Spirit Island by Greater Than Games – Review

Theme and What is it?

For so long, all you have known is peace. As the spirit guardian of a sacred island, you have built a beautiful relationship with the people whose ancestor came to this island millennia ago, The Dahan. The Dahan cultivate and care for this special piece of land and know that you are a being of power who only wants peace and growth. But now things have changed. New people have discovered this island. They do not know you or care about the sacred tranquility you have worked so hard to build. They only care about expansion and destruction. This awakens a new part of your spirit that wants to rid the land of these invaders. Using your powers with aid from The Dahan, you seek to wipe the invaders and their settlements from this sacred space. You and your fellow spirits will make these new invaders feel fear. Fear that will make them flee before your awesome presence.

Spirit Island is a cooperative territory control game. Players take the role of island spirits with unique abilities that team up to overthrow an invading, malicious people. There can only be one outcome. Either the invaders overrun the land or the spirits drive them away.

Gameplay Mechanics

Spirit Island has really great depth. The rulebook can seem overwhelming because of the amount of information it provides. I am going to do my best to give an overview in just a few paragraphs. The game setup depends on the number of players involved. Each player starts with their own section of island. The amount of fear and blight tokens are also adjusted based on the number of players. Each player chooses an island spirit and follows the setup instructions on that spirit’s card.

After setup the game moves through phases which make up a round with a refresh at the end.  This prepares everything for the next round. The first phase is the spirit phase. During this phase you begin by selecting a Grow action. There are three options on each board. You select one option which will have two or three actions you can take. You can place the Spirit presence on the board, draw new cards or renew your hand from your discard pile and build your energy supply. Next you gain energy based on your current energy marker on your spirit board. This will increase as you remove presence tokens from the board to place on the island. Last, players select cards they wish to pay for and play. Cards are paid for with energy. There are two types of cards. Fast action and slow action. The fast action cards take effect right after the pay and play phase. Slow cards are in play but do not take effect until after the invaders phase, which comes next. During this phase, the invaders begin to expand across the island. But before they start that process, there are a few things to resolve first. If a blight effect is activated, you do that first. Blight effects happen when all the blight tokens are removed from the board. Most of the time it means it is the end of the game. Next, fear cards are resolved. Fear cards are gained by doing stuff to scare the pants off the invaders. Power cards can increase fear. Destroying towns and cities also increases fear. As you do things to cause fear, you move fear from one area on the board to another. Once all fear tokens are moved, you draw a fear card and place it upside down until the fear resolution phase. If you have drawn more than one fear card in between resolution phases. you pick them up and resolve them in the order they were drawn. As you move through the fear deck, easier winning conditions are unlocked every three cards. If the final fear card in the deck is drawn, you win instantly. 

Way to scare the holy molies out of those invaders! Now on to the invaders part of the invaders phase. There are four areas on the board where invader cards sit after they are drawn from the invaders deck. A discard pile, a ravage area, a build area and the explore area. Each area is triggered and resolved based on the card on it. Ravage means every land type shown on the card in that area will take damage as well as any Dahan on each section of that land type. If two or more points of damage is dealt to the land itself, then it will receive a blight token. If there is already a blight token on that piece of land, it receives a second and then cascades a blight to an adjoining land. During the build phase, towns or cities are built on the land type shown. During the explore phase, invaders explore new areas. This is how they move across the land and start to take over and destroy the land. After the invaders phase, those slow effect cards that you played a long time ago at the start of the round, now take effect. After that it is a rest phase where everything resets for the next round. 

Whew…that sounds like a lot right? Well it is, and for the first few plays it feels like a lot. There are even other things I didn’t even cover above that can happen, like the spirits’ unique abilities. There are also scenarios to play through and cards to add to make the game more difficult. I will leave those things for you to explore for yourself. But do not fear. It is worth the time spent learning to play, trust me. Over the next few paragraphs, I will try my best to talk you into sticking with it by letting you know how much fun we had with it.

Initial Impressions

Wow! Just opening the box, I knew Spirit Island was going to be a big-time game. There are lots of different components, card types and spirit boards for each of the eight spirits. After spending a good deal of time going through the rules and taking time to set the game up, I was all ready to go. I played the first game with my ten-year-old daughter. It took a few rounds for her to really understand what she needed to do and how her spirit differed from my spirit. We eventually began to use the attributes of both spirits to make some powerful combos and start clearing the board. Spirit Island was a challenge. It seemed like right when we were getting ahead, the invaders would become strong again. It went back and forth like this for most of the game until we got into the level three deck of invader card.  Then we lost very quickly. We felt pretty good about ourselves for our first shot at it. We had a great time and instantly made plans to play the next evening because my wife would be at a game night and my daughter could stay up late. We have always loved coop games and Spirit Island felt right at home.

Game Build Quality

I would have to say that just about all the components in Spirit Island are above industry standards. Great boards, great tokens, really nice cards and one of the best rulebooks I have ever seen. My one negative for quality are the insert pieces that hold everything. They are made to move in and out of the box and hold all the components both for storage and when playing. The problem is that they are a very thin and a weak feeling plastic. They aren’t too bad when used for storage but I would not use them on a table. I would transfer the pieces to bowls. And there is just not quite enough room for everything. There are lots of pieces in Spirit Island and not quite enough space in the box. There may be box organizers out there for this game but I have not looked. But everything else is top notch. My daughter picked up component after component and kept saying how awesome they all were.

Artistic Direction

Very bright and vibrant art dominates Spirit Island. Even some of the darker spirits still jump off the board at you. Attention to detail is given to all aspects of the artwork. There is a coherent theme running through the entire game’s artwork, yet each spirit possesses their own characteristics. I love when games draw you in with art and Spirit Island does it just as well as about any other game I have seen. 

Fun Factor

I am always on the look out for great playing coop games. My kids love them and my main gaming group loves them. If I can find a good one then everyone wins. Well, I have found a great one that should get plenty of attention and lots of replays. The dynamics between the spirits, their powers and attributes and the invaders works very well together. We found some really cool combos between spirits on our initial few plays. I can imagine this only getting better as we get to know all the spirits and what they are capable of. Spirit Island has so much variety. There are the eight spirits to figure out and once players start to figure out how to constantly beat the game then they can add in new adversaries that increase the difficulty and how the invaders interact with the board. I can see Spirit Island be a staple in our collection for years to come.

Age Range & Weight

Spirit Island is recommended for 14+ players. Like I talked about earlier, I played it with my 10 year old and she picked it right up. But we have played a lot of coop games and she plays tons of games with me. Once she saw things in action she was good to go. I would say 10 may be young for players with less experience, but if the kid has been playing games for a few years and has the skills then let them give it a try. If you couldn’t tell yet in my review, Spirit Island is a very heavy game. Unless you have plenty of time and a group willing to learn, it may be best to stick with more experienced gamers. This will make it more enjoyable for you and for the people you are teaching it to. I’m not saying not to play it with your non-hardcore gamer friends. All I am saying is they have to be willing to be patient while you teach it and you have to be patient while they learn it.

Conclusions

Spirit Island gets an award for having the trifecta of awesomeness. Amazing art, amazing components and amazing game play. Plenty of games can fulfill two of one or two of these requirements, but every so often you find one that meets all three. Spirit Island does just that. In fact, this is my first Five Star game I have reviewed. I enjoyed so many things about it and the few minor issues I had were not enough to take anything away from the entire experience. If you love coop games this title should be in your collection. Sure, it is a heavier game, but it is worth it. If you don’t have much to do with the coop genre, then it is time to check it out. There are tons of great coop games out there and they may be headlined by Spirit Island.