Why is Spirit Island the best board game ever?

Over 41,000 Aboriginals were killed in the colonization of Australia.

A sobering thought.

Spirit Island is a cooperative reverse colonisation game. You play spirits protecting or using the indigenous population to stop colonists from destroying the land. It’s a heavy subject. And while this review won’t hold this tone throughout, as that’s not what this site is about. It’s important to acknowledge what came before us. And understand that people today are still suffering from the actions of our forefathers. With that in mind:

I acknowledge and pay my respects, to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people past, present and emerging, whose land I stand upon today.

Alright. Let’s talk Spirit Island.

Name: Spirit Island

Players: 1-4

Publisher: Greater Than Games

Designer: R. Eric Reuss

Artists: Jason Behnke, Kat G Bermelin, Loïc Billiau, Cari Corene, Lucas Durham, Rocky Hammer, Sydni Kruger, Nolan Nasser, Jorge Ramos, Adam Rebottaro, Moro Rogers, Graham Sternberg, Shane Tyree, Joshua Wright (I)

It begins with a growth phase. There are 8 spirits in the game, and while some are stronger than others. They all start weak. And have differing options on how to grow. However, these options boil down to a combination of:

  • Expanding your range by spreading your influence across the land.
  • Building shrines to allow you access to stronger powers.
  • Gaining major or minor power cards.
  • Increasing the number of powers you can play per turn.
  • Upping your energy production.
  • Or reclaiming cards from your discard pile.

Each option is a noticeable increase to your strength in its respected area. So you’ll be wanting to select everything.

But you can only pick one.

What will you sacrifice to gain a shiny new major power card? Or will you refill your hand from your discard pile and skip growing this turn? These are painful decisions you have to make. Frequently.

This short-term vs long term decision making is found throughout Spirit Island. It takes many forms like Mystique from X-Men. And the answer is never straightforward. It requires deep thought as you’ll always have multiple paths to choose from. And figuring out the best path is as difficult as it is satisfying.

For instance, continual growth into surviving, means your spirit will be a wet sponge once the colonists level up. The opposite is true as well. Increasing your power early means you’ll be playing clean up as your island sinks under the weight of so many colonists.

Overhead view of Spirit Island two player game. Sprawling plastic houses represent the invaders.
The view overhead

With the growth phase done. It’s time to pick and pay for the cards you’ll be playing this round. Cards have an ability, range, energy cost, location restrictions, elements, and speed: fast or slow. At different times throughout the game, you’ll be playing cards for each of these different attributes. Finding the best play for the current turn is another difficult and engaging decision you’ll have to make.

While cards have a ton of attributes, the most interesting is speed. It defines which phase the card activates. Adding an extra dimension to the card play, and your thought patterns. Fast cards are played before the colonists invade which allows you to look at the board and have all the information available. Slow cards are played afterwards. Making you anticipate the board state after the invaders are done.

This isn’t as simple as it sounds.

First, you have the other players plotting and playing their fast cards. But then the invaders get a turn by drawing a terrain type card from the invader deck.

The invaders begin the game by exploring your coastal land and colonised areas of this type.

On their first turn. They build on the land they just explored. And continue to explore on another type.

On their second turn. They ravage the land they’ve built on. Build on the explored land. And continue to explore yet another type.

From then on, they perform all three actions on their turn. In the order of ravage-build-explore. The build and explore actions are mostly harmless. But they do set up the ravages. These kill the island natives and causes blight. And too much blight is a losing condition. The way a card moves through the three phase is like that axe blade from the Pit and the Pendulum. You know when and where it will strike.

But can you do something about it?

A spirit card from Spirit Island. Bringer of Dreams and Nightmares.
Bringer of Nightmares in and out of the game.

The deterministic nature of the invaders and the speed at which they attack fills in the answer of what you need to do to progress. Spirit Island provides you the freedom to figure out the how.

For instance, beyond playing cards for abilities or speed. A played card also provides your spirit with elemental power. This can be used to activate your spirits powerful innate abilities.

Additionally, once played, the card goes into your personal discard pile. Meaning you can’t get back into your hand easily.

The restrictions, freedom and benefits of the card play make Spirit Island a top tier game. It’s so rewarding and makes a consistent and satisfying feedback loop. And while it takes a lot of planning and sacrifice to have that perfect turn. When you do it, you’ll wiping hordes of invaders off the map. It makes you feel like a villain whose doomsday plan has finally come to fruition. But in a good way.

On top of this excellent card play is another gratifying puzzle: the Dahan. These indigenous inhabitants are represented by earthly wooden tokens. You can influence them. But not often. And they die easily to ravages if not protected. However, they also help drive the invaders off the land. Figuring out the best way to use them is as Jack Donaghy would say the third heat.

Side board for Spirit Island. Shows a fear victory.
The side board after a winning game.

To win the game, you need to fulfil the victory condition on the board. This condition changes based on how much fear you’ve generated. The more fear you create. The easier it is to win. This fear generation controls the pace of the game. If you want fast and frantic, generate more fear. Slow and controlled, then generate less.

Fear is also the weakest mechanic in Spirit Island.

Where in most cooperative games you start with the end in sight. Spirit Island blurs your vision with an army of plastic colonists. It’s such a good game that you become engrossed in surviving, and the depth of the game play. You don’t see the goal posts moving until they’re on top of you. Making the end of the game a letdown. It’s like waking up late on a Friday, busting your ass to get dressed and get to work. Only to realise its doors are locked, the lights are off, and it’s a Saturday. You’ve just put in all this effort. But it goes unrewarded.

Other than that, Spirit Island is fantastic. It’s engaging to the point where it’s hard to keep track of your own part of the island, let alone anyone else’s.

It changed the way we communicated throughout the game. Making it better.

Usually in cooperatives we talk at the micro level: What should I do? What powers should I use? However, in Spirit Island we could only do this at the macro level: These are the areas I can cover. What can you protect?

This is great when the players are equals but makes it difficult to guide new players. As it isolates them. When playing with more people, there is greater chance one your friends will take too long analysing their choices. Slowing down the game. Without you being able to help.

An in focus perspective shot of the colonists, and our attempt of getting rid of them.
On the ground floor.

New players get no help from the rule book either. It’s written by someone who knows the game inside and out, for people who already know how to play. Making it fantastic for when you need to find a rule, or a quick refresher. But terrible for your first playthrough. For that I recommend checking out One Stop Co-op Shop which got me up and running in no time.

Personally, I love everything I’ve covered. And I’d be satisfied with that. But there’s more. Outside of the spirits – which are different enough to warrant a try of each. There’re additional difficulties, and modes and a mountain of power and fear cards. All of which mean it’s a unique and wonderful experience every time you pull it out for board game night.

The verdict: Spirit Island is a Critical Hit.

It’s a board game that I think every board gamer should play. If not own. It nails almost all aspects of board gaming and is an absolute blast to think about and to play. You and your character will feel growth throughout the game, and the elegance behind this mechanic is unmatched within any game I’ve played. Above all else, the number of rules, setup time, and turn upkeep are so slight compared to the depth of decision making. This game might be the work of black magic. And R. Eric Reuss just might be a wizard. I would not be surprised.

And that’s my case. All of it.

Is Spirit Island the best board game ever?

Corgi looking unimpressed by the cover of Spirit Island.
Just finished dinner. Was not impressed!

PHEW! That was a long one.

Before I say anymore, I hope you’re having the best holidays of your life. Being Australian we’re in the final hours of Christmas. It was a beautiful day, and I spent it mostly hanging around my immediate family, drinking and eating waaaaaay too much. I am stuffed! I also recieved a few more board games. I’m excited to talk about soon.

Otherwise, remember to subscribe to get the best and latest board game news and reviews from Roll to Review.

4 comments

  1. Land doesn’t belong to any human modern, Aboriginal or from any other era. The earth has never and will never ever belong to anyone other than for a fleeting moment bound by laws devised for economic gain. Land will and has never been owned by humans.

    In response to the naive quote “I acknowledge and pay my respects, to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people whose land I stand upon today.”

    Like

    1. This quote is actually part of the reconciliation movement that’s slowly happening in Australia. It comes in two parts. The one I listed here – which is an acknowledgement of country. The second part can only be done by an Aboriginal elder. And it’s called Welcome to Country.

      Therefore this quote is not about my thoughts on land ownership. 😁

      You can read more about it here: https://www.commonground.org.au/learn/acknowledgement-of-country

      Like

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