Spirit Island Board Game Review

You can find a video version of this review here: Spirit Island Review [Board Game] – YouTube

Overview

Spirit Island is a cooperative game for 1 to 4 players. You play as one of 8 unique and powerful spirits inhabiting an island that’s facing colonization by hostile Invaders.

You work with the native Dahan and the other spirits, gathering energy and executing earth-shattering powers to destroy entire cities, frighten the invaders, or otherwise impede their progress. Spirits all work together with the eventual goal of pushing the invaders from the island for good, through force or fear.

To win, you must either lower the Invaders numbers past a certain threshold or frighten them off the island entirely before they do too much damage to the land itself or finish their invasion.

Components

Spirit Island comes with a wide variety of components, as well as a load of different cards. The four map tiles are made of sturdy cardboard and are modular, allowing you to place them together in a variety of ways. The Invader board is equally sturdy

The 8 spirits contained in the box are also made of thick and sturdy cardboard and are double sided. There’s a lot of text crammed on to these boards, but it’s pretty easy on the eyes with how everything is laid out.

The array of cards are good quality. I’ve played a ton of Spirit Island, and the cards are holding up despite my poor shuffling skills. The Adversary and Scenario cards are a little flimsy, but it doesn’t affect the gameplay. They are on ugly side as far as layouts go, however.

All the little tokens and pieces are either made from cardboard or plastic, with the exception of the Dahan Huts which are made out of wood. There is an interesting parallel to be drawn here. That the environmentally destructive Invaders are made from plastic and the native’s wood.

The components are on the cheaper end, but they look good and serve their functions well. The reality is, flashy pieces never improve a game, but they do raise the price. Spirit Island isn’t a cheap game as it is. I’d rather games use cheaper components than be prohibitively expensive for people who would otherwise really enjoy them.

On the flip side, the artwork is stunning on the Spirits, power cards, and game box. The game’s board and pieces are a mixture of bright colors and when taken together, grants the game a great table presence. This is a game that’s easily identifiable at a glance and has its own distinct visual personality.

Theme

It’s nearly impossible to divorce the gameplay of Spirit island from its theme. They intertwine mechanically in ways that are truly impressive. Thematically you’re playing powerful elemental Spirits who are using incredible powers to push back a hostile Invasion.

The Spirits themselves have non-standard but fitting names. Instead of Lightning, you have Lightning’s Swift Strike. Rather than just Ocean, you have Ocean’s Hungry Grasp.

The game’s setting and theme are so well built into the game, that thinking about how the actions are playing out in the game world can go a long way toward helping you learn Spirit Island’s complexity.

The Spirits, powers, and abilities function in a believable way with how they affect the world. Understanding that, can open your mind to how the mechanics work in a more meaningful way than staring at a group of icons, words, and numbers.

Ocean’s Hungry Grasp affects the shorelines, pushing its presence on to the coast, and recalling it every few rounds. Just like the waves of the Ocean crash and recede. Bringer of Dreams and Nightmares can never cause direct damage. Everything it does, it does in the minds of mortals. Even if it summons a pillar of flame, it’s all an illusion and causes fear, but not damage.

Thunderspeaker walks among the native Dahan like a general, commanding them, and moving with them. A power named Call of the Dahan Way has a player replace an explorer with a Dahan, as they literally convert the invaders to their way of life.

A power called Delusions of Danger has a player push an explorer from one land to another, as they were deluded into seeing a threat that wasn’t there and fled. A cleansing flood deals damage, yes. But it also wipes away blight the invaders may have caused.

The entire game, from top to bottom is molded in this exact way. If a mechanic is ever confusing, think of what it’s doing in the world of the game. Odds are it will line up with the mechanic or ability almost perfectly.

This is all aided once again, by fantastic artwork that helps depict these powers and iconography that generally makes rational sense.

Gameplay

Spirit Island is a complex game with deep strategy and an incredible amount of player choice each turn. Each of the 8 Spirits are very unique with completely different playstyles, special rules, innate powers, and power cards.

The defensive Vital Strength of the Earth might follow the same base rules as River Surges in Sunlight, but they have different mechanics tied to how they do it.

To win the game, the Spirits must work together to destroy or remove as many Invaders as possible. The more afraid the Invaders are, the lower their threshold before they flee the island.

In practical terms, this means that at the start of the game when the Invaders are unafraid, every single one of them must be removed. But by reaching terror level 2, the spirits only need to remove the towns and cities and at terror level 3, only the cities. If they manage to push the terror level beyond 3, they automatically win.

The Spirits lose if the Invaders deal too much blight to the island, if a Spirit is ever killed by having all of its presence removed or if the Invader deck runs out.

Each round the spirits grow by picking an option on their board, each spirit has different options. This might mean gaining energy, placing presence, or gaining new power cards.

After which comes the power phase where players pay energy to play powers. Players act together, not in turns, and are free to coordinate the entire time. Powers are split between fast and slow, fast powers activate before the Invaders and the slow powers after. This means the players must plan ahead.

When the Invaders go, they attack the land and the Dahan, then they build and explore. The top card of the invader deck is pulled and they explore in the land type shown, be it mountains, forests, sands, or wetlands. On the next turn, they build where they explored. The turn after, they attack where they built.

Invaders have varying amounts of health and attack power between explorers, towns, and cities, and play continues like this until one side has won.

Given how the Invaders work, spirits never know where they will explore next, but they can plan for where they are going to build and attack.

When you combine this with the fast and slow power mechanic, it leaves open a ton of room for incredibly satisfying combo plays. One player could, for example, draw a bunch of Invaders to the coastline for the next player to sweep them away with a Tsunami.

The game also features a feeling of escalation. The spirits start out weak and grow in power over time. In the late game, they begin wielding earth-shattering power. At the same time, the Invasion ramps up in speed the longer the game goes on. Every game tends to be an intense race of the Sprits attacking, countering, and defending the land as the invader’s pace increases.

The amount of strategy, player choice, and planning in Spirit Island can not be understated. It’s one of the most tightly knit and mechanically sound systems I have ever played. This is a game that you can tell was meticulously play tested to a high degree, and it pays off in spades.

While the game is fantastic in multiplayer, it’s just as strong in solo play. Everything in the game scales in a linear fashion with the number of players. The number of boards, fear required to progress, and blight required to lose scale with each player added.

In fact, the start of every multiplayer game largely feels like a bunch of people starting a solo game together. It’s as the game progresses that teamwork begins to shine. This also means the game works well at any player count, from 1 to 4.

This is important. There’s nothing worse than buying a board game, and it just sits on the shelf because getting a bunch of adults together with busy schedules is like herding cats. Spirit Island can hit the table at any time. Whether you’re playing alone or with just one other, the experience is not a lesser one.

Spirit Island is also a game that will last a long time, maybe even forever. The replay value is insane. The variety of spirits, board combinations, and major and minor power cards already keep things fresh, but that’s just the beginning.

The game also comes with four scenarios and three adversaries. Each adversary all have several degrees of difficulty and all of them have different effects on the game.

The Kingdom of Sweden can sway the Dahan to their side at the base level. But also cause more blight from heavy mining, and have fine steel for tools and guns that make them deal more damage, depending on the difficulty you play.

One scenario has you protecting the inner heart of the islands, while another has the Dahan fighting back in an aggressive insurrection. You can get hundreds of hours out of Spirit Island and since the game functions well at any player count, you can easily find the time to use those hours.

The Bad

Despite the heaping of praise I just poured into the game, there are a couple of problems that I do have with it. Spirit Island packed a ton of content into one box, but sacrifices still had to be made in a few spots

As the players gather fear, they gain fear cards that activate before the Invaders act, the low number of fear cards means they repeat often. Likewise, you are supposed to play with a random blight card, essentially once the island gets a certain amount of blight, the card flips, and something bad happens. Ideally, you won’t know what.

The game only comes with two blight cards, so it’s not all that varied. The game can also be kind of predictable. The only unknown of each round is where the Invaders will explore. It lacks the kind of unpredictable anticipation that many other co-op games have.

This also means you can potentially solve the game many rounds in advance since you know precisely what’s going to happen. Once you hit that point, the last rounds feel stale.

I do want to note, that the game has two expansions and both of them address these complaints directly. I’ll be reviewing them in the future.

I also take issue with time limits in games. Let me be clear, Spirit Island has one, but it’s not strict, and it rarely feels like it’s even there. But that also means the few times it’s ever come up has felt incredibly anti-climatic.

The Invader deck has 12 cards, when they run out, you lose. IF they run out, you are deep in the later stages of the game. The spirits are wielding incredible power every turn, yet if you haven’t won, the invaders must be making things very intense. It’s a nail biter, and then…the last card flips, wah-wah, game over. It’s very rare, but that makes it sting that much more

Verdict

Spirit Island is a high strategy game with a ton of variety, player choice, and replay value. It’s the mechanical Adonis of board games and has quite easily taken my number one spot. Everything about it just works incredibly well and feels good. The way it blends its thematic presence with game design is nearly flawless.

The few complaints I have mostly boil down to things the game wanted to include but had to draw a line somewhere. The fact that expansions address many of them confirms that much.

It’s also a very complex game, but I don’t consider this a negative. Complexity is not a taboo thing to be shunned, if it was, we would all only play Scrabble and Monopoly.

I always encourage gamers to slowly push their limits and move on to heavier and heavier games. That doesn’t mean you should bust out Spirit Island to a group of fresh-faced gamers. Unless you want to see their heads explode and scrap grey matter from your table and game pieces.

But it means that since Spirit Island is so well designed, that the complexity is a good thing. It offers a ton of fun, variety, and immense replay value. This is a game you need to have on your shelf, but beware, once it hits the table, it may never leave again.

You may also enjoy my review of Valor & Villainy: Minions of Mordak.

Pros

  • Great blending of mechanics and theme
  • Fantastic Artwork and table presence
  • Very high in strategy and player choice
  • Satisfyingly complex
  • Massive replay value
  • Optional Scenarios and Adversaries
  • 8 unique Spirits that play very differently
  • Great at any player count, including solo play

Cons

  • Lack of variety in fear and blight cards can be a bummer
  • Missing that flair of uncertainty that the co-op genre usually has
  • Though rare, the time limit feels anti-climatic if you lose from it