Review – Spirit Island (Digital Edition)

Given that the social aspects of board games is what makes them so appealing to me, digital versions simply don’t appeal to me. That said, I was surprised to see how much I enjoyed the digital adaptation of Root. I thought to myself, “maybe I misjudged” as I purchased Handelabra Games’ version of Spirit Island. But after my experience, I believe that Root was the exception to my experience.

For those who are unfamiliar, I often describe Spirit Island as the antiCatan. Rather than competing against one another for resources while settling on a new land, you play as the spirits of nature on the land being settled and work together to push the invaders out of your home. It’s a colorful and light hearted game with many complex layers and a fairly difficult challenge. Win or lose, everyone I’ve played with left eager for more. 

Spirit Island puts players in the role of nature spirits presiding over an island inhabited by the native tribe, the Dahan. But as history tells us, where there’s untouched land, there’s an Eastern European nation that wants to colonize it. Invaders are coming and only the spirits of the island and the Dahan people can push them back.

A game of Spirit Island is about constantly making difficult decisions, often even sacrifices. The game takes place over a series of phases, the first being the spirits phase. At this point every player takes their actions simultaneously, choosing from their character’s growth options. These options will include adding a new presence token to the board, gaining a power card, gaining energy, or reclaim discarded power cards.

Players then choose which powers they will play for the turn, spending the necessary amount of energy. Choices of powers are limited by both their energy cost and the maximum number of cards player’s are permitted to play in a turn. As the game goes on and spirits add more presence onto the board, these values will increase and open up more possibilities. Power cards fall into two classes: either fast or slow abilities. 

Once everyone has selected their cards, the game proceeds onto the fast powers stage. At this time any fast abilities that players selected can be triggered now in any order that players agree upon. As each power has the ability has a chance of significantly altering the board state, choosing to use the selected powers in the wrong order could make many of them ineffective.

After all the fast powers have been activated, the invaders will attempt to build their towns and cities in your lands. In the board game, all the related information is located on the invader board. There are three spaces on the board, Explore, Build, and Ravage, which dictate what the invaders will do where on each round. Face up cards drawn from the invader deck will tell players in which terrain type the invaders will be acting. 

For the sake of example, let’s say the jungle card was drawn and is currently face up in the Explore space. On this round invading explorers will be added to every jungle space adjacent to an existing city or town (pioneering explorers) or coastal areas (newly arriving settlers). After all of the qualifying jungle spaces have new explores added, the wetlands card will slide left into the Build space and a new card is drawn and placed into the Explore space for the next round.

In the following round, the jungle card is now in the Build space. This means that every space containing invaders (explorers, towns, or cities) will construct new structures in the jungles. If only explorers are present, they will construct a new town. If a town is already present, they’ll construct a city instead. After that, if there’s an even number of cities and towns, a new town will be added. If there are more towns than cities, a new city gets added. No matter how you look at it, the situation will get progressively worse for the island’s inhabitants.

After building, the new Explore card will go into effect. Like the previous round, explorers will enter the lands described on the invader card. We’ll use wetlands this time. Explorers will be added to all wetlands next to a space with a town, city or a coastal area. Afterwards both the wetlands and jungle cards will slide down to the left and a new card is drawn and placed into the Explore space for the next round.

In the next and final round in this example we now have jungle in the Ravage space, wetlands in the build, and mountain in the explore. The Ravage phase is where things get really tough. Invaders in lands that are being ravaged will damage the area and attack the Dahan. One damage is dealt for each explorer, two for each town, and three for each city. Lands that receive two more more damage will blight and become toxic. Dahan will also be eliminated if they take two damage. If there are any surviving Dahan after ravaging, they’ll retaliate and deal two damage to an invader in the space. If you’re lucky, the Dahan will take down an invader or two.

At this stage, the invader track will be full for the remainder of the game, providing players with a transparent outline of what the invaders will be doing as far as three rounds ahead at any given moment. This system is one of the features that makes Spirit Island so enjoyable. With the knowledge of what your colonizing enemies will be doing, players have the rewarding experience of being accurately informed enough to plan with 100% efficiency.
After the invaders have ravaged, built, explored, and players are officially discouraged, everyone will finally have the opportunity to use the slow abilities from their power cards. Where fast abilities more often than not allow players to attack invaders or add defense to certain spaces, slow powers will primarily prepare for the next round. Using slow powers, spirits can shift surviving Dahan around the board, award each other additional energy, or push invaders around the board position them on lands that won’t act next turn. Cleanup commences after the slow phase is done and the round begins again with the growth phase.

A game of Spirit Island can only be won once every single invader has been removed from the board which is damn near impossible. Enter the Fear mechanic. In every other game I play on the regular (I.e Arkham Horror The Card Game, Deep Madness, Kingdom Death: Monster), fear is a bad thing. But in Spirit Island, you are the monsters that humans fear, and fear benefits the players.

Fear is generated by ability cards or by destroying invaders; one fear is generated for the destruction of a town or two for a city. When Fear is created, it goes into the Fear Pool which has a maximum capacity of four fear generated per player. When that threshold is hit the Fear Pool is emptied out and players draw a card from the Fear deck. Each of these cards issue a bonus power that will trigger just before the Invader Phase. Some of the abilities will let each player pick an invader and push them into a different space which great for moving threatening invaders into inactive lands. Others Fear cards will trigger an effect that uses each Town to destroy an Explorer in the same land.

For every three Fear cards players earn, the Terror Level increases, changing the victory conditions. Earlier I said that players only win once every invader has been removed from the board, but that’s only accurate at Terror Level I. Once Terror Level II is reached, players can win once both all Towns and Cities have been destroyed. At Terror Level III, players win once all Cities are gone. Even if the island is swarming with Towns and Explorers at Level III, it’s only the cities that spirits need to eliminate to win. If the Terror Level is raised once beyond Terror Level III, players automatically win.

Not only that but as Terror Level increases, so too do the effects of Fear ability cards. Each card has three tiers of effects that become more powerful as Terror Levels rise. The longer your spirits and island survive, the more powerful they become. This is largely representative of the game’s arc. At the beginning of the game, spirits have very little presence on the board and are quickly outnumbered by invaders. Spirits grow in strength each round and clever players can use the invader information to prevent losing any of their presence tokens. With more presence on the board, a larger hand of abilities, and a higher Terror Level, player spirits grow to become an incredible force to be reckoned with.

It’s a metric butt-ton to keep track of. Balancing Fear generation, ravaging lands, build prevention, removing blight, the Fear Pool, and the invader track. It would be quite easy for this game to overwhelm players. Keeping track of all the moving pieces is a delicate balance. The collaboration of players is what makes it all possible to digest.

And that’s the best part of the Spirit Island experience. While powerful, each spirit’s strengths lie in very specific area.

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Take Ocean’s Hungry Grasp for example. The spirit of the ocean is a powerful one that can swallow structures and men whole. It’s the only spirit that can be present in the ocean. However, it’s power is limited to the ocean and adjacent coastal spaces. As strong as Ocean’s Hungry Grasp is, it leaves all of the inland spaces entirely unprotected. 

Pairing Ocean’s Hungry Grasp with a spirit like A Spread of Rampant Green will help cover areas that can’t be reached by the ocean spirit alone. A Spread of Rampant Green has the chance to expand their presence into a jungle or wetlands space with every growth phase in addition to its normal growth opportunities. This makes Rampant Green a great way to quickly expand into every area Hungry Grasp can’t reach. Rampant Green can also replace any presence tokens that get destroyed. 

So much of the joy of Spirit Island is in the collaboration and discovering new ways for spirits to play off one another and thwarting the colonizing invaders. But this is where the digital version of the game starts to fail. Up until this point, Handelabra’s digital adaptation has been an enjoyable and accurate translation of the game, but in the end it’s fails due to the limitations of the new medium.

One of the very first things I noticed is that Spirit Island does not have a multiplayer mode. At one player, that’s fine, but it takes away from what’s already a fantastic multiplayer experience. The lack of cooperative play in the digital edition takes a significant amount of fun out of the game.  

Handelabra’s Spirit Island only has two gameplay modes: standard and quickplay. The standard mode can be accessed by selecting new game from the main menu. Accessing the game this way allows players the opportunity to select all the options of the original game like the playable spirits, island size, invaders’ country of origin, and various difficulty options. This gives players the freedom to enjoy Spirit Island with all of the options that make it so repayable. On the other hand, Quickplay does all of the setup for the player. All they have to do is select a difficulty level and the game does the rest. Given that the standard new game setup only take a few seconds to go through and let’s player’s choose from all the available spirits, the Quickplay function feels entirely unnecessary.

I understand that there’s a lot of work that goes into creating a multiplayer mode. Regardless of whether it’s driven by matching making or hosted matches, there’s a lot of additional money that goes into supporting multiplayer features. Given how niche the market is for digital board games, I see the wisdom in Handelabra not supporting online multiplayer as it’s a fair assumption the ROI would be very low, if anything. But no matter how much I can logically understand the business side of the decision, it leaves a lot to be desired. As I said before, the best part of Spirit Island is the open collaboration and the fun of solving the puzzle together. Without this aspect, I find it difficult to discover all of the clever power combinations that a group of minds can come up with. Keeping track of four different spirits and all of their abilities as a solo player adds an unnecessary amount of challenge to an already difficult game.

It would absolutely be possible to play local co-op on a single shared device but the existing UI makes that very difficult to manage. The Spirit, fast, and slow power phases of the game require players to openly discuss what they can do and the most efficient turn order. Likewise, in a normal game of Spirit Island, every player executes the growth stage of the spirit phase simultaneously. There’s simply too much information to be able to display all at once in so Handelabra had to create a consolidated version of it.

The trouble with that is that it leaves players in the position where only one person can actively view their hand or player board at any given moment. This slows down the entire process of playing a game. Players sharing a screen will have to review each of their boards on at a time before anyone can make a decision. Some of this is a directed result of the fact that Handelabra essentially made the most direct translation of the game possible. Sure, it managed to retain the game’s fantastic artwork, but it limited the developer’s ability create workable solutions to the single-display conundrum that prevents Spirit Island from shining.

I find myself in an interesting position with this review. As we try to review games as objectively as possible, scoring them on their own merits rather than our feelings on them, I have to give the digital adaptation a higher score than I would like to. While the lack of multiplayer options takes away from my favorite part of the game, the core of Spirit Island is all there. At its heart, it’s an objectively good game.

However, I can’t in good conscious recommend Spirit Island. The original version from Greater Than Games exceeds the digital one an all levels. Sure, the physical product is more expensive and definitely doesn’t travel as well as my Steam library, but there’s a magic in the original game that just doesn’t translate to a screen, and I don’t see myself re-installing it any time soon.

Graphics: 8.0

Spirit Island takes the same beautiful artwork and displays it in a vibrant- hi resolution fashion.  Details like some mountain shading on the 3D island board aren’t very clean though. 

Gameplay: 7.0

Despite its UI flaws and lack of multiplayer, Spirit Island is still the same great game. While I can’t recommend buying the digital version over the board game, going digital is best for existing fans who want to quickly play a game on their own without the setup.

Sound: 7.5

I’m really not a fan of the game’s sound effects as they all just sound too kitschy. However, the addition of the island themed music adds so much to the game’s atmosphere that I’ll never play another game of Spirit Island without it. 

Fun Factor: 8.0

I definitely have my complaints about missing features and UI clutter taking away from the overall experience. But it’s still Spirit Island and that makes it good enough.

Final Verdict: 7.5

Spirit Island is available now on PC.

Reviewed on PC.