Spirit Island: Branch and Claw Review

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

Overview

Branch and Claw is an expansion for the Spirit Island Board Game. Spirit Island is required to utilize the content found in Branch and Claw. This expansion adds new content to Spirit Island all the way across. It has new Spirits, powers, and scenarios while introducing multiple game-altering mechanics.

The new mechanics add additional depth and some much-needed unpredictability to the game in the form of new tokens and a brand new type of card that plants itself directly in the center of Spirit Islands gameplay.

Components

The vast majority of the content added in Branch and Claw is in the form of cards. It adds additional fear, blight, and power cards to the base games’ existing content. There isn’t much point in spending too time on the component quality as it largely matches that of the base game.

The components are on the simple side, but look good, serve their purpose, and have beautiful artwork. The new tokens follow the same principle. I always appreciate simpler components that bring the overall price down to a reasonable level, rather than fancy ones that could make the game inaccessible to a great many people.

Branch and Claw does add a nice Invader Board extension that is placed above the base games Invader Board. This helps you organize a place on the table for the new tokens and event cards, alongside the active Scenario or Adversary if you are playing with one.

As far as the actual content is concerned. It nearly doubles the number of power cards in the base game, completely doubles the number of fear cards, and more than doubles the number of blight cards.

It includes two new spirits, complete with unique sets of power cards. One new adversary, four new scenarios, a deck of event cards, and brand new tokens. You get a hefty amount of components for the price tag.

Tokens

Branch and Claw adds and utilizes four new types of tokens that permeate every aspect of the game. Some are now added to the games set up, new power and fear cards can use them, the new spirits are based on them, and they combine with the new event cards.

Wilds tokens denotes an area with a harsh or overgrown piece of nature that makes a region difficult to navigate. It could be dense jungles, a confusing desert, or maze-like mountains. A Wilds token prevents the next explore action in a region, discarding it instead.

Disease token represents illness, plague, or some other pestilence. It makes an area difficult to grow inside and stops the next build action the invaders would attempt in that region, discarding the token instead.

Strife represents internal conflict within the Invader’s ranks or a lack of cohesion. Strife tokens stop an invader from dealing damage and are then discarded.

Beasts represent all manner of wild creatures that can be found on the island. Beasts are less static than the other tokens. They don’t do anything on their own, but effects from cards can cause them to act in different ways.

Tokens add another layer of depth, strategy, and management to the game, and yes, a bit of complexity. But complexity, when done well, isn’t a taboo object to be shunned. It should be embraced. Once you’re familiar with the mechanics of the base game, it really takes no time at all to adapt to the usage of tokens.

The tokens allow for an additional layer of planning, beyond the immediate effects of a Spirits cards. They aren’t always beneficial either, at times beasts may prowl the friendly Dahan, for example, or they too may be impacted in some other way.

Having the right token in the right place and at the right time can feel immensely satisfying, potentially curbing an otherwise bad turn. The tokens are also used to make the game more unpredictable. They can be added or invoked by the other unique mechanic added in Branch and Claw: The Event cards.

Event Cards

Event cards are a new type of card that are drawn and resolved at the start of the Invader Phase after the blighted island effect. In my review of Spirit Island, one of my complaints was the lack of unpredictability and tension of the unknown. Event cards remedy this completely.

Each Event card has several effects that are all resolved. First, something happens that is usually based on what stage of fear the invaders are at, or whether or not the island is healthy or blighted.

The Invaders may have discovered Promising Farmland and place a town instead of an explorer when exploring, or Blight may suddenly spread. Then the island usually reacts in some way. Beasts may move, or attack and Diseases may sprout up. Then the Dahan might take an action, migrating, defending, or even attacking the invaders on their own.

Some events present players with a choice. For example, If Missionaries arrive to convert the Dahan, do the Spirits intervene? Most choices usually have a cost of some kind and have different effects depending on what the players choose.

The event cards serve several purposes. First, they add a degree of unpredictability that the game direly needed. The random element never outshines strategy and planning, but can throw kinks into it instead. Events can be harmful or helpful depending on the situation and they never really feel unfair either way. It keeps the game’s tension at an engaging level. Wins and losses aren’t foreseen many turns in advance as often as before, as the island is ever-changing.

Secondly, it makes the Island itself feel more alive. It’s no longer a static piece of cardboard. The Invaders act, the island and its animals shift, and the Dahan themselves maneuver through it all. The game is no longer a simple shifting of actions between Invaders and Spirits. It emulates a living breathing world in board game form, an impressive feat.

That said, while Branch and Claw adds much need variety to the other types of cards, event cards face a similar problem. There are 25 event cards which means the variation, while unpredictable is limited when using Branch and Claw alone. Another expansion expands upon this and I will be reviewing it in the future.

Spirits

Branch and Claw introduces two new unique Spirits that take advantage of the new mechanics. Sharp Fangs Behind the Leaves and Keeper of the Forbidden Wilds.

Sharp Fangs Behind the Leaves is a Spirit of Beasts and largely focuses on them. It calls forth, moves, and provokes the beasts to attack. The Spirit’s presence can travel with the beasts, and it really captures the feeling of a primal entity stalking the jungles and preying on the invaders.

It has an interesting playstyle mixture of aggression, fear generation, and control. Yet, players must also be ready to adapt at a moment’s notice, due to the fact that beasts are often manipulated by the event cards.

Keeper of the Wilds is a slow-growing spirit that embodies the feeling of a choking defense. Not only does it makes lands hard for invaders to penetrate once it gains a foothold, but it will also swallow them whole with the power of the wilds, all while shoving the Dahan out of It’s lands.

It likes to utilize the new Wilds tokens. Preventing exploration and stopping the invaders from ever gaining a foothold in the first place, then making them regret it if they do.

Both new Spirits are unique, fun, and balanced. Given how well the base game Spirits are crafted, that’s not surprising. That said, and perhaps I’m being greedy. But I would have liked to have seen two more Spirits in the expansion.

Since one Spirit is focused on Beast Tokens and another on Wilds. I would have thought that the other two tokens would also have a related spirit. Branch and Claw introduces so much content, however, that this complaint is definitely from my pettier side.

Other Stuff

The Fear and Blight cards were very limited in the base game and received a much-needed boost with Branch and Claw. Likewise, the pool of Minor and Major powers get a massive boost in variety, much of which uses the new token types.

The powers themselves are a ton of fun and add even more options for Spirits to strategize over. In particular, new Major Powers such as Volcanic Eruption add to that super-powered feel of the late game. My personal favorite being Cast Down into the Briny Deep. If you use it with the right elements, the Spirit practically flips the table, swallowing an entire board into the ocean.

Branch and Claw adds a new adversary in the form of The Kingdom of France running a plantation colony. The destructive nature of the plantations means the spirits can lose if the island simply has a certain number of cities and they blight the land far easier.

The Rituals of the Destroying Flame Scenario pits the spirits against a strange immunity protecting the invaders from damage. Powers long Forgotten brings a sense of exploration and discovery to the game. While Second Wave allows players to take part in follow up games in a kind of mini-campaign. Finally, the Ward the Shores Scenario grants a focus on a new type of victory condition to hide the island from invaders.

Individually, each scenario and the new adversary is well designed and fun. Taken together they add even more replay value to a game that was already exceptionally replayable.

Verdict

Spirit Island was already a stellar game. It just needed a bit more variety and a flair of unpredictability. Branch and Claw delivers both. It vastly expands the various card pools while bringing great new mechanics that largely solved my few complaints with the base game.

Adding Branch and Claw to the core game brings the board game exceptionally close to perfection. Its own hiccups are minor, and you gain a great deal of content for the price. If you enjoy Spirit Island, adding Branch and Claw will elevate your enjoyment even more.

You might also enjoy my review of the base game, Spirit Island.

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Pros

  • Expands the content of Spirit Island across the board
  • Two great new Spirits to play
  • Includes a nifty Invader board extension
  • New Tokens and their mechanics adds more depth to the game
  • Content expands Spirit Islands already insane replay value
  • Event cards bring the element of unpredictability the game was sorely missing

Cons

  • It feels like the expansion was meant to have two additional spirits to match the tokens
  • Event cards are a complete game changer and the star of the show, but 25 cards is a bit light