Since first playing Spirit Island at GenCon 2015, I’ve learned of the reality I am sorry to have not understood. These past few years, the light of the future has been dimming, and it allowed me to finally see some of the dark holes of our society that my privileged self ignored. One truth that I’m just beginning to understand is the horrible reality ripples caused by colonialism.
Spirit Island lets you devour colonizers in hellish shadow flame and cataclysmic eruptions. It’s delicious.
Spirit Island is a cooperative game for 1 to 4 players. I’ve found it to be best with two, but I’ve heard good things about the solo play. A two-player game will take about 90 minutes, and with four players you’ll probably need a full two hours. That said, rules explanation will take at least half an hour and your first few games will be slow.
To say this game is weighty might not convey the proper amount of complexity it contains. Casual players are not the target audience. Analysis and planning take center stage as players try to cooperatively complete a three-dimensional connect-the-dots puzzle.
The goal of Spirit Island is to remove or scare off all the colonizers that have infested your island like cockroaches. They’ll build cities and kill off your native population. Each round, you and your fellow players must do what you can to stave off the infection.
Players play as spirits of the land and grow stronger as the game progresses. Each round you’ll choose from a handful of cards to play that’ll do any number of needed tasks. You can directly hurt the invaders, defend against their blight, call the natives into action, and so much more.
Complications added to the game will adjust its difficulty. Story elements add changes and goals and Nations—such as Great Britain or Sweden—increase the power of the colonizers by a level you choose at the start of play. I also highly suggest the Tooth and Claw expansion, which adds Events and makes the game feel more real.
Some people just want to watch your brain burn.
Spirit Island is a game of cooperative micro-management. Rounds are divided into three steps—fast actions, invader actions, and slow actions—while player turns happen simultaneously. Players need not only plan their fast actions together, they also must plan their slow actions around the invaders turn. The Spirits must be master jugglers and communicate their intents or the island is doomed.
The difficulty of the game rises and falls like a bell curve. Hopelessness creeps in as the island begins to fill with cities and blight. But then you grab the upper hand and turn the literal tides against the invader. If I must choose a major flaw with the game it’s the penchant for the thrilling rush of play to not follow through to the end. It is common for the game to reach a point of planning capped with a “and then we’ve won,” and that sure deflates the balloon quick.
But that middle part is amazingly exciting. Cooperative puzzle-solving at its finest.
Each Spirit is a unique explosion of personality. Their essence shines through their abilities and design. Fire spreads fast but consumes without bias. Earth is slow to move but strong in its defense. Water swallows the shore, lightning strikes swiftly, and only a fool is fearless in the dark.
The Spirits bring their own strengths and complexity, but teamwork is still key. The player board lists the strengths of a spirit to help players build the perfect team—but it also lists the complexity of the spirit and some strategy. These additions make the learning curve less steep, no matter your experience level.
Players fill a role as the spirit, but Spirit Island never railroads the play. Each player makes a choice of how to grow in power each turn, and a spirit is not limited to power cards that align only with their element. This makes the game feel more personal, increasing that attachment to your role and how well you perform in it.
But beyond the strategy, it’s the personality of each spirit that brings strength to the play. You really feel yourself inside their role. They are protectors of the land against those that would drain it of its life, and each setback feels like a personal failure.
I love this game. The complex puzzle and the adjustable difficulty. The theme and the way it saturates the design. Spirit Island is a masterpiece of structure that I want to experience again and again.
Spirit Island has cooperative goals with asymmetric play. It’s a difficult and complex experience, each game its own individual puzzle governed by the uniqueness of the spirits and their personal growth.
It’s heavy. But the weight is worth bearing.