Horizons of Spirit Island is a smaller and more compact version of Spirit Island made to appeal to a larger crowd and onboard new players. Horizons is to Spirit Island what Jaws of the Lion is to Gloomhaven.
A video version of this review can be found on my YouTube Channel.
It’s no secret that I love Spirit Island. While some have come close, no other game has managed to dislodge Spirit Island as my favorite board game.
However, I do tend to be wary of these entry-level-style boxes. Spirit Island is a complex game, but I’ve always felt it was straightforward to learn because of how well the game connects its theme and mechanisms. Many rules questions can literally be answered by looking at what any given power or card is attempting to do inside the game world.
I was worried that Horizons would sacrifice the “Spirit” of the game to accommodate more mass appeal. My fears turned out to be unfounded, however. The core of the game remains intact with Horizons of Spirit Island, it very much still plays like the game I’ve grown to love.
In fact, the five new Spirits featured in Horizons can be used with the core Spirit Island game and its expansions right alongside every other existing Spirit.
Instead of gutting the game, Horizons condenses the experience down into a beginner-friendly box that is less than half the price of Spirit Island. That alone greatly lessens the barrier of entry for those who have yet to experience my favorite game.
Horizons of Spirit Island won’t have the same replay value as the larger box, especially with expansions. However, the very core of Spirit Island, in general, makes it replayable. You can get many, many hours of gameplay out of Horizons, and by the time it wears thin, you will probably be ready to pick up the core game of Spirit Island anyway.
|Gideon’s Bias||Horizons of Spirit Island Information|
|Review Copy Used: Yes||Publisher: Greater Than Games|
|Number of Plays: 10+||Designers: Eric Reuss|
|Player Counts Played: All||Number of Players: 1-3|
|Fan of Genre: Yes||Genre: Co-op area control and hand management|
|Fan of Weight: Yes||Weight: Heavy|
|Gaming Groups Thoughts: Loved It||Price: $29.99|
Much like its larger sibling, Horizons of Spirit Island includes tons of great-looking components. The double-sided game board is brightly colored and durable. Most gameplay aspects are featured right on the board including areas for various tokens and cards.
The board also displays some of the game elements to make things easy to remember, such as which invaders generate fear when destroyed and the victory conditions. It’s all pretty nifty.
All of the various cardboard tokens representing the Invaders, Dahan, Blight, Energy, and Fear look great. I actually prefer them to the plastic and wooden ones included in the original Spirit Island. However, they are a bit too large for the board.
As the game progresses, individual lands get pretty cluttered, and tokens often have to be stacked or squished together. Not only does it end up making a pretty game into an eyesore, but it makes the game state visually difficult to process, and I could see newer players struggle with it.
The Spirit presence tokens are similar to the base games but feature different colors. One nitpicky complaint I have is that the orange’s presence tokens and reminder tokens don’t match in color. It’s a fairly inconsequential, complaint, however.
You get a stack of cards split between minor powers, major powers, fear, and invader cards. They have some updated wording but are otherwise the same as the ones found in Spirit Island. The artwork is still, of course, great.
The five spirit panels look great. They are much thinner than the bulky ones found in the original. The trade-off is that they are much easier to store.
Each of these beginner-friendly spirits offers some clarification written right on their boards about a few game elements relevant to them, and that’s a great touch. Horizons also comes with two rule books, the standard one and a quick start guide for new players.
Spirit Island products have always come with enough components to justify the price, and Horizons is no different. In my head, I had the game priced $10 higher than it actually was due to the amount of stuff contained in the box. That rarely happens, and I consider it high praise when it does.
In Horizons of Spirit Island invaders have come to colonize the island. In doing so, they damage the land, disrupt ecosystems and harm the natives. The Island is home to many elemental spirits that don’t take kindly to this intrusion.
The Spirits aren’t used to this kind of conflict, so as time goes on, they become stronger as they slowly grow their power. By that same token, the invaders grow ever more persistent with every cycle. The Spirits must drive them off before the island is blighted to the point that it can’t recover.
The Dahan will fight back to protect their home, and some spirits choose to ally with them, while others are indifferent, so long as the island itself survives.
Each round invaders ravage the land, build towns and cities and explore. They always follow the order in which invader cards were pulled. For example, if a drawn card has invaders explore the mountains, they will build their next round, and ravage it the round after that. This allows the Spirits to try and plan ahead, they don’t know where the invaders will explore next, but they know where they will build and ravage.
Every spirit plays drastically different and has its own innate powers and abilities in addition to unique power cards. Spirits grow their power over time, spreading their presence to different lands granting them extra energy and card plays when they do so.
Card Play and Cooperation
Players take simultaneous turns that are split between phases. Cards cost energy to play and can be fast or slow. Fast powers trigger before the invader’s act, while slow ones trigger after. Cards also grant elements that can allow a spirit to trigger innate powers printed on their spirit board.
One of the game’s biggest strengths is just how well its mechanisms flow together to encourage teamwork and cooperation without quarterbacking.
Since there are no turns, players are free to collaborate together without turn order being an obstacle. For example, maybe one player triggers Terrifying Nightmares and uses it to push invaders into land for another player to target with Talons of Lightning.
There’s so much information present at any given time that any attempt to quarterback would take a large amount of effort and time. It isn’t as easy as just telling another player what to do, because what to do is never that straightforward. Not because it’s hard to understand, but because there are so many present factors. Instead, communication in Spirit island is much more natural.
“I can cover this land, but not that one, can anyone help?”
“I can give someone +2 range with their powers, does anyone need it?”
“You’re going to deal 8 damage there? Let me trigger my power ahead of you, so I can shove more invaders into that land for you to destroy”
Spirit Island captures the very essence of teamwork as the spirits need to work together as they each have their own strengths and weaknesses. Yet, each one is so different, and the power cards that players draw vary so drastically that it’s exceedingly difficult for one player to command another.
Horizons of Spirit Island, and Spirit Island as a whole still make up one of the most thematic experiences I’ve ever played. Not in the sense that it’s trying to place you within the game’s atmosphere the way a game such as Nemesis might.
But the fact that nearly every action in the game translates logically to something happening in the game world. So much of the game’s interactions can be clarified by simply imagining what a given power is doing inside the imagined world of Spirit Island.
Fathomless Mud of the Swamps is a spirit of mud-soaked bogs. It has a special rule called Offer No Firm Foundations. At its places of power (any land where it has two or more presence in) invaders can’t build towns or cities, they can only add explorers. Why? The Spirit has made the land so soft buildings would sink. All the invaders can do is make camp instead.
A card called Vengence of the Dead looks wordy and complicated, but it’s really not. It generates fear but deals no damage on its own. Instead, it deals damage every time any city, town, or Dahan hut is destroyed. Why? Because for the round that land has become zombie central. Anytime anything else destroys population centers, they rise as the living dead to inflict further damage to the invaders.
Call of the Dahan Ways peacefully converts invaders, as they choose to join with the Dahan, leaving their colonialism behind. Cleansing Flood wipes to clean the blight from a land that is close to a wetland and invaders with it. However, if a spirit can power it up with enough water elements. The flood becomes massive, dealing 10 damage which can sweep away entire cities.
So many board games wear their theme as window dressing. Others attempt to connect it to its mechanisms, but end up with severe logic gaps. Spirit Island implements its theme into its gameplay cohesively in a way that flows together better than nearly any other game I can think of.
Usually, when I want to talk about a game’s theme, I split it into its own category. With Horizons of Spirit Island, there’s no point. You can’t separate its gameplay and theme, they are intertwined too tight, and that’s fantastic.
The way gameplay ramps up in Horizons of Spirit Island is pretty spectacular. In the beginning, spirits are weak, and the invaders are slow. As the game progresses, Spirits end up being able to wield earth-shattering power several times per round while the invaders are arriving by the shipload and building very fast.
It makes the whole game feel like a tense conflict of keeping with the invaders while they in turn attempt to keep up with you. You won’t be able to protect every land, and it’s rare that you can wipe out every invader. The end goal is to frighten them to the point that they give up on the island altogether.
You gain fear cards as you strike terror into the invaders, and the cards themselves are always beneficial. Run out the fear deck, and you win a fear victory. But fear plays a part in another victory condition as well. At the beginning of the game, you win if you wipe out all the invaders. At terror level 2, you need to wipe out all towns and cities. Finally, at terror level 3, wiping out all the cities is enough to make the colonizers turn tail and run.
The fear factor lends more power to the ramp-up. The invaders grow most desperate to gain a foothold on the island, but grow more afraid as they do. The more they fear you, the stronger the effects of your fear cards. There’s a catch though if the invaders ever run out of invader cards, they have completed the invasion, and you have failed to repel them.
The way the game ramps up and maintains the tension makes every game exciting. You get the satisfaction of growing in power every game, and the gleeful joy of using that power to bring down thunderous lightning, roaring tidal waves, and world-breaking earthquakes. At the same time the speed at which the invaders spread means that while you feel powerful, the game remains a challenge. A balance few games can manage, but Horizons of Spirit Island nails it.
The New Player Experience
The major selling point of Horizons of Spirit Island compared to the base game is that it’s a great deal less expensive and meant to make the onboarding experience easier despite Spirit Islands’ heavyweight. One of the best things about Horizon’s particular implementation is that it’s still very much ingrained within the Spirit Island identity. Half of my review could be interchanged with Spirit Island and be accurate, they are the same game.
What Horizons does differently wouldn’t be discernable to a new player at all, only a veteran like me. You don’t know what you’re missing, and that’s a very good thing. The box feels like a complete experience because it is one.
Some of the changes are simple wording and clarification. Another change is the absence of additional mechanisms such as the lack of blight cards. But two big factors are what make Horizons succeed in its goal of being new player friendly.
The first is its quick start guide. This book walks you through setting up and the first round of a game. It selects your spirits, and your powers and has you set up the invader cards in a specific order so that it can teach you how to play. The book tells you what powers to play, and how they interact, it even shows you how players work together using examples that you play out in real-time.
It’s honestly brilliant, and the true beauty of it is that once that first round is over, it takes off the training wheels and has you finish playing because, by that point, you pretty much know how. There might be a few specifics that come up and require you to reference the rulebook. But you will already have such a solid foundation for how to play, and that you will be able to more easily make sense of whatever it is you’re referencing.
The only catch is, the quick start guide assumes a 3-player game. If you run it with less, you’re going to have to control additional spirits, which could muddy up your learning. I don’t recommend doing that.
The second-way Horizons helps onboard new players is through the five available spirits. Each one is a low-complexity spirit that is even simpler than the low-complexity spirits in the base game. However, the reason for the lowered complexity largely stems from clarity and easy-to-understand concepts. Not a lessening of power or decision space.
These spirits were also built with teamwork in mind, as each one has at least one power meant to work with another Spirit. In the original Spirit Island, I found it was common for new players to forget that they were at a table and would focus solely on their own side of the island. In a higher-difficulty game, they would have to break that habit. With Horizons, the spirits subtly encourage you to look beyond yourself from the beginning, and its works really well.
Horizons of Spirit Island once again manages to do what I think a lot of games fail at. It really is a great entry point into the world of Spirit Island without sacrificing the core game.
Spirit Island veterans can hold conversations with folks who have only played Horizons and connect on the same level. Horizons of Spirit Island isn’t simply baby’s first Spirit Island, it’s just streamlined, and this is the rare context where I’m using that word as a compliment.
The New Spirits
The five new Spirits are well-designed and can easily be enjoyed by Spirit Island veterans in addition to new players. Each one has strengths and weaknesses and roles that are more defined than in other spirits. Each one wears its theme on its sleeve, and its mechanisms reflect that.
Fathomless Mud of the Swamp creates bogs that make it nearly impossible to gain a foothold. It shifts those bogs around the island with the Spreading and Dreadful Mire power. It drives away invaders with Foul Vapors, allows Dahan Passage by opening the waterways, and defends lands with thorny thickets.
Rising Heat of Stone and Sand lowers the health of invaders by making their lands unbearably hot. It allies with Dahan herders, forces Invaders to skip actions due to heat exhaustion, and gifts energy to other spirits.
Eyes Watch from the Trees subjects invaders into a horror film of its own making, as invaders vanish, never to be seen again. Those that survive are chased through the trees with eerie noises, and they can keep watch in other spirits’ lands for defense.
Devouring Teeth Lurks Underfoot is an aggressive sandworm spirit that wreaks havoc on its rampages. Its markings frighten invaders to the point that they can hardly attack, and it can gift its fury to other spirits.
Sun-Bright Whirlwind uses windstorms to damage and push invaders around the island and can gift extra range or speed to its fellow spirits. It may seem harmless until its winds shove invaders into its’ more violent brethren.
The five spirits are not only beginner friendly but are great additions for veterans to add their roster. Their playstyles are unique, even amid the immense variety that Spirit Island and its expansions offer. They fit right into the framework seamlessly.
Horizons of Spirit Island isn’t entirely perfect. I’ve already mentioned a few flaws. The way the board gets crowded, and the fact that the quick start guide assumes a three-player game. But, being a compact version of Spirit Island also means that it inherits the base game’s flaws, or even worsens some of them.
Spirit Island has a problem with eventually becoming predictable. Invaders only ever explore, build and ravage. After a while, you can reasonably solve the game, as the only randomness involved is where the explorers land. On the same note, the challenge has a lower ceiling due to the lack of scenarios and adversaries that the bigger version includes.
Spirit Island tackled this problem with expansions and is a better game for it. However, those additions are more complex and obviously weren’t included in Horizons. Now it is important to note, that by the time you ever arrive at that point you will already have played Horizons more than most games in your collection, and you are likely ready to branch out more.
Horizons of Spirit Island is a fantastic entry point that doesn’t compromise Spirit Island’s soul. It has an excellent onboarding system for new players, and its compact nature is further enhanced with needed clarifications that make the game much easier to understand for a new player.
Its value is more limited for veterans like me. It’s difficult for me to play without the additions that the base game and its expansions add. However, the fact that the five new Spirits are compatible with the rest of the Spirit Island line was a brilliant move that I appreciate. The Spirits alone make the box worth it for me, in addition to the nifty tokens and the second set of invader cards with new art.
The thing is, I generally believe that board game complexity is often overstated. And that we shouldn’t treat new players like toddlers, fearful to show them anything more complicated than UNO in fear of them running off screaming. When I see the word streamlined, I hear dumbed down, because that’s often been the case.
Horizons, however, is legitimately streamlined and worthy of the actual definition. It doesn’t treat the players like they are stupid. Instead, it adds clarity and a great quick-start guide to get them into the game as fast as possible, while still understanding how to play it.
Anytime I teach Spirit Island in the future, it will be with Horizons of Spirit Island. I’m giving it my Golden Shield award.
Important Note: Horizons of Spirit Island is a Target Exclusive product. However, folks outside of the United States can pick it up as part of their pledge for Spirits Island’s newest expansion. Nature Incarnate on Backerkit.
Interested in the card holders I use in my photos? They are from InfinitionsTabletop on Etsy
More Spirit Island Reviews
Pick Up Horizons of Spirit Island from these Stores
- A compact version of one of the best co-op board games available.
- Great onboarding system for teaching new players how to play
- Five great spirits that are easy to learn but offer tons of decision space
- Horizons places a larger focus on teamwork early on in the learning process
- Inexpensive Price
- Plays great at any player count
- The large tokens tend to make the board really crowded
- Horizons is solvable after a point since it’s missing additions that core expansions added to solve it
- The quick start guide assumes three players and is effective if used with less