Today we'll talk about Spirit Island, one of the biggest and best of them all.
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Board game stuffs #2: One of the best of them
So, I've posted about a bunch of different board games in the past. Well, it's been awhile since I did those I guess. But it's time to do more! I wanted to showcase not just any board game, but one that is generally considered one of the best ever made... it is extremely popular, has a ton of content, and the most recent expansion is nigh-impossible to find because it was bought out almost immediately (I did get one though).
That game, is Spirit Island.
A lot of co-op games have you fighting against some giant boss monster. Here, you ARE the boss monster. You're a spirit protecting a small island and its inhabitants from some very destructive and dangerous invaders... you want them gone before they wreck and kill too much. You get all sorts of crazy powers to do this with. The problem is that there are SO MANY INVADERS. So many. Too many. How can you possibly defeat that many before they blight the island into oblivion? Spirit Island is an extremely deep game, and a big one too. It's also quite intimidating... let's look at the main board, shall we?
What an unholy mess that looks like! If anything is going to scare new players away, it's a look at a game in progress.
But that's not all! Let's check out the side board:
That's a LOT of stuff going on. But you know what, Spirit Island is very easy to learn... it's a masterpiece of well-designed rules, making the "horrid mess" aspect very deceptive. Of course, learning the RULES isnt hard... learning how to not suck is where the real challenge is.
So what's going on here? Well, that first pic is the island board (made of 2 parts). On here you can see all the individual lands, all the invaders (the white pieces), places where the spirits have presence (circular disks), and various other things. This is where all the action happens. It may look like total chaos to you, but it's actually very easy to see at a glance what's going on.
That side board is more about tracking things. The three non-Power decks are placed on it, and they Do Things there. This board is also used to track how much Fear you've managed to get... that's important. See, you cant kill ALL of the invaders. There's too many of them coming too fast. Every turn will see new Explorers (the standing guys) spawn, and also new cities and towns built in places where there already are invaders. You tend to get lots of stuff appearing each turn.
So, you want to build up some Fear... the more you get, the more Fear Cards you earn. Aside from Doing Helpful Things, the more of those you get, the higher the "terror level" goes... which lowers the bar on the win condition. Smashing towns and cities generates Fear, as does certain powers. Not that it's easy, of course. The invaders are tough enough... and even tougher if you've chosen an Adversary to go against (a country/region that they are coming from). Adversaries have all sorts of screwball abilities, and they get worse and worse depending on which difficulty level you've chosen. On top of that, the Event deck (the red one) does all sorts of chaotic things each turn... often doing both a bit of good and a bit of awful at the same time. AND, you start pretty weak.
It doesnt take much for you to lose, either. That "healthy island" card, sitting by itself, is used to track how much more Blight (the sludge tokens) the island can take. If it runs out, it flips over to the Blighted side, getting more sludge but also doing who knows what. If THAT runs out... it's all over. It's very, VERY easy for Blight to get added to the board.
Let's look at a Spirit:
Yeeks, that also looks complicated! Spirits (of which there are LOTS) have varying levels of complexity, and there are all sorts of ways you can build them up. At first, those "presence tracks"... which are used to track the Spirit's growth... are covered in those colored discs. As you add Presence to the board, more and more of each track is revealed, giving you more and more power. You also have innate powers... things that can be used every turn IF you have the available elements to use them. Often, your Spirit is meant to use these as often as possible. Again, while this looks like a complicated mess of confusion... it aint hard at all for a new player to get started. Appearances really are deceiving. But part of what makes this game so great is the fact that spirits are versatile... there are many ways to approach any given one.
But let's look at your main tools for achieving victory... the Power cards:
Your Spirit starts out with 4 such cards that are unique to them, and can learn new ones over the course of the game. There are minor powers.... typically weaker and simpler, but very cheap or even free to use (the cost is in the upper left), and Major powers, which do hilariously loopy things but can be very expensive, and are the most satisfying to use. Major powers are game-changers... but that doesnt mean you'll ALWAYS need them. Some Spirits thrive on simply having a bazillion minor powers.
Powers come in a couple of varieties beyond just Major and Minor. A given power is either fast (red, with the bird icon) or slow (blue, with the turtle icon). It's really, REALLY important to understand the distinction.
Each turn, you'll start with the Growth Phase... this is where you choose how your spirit will power up this turn. Placing down presence, gaining new power cards, reclaiming played cards, getting extra energy (used to pay for power card use) and so on. After that, you play your cards. Oddly, you dont do this seperate from other players... you all do this at the same time. Which sounds REALLY confusing, but believe me, it works.
Once your cards are chosen, the fun begins. First, fast powers activate, in any order. This includes both cards, and activated innate powers (innates are powered by Elements, those colored icons on the side of power cards).
Slow powers however, are, well... slow. It's not time for those to activate yet, they're going to sit there for now. First, ALL of the bad stuff happens as the Invader Phase begins. You'll activate any Blighted Island effect you may have going, if that card has been flipped (yes, many of them do things EVERY TURN once flipped... all the more reason not to let them flip). Then, it's time to see just how the event deck will screw you over this time. Next, if you earned any fear cards, those earned ones will activate, one at a time. And then the invaders go bonkers. First they Ravage... wrecking stuff. This is how Blight is added, how Dahan (the natives) are destroyed, and how your presence is removed. They'll usually do this in many lands at once. Then, they Build, adding towns or cities in any area they are in. And then, a new Invader card is drawn, and they Explore, spawning more of those little dudes. Those cards are then shifted to the left on the bottom of the side board. So, you can see where invaders will ravage and build on the next turn... but you dont know where they'll next explore. AND, if you're playing against an Adversary, sometimes this process gets extra screwy.
Only once the invaders are done causing trouble and preparing for more trouble do your slow powers activate. To a new player, this often makes slow powers seem like they arent worth it. But one of the most important things to learn as a newbie is that they are just as important as fast powers. It's also the toughest thing to learn. Oddly, a power being slow can be an advantage. A slow power can be played even if you actually arent sure what it's going to target. Maybe you want to shove some Explorers around (to prevent them from building later), but of course you have no idea where they'll explore next. So, a slow power with a "push explorers" effect is what you want here: Because it wont activate... and you wont choose a target land for it... until AFTER they explore. There is a TON of strategy here... a deep game gets even deeper.
The best part about the powers is how SATISFYING they are. Even the weaker powers often "feel" strong. And the major ones tend to feel ridiculous. The state of the entire board can change all at once, sometimes, based on how you use your powers. But, of course, the invaders and the event deck can do that too.
There's other elements I didnt touch on here.... like all of those little tokens (usually beneficial to you and created through powers), or things like Blight Cascades (REALLY bad) and other stuff. Again: Big, deep game.
The game's one big problem is its tendency to cause "AP", or analysis paralysis. Where you get stuck trying to puzzle out your next move and you sit there staring at everything for 15 minutes. Oddly, one of the biggest bits of advice you can get though is to not overthink things. It's absolutely okay to do something like play a power when you really arent sure what you're going to do with it yet, or just focus on one area without considering the other sections too much. Not going TOO far with the pondering and planning usually helps you to get better at the game. Besides, it's sometimes fun to just go "dangit, I'm not sure what to do... heck with it, I'm gonna ERUPT A FREAKING VOLCANO. I'm not sure WHERE, but I'm gonna freaking DO IT".
There is so much good I could say about this game... it's one of my top 3, really, and it sits at #11 on the BoardGameGeek rankings (which is a crazy achievement). As co-op games go... it doesnt get much better than this one.
Definitely not the first game I'd introduce someone to, but anyone who gets into solo or co-op gaming should try it.