Spirit Island’s newest expansion, Nature Incarnate is nearing the finish line and is almost ready to ship out to backers. I figured now is a pretty good time to talk about three things that make Spirit Island, and its expansions so great. After all, it is one of my favorite games and I’ve given my Golden Shield award to it and every expansion I’ve played.
You can find a video version of this article on my YouTube Channel!
For me, one of Spirit Islands’ defining features is just how well the game mechanics connect to the theme. Spirit Island manages this at a very granular level, where most actions in the game have an internal and consistent logic to them. In a lot of cases, you can answer any confusing questions by identifying what is thematically happening in the game world.
If you view Spirit Island through the lens of make-believe and imagine that your actions are playing out in a book or movie, a lot of the game’s complexity dissipates because most of the time you will find your answers there.
For example, Downpour Drenches the World has an innate power that grants defense in lands with its presence. That same power also lowers the damage that Dahan deals back to the invaders. That’s because Downpour is a spirit of heavy rainfall, its lands are so saturated with rain that the mud makes conflict difficult for both the invaders and the Dahan. The explanation is in the name of the power, Rain, and Mud Suppress Conflict.
Spirit Island is a game with a ton of text and iconography, and one mistake I’ve seen players make is to completely skip the names or titles on cards, powers, or actions. I had a player that was slightly confused about why Downpour’s power was affecting the Dahan until I pointed out the name of the power.
I also had a player that had trouble parsing the power card, Vengeance of the Dead. There is indeed a lot to visually process, but the explanation is pretty simple. When something is destroyed in that land, additional damage is dealt because those that died in the initial destruction are being revived as zombies that are attacking those that are still alive.
Even event cards follow the same internal logic. Tight Knit communities are better prepared to face adversity with more health. Meanwhile, the beasts of the island prey on careless explorers, and finally a new generation of Dahan reach adulthood with Coming of Age, represented by additional huts.
I’ve always found it to be a great thing when a table can look at something, and have an epiphany where someone exclaims “That makes sense” and the rules end up backing you up on it.
It’s always painful to pour through a rulebook for a solution because something doesn’t make sense or doesn’t feel quite right, but it ends up being the correct ruling anyway. It ends up feeling gamey, and arbitrary, especially when the logic isn’t consistent. If a game has eyes that can see and a nose that can smell, you’re going to be terribly confused when an ear is used to taste and not to hear,
If you aren’t playing an abstract game, the theme is the only thing that stands between you and simply moving numbers around a board. A game’s mechanisms make up the bones, but the theme makes up the flesh. When they don’t work together, the game becomes a Frankenstein of stitched-together skin and piecemeal limbs.
Spirit Island is pretty magical because the look and sound of something are a direct advertisement for what that thing actually does. A Volcanic Spirit stacks up on mountains and explodes, A River Spirit flows around the island and is able to move civilization along its winding streams.
A predatory spirit of the deep wilderness uses alluring siren-like calls to attract victims to their doom. Bringer of Dreams and Nightmares will drive the invaders mad with fear and restless nights, without ever harming them directly. The Ocean shifts in and out with the moving tides wrecking the coastlines, but unable to reach inland. A spirit of Silent Mist slowly envelops civilization, suffocating and decaying everything that it touches.
The fact that Spirit Island manages to have a consistent internal logic in the supernatural realm of its setting, alongside the depth and strategy that the game offers is nothing short of extraordinary.
Spirit Island, with its expansions, is one of the few games I’ll say is infinitely replayable, and I’ll say it with confidence. I am looking forward to Nature Incarnate, but it’s purely because I want it, not because I need it.
Fun fact, when it comes to my favorite games, I have an incredibly powerful itch to make homebrew content for them. I have the heart of a game designer, but publishing my own game is well beyond my current scope, so I settle with creating stuff for existing games that I love.
Yet, I’ve never once had the urge to make anything for Spirit Island, there’s simply no way I could improve on it, nor is there any need for myself to add additional variety to it. I have come nowhere close to depleting its replay value, and I doubt I ever will.
The strength of Spirit Islands’ replay value is the fact that it comes from multiple sources. The first of which is its variety of Spirits. Every single spirit has a unique playstyle with its own little exceptions to the rules. Every single spirit in the game also has a high skill ceiling, it would take dozens of games as a single spirit to master it.
Not only that, playing different combinations of spirits in multiplayer offers completely different types of combos and synergies. You might master a single spirit in solo play only to have entirely new avenues open up when playing with other players.
Next up is the power cards themselves. Even if you play the same spirit five times in a row, you’re unlikely to play them the exact same way as your choice of power cards is going to differ each game, and they have a drastic impact on your strategy.
You also never truly know which direction the invaders will go, albeit, this is less true with just the base game. However, the event cards featured in Branch and Claw and Jagged Earth solve the issue completely. You will always have to adapt to what the invaders are doing and the curve balls that the event cards throw at you.
Finally, we have the modular nature of the game. There are numerous Adversaries and Scenarios that all alter the rules of the game. Each adversary has a bunch of difficulties, and you can mix and match adversaries and scenarios for further variety.
If you were to commit to learning the ins and outs of a single spirit to such a degree that you could play through the ranks of each adversary and win. You would likely have more playtime in Spirit Island than any other game in your lifetime, past, present, or future.
Do you need to make that commitment? Absolutely not, you have so many Spirits you can play that there’s no reason to commit to just one. The point is, that you could if you wanted to, the game wouldn’t get stale by doing so, and you would outplay every game on your shelf using just one Spirit. There are very few games with asymmetrical characters where you could dedicate that kind of time to mastering just one of them.
I’ll be honest with you. If I wasn’t Gaming Gideon, if I was just Joseph, an average Joe, and never chose to review games or to create board game content. I would have significantly fewer games on my shelf because a lot of that playtime would be dedicated to Spirit Island. In fact, for a game to remain on my shelf after I review it, I always ask myself the same question. “Do I have a reason to play it over Spirit Island?” if the answer is no, it goes to storage.
The harsh truth of the matter is. You don’t get a medal, or trophy for playing the widest variety of board games possible. The goal is to be entertained, to have fun, and to spend time doing something you enjoy. If that enjoyment comes from a single game, there’s nothing wrong with that.
It’s just that many board games don’t offer the degree of depth, the mastery of its systems, and the sheer variety that would allow for hundreds of hours of playtime without becoming stale. Spirit Island certainly does.
Solo Play vs Multiplayer
In theory, I love the concept of solo gaming. Board games are actually a pretty cost-efficient hobby because of the incredible number of hours you can extract from a single purchase. However, it’s only cost-efficient if you actually play them. That makes games that can be played solo very attractive because I can play them at any time without relying on other people.
In practice, however, there are only a handful of games I play solo. The reason for that is simple. A solo game has to offer me something powerful to choose it over video games.
A video game has no setup time, I don’t have to hunch over a table to play them, and I don’t have to clean up after I’m done. If I’m going to play alone, I’m going to opt for video games most of the time, unless a board game can offer me a reason to choose it. Spirit Island is one of the few games that does.
To start with, Spirit Island can actually match the depth and complexity of many video games that I enjoy. I can’t justify setting up a game to play solo if it’s going to be a shallow experience. Spirit Island, never is. This makes Spirit Island exceptionally fun to play, even alone, and that’s the goal I’m chasing, fun.
However, equally important is the fact that when I play Spirit Island solo, I’m not playing a variant or a modded or cut-down version of the game. I’m not playing with special rules, and I don’t have to play multiple characters. By playing Spirit Island solo, I’m playing the same game I would normally be playing with others. It has all the depth, variety, and challenge that made me fall in love with the game.
This is going to sound weird, but when playing Spirit Island in multiplayer, I might gain something. Teamwork, and synergy. But by playing solo I don’t truly lose anything. The synergy and teamwork only matter because in multiplayer there is a bigger island to cover. In solo, the Island is sized for me and me alone. It means that while I look forward to playing with others, I never feel shorted when playing alone.
Playing Spirit Island with others is special in its own way. It’s a co-op game that has a natural barrier to alpha gaming simply because the game’s complexity makes it unreasonable to even try. You could attempt it, and the entire table would call you out on it because the whole game would grind to a halt the moment you tried to pull the reins from the other player’s hands.
That makes the teamwork in Spirit Island flow quite nicely. Communication is rarely specific. You will say things like “I need help with this land, or If anyone could use two extra elements I can give them to you”.
Since most phases are simultaneous, you can coordinate actions together in a way that feels like true coordination. You didn’t tell me what powers to use, but you could make suggestions on how to use them. If you’re about to blow up a land, and I’m about to push some invaders around. We can work together, allowing me to push those invaders into the land you’re about to blow up.
As rare as it is for me to truly enjoy playing a game solo, it’s even more rare for me to enjoy a game equally in both, solo play and multiplayer. Spirit Island is a game that can hit the table at any player count, and I’m just excited to be playing it.
I do think that Spirit Island needs Jagged Earth and Branch and Claw, as the event cards offset the only real flaw the base game had. But once you have that package, you have one of the best games that currently exist. Anything else you pick up for it is just icing on the cake. If I ever had to advise someone who could only ever keep a single game, and its expansions on a shelf. I’d suggest Spirit Island every time.
Not only is it a truly great game, but it’s also one that you could continue playing over, and over again. When it comes to creating my own prototype games, Eric Reuss, Spirit Islands designer, will forever be an inspiration that I draw from.
If you’re interested, consider checking out my reviews of Spirit Island, Branch & Claw, Jagged Earth, and Horizons of Spirit Island. You can, of course, expect a review of Nature Incarnate sometime in the future.