Do you think Catan likes being settled? What if it doesn’t? What if it really doesn’t? What if there are already people living on the island and powerful spirits who will stop at nothing to protect it? R. Eric Reuss and Fabled Nexus aim to answer those questions with the new game Spirit Island. After a very successful Kickstarter campaign Spirit Island is available for everyone to buy, and if I haven’t convinced you to do so by the end of this review, I can only consider it a failure on my part. This game is that good.
In so many area control games you have players gently competing with each other, taking locations or resources without ever really drawing blood, and only encountering real resistance through events from the game itself. In Spirit Island, you are the event. You and your friends play as true forces of nature who want nothing more than to terrify, destroy, and ultimately expel these colonial invaders who have dared trespass upon your sacred land. They’ll be spreading out quickly though, so you and your friends (along with the native inhabitants of the island, the Dahan) will need to work together to scare them off.
This game is all about Fear. At the start, the invaders are not afraid of you and are settling in your lands without concern. At this point, the only way to claim victory is to destroy every last invader on the island. Not an easy task. However, the more you scare them the easier it is to convince them to leave. Generate enough fear and they’ll abandon everything they’ve built and leave you alone, but that’s also easier said than done.
A round of Spirit Island works like this. First each player has a Growth Phase, and depending on the spirit they’ve chosen this will give you a few different options. Some are better at spreading their Presence across the island; some generate Energy quickly, which fuels their powers; some draw new power cards more frequently, making them more adaptable. No matter which spirit and which growth option you choose, this will always improve your effectiveness in some way. After Growth you’ll play power cards from your hand, organizing with the other players for maximum effect. And here’s where the game’s main puzzle really starts to take off.
See, your powers are either fast or slow. If they’re fast, that means they activate before the invaders have had their turn, potentially destroying them before they can do anything dangerous. Obviously then the slow powers activate after the invaders have acted, meaning you’ll have to plan for what’s to come. This isn’t hard to do because you’ll usually have a good sense of what’s coming during the Invader Phase, but it’s something you’ll always have to keep in mind.
Take a look at the picture above. Those little cards that say “J” and “Coastal Lands,” those tell you which land types the invaders are activating this round. There are four types: Jungle, Mountain, Sands, and Wetlands (coastal lands are locations adjacent to the sea). They’ll Ravage the first land type (Jungles in this case), attacking the Dahan and the land itself, adding Blight tokens and generally just being jerks about the whole thing. Then they’ll build on the second land type, adding villages or cities, but only if there are already invaders on those spaces. And lastly you’ll flip over the top card on the explorer deck and add explorers to the matching lands, after which you’ll discard the leftmost card and slide the rest over one space.
After they have their turn your slow powers will activate, and then anything that was damaged but not destroyed will heal and you’ll start a new round. As you can see, the invader actions are mostly predictable, meaning if you can successfully work together you should be able to disrupt the actions that are already in motion and prevent the actions that are yet to come. And you’ll need to work together because each Spirit has strengths and weaknesses. Some deal loads of damage, destroying buildings in great swathes of destruction, some can protect the land, others spur on the Dahan to fight back, or fill Invaders’ minds with terror, but no one spirit can do everything.
While playing the game you’ll also generate fear by destroying buildings or playing certain powers. This will earn you special fear cards, which activate just before the invaders get to act. Earn three fear cards and you’ll up the Terror Level by one, making the game a little easier to win, or winning the game outright if you can do that three times. However, you’ll lose the game if the invaders draw all of their explore cards and successfully colonize the island, if they add too much blight to the land, or if any spirit loses all of their Presence on the island.
I’m sure you’re starting to see just how much depth this game has to offer. Each spirit is unique, with its own personal starting powers, innate abilities, growth options, and completely different player boards. And that’s just the start because what I’ve described is only the base game. There are tons of additional elements that range from subtly tweaking the gameplay to adding entirely new mechanics. Tired of the base game’s win/lose conditions? Add one of the four scenarios. Think the island is too random and colorful? Flip it over to the thematic side (shown above). Think the invaders are too impersonal? Give them one of three different identities with six levels of difficulty. Go nuts!
This might sound like a lot, and it is, but don’t go thinking that it’s too much to handle. All of these extra elements are optional, and while the base game takes a few rounds to grasp, Spirit Island does an amazing job of scaling the complexity for new players. At the beginning of the game you can only affect a small portion of the map. This is a bit limiting, and you’ll want to expand relatively quickly, but while you’re still new to the game it gives you an easier time focusing on what’s important. By the time you’ve spread out enough to work with your teammates, you’ll get the mechanics well enough to enact the devastating combos that are possible in the endgame. There are also different complexity levels on each of the spirits, letting you know which ones you should play first and which you should save for your second or third game.
I could go on and on about this game, talking about how well-crafted the mechanics are, how the art and miniatures are absolutely gorgeous, I could dive into how amazingly and unnecessarily deep the lore goes, or I could just gush about how fun it is to play. I could do all of this for much longer than my Geek & Sundry editors will allow. But since we have writing guidelines and you have more internet to see, I’ll just say that this is quite simply the best game I’ve played all year. And though it is a bit expensive at (gulp) $80, it is worth every penny. Good job Mr. Reuss. If we ever meet I plan to firmly shake your hand and beg you to make more games.
Do you have any favorite games that flip the script on the classics? Let us know in the comments.
Image credits: Shea Parker