Many Euro games take thematic inspiration from historic eras or events. These games use mechanics like city or route building to represent the expansion of a player’s territory across a game map. It’s understandable that games about growth would thematically gravitate toward colonization as expansion was at the heart of the era. Games like Puerto Rico go as far as players taking on the roles of plantation owners. But in a time where industries are making efforts to be more inclusive, games about colonization are little more than artifacts of an era passed. Spirit Island, published by Greater Than Games, turns this trend around and makes colonialism the villain.
In Spirit Island, up to four players take on the role of nature spirits of an island keen on defending their lands against Invaders who have come to erect towns and cities where there were once trees. By manipulating the natural elements on the island, players can send plague, fire, and floods through the lands, destroy the Invaders homes, and instill Fear in them so they may leave and never return.
At the start of a game, each player chooses the Spirit they’ll control which each have their own special powers and regions they can best influence. Working together to support each other’s weaknesses will be essential if players want to stop the Invaders from settling on their island and polluting their lands.
Take Ocean’s Hungry Grasp, for example. This is a powerful and very fun Spirit to play. It can swell inland, flood towns and cities, and pull unsuspecting Invaders into the depths. But as the name suggests, this is an ocean spirit and its reach doesn’t extend well beyond board spaces adjacent to the ocean bordering the island. Ocean’s Hungry Grasp will need the aid of another Spirit to protect the island’s inland regions. Perhaps help from A Spread of Rampant Green who can quickly expand their presence into the Jungle and Wetlands. Or maybe more defensive help from Vital Strength of the Earth, who can provide defensive against the damaging pollution from Invaders.
Win conditions are a moving target. At the beginning of the game, it is only possible for players to win by eliminating every tier of Invader inclusive of Settlers, Towns, and Cities. It’s nearly impossible to do. Players can generate Fear with the use of ability cards and the destruction of Towns and Cities that over time will raise what’s referred to as the Terror Level. As the Terror Level increases from one to three, it becomes easier to win. Terror Level one requires that all Invaders are removed from the board. When players are able to increase the Terror Level to two, they can ignore settlers as they’ll now be able to win so long as all of the Towns and Cities are off the board. It’s an easier, but still challenging way to win. Should they progress the Terror Level even further to three, the game ends when all Cities have been removed, regardless of how many other Invaders are present, a significantly easier goal to reach. Most of the games I’ve won were at Terror three. If players are able to advance it just once more, it’s an instant win no matter how many Invaders are on the board.
Those are the only ways you can win a game of Spirit Island, but there are many ways to lose. Invader AI is informed by a deck of twelve cards. If players ever need to draw a card from that deck but is empty, the game is over and the players have lost as the Invaders have taken control of the island. As Invaders build more Cities, their presence pollutes the land and creates Blight. Each game has a set number of Blight per player which make up the Blight Pool. If the Blight Pool is ever empty when players need to add a Blight to the board, the game is over as the land has become too polluted for the Spirits to inhabit any longer.
Each round has five phases that vary greatly in duration based on the number of players, complexity of the team strategy, and current state of the game. Those phases are:
Spirit Phase: During this phase players all simultaneously take their turns by choosing one of their Spirit’s unique growth abilities, spreading their presence to increase the range of their abilities. Players also gain and spend energy at this time to pre-select and play all the Power cards for the round.
Fast Power Phase: Power cards come in two forms. During this phase Fast Powers, represented by a red sparrow, that were played during the Spirit Phase get activated. There is no pre-determined order these abilities need to be activated in. This gives players the freedom to coordinate their efforts and make the best use of their power, like pushing Invaders into the attack range of another player.
Invader Phase: The Invader Phase is essentially the enemy AI’s turn. At this time the Invaders Ravage (damaging the lands), Build (strengthening their force in areas Invaders are present), and Explore (expanding into new areas) in that order. If Ravage causes additional Blight to be added to the board, it is also resolved at this time. Once each of these steps have been resolved, players will advance the Invader deck, moving the card in Ravage to discard, the Build to Ravage, and so on. This advances the threat and informs players of what to expect on the next round.
Slow Power Phase: During this phase Slow Powers, represented by a blue turtle, played during the Spirit Phase get activated. There is no pre-determined order these abilities need to be activated in. Now that the Invader phase is complete, players know what the enemy AI will do next and can use this opportunity to destroy Invader units in anticipation of the next round.
Time Passes: Acting as the cleanup phase, during Time Passes, all players discard their used ability cards and restore to full health all Invaders and Dahan who were damaged, but not destroyed during this round.
Its round structure is actually quite easy to follow along with. After one or two rounds, it will be second nature to every player at the table. What’s less easy to master is everything else. Spirit Island has a lot of moving pieces and while it’s not difficult to learn, it takes time and effort to learn to do it well.
The Power cards have a significant amount of information on them. Cost can is found in the upper left-hand corner, surrounded be either a red or blue border. These borders are an additional way to identify the speed (Fast or Slow) of the Power card, also indicated by the color coded icons below the illustration. Each Power card also displays the Range from a player’s presence that the Power card can target. In the above left example, Tidal Boon is a Slow Power represented by a blue turtle that does not have a range. The reason this Power does not have a printed range is because it’s a support ability that targets another player rather than a space on the board. The above right example, Grasping Tide, is a Fast Power represented by a red sparrow, that can target a Coastal land (space adjacent to an ocean) that is up to one space away from the player’s presence.
Power cards come in two varieties: Minor and Major. At the beginning of the game, every player will begin with four Minor Powers specific to their chosen Spirit. During the Growth phase each round players will have the opportunity to gain a new Power. Minor Powers are free to pick up but to obtain a Major Power players will need to remove a Minor one from their deck. As the name would suggest, Major Powers are far more effective and worth losing a Minor one for.
As you might have noticed, the Power cards have a series of symbols in the left margin. These are elements that become active during the round that the card is played. Each Spirit has one or two innate abilities that are can be activated during the Fast or Slow Power phase so long as that player has enough active elements. For example, Bringer of Dreams and Nightmares, a personal favorite Spirit of mine, has an Innate Power called Night Terrors. If the ability cards played that round have at least one air element and one moon, Bringer can generate one Fear by targeting any land with Invaders present. If Bringer instead has two moons, one air, and one beast element, it can instead generate two Fear.
Every Spirit has innate abilities with more powerful versions of them depending on how many active elements there are. As each Power card has elements on it, paying attention to which elements your Spirit needs to boost their innate power is really important to creating synergy with the Powers in your deck. Choosing Power cards based on the elements they activate curates the Power deck in a way that it essentially grants players free actions each round by making effective use of the innate abilities.
When players are done activating their Fast Powers, the Invaders activate based on what’s on the Invader Board. Throughout the game, the Invader deck telegraphs what the Invaders will be doing and where. When an Invader card is first revealed, it triggers the Explore action. This means that players will need to add a Settler Invader to each space matching the terrain type on the drawn card, so long as the space is adjacent to the ocean or another space with a Town or City on it. This stage of the Invader action represents the Invaders’ expansion deeper into the island.
On the next round, that card will now be in the Build space. Invaders will be strengthening their presence in the territories they previously explored by building Towns and Cities. If there aren’t any building in the space, Invaders will build a new Town. If there is already a Town, Invaders will build the even more powerful City. These structures won’t be a significant threat until the next round when the Invader card moves into the Ravage space. When Invaders Ravage, they inflict damage on the land they’re in. Settlers inflict one point of damage, Towns inflict two, and Cities three damage. Any space that receives two points of damage becomes Blighted. If there is already a Blight on that space, the Blight spreads into an adjacent territory and continues to cascade until Blight is placed in a space that previously did not have one. The real danger of Blight is twofold. When Blight gets added to a space that’s occupied by a Spirit’s presence, the presence gets destroyed. If Blight has to be placed on the board and there are none left in the pool, the game ends and players have lost the island. Poorly managing Blight is a guaranteed way to find failure.
Thankfully, the Invader Board clearly shows what the Invader AI will do next. Players can use this information to interfere with the Invaders plans by destroying Invaders, pushing Invaders out of active territories, or using defensive abilities to block damage. The Invaders are relentless and will spread rapidly so the earlier players can cut them off, the more the overall threat will be reduced. If players can cut off Invaders at the Explore stage, they’ll limit the Invaders’ reach before they become dangerous. The challenge that players need to adapt to is spreading their influence across the board enough to reach all the Invaders without spreading themselves too thin.
But it’s not all doom and gloom! The Dahan are the indigenous people of the island and they are not happy about trespassers. Eager to fight back alongside the island Spirits, Dahan will retaliate against Invaders who damage their land. During the Ravage step, Invaders will simultaneously deal damage to the land and any present Dahan. Dahan can only take two points of damage before dying so they aren’t very strong, but any surviving Dahan will counter-attack and each deal two damage to Invaders in the Ravaging space. Many Power cards let players move Dahan around the board and potentially even add new ones. Well positioned Dahan are a great way to eliminate Invaders when Fast Powers fail.
Fear is generated by Power cards and the destruction of Invaders. Whenever a Town is destroyed it generates one point of Fear while the destruction of a City generates two points. A pool of Fear tokens is constructed at the beginning of the game and consist of four Fear per player. As Fear is generated these tokens are placed on the Invader board. When all Fear tokens from the pool are on the Invader Board, players clear the tokens off the board and earn a Fear card. Every three Fear cards earned will increase the Terror Level, reducing the requirements to win the game and improve the effectiveness of Fear cards.
Fear cards are bonus effects that trigger before the next Invader phase and give Spirits a small boost. Each card has three possible effects based on the current Terror Level. The higher the Terror Level, the more effective the Fear card is.
There’s a lot going on in Spirit Island and it takes a bit of time to get accustomed to, but it’s investing the time in. It’s a challenging game that offers players a wide variety ways to experience it. With three invading Adversaries, eight playable Spirits, and a multitude of difficulty levels, there’s a lot of content in the core box, really giving players their money’s worth.
Bringer of Dreams and Nightmares
Smoke Flickers like Flame
Ocean’s Hungry Grasp
Lightning’s Swift Strike
Spread of Rampant Green
River Surges in Sunlight
I would argue that Spirit Island‘s best feature is the range of Spirit abilities. Each one offers unique ways to fight against Invaders and the overall experience of playing Spirit Island depends heavily on the composition of Spirits the group selects.Bringer of Dreams and Nightmares is a powerful but complex Spirit who can’t deal any damage. Instead, its abilities are all about creating large amounts of Fear and pushing invaders into different spaces. Its a vital Spirit with a large group, but with fewer players Bringer leaves the island vulnerable with the defensive abilities of Vital Strength of the Earth of the destructive powers of Lightning’s Swift Strike or River Surges in Sunlight. Winning strategies will vary greatly depending on the Spirits players selected at the start of the game.
Spirit Island is a great looking game with vibrant, functional, and thematic components. The board is comprised of several modular pieces that can be configured in different ways depending on the number of players or desired level of challenge. Spirit illustrations are beautiful, creative, and are suggestive of how the Spirit functions mechanically. With so many pieces on the board at any given moment, it can be a lot to take in. Greater Than Games made it easy to identify what components are what by making all the player/Spirit related pieces out of wood while enemy Invaders are represented by plastic components.
As much as we love Spirit Island, we can definitely see how it’s not a good fit for everyone. For starters, it’s not beginner friendly. There’s a lot to learn and while the round structure is easy to follow, it will take a few games before players start to get comfortable with their Spirit and associated strategies. It’s such an enjoyable game that it’s worth taking the time and pushing through the learn because once it clicks, Spirit Island is one hell of a game.
The flexibility in turn order helps drive table talk and collaboration between players in a way that highlights why I love cooperative games so much. Since the Growth phase is a simultaneous round where all players are choosing their Growth options and Powers at the same, it almost always turns into a lively planning conversation. Additionally, the nature of simultaneous actions helps to prevent that portion of the round from taking a long time as players make their decisions. Of course, there’s no avoiding the infamous analysis paralysis, but as players don’t have to wait for one another to take take Growth actions, it helps to prevent this phase from becoming too lengthy.
The worst part about cooperative board games are their susceptibility to quarterbacking. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, quarterbacking refers to when one player in a group game makes the decisions for other players, rather than allowing them to act on their own accord. Since this behavior is subject to the personality of the individual, it’s difficult for a game designer to prevent. However, Spirit Island has so much information to absorb that it would be remarkably challenging for any one player to keep track of everyone else’s Spirits well enough to quarterback. To be fair, I can only report on this from an anecdotal standpoint, but in my personal experience with Spirit Island, even the worst quarterbacks I know aren’t able to repeat their typical offenses without breaking their brain.
I tend to prefer cooperative fantasy dungeon crawlers or horror games, but Spirit Island offers so much depth, variety, and challenge in a thematically creative and effective game that it lands pretty firmly in my top five board games of all time. Thanks to the long game time, it doesn’t make it to the table anywhere near as often as it deserves to. Despite that, I’ve enjoyed my time with Spirit Island enough that I have, and will continue to, purchase every expansion and bit of promotional content Greater Than Games releases for it. There are currently two expansions on the market; Branch & Claw and Jagged Earth. Each one has enough of an impact on the experience that we’ve decided to break our rules and do a separate review for each of them to review them in depth.
If you’re someone who wants to jump right into a game with a minimal amount of learning, Spirit Island is likely not for you. But if you don’t mind the time investment, if you’re even remotely on the fence, I would recommend taking the leap. It’s a rich experience filled with tough decisions and rewarding Power combinations. This is one game that will never leave the Way Too Many Games Collection.
Number of Times Played:
Genuinely too many to count.
Reviewed Player Counts:
One, two, three, four, five, and six players.
Supported Player Count:
1 – 4 players base game, increases up to 6 with the Spirit Island: Jagged Earth expansion.
About forty minutes per player.
Area of Influence
Variable Player Powers
Spirit Island is not an easy game to learn and it will take some practice. Be patient when teaching new players as they’ll likely feel overwhelmed with the amount of information on the board at any given time.
Spirit Island is loaded with beautifully colored artwork that effectively portrays the terrifying power of nature. Delineating Spirit and Invader components with different materials was a simple, but genius design choice that resonates well with the theme.
With eight Spirits to play, three adversaries to oppose, and a multitude of board configurations, Spirit Island has ample configurations to experiment with.