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The Spill Review

The Spill Board Game Review

The Spill Overview

The Spill is a cooperative crisis management game for 1 to 4 players. An oil rig has had a major accident and is spilling into the ocean unchecked. The marine life are in danger, and it’s up to you to rescue the animals and stem the flow of oil.

You can find a video version of this review on my YouTube Channel.

The Spill doesn’t stray far from the roots of other crisis management games, but it does feature a few interesting aspects that make it stand out. One is an oil rig dice tower that dictates how and where the oil dice fall.

The Spill oil rig dice tower assembled and on the board
The dice tower is nifty, but the stickers are awkwardly oversized.

It’s an exceptionally simple game, but also very challenging. The tide of oil is unrepentant and unforgiving, and the weather itself is a neutral entity. Maybe one day the wind favors you, while another day storms batter your ships and slow you down.

Win conditions are fluid thanks to the variety of goal cards that you can swap between games. You lose if too much oil spills into the ocean resulting in 6 or more spill-outs, or if too much of the marine life is sent to the sick bay. No matter what your goal card says, containing the oil and rescuing animals is always the top priority.

Gideon’s BiasThe Spill Information
Review Copy Used: YesPublisher: Smirk & Dagger/Smirk &Laughter
Number of Plays 7+Designer: Andy Kim
Player Counts Played: 1 & 2Player Count: 1-4
Fan of Genre: NoGenre: Cooperative Crisis Management
Fan of Weight: NoWeight: Gateway/Light
Gaming Groups’ Thoughts: No InterestPrice: $49.99

Presentation

Full boxed contents of The Spill
Everything that The Spill contains

The Spill is a great-looking game with a strong table presence. The centerpiece of which is the oil rig dice tower. Assembling the tower and the perimeter walls is easy enough, but it does take some time. None of it fits back into the box assembled, so it can be somewhat of a pain to set up and put away.

The tower works as a great randomizer by dropping dice into four different quadrants, and it looks pretty cool when fully set up on the board. The stickers are a bit oversized though, which is weird. You could probably trim them down with scissors if it bothers you, however.

The board itself is sturdy and looks great, especially with all the colorful cardboard animal tokens set up. The bright board and animals provide a stark contrast with the murky oil dice, and that’s nice.

The game comes with 8 characters, each with its own character card and ship token. Each ship token is unique, which is a pleasant touch. I’m impressed because almost every four-player co-op game I’ve played has included exactly four characters, it was a nice surprise to find that The Spill had double that number.

The oil rig dice tower disassembled
You can fit the tower in the box by partially disassembling it, the cardboard perimeter walls must be taken apart completely, however.

Beyond that, the game includes a stack of goal and resource cards, a nifty dice bag, a ton of small six-sided dice, and four unique weather dice. Finally, there’s a handful of cardboard weather tokens and generic resource cubes. When put together, The Spill is certainly an eye-catching game with a pretty unique style and aesthetic.

Disaster Mitigation

The Spill is an incredibly simple game, each turn a character gets four action points, and the available actions are clearly laid out on every character’s card making it nice and intuitive.

The Spill's Ship meeples
Every ship meeple is unique

Every turn, new oil dice are dropped into the tower. The number on the dice and the quadrant they land in dictates where they go. Too much oil in a single sector causes a spill-out, possibly causing you to drop more dice in the future, and this is one of the ways you can lose the game. The oil also contaminates healthy animals, and if a turn ends with a die and animal sharing a sector, it’s off to the sick bay.

The Spill may be simple, but it’s an intense challenge with very little room for error. You can’t predict where the oil is going to fall, so you have to mitigate the damage the best you can while attempting to complete your objectives. There are 9 goal cards you can choose from or randomize that range in difficulty. They don’t drastically differ from one another but are different enough that it definitely impacts your approach and I like that a lot.

Marine animals contaminated by oil dice
Oil contaminates marine life, if a turn ends with an Oil Dice and an animal in the same sector, the animal is sent to the sick bay.

No matter your goal, you always have to slow the flow of oil and rescue animals. The board is pretty big, so a single ship will have trouble covering the whole thing. Each character has a specialty they are good at, the Hazmat specialist can remove oil dice for fewer action points for example, while the Marine Vet can rescue a healthy animal for free. Regardless, every character has to pull their own weight in multiple aspects, or the team will get overwhelmed.

A character can push oil back into the bag or remove it from the game entirely at a steep action point cost. But a minimum of three oil dice are dropped at the start of every character’s turn. It’s rarely possible to beat the flow of oil, only slow it down, so you have to constantly move toward your goals because, in a war of attrition, you lose.

Weathering It Out

Each player’s turn is usually lightning fast. The actions are quick to perform and straightforward. You simply need to move the ship to the nearest danger zone you can reach and do what you can. Pushing back the oil is cheap, but a band-aid solution. Removing Oil is more permanent but expensive. Rescuing healthy animals is cheaper than contaminated ones, but the latter is in danger of going to the sick bay.

The extra action portion of the side board
You can gain up to two extra action points, but the next player has to drop extra oil dice into the tower.

If the situation is dire you can take a risk and gain 1 or 2 extra action points, but the next character will have to drop that many extra oil dice on their turn. It’s a nice risk versus reward mechanism that allows you to tackle an emergency now, at the risk of later complications.

Oil is bad, three oil dice in a sector cause a spill-out, advancing your spill-out track. If other dice were to be added to a spill-out, it overflows into an adjacent sector causing another one. The situation can get out of hand quickly. Then there’s a wild card in the form of four weather dice that are mixed into the bag.

Each face of the weather dice does something different and affects every character in the game for an entire turn, such as slowing you down or blocking your character’s specific abilities. One is favorable winds and actually grants you an extra action point. When it happens, it’s like rolling a natural 20 in a role-playing game, and feels just as good.

The +1 AP face of the weather die
Only one side of the weather dice is favorable, but it’s a huge bonus when it shows up.

You have one other tool at your disposal. Each time three or more oil dice are removed or a full set of six different animals are rescued. You’re granted a resource cube that can be applied to a variety of resource cards. These cards have powerful one-time effects that help you out of a tight spot. Such as rescuing an animal out of the sick bay. I like that it further incentivizes you to rescue a variety of animals and remove oil, and you’re rewarded handsomely for the effort.

Sticky Execution

There’s a strong mixture of things I like and appreciate in The Spill, and others that I’m not so hot on. I love the colorful nature of the game, and using the dice tower is disproportionally entertaining and I can’t really explain why. It’s just satisfying to use. The risk versus reward of taking extra action points at the cost of dropping more oil dice is great, and the resource cards are a fantastic tool that really adds to the game.

I’m happy that the game comes with eight characters as opposed to four as most others would have. I also really have to shout out the modular difficulty. You have multiple dials you can tweak between the goal cards and what level of the Spill track you choose to use. More difficult levels will have you dropping more oil dice faster.

The yellow ship in a sector of the board with two oil dice and a seahorse token
Ships have to occupy the same sector as the oil dice or animal to interact with it.

Either way, however, The Spill is exceptionally swingy. Most crisis management games are, but The Spill feels a bit worse in that regard. The pure randomness of the dice and where they land means you can never make any type of tactical prediction. In fact, the game is very reactive. With four players there will be a minimum of twelve oil dice dropped before I get my turn again. There is no type of plan that will survive contact with that many oil dice, my turn will be spent reacting to what happened instead.

The weather dice exacerbate the randomness as getting that awesome +1 AP will feel far different in terms of a challenge than if it lands on any other face. This all means that no matter what difficulty you choose to play on, the game is always going to swing wildly between nearly impossible, to decently easy depending on where the dice fall, literally.

Moral Messaging

I also have to tackle the messaging, this is a subject I tend to be cautious about, but it bothers me, so I’d be remiss not to mention it. No one sits down to make a game about an Oil Spill unless they have a message they wanted to convey. I think that’s great. The problem is, that I feel like the message is weak.

A close up of a turtle token on the game board
Animals only ever get sick in The Spill, not die.

In the abstract, yes we all know oil spills are bad. I can reason that contaminated animals going to the sick bay is a sanitized version of what really happens to them. Maybe that’s part of the problem. In reality, they suffer and then die. I don’t really think The Spill portrays just how devastating an oil spill of this magnitude is. I feel like instead, it’s just taking a terrible disaster and making a fun game out of it.

Now to be perfectly fair, there’s nothing wrong with that. Play any game that features war, and it’s doing the exact same thing, and it never stopped me from praising those games. For me, it’s the intent behind it that matters. If a game wants to have a message, have a message, if not, that’s okay. But if you intend to have a message, don’t make it a weak one.

Even winning a game feels anti-climatic. So I removed X amount of oil, and rescued X amount of animals? Last I checked, the oil was still pouring from the rig, in fact, it was looking really bad right before I checked that last X. I don’t feel like I even stopped the disaster. I feel like I checked some numbers from a list and went home.

Oil dice spilling from the bag
The game comes with a bag full of small six-sided dice.

The plastic tower further cements my annoyance. I’ll be the first to stand up for plastic components in a board game because they generally aren’t expected to go to a landfill. They get played with, sit on a shelf or go to someone else. However, it somewhat soils an environmental message to have a big and unnecessary plastic tower to drop dice in.

Player Count

The Spill runs very close to other crisis management games, such as Pandemic, much closer than I would like. If you read my review of Robinson Crusoe, you will know of the term I coined the Pandemic Effect. The term didn’t age well, thanks to the real-world Pandemic, but I began using it long ago. I use it to describe any co-op game that I feel is actually a single-player game in disguise.

It applies very strongly to The Spill. No matter the player count, four characters are always present. If you play it at two, each player controls two specialists. If you play solo, you control all four. The thing is, The Spill is equal parts simplicity and precision. Its simplicity means that the range of possible strategical actions you can take is quite small. It’s precise in the sense that there’s usually a very dire action a player needs to take on their turn, or there will be consequences. There’s very little room for error in The Spill.

A Pile of resource cards
The resource cards are nifty one-time abilities you can earn.

When you combine those two things you have a situation where if a given player doesn’t see that course of action, another player will. If they point it out, they just played that player’s turn. If they point it out several times, they are playing the game themselves while the others spectate.

It’s a matter of scope and isn’t limited to The Spill. I think most cooperative games only work when they are complex. The smaller the breadth of options, the more likely there is a single right one. In those cases, quarterbacking comes down to a matter of facts rather than a difference of opinion.

However, that only makes The Spill a flawed game, not a bad one. Robison Crusoe is one of my favorite games despite having the same problem. For a solo player, The Spill is a lightweight puzzle to be solved with a stacking random element, and in that regard, it works quite well.

Verdict

The Spill is a satisfying puzzle that’s own simplicity can work against it in multiplayer. However, it works as a great, albeit very lightweight solo experience.

The Spill fulfills the nice niche of a lightweight easy-to-learn gateway game with a feel-good theme of rescuing animals. A bit too feel good at times, but I’ve ranted about that enough already. The thing is, there are a lot of other games in that category, and I’m not sure I can find a stand-out reason to choose The Spill, over them.

The Risk Engineer character board
Each character has a unique power.

It’s a perfectly competent game with its own strengths and flaws, but it’s also very similar to many other lightweight crisis management games. The fact that the dice tower and perimeter have to be disassembled to get them back in the box is going to give other lightweight games an edge, simply for ease of use.

For my own tastes, I love a good solo game but prefer heavier gameplay, and The Spill just can’t scratch that itch. I definitely appreciate aspects of it, but in the end, it’s not for me, but it was never meant to be.

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Pros

  • The Dice Tower is fun to use
  • The colorful board and animals contrast nicely with the oil dice
  • 8 playable characters
  • Nice randomized solo puzzle to solve
  • The risk versus reward mechanism for extra action points is nifty
  • Multiple ways to tune the difficulty

Cons

  • The tower and perimeter have to be disassembled to be put away
  • Multiplayer feels unnecessary at best and detrimental at worst, and is prone to quarterbacking
  • If the game wanted to express how bad an oil spill is, it did so poorly with sanitized messaging
  • The Spill is very swingy with some games being far harder than others regardless of difficulty