Consider a wilderness, lightly populated by natives. They have pagan sites dedicated to local nature gods. They worship a river or mountain or clouds or nighttime or something. Some sort of quaint animism. Now here come European explorers from across the sea. They set up small towns. The towns coalesce into entrenched cities. Culture spreads. The holy sites are abandoned and the natives are assimilated. The wilderness is now tamed. Settled. European. Probably Christian.
Consider an idyllic land, lightly populated by natives. They have a holy site dedicated to a local god. A real god with real powers based on water or stone or lightning or dreams. Some sort of chill entity kicked back, relaxing, lazily enjoying being worshipped. Now here come some invaders from across the sea. They set up small towns. The towns coalesce into entrenched cities. Cultural blight spreads. The holy sites are threatened. The natives are displaced, or worse. The gods are pissed. They start stirring. The gather their power. They unleash it. The idyllic land is transformed into a cavalcade of floods, avalanches, storms, madness. The invaders are all, like, “fuck this”. They go home.
The first paragraph is what happens when you lose Spirit Island. The second paragraph is what happens when you win.
Spirit Island is yet another cooperative or solitaire boardgame in which a system spreads, gets more powerful, and claims the game board. Eventually, it will win. Time is on its side. Your challenge is to hold it in check. You’ve played Pandemic. You know the drill. But Spirit Island is no mere variation on Pandemic. This is a masterwork in game design for how it accomplishes things you won’t find in other cooperative or solitaire boardgames.
Starting with the idea of European invaders driven away by gods (as someone with a degree in theology, I can assure you these aren’t just “spirits”), Spirit Island is already refreshingly unique. I’ve cured my share of global diseases. I’ve kept Zulus, Germans, Cromwell’s Parliamentarians, and even Cthulhu at bay. I can hold off zombies until the cows come home. But this is something different. I’ve never played a boardgame in which I’m a divine entity using forces of nature to terrorize a population. There are similarities to videogames like Populous, From Dust, and Reus, but the usual god games don’t capture the tone of Spirit Island. This is all about the wrath.
Frankly, it’s a revenge fantasy. A couple of my favorite solitaire boardgames, Navajo Wars and Comancheria, are the more serious historical treatments of the same situation. Those games are steeped in a depressing fatalism. The Native Americans will fail. They will be uprooted, decimated, all but wiped out. You don’t play to see if you can win; you play to see how long you can not lose. After fending off the Spanish missionaries, Mexican soldiers, Texas Rangers, and maybe even the United States cavalry, the Comanche will fade away with the buffalo. The Navajo will be relocated to a patch of land where the water is too alkaline to grow crops. Thousands of them will be told to grow crops anyway. They will be interred there for five years. A third of them will die of disease and starvation. This is at the conclusion of every game of Comancheria and Navajo Wars. Not part of the actual gameplay, but it looms over every game. No matter how well you played, it’s what happens immediately after. What Spirit Island presupposes is maybe it didn’t. What if it’s the European invaders’ game to lose?
The tone is whimsical, but the specificity is lurid and violent. Darkness swallows the unwary. Crops wither and die. Teeth gleam from darkness. Creepers tear into mortar. Death falls gently from open blossoms. The trees and stones speak of war. Twisted flowers murmur ultimatums. Hatred is granted a ravenous form. Voracious growth. Infested aquifers. Poisoned dew. Gnawing rootbiters. Strangling firevine. Tormenting rotflies. Fleshrot fever. Visions of fiery doom. Predatory nightmares.
Sorry, did it sound like I was being melodramatic? I was just writing out the actual names of powers in Spirit Island. Despite the whimsy, it’s honest-to-goodness horror. It reminds me of the concept of the Weird West, in which supernatural horrors are visited on cowboys. Weird West is mostly just a genre mash-up, but it’s got a subtext of historical karma. Backdate the Weird West by a couple of centuries and you’ve got Spirit Island. Aguirre would feel right at home.
The asymmetry must flow
Spirit Island isn’t just a great concept. It’s also a great design. I would be almost as enthusiastic if it was about dragons, space ships, or zombies. The design plays around with some of my favorite gameplay asymmetry this side of Avalon Hill’s Dune. Each of the eight gods (ten with the expansion) has unique powers smartly expressed with a handful of simple gameplay concepts. Place pieces, move pieces, remove pieces. Attack, defense, range. Map control, resources, terrain. Fear, blight, elements. The basics are simple. Mechanically, it’s on the Euro side of the complexity scale. Don’t be fooled by all the plastic pieces, which are plastic for a reason. Everything plastic is bad (explorers, towns, cities, blight). Everything wood is good (native populations, divine presence).
Thematically, it’s borderline Ameritrash for how it doesn’t ask you to accept abstraction. Everything is called something evocative. There is never just a bonus or effect without a bit of text imagining how it fits the context of this violent historical revenge fantasy. This especially applies to the various gods. The god who moves pieces is a river god using Massive Flooding. The god who racks up fear, the loss condition for the Europeans, is a nightmare god using To Dream a Thousand Deaths. The god whose power ebbs and flows along the coast is an ocean god using Ocean Breaks the Shore and Pound Ships to Splinters. The god who easily destroys things is a lightning god using Thundering Destruction. The god who shores up defenses is the earth god using Earth’s Vitality. Okay, not all of the prose is equally colorful. But each god is thematically and mechanically distinct, and no single god can manage everything.
This is in marked contrast to solitaire and cooperative games that want all choices to be viable. In Fantasy Flight’s Lovecraft games, for instance, every agent can manage pretty much every situation. Sure, some fight while some sneak, but they’re mostly variations on each other. The gods in Spirit Island are unique paradigms. The real joy — indeed the fundamental experience — comes from exploring the combinations. A game with the lightning god and the earth god plays differently from a game with the lightning god and the river god. A game with the lightning god plays differently than a game without the lightning god. As a cooperative game, each player plays a single god. But as a solitaire game, don’t make the mistake of playing a single god. You might as well play the piano with one hand.
Gods do not play dice with the universe
Spirit Island also stands out among solitaire games for how it resists randomness (add-on excepted, as I’ll explain in a moment). Usually, solitaire narratives are driven by dice and cards. Roll two dice to see if the Nautilus gets hit by a warship in Nemo’s War. Draw a tile to see if Wendy the Orphan goes mad while trying to evade a Nightgaunt in Arkham Horror. Draw from the deck to see if you get the right colored door in Onirim. Roll a d10 to see if your Hellfire AGM-64 hits the SAM site in Hornet Leader. The random numbers gods are running the show. In Spirit Island, as one of the gods, you’re running the show. The European invaders on the board are so predictable, bless their little imperial hearts. They explore, then build, then attack. Always and only explore, then build, then attack. Explore, then build, then attack. Explore, then build, then attack. You know what the board will look like next turn, the turn after that, and the turn after that. History is a pattern. Explore, then build, then attack.
You have to anticipate and disrupt the invaders’ rote sequence. Which means Spirit Island can be a real brain burner. Consider the board carefully. What will you do not just about the current situation, but the upcoming situation? How will you react to the impending future? How will the board look one and two turns later? How will it look after your divine interventions? The burden of omniscience. Gods can’t just hope to roll a six. Gods need plans. This is one of my favorite recent games for sitting at the table with a cup of coffee and just pondering the options. If you play cooperatively, the game itself isn’t going to hurry anyone along. Be warned that the slowest player will set the pace for everyone else. Because it’s so deterministic, Spirit Island lends itself to as much analysis as you want to give it.
Of course, there is some randomness. This isn’t chess or Go. The main randomness is how the Europeans react when they freak out. As you build up a resource called fear, you get to draw cards that let you mess around with the invaders, with increasing degrees of severity as their fear builds. Again, everything is called something evocative. Trade Suffers, Flee the Pestilent Land, Explorers Are Reluctant, Wary of the Interior, Seek Safety. These are mostly variations on “get the hell out of dodge”, but they’ll give you additional options. Sometimes they’ll save your bacon. Maybe gods can roll a six, after all.
War, disease, and predators cost extra
The degree of randomness is where I have an issue with the add-on. There are two ways to buy Spirit Island. The first is as Spirit Island, which costs about $70. Yikes. The second is as Spirit Island with the Branch and Claw expansion, which costs an additional $30. Yikes plus. Fortunately, this is not one of those games that needs the expansion to realize its potential. In fact, I recommend against buying the expansion at the outset. It’s simply not something you want to mess with until you’ve wrapped your head around the basics. Because Branch and Claw doesn’t just add a couple of new systems. It changes the basic gameplay. I’m not convinced it’s for the better.
What is for the better is the detail added to the board. The land is now dotted with disease to stop growth, internal strife to head off attacks, and overgrowth to stop explorers. Very helpful stuff that makes your job as a wrathful god easier. There are also beast markers that mostly do their own thing. Bears and wolves tend to be independently minded. Unless you’re playing the new beast god, in which case, bears and wolves are your rod and staff.
But Branch and Claw also adds events. Ah, events, that staple of boardgame narratives. Just make a bunch of cards with stuff that can happen. This happens, that happens, these happen. Make the player draw one every turn. Voila! A story! Branch and Claw does this, and it’s pretty subversive. The event cards are not minor. They interrupt the determinism, they cloud the omniscience, they throw major twists into the gameplay. There are no more than a dozen turns in a game of Spirit Island (you lose if you ever reach turn 13), so the events aren’t shy about affecting gameplay. This is often to your detriment, which offsets the advantage added with disease, strife, overgrowth, and beasts. What’s more, each event card does three separate things. These events don’t know when to quit.
At first, I flat-out didn’t like events, but I loved the disease, strife, overgrowth, and beasts. I’ve since learned to live with the event deck, and I confess I’ve gotten a little addicted to it. The burdens of determinism and omniscience are easier to bear when you accept that the event deck is going to mess everything up. So I’m sitting at the table with my cup of coffee and at some point I have to decide, “Well, let’s see what the goddamn event deck is going to do to my plans…” Since it’s out of my control, it’s easier to let go. I have grudgingly come to terms with Spirit Island’s subverted gameplay.
Another unique aspect of Spirit Island is that it’s a sure-fire win. You’re going to learn Spirit Island by playing the basic game, and once you learn it, you’re not going to lose. Seriously, you’re just not. You’re going to win every time. It’s just a matter of how quickly you can win. So where’s the fun in that, right? You should lose a solitaire game at least half the time to make the wins matter. But Spirit Island won’t push you until you push it.
Spirit Island is modular. The basic game is just the starting point. The tutorial. Now add one of the historical opponents, each of whom uniquely tweaks the invader’s actions. Now you’re not going to win every time because now the system you’re pushing against pushes back a little harder. The simple concepts flex and adapt for thematically specific reasons. Sweden assimilates the locals, England builds powerful cities, the Prussians are swift and efficient. Now play each adversary at its higher difficulty levels. The invaders get harder to scare. They get additional bonuses. Sweden brings Fine Steel for Tools and Guns. England implements its famous Independent Resolve. The Prussians send a Surge of Colonists. Or play one of the scenarios that adds special rules or changes the objectives. For example, you can only win the insurrection scenario if the native population wins a war against the European invaders. They have to do the heavy lifting. Your divine powers are basically the artillery support. In a relic hunt scenario, you and the invaders search the map for special powers. Now add a historical opponent to one of the scenarios. An insurrection against England. A relic hunt against Prussia.
Even the board’s two sides have distinct gameplay. One side is an easy to read island with the same amount of each type of terrain, evenly spread out. Well, it’s really a continent. Turns out both words in the title are understatements. The other side is called a “thematic map”, meaning that it opts for character instead of balance. Along the east coast, European colonists have entrenched themselves where rivers empty into the sea. The rivers cut through a piled up mountain range that would otherwise divide the continent. Beyond the thickly forested interior, the west coast is a patch of desert. There are only sparsely settled colonies out here. Hmm, what continent does this remind me of?
The thematic map introduces a specific gameplay challenge based on geography. Natives in the center, invaders around the edges, clusters of terrain types instead of a balanced patchwork. A beast in the mountains and another in the desert. Disease and strife among the cities in the east. The rules are the same on this map, but the opening situation and the lay of the land sure aren’t. Like the event deck, I’ve gotten addicted to this map. There’s nothing quite like the narrative of geography. Maps with character, man. They get me every time. Every time.
It’s a testament to the elegance of the design how well Spirit Island holds up under all this combinatorial chaos. Any given gods, against any given adversary, in any given scenario, on either map will come together for a different kind of game. A few combinations are untenable, and it all relies on a scoring system to tune the difficulty (if you’re like me, you’ve got a high score sheet in most of your solitaire games). But it’s all tightly unified by the elegance of the design. I have yet to go online to clear up a single rule or situation. Every time I was confused, I easily resolved my confusion by checking the rules. There aren’t many games I can say that about. It’s one thing that first-time designer R. Eric Reuss has designed a great game. It’s something else entirely that he’s presented it with such clarity.
With such a strong and elegant design, with such a vivid and refreshingly unique theme, with its staggering variety and therefore considerable longevity, Spirit Island has shaken up one of my longstanding traditions. I keep a list of desert island boardgames, for me and for each of my friends (I’d be much obliged if you’d post your own in the comments section!). Imagine you’re on a ship with your best boardgaming friends. The ship is carrying a copy of every known boardgame. But, alas, it’s sinking and you only have time to rescue three games. Then you and your favorite boardgamers will be marooned on a desert island for the rest of your days. Which three games do you rescue? Not necessarily which are your favorites. But which three do you take? Which three of your favorites will provide the most longevity and variety? My list has been consistent for a few years now, and I’ve always reserved a place for a solitaire game. Spirit Island now occupies that place.
(In case you’re wondering, the other two are A Study in Emerald and Archipelago.)
You can listen to my podcast with the designer of Spirit Island here. If this review was helpful to you and you’d like to support more like it, please consider supporting my Patreon campaign.