particular Spirit to play in this game and takes the matching Board and Power cards for that spirit. There are specific setup rules for each spirit as found on the back of their board. Each Spirit must start on a different piece of the map. There are two tracks on your player board that help determine your Energy income and ability to play cards each turn. The spaces on these tracks are exposed as you place more markers on the board – thus as you have more influence on the island, you get more powers. Minor and Major power decks are shuffled and placed near the board.
Then, finally, the Invaders take the first action of the game – you flip over the top card of the Invader Deck and the Invaders explore in that revealed land type.
Each turn follows the following 5 Phases: Spirit Phase, Fast Powers, Invader Phase, Slow Powers, Cleanup.
In the spirit phase, each Spirit does 3 things. 1) Grow – choose an option in the Growth area on your Spirit Board and do it. This may allow you to draw cards, add influence to the board or maybe gain some energy. 2) Gain Energy – gain an amount of Energy shown by the highest uncovered number on your Presence Track. 3) Choose and Pay for Power Cards – choose Fast and Slow Power Cards to play this turn – the number of cards to be chosen is based on a track on your Spirit Player board. You must pay the Energy noted on each chosen card. You will immediately collect and elements shown on the cards, but you will not get to use the printed effect of the card until the correct later phase.
In the Fast Power Phase – each player now follows the instructions on their Fast Power card. These can be done in any order, but any individual Power must be completely resolved before another one can start. Any player can choose to pass on their power and not use it at all. But, if you want to use a card, you must use all parts of the action printed on the card.
Then the Invaders get their turn. First, all Fear cards which had been collected are now resolved in the order that they were collected. Fear cards are revealed through Power card actions as well as destruction of towns and cities on the board. Then you look at the three spaces on the Invader Board: Ravage, Build, Explore. There will usually be a card in each of those spaces – and the landscape seen in that space tells you which lands will be affected by that action. In the Ravage action, Invaders will attack the denoted type of land as well as any Dahan there. (Invaders = Explorers, Towns and Cities). Pieces can take partial damage, and you place these pieces on their side to show the partial damage. If the Dahan survive, they will then counterattack the Invaders. In the Build action, any land area of the specified type which has at least on Invader in it will have a Town or City added. In the Explore phase, you add an explorer to every land of the specified type that has a town or city or is adjacent to a town, city or the Ocean. Finally, all the Invader cards are moved one space to the left on the track.
In the Slow Power Phase – each player now follows the instructions on their Slow Power card. These can be done in any order, but any individual Power must be completely resolved before another one can start. Any player can choose to pass on their power and not use it at all. But, if you want to use a card, you must use all parts of the action printed on the card.
In the Cleanup Phase – all players discard their played power cards. All partial damage goes away and all single-turn effects are discarded. The players win the game if they have cleared the map of all Invaders. You lose if all of the blight markers are removed from the Invader board (and are placed on the Island), if any of the Spirits have no Presence at all left on the Island OR if you need to draw an Invader card and there are none left to be drawn.
My thoughts on the game
Well, from the first moment I opened the box, I knew that this wasn’t a traditional Euro game. How so? For starters, the rule book is a 12” square and is 32 pages long. That’s right. THIRTY-TWO. There’s nothing wrong with that for a game of this complexity, but that’s definitely more than what you’d expect from most modern euro-games. And to be fair, the last 8 or 9 pages of the game explains variants and gives you some of the backstory to the game, so it’s actually closer to about 20 pages of rules. But it’s a hefty rulebook for sure.
The rulebook even gives you instructions on how to best read it. You need to start with the Setup section no matter what – but then you can choose to either read the Game Concepts (individual mechanics) or the Sequence of Play (the game structure). I’ve not been a fan of rules that are split up into two distinct sections (like Ulm from last year’s Essen) – as I find that I can’t synthesize the concepts well having to look in two different places. This game is no different, and it took four read throughs of the rules before I felt like I understood the game enough to teach it to other people. Admittedly, it’s a fairly complex game… but the rules made it hard for me to understand how to play it. When playing a solo game, I found myself needing to look at multiple places in the rules to answer a question. Everything seems to be in the rulebook, you just have to figure out where to look for it.
Though my game group has been warming to the cooperative game genre, this one includes a number of interesting rules (on page 8) that kinda rub me the wrong way. First, it mentions that there might be times that your fellow Spirits might be taking too long to choose their Power Cards; if this happens, the rules tell you that any player may set an arbitrary time limit on the other player to choose. Seriously, that’s not very cooperative – why would you ever force a teammate into rushing into a bad decision?! Then, worse, the game gives rules on what to do when you need to make a decision. If the decision comes from the use of a Power, then the player who played the power has to decide – this makes total sense. For other decisions, the players should try to come to a consensus – and if they can’t – then the game owner/organizer always breaks all ties according to the rules. I think that sorta sucks. I mean, sure, someone will eventually have to make a decision, but that’s an oddly arbitrary way. I guess that the player who owns the game is more likely to play it again, so there’s not as big of a deal if a visitor ends up having a crappy game because the game owner got to break every tie when a consensus couldn’t be achieved. I would have prefer some sort of rotating mechanism (if one even had to be spelled out).
The game is pretty difficult. The rules make it clear how to start out for your first couple of games in order to give you a chance to learn the nuances of the game. It also gives recommendations on how to expand the game in your next plays so not to be overwhelmed. We have played twice, so far, with the basic rules (no scenarions or adversaries added), and we had a lot of things to learn in those games. We still have not won as a group, but I do feel that we now know what we need to do – and I am pretty sure that we would have been completely overwhelmed if we hadn’t started with the most basic of rules first. Thus, I’m very appreciative for the advice on the easier start.
During the game, the big thing is trying to keep the explorers/invaders at bay. You can plan ahead a little bit as you can see the order in which the cards will move through the Ravage, Build and Explore spaces. You will definitely want to get your Presence close to the invaders, but choose the sites carefully or else those Presence markers will be removed from the board through Ravaging and/or Blight.
The game requires good, if not impeccable, communication between players. The Spirits must work together in order to succeed. Many things (such as the destruction of a City) require multiple players to cooperate to combine their powers in order to make things happen. The downside is that this sort of cooperative game really promotes the idea of a quarterback – and based on the rules, if you strictly follow them – the owner of the game becomes the quarterback because he breaks all ties. That being said, watching our troubles fighting off the Invaders, this is the sort of game that really needs a quarterback in order to keep everyone on the same page and working towards the same goals. When you spend a turn doing things in a non-unified manner, you can get quickly overwhelmed by the enemy and the cascading Blight. However, players are on their own to choose their power cards (and you’re subject to luck of the draw to decide what cards you have to choose from!) – so it’s not like a single player can direct all of the play.
I have since played a solo game with some more advanced rules, and the difficulty level definitely ramps up – though I find that I argue/disagree less with myself than with other gamers. However, you don’t have anyone else to back you up or to complement your own weaknesses – so the game doesn’t end up any less difficult! I found that I seemed to be more competitive against the invaders, but I have yet to figure out how to win.
The varied additions to the game should allow for a lot of replayability – but again, I’ve got my hands full with just the basics so far. There are both Adversaries and Scenarios that can be added in part or together to the game. The Adversaries give special colonizing powers to the Invaders. The three included in this box are: Brandenburg-Prussia, England, and Sweden. The Scenarios also change some of the rules/powers/capabilities of the Spirits in the game. Finally, the map pieces are two sided – the back side shows a more realistic map with more difficult setup rules printed on the land areas.
For a co-operative game, this is maybe a bit more complex than I would usually want, and this difficulty was increased by the rules which did not jive with my way of learning a game. This was enjoyable for a few plays, but I don’t see this one replacing any of the current large cooperative games that I currently keep (Samurai Spirit, Ghost Stories, Aeon’s End). This one seems too difficult for our group, but again, it has taken us a long time to even get running with the rules, and I’m not sure my group wants a third 3-hour game to slog through to see if we now have the rules right. This could totally be a case of “it’s not you, but it’s me” between the rules, the complexity of game play and the cooperative nature of the game. This is definitely not my sort of cooperative game – My group and I can’t seem to get over the hump to play this one well enough to make it anything other than an exercise in frustration. We have traditionally not done well with complex co-op games – for instance, we didn’t really dig Mage Knight either for the same reasons – and there are plenty of groups that love this game. This, however, may be an issue with my group and not the game. Either way – it’s just not a good fit for us.
Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers
On the other hand, this is the perfect fit for me and my group. Spirit Island is the best (non-Gloomhaven) co-op I’ve played this year, maybe a couple years.
Alan How: My experience is somewhat different from that of Dale. I started learning the rules and concepts via a YouTube video and this helped to outline the game. My two games have been solo plays so I did not run into the issues experienced by Dale. (My regular group generally avoids cooperative games.) what I enjoyed was the puzzle that the game posed and the variety of solutions available. In my games so far I have managed a win (just) by focusing on gaining fear which introduces slightly easier win conditions. The second level allows a win by eliminating towns and cities while the last level reduces the win conditions to eliminating only the invaders cities. The route that this forces for victory means that you have to play cards and take actions that cause fear so you generate a plan. The other problems posed by the game have to be balanced but at least there is a plan.
The game allows plenty of planning to take place and even in the games I have played so far I can see how to improve my playing. And this is before I explore the other spirits, the scenarios or the adversaries. (Or the expansion which increases the range of options.) I like the range of meaningful decisions. Which cards to play; slow or fast: which effects trigger when. I really enjoyed Mage Knight and Star Trek Frontiers as these more complex cooperative games appeal to my taste, so Spirit Island was very likely to hit my sweet spot and I’d recommend it as a solo or two player experience as the other more complex games also work best for me with these numbers.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Luke H, Alan H
- I like it.
- Not for me… Dale Y